Discuss Blake’s use of auditory imagery in the poems, and cite one example.
Blake’s work shows a constant awareness of the ironies of publishing “songs” in written form—publishing poems that lay claim to an oral culture in a series of elaborately visual engravings. This awareness reflects the general Romantic preoccupation with the possibility of capturing in writing the rhythms, immediacy, and spontaneity of the spoken human voice. Blake seems, if not pessimistic, at least dubious about such a possibility, as can be seen in his Introduction to Songs of Innocence. Here, a child gives a wandering bard three commands: first to play his pipe, second to sing his songs, and third to write them. This progression may imply a decline, from the purity of music (without linguistic meaning), to orality (bound by meaning but still spontaneous and fleeting), to literacy (without need for human presence and perhaps less personal). The speaker’s pen, ambiguously, “stain[s] the water clear”; thus the image simultaneously implies both a purification (to “stain” it “clear”) and a corruption (to “stain” the “clear” water). On which process does the emphasis lie? Is writing part of the descent into experience?
Comment on Blake as a social critic.
Blake wrote in an era of great social and political upheaval. The democratic ideals of the French Revolution of 1789—the year of the first publication of Songs of Innocence—undoubtedly influenced him. But in politics Blake aligned with no particular system or idealism; he speaks always for the primacy of the individual and the imagination. Blake did attach importance to particular social reforms: one might extrapolate some of these from a poem such as “London,” depicting great suffering and oblivious social institutions, or one might consider Blake’s use of the plights of innocent children in a whole range of poems such as “Holy Thursday.” But a reading of Blake as social critic should always keep in mind the transcendent, humane values of the imagination and of the self unrestricted by narrow social convention; for these values formed the core of his moral code. This code stringently opposes an impersonal, conventional transcendence, and rejects the consolation of a life after this world—both of which are offered by the Church. See in particular the irony of “The Little Black Boy” for evidence of this last point.
What were (and are) the effects of Blake’s mode of publishing his poems with handcrafted colored engravings?
Blake is somewhat misnamed as a poet; he is perhaps better called a craftsman or artisan, and is widely studied and valued as a visual artist. To be understood fully his poems must be considered as material artifacts. The color and composition of surrounding images can deeply change our stance on a poem. (You might find an edition of Blake containing his images in color and test out this hypothesis on “The Nurse’s Song.”) We should also recognize that such an arduous publication process helped condemn Blake to relative obscurity during his own lifetime. Poems universally known today would have been read by very, very few of Blake’s contemporaries.