William Blake was one of the three British poets considered to be the leaders of the Early Romantic movement. He was also an artist, a printer, and an engraver, an explorer of philosophy who argued against conventions in many forms. He was also, quite possibly, insane.
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If you’ve read anything by William Blake, the chances are that it was his poem “The Tyger”, which asks “Tyger, Tyger burning bright/in the forests of the night/what immortal hand or eye/could frame thy fearful symmetry?” “The Tyger” is from Blake’s collection Songs of Experience.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE:
In addition to Songs of Experience, Blake composed a companion set of poems titled Songs of Innocence. Unlike the Songs of Experience, which show a world corrupted by original sin and tainted with the sorrows it brings, the Songs of Innocence were intended to show the world in a pure state, often childish and full of wonder. Blake eventually paired the two to create the final version, Songs of Innocence and Experience, as a way to critique the state of the world.
The “innocent” paring with the Tyger is the Lamb, who is asked “Dost thou know who made thee?” The poem captures the tone of a child’s early lessons in Christianity, a sharp contrast to the danger, dark, and menace of the Tyger. While the Lamb is told that its creator is “meek and mild” and “calls himself a Lamb”, we can’t help but remember the question Blake asks in “The Tyger” - “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” Blake was fascinated by the mind of a god that would create both a deadly tiger and a helpless lamb.
“The Chimney Sweeper” is the title of both the innocence and experience poems on the subject. The innocence poem reminds the young orphan boys (sweeps were often as young as five or six years old, and had to climb into extremely tight, dangerous spaces) that the Lord takes those who “do their duty” to Heaven. The experience poem, much bleaker, pictures a boy too young to say the S in “sweep” correctly calling “Weep! Weep!” in the street to find work as a child laborer, while his parents are off in church piously at prayer.
THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL:
Considered by Blake to be an explanation of his personal beliefs and philosophies, the Marriage argues that no progress in life is possible without the existence of contraries, starting with the order and stateliness of heaven being paired against the frenzied energies of Hell. It also contains the Proverbs of Hell, a series of paradoxical pronouncements that are meant to provoke discussion and argument, such as “The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisdom.”
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
* Blake was regularly plagued by visions during the course of his life. He believed he saw angels and the Devil at various times, and that his dead brother spoke to him from beyond the grave. This, combined with the lack of clarity in some of his images, has led to scholarly debate about Blake’s overall sanity. Read his biography here at Poets.org and decide for yourself!
* Blake’s work as a poet was perhaps less accepted during his life than his work as an artist. He was a master engraver, and pioneered a technique called relief engraving, or drypoint engraving, which he claimed was taught to him by his dead brother in a dream. (Told you he was a bit out there…) There’s an excellent article about how Blake used this process, and how he covered up his mistakes as he worked, in The Guardian.
* Want to check out some of Blake’s paintings and engravings, including illuminated manuscripts? You can browse through examples here.
* While a lot of Blake’s poems were a bit bizarre, one has become a hymn-- “Jerusalem”, which is based on a myth about the Holy Grail being brought to England. There have been efforts made to make the song the national anthem of England, too! The hymn has been set to music, and you can hear a performance with lyrics here:
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