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Analyzing William Blake's Poetry

Drew Harris

"I can look at the knot in a piece of wood until it frightens me"

-- William Blake  

William Blake was one of those 19th century figures who could have and should have been beatniks, along with Rimbaud, Verlaine, Manet, Cezanne and Whitman. He began his career as an engraver and artist, and was an apprentice to the highly original Romantic painter Henry Fuseli. In his own time he was valued as an artist, and created a set of watercolor illustrations for the Book of Job that were so wildly but subtly colored they would have looked perfectly at home in next month's issue of Wired.

He lived in a filthy London studio where he succumbed to constant visions of angels and prophets who instructed him in his work. He once painted while recieving a vision of Voltaire, and when asked later whether Voltaire spoke English, replied: "To my sensations it was English. It was like the touch of a musical key. He touched it probably French, but to my ear it became English."

Blake is now revered for his poetry as well as his artworks. Allen Ginsberg's life was changed by an overpowering vision of Blake (it's kind of sweetly pretentious in a way, isn't it?) in a Lower East Side apartment. Ginsberg now often includes a chant from a poem as part of his poetry readings; you can read it here.

William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 in London. He died on August 12, 1827.


Many poems included in William Blake's Songs of Experience (1794) express Blake's critical view of the Christian Church. Two poems in particular focus directly on the Christian Church. These poems are "THE GARDEN OF LOVE" and "The Little Vagabond". In these poems it is obvious that Blake disagrees with many facets of the Christian religion as an institutionalized system. Though he reportedly attended a religious ceremony only three times in his life (his baptism, marriage and funeral service), he claimed himself to be a devout Christian. His philosophy of Christianity was considered blasphemous, but he was never charged with such a crime. However, he did express his critical opinions of the Church in both essay and poetic form.

To understand what is being said in such poems as "THE GARDEN OF LOVE" and "The Little Vagabond" one must consider the poet's religious, or shall I say spiritual, position. William Blake considered himself to be a monistic Gnostic. That is, he believed what saved a person's soul was not faith but knowledge. Faith, he felt, was a term that was abused by those who thought spending every Sunday in a church would grant them eternal salvation regardless of what actions they exhibited outside the walls of the church. Church ceremonies were also dry, emotionless and meaningless, according to Blake. Church was evil, as Blake would have put it.

Knowledge was cherished by Blake. He argued that through knowledge one can truly understand Christ, and when this understanding is reached one can then begin to become Christ. Christ was the pinnacle of what a human should strive to be. God and Christ were placed on the same level, and God was not a "clockmaker" or some supreme being placed outside of human capacity; rather, Blake argued that God is something that resides in all of humanity. Blake coined this "Divine Humanity", the potential for all humanity to come full circle and be humanly divine; this is possible because God and Jesus are both living inside of us from conception, "There is a throne in every man, it is the throne of God" (Blake qtd in Raine 35).

Ultimately life then becomes a struggle of mental strife. The "monistic" portion of Blake's Gnostic belief comes from his view that materialism (evil) and spiritual (good) are one, furthermore, everything is one. Life is not a constant battle between the two, but life is a culmination of everything, good and bad, that one must plow through and make sense of. This is a heavy topic and for one to completely understand it more must be said. However, the basic principles of his beliefs include knowledge, the understanding that all men are the son of God, and because all men are the sons of God, the potential for "Divine Humanity". (Raine)

Blake expressed many times that the church was a spiritual obstacle. In "The Little Vagabond" Blake portrays the "loveless morality of the churches" (Raine 148). The church, the clerics of the church and the church ceremony altogether is cold and distant. "Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold" ("The Little Vagabond ln i) is the opening line of the poem. It is obvious that the young child is distraught with his church because it is not quenching his spiritual thirst. However, he offers a remedy:

"But if at the Church they would give us some Ale, / And a pleasant fire our souls to regale, / We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day, / Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray." (ln v-viii)

These lines plainly, but clearly, express Blake's religious stance. The church is a cold place that has kept a distance between its members and itself. Therefore, the meanings of the gospels have been delivered in a way that has no meaning or effectiveness. The word of God has been marginalized when it should in fact be communicated in a kind loving manner. The preacher is God and the members of the church are God as well. Instead, the preacher is a merciless intruder that is penetrating the word into the congregation's heads not alloying thought, but perpetuating cold disciplined faith.

If the setting of the church were to become more laid back and comfortable then the results would be positive indeed, "And God, like a father rejoicing to see / His children as pleasant and happy as he" (xiii - xiv), but for now the church is a cold place with no fire and no ale. The preacher is as dry as a desert, and the lessons of the gospels are spouted out to an unenthused distant audience. The child in this poem (though told by the bard) shares a close connection (as Blake believed all children did) with God that has not yet been clouded by the harshness of life. Therefore, he can make such observances and offer his advice. Children share a connection with God that is innocent and fair, this theme is made apparent in mostly all of Blake's poems. Consequently, God is still a loving father to this child (as stated in lines xiii - xiv), and not the vengeful God that the preacher most likely is painting him to be. This poem is used by Blake as a way to communicate his belief that the church was suffering from cold militant preaching rather than warm intoxicating love.

The cold atmosphere of the church carries over into Blake's poem "THE GARDEN OF LOVE". Playing on the same feeling of distance and cold, Blake ties in one of his main critiques of the church: the church's repression of its members and his vigorous anti-clerical stance. This poem is a "Confrontation between natural innocence and cunning repression" (Hirsch 258). Blake saw the establishment of an institutionalized church as an instrument of tyranny. An established church was not only a tool of,

political and social repression, but also the very embodiment of repression in all its forms: the repressive authority of the church is the source of a condemnation of all human acts, a condemnation that has shrunk human existence into a dark and turbulent sea of guilt. (Altizer 41)

The repression noted above is greatly illustrated in the lines that read, "And the gates of the chapel were shut, / And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door" ("THE GARDEN OF LOVE" ln v - vi).

Another facet of the poem worth exploring is the cemetery that has taken place of the garden. "And I saw it was filled with graves, / And tomb-stones where flowers should be" (ix - x). Blake is conveying his belief that the church focuses too much on death and eternal damn nation, also tied to the repression of humanity that the church has bestowed upon its members. Again, an innocent child is victim of the church's tired effort to control the mind and every aspect of spirituality. Where a child once played a church was built, and on its door were the words that read "Thou shalt not", and in all around it were graves. A bleak picture is painted by Blake because that is exactly how he viewed the church. He saw the church as a spiritually hindering institution that has misconstrued the true message of the gospels. The fertility of flowers had been replaced with graves, and the promise of new life found through the teachings of Jesus had been replaced by repressive Priests that patrolled the aisles in their black gowns.

Read other articles by Drew Harris

Works Cited

Drew Harris is a English Major who is in his junior year at Mt. St Mary's College.  Drew also serves as the English editor of