William Blake’s paradoxical poem “Auguries of Innocence” is described as “prophetic” (Rix, 2005). Contemporarily, Blake was inspired by political and social revolutions such as the aftermath of the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution (1789-1803) and the British Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). The concept of modernity plays a significant role in the poem as it can be perceived as a social commentary on the social class divide that was increasing due to the rise of Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Britain as well as condemnation of slavery – The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1834, thirty years prior to the publication of the poem (1863) (Henry, 2019). The period of modernity which began in the mid-Seventeenth Century and is presumed to have ended in the mid-Twentieth Century encompassed changes to family structures, the economy, social beliefs and thought processes. The period of Enlightenment which occurred in the Eighteenth Century can be identified through Blake’s imagery in the poem as it played a significant role in his work.
In relation to the aspects of modernity, the poem focuses on aspects of the Enlightenment project and forward-thinking, logical thought that was established during this time period. The ‘age of enlightenment’ refers to an intellectual movement that occurred during 17th Century in Western nations, notably in France. In Britain, the ‘age of reason’ is said to have begun with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. King Charles II returned from exile as Oliver Cromwell created a commonwealth to combat the autocratic rule of King Charles II. Upon King Charles II return to court, politicians and social thinkers began to question the social structure as his autocratic rule continued despite the exile. During the restoration period, King James II ascended to the throne and played a vital role in colonial trade which links to Blake’s poem as he focused on the slave imagery (Britannica, 2019). In terms of the poem linking to logical thought, the first four lines of the poem appear contradictory in a literal sense but make sense in a metaphorical sense. He creates the image of capturing the impossible within what is perceived as possible and tangible. William Blake, through these lines, highlights the significance of appreciating the little things within life and the wider aspects. For example, although it is unrealistic to ‘hold infinity in the palm of your hand’, metaphorically this line can suggest that there is so much potential with what your hands can accomplish and therefore what was seemingly impossible is now feasible. Similarly, ‘eternity in an hour’ is another comprehensible concept when the length of time is considered. Within an hour, there are minutes, seconds, milliseconds etc. and therefore, there are many little components that comprise this time period. Since there is no named narrator for the poem, it can be assumed that the speaker is Blake himself and he is expressing his own ideas and opinions. In the poem, there is a contrast between Enlightenment and religion (‘Heaven in a Rage’) because as a result of logical thought becoming more widespread, the influence of religion declined and became secularised. The setting of the poem is ambiguous and presumably this was Blake’s intention as the setting becomes the reader’s mind as they attempt to conceptualise these large ideas. Blake strings contrasting proverbs together in a bewildering succession, perhaps suggesting the spontaneity and freedom from rules that characterize his vision of innocence. An example of such proverb is the first line ‘To hold a world in a grain of sand’ (Brewer, 2019). In terms of Enlightenment on a global scale, the impact in France was far greater than on any other nation. Blake was influenced by the French Revolution as he critiques social injustices and the Revolution was impacted by the Enlightenment period as it called in to question the structure of French egalitarian society (Duignan, 2019). The Bourgeoisie were in power through the royal family and this was sharply contradicted by the increasing poverty of the lower social classes leading to the revolt to overthrow the government. The French Protestors were motivated by the success of the American Revolutionary War as they were able to successfully gain independence from British colonisation. The tone of the first stanza is more light-hearted compared to the rest of the poem which deals with political and social topics whereas the first four lines focus on intellectuality and the quatrain outlines the basis of what the rest of the poem will be about: the big picture.
William Blake presents modernity through highlighting the effects of slavery that created a divide between social classes as the ruling higher social classes, known by Marxists as the Bourgeoisie have a greater perceived power over what Marxists refer to as the Proletariats. Although slavery has existed for centuries, Blake was inspired by the historical, transatlantic slaves – thousands of African slaves were brought to the United Kingdom and used as manual labourers (Lewis, 2018). In line five (‘A Robin Red breast in a Cage’) reinforces the slave imagery as it represents the confinement of freedom. As a romantic poet, animal imagery is a common trope. The use of animals creates a sympathetic response from readers and Blake is using this notion to appeal to the reader’s sense of justice and morality. The image of the ‘Robin’ links to humans due to the censoring of speech to some extent due to social taboos as well as laws prohibiting certain actions. Linking to the period in which the poem was written (early Nineteenth Century), Blake was surrounded by political turmoil in terms of The Napoleonic Wars, The Haitian Revolution and the aftermath of the American Revolution. Therefore, the imagery of the bird in a cage is perceived as a political protest against the lack of freedom and slavery within society. Similarly, in the subsequent lines (lines 7 and 8), the animal imagery is repeated (‘doves’ and ‘pigeons’). The animal imagery is one of the examples that William Blake uses to emphasise social injustice and it implied that even the smallest actions can have great consequences. Blake makes a biblical comparison between heaven and hell and according to the Bible, God created man to be free and as this has been restricted, there is a universal outrage against enslavement on a global scale. However, in terms of time, slavery was socially accepted, mainly in Europe as African nations were colonised by the British, French and Arabs and it became recognised as immoral once the slave rebellions were becoming more violent and direct and this led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (Henry, 2019). In Blake’s London, the working and living conditions of the poor were becoming more widely recognised leading to social reforms such as changes in hygiene and medicine (Lincoln, 2014). According to Rix, Robert W., “the purpose of Blake's 'prophetic' is to be a public word of caution, based on social observation” and “Blake's 'London' contributed to a mounting anti-war sentiment.” (Rix, 2005) Which emphasises the impact of Blake’s poetry to the literary world. Contextually, Blake was born into a moderately wealthy family and therefore his social stance can be seen as contradictory because he is a known supporter of the French Revolution which aimed to overthrow their monarchy (Contributors, n.d.). Therefore, the incorporation of his support can be seen through the imagery that is used as the depictions of enslavement in relation to animals and people is expressed through a tone of anger and resentment towards the captors.
Thematically, Blake focuses on the social implications of capitalism that created a social divide. Capitalism refers to an economic system in which institutions and businesses are owned and controlled privately by the Bourgeoisie and the workers are working-class who depend on the Bourgeoisie as a means of survival (Britannica, Capitalism, 2018). In the poem, Blake expresses the power control through animal imagery. The rhyming couplets in lines 9-12 suggest a political statement against oppression and the effects of industrialisation through the imagery of the starving dog. There is an image of hierarchy that is portrayed as dogs are loyal animals to their masters similar to the workers and the employers. The dogs could be a metaphorical representation of homeless people, soldiers or sick individuals who have no cure. This image signifies that without adequate help, people will lose faith in their governments or the country as a whole and this may in turn, lead to crime which forewarns ‘the ruin of state’. Blake expresses through the concept of starvation, there will be a social uprising and the oppressed majority (Proletariats) will seek vengeance and retribution against the wealthy minority (Bourgeoisie). The notion of animal abuse is continued into the following rhyming couplet and there is the use of the alliterative ‘H’ and it creates the image of workers being mistreated by their employers and this could link back to the concept of slavery as they pray for revenge against their enslavers. The biblical imagery reflects how in times of need, individuals turn to religion to resolve their woes.
‘Auguries of Innocence’ is a romantic poem that focuses on the aspect of change. Blake analyses the social and political climate of his time to create a thought-provoking proverbial poem. Blake’s overall argument is that in an ever-changing modern society, every action has a consequence and that individuals have to take responsibility for their actions. The poem focuses on the importance of freedom, logic in an age of enlightenment and how power leads to greed.