William Blake is one of the most uncommon and most hard to understand poets in the Romantic era. His outlooks about religion, art and society are often considered to be anachronistic. Blake’s visions compare to no other poets being that he has come from a lower-class family, his personal spiritual beliefs and his interest for visual arts. However, Blake does have an interest and many opinions about important issues concerning the French Revolution, abolitionism, and visionary imagination. In Romantic literature, it is important to recognize Blake’s contributions and influences as well as his diversity. His work ties into many ways of with literary art and evolution of his time, also including his views on gender and racial equality. Blake wrote many poems about his concerns with slavery and abolitionism which started in his Songs of Innocence. Blake focused on his true feelings and thoughts upon these topics, and going further to explain his concern by using his poetry and art. While talking about his concerns of slavery and abolitinism, I will use the poems “ The Little Black Boy” from songs of innocence and “Visions” from visions of the daughter of albion. These two poems tell an abolitionist message, the truth about religion, and morals and social expectations telling how they have created issues between human relations. Although Blake’s poetry in it’s time was more progessive, it still gives a message of how women and racial were inferior. Blake was good at exposings the problems in the religion of the British, but his spiritual outlook and his mythological vision makes his poetry and message less effective to the changes that could take place in society.
Blake achieved greatness in several different fields. He is worthy of academic attention and there is indeed an overwhelming amount of criticism of his work. David Erdman’s article “ Blake’s Vision of Slavery”, has given me a great deal of information about abolitionism in Visions. Susan Fox indicates Blake’s anachronistic role within the Romantic era, but she argues that Blake utilizes women as metaphors for failure in his work. Anne Mellor argues the Vision of Blake’s work, criticizing his spiritual beliefs, because of the British morality destroying the meaning of true spiritual union. My analysis of abolitionism within the poems will argue that Blake’s interruptions of slavery have a deeper meaning in adressing injustice and false spiritually of power relations in British society. In the poem “The Little Black Boy”, tells Blake’s beliefs concerning the power that parents have over children and racial status. While in Visions, indicates his ideas about gender equality and sexual relations. Other than his judgement upon equal rights and abolitionism, Blake has much diversity of his time. His complex mythological views, has an effect on his artistic political messages.
In the readings Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake explores and portrays an “age when God is fully manifest in man” and feels a spiritual connection with god (Matlak). Blake’s poetry has a message that is profound to encourage equality in society based on love and freedom. His poetry is not expressed through his artwork, they actually complicate and sometimes contradict his poems. This challenges the readers to give relations between the writings and visual arts. Blake’s artwork is very original and considered to be anachronistic with the English artistic tradition.
The poem “ The Little Black Boy”, from Songs of Innocence, illustrates the spiritual mind of a child who believes in God’s promises of love but it also indicates the spiritual equality of humanity. The boy expresses the lessons his mother has taught him about the afterlife he will njoy through words of song. The afterlife of heaven he will experience the joy of life, but with the white English boy. The poem gives knowledge of humans spiritual equality alluding to the Christian argument against slavery of his time. “The Little Black Boy” indicates the boys spiritual dignity and how much equality the boy has which gives him much value. Blake does this in a way through the opinion of the religious belief in heaven where everyone is equal. The boy is taught, while in heaven he will be released from injustice and created equal to the white English boy and will be loved by god. The boys spiritual education gives him hope while stating the equality in heaven. Blake also promotes the boy’s dignity by referring to his mother and what she has taught him. The boy’s relationship with his mother (lines 7, 21) illustrates his youth and innocence, but also portrays him as more human and loving. The boy learns diligently from his mother, who represents age and wisdom. The spiritual growth of children, which is given credit to the older members of society. This also illustrates how Blake’s positive aspect about womanhood is represented as natural and motherly. Matlak describe this as, “In Blake’ aesthetic world, the female is identified with nature, the physical body or matter, and the realm of the domestic. Blake’s positive females give birth, raise children, and offer sexual delight and supportive compassion to Blake’s males” (Matlak, 274). This gives a deeper meaning to the poem’s message that learning is essential in a childs life, and that childeren learn from adults around them. This constructs the authority that adults have, while also stating the positions of the children. Blake’s concern for the boy’s equality in the poem, has amny prolems. The boy’s early indroduction to racism, is a result of his belief in religion, which is a problem because of his acceptance to racial discrimination and indicates there is no need for social change. The poem focuses on God’s power, creating a symbol of Love, while using racial images of blackness. In the third stanza it portays a clear understanding stating, “And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love, / And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (lines 13-16). Blake indicates the boy’s spiritual goodness, along the same racial lines, by linking his soul with whiteness; “And I am black, but O! my soul is white” (line 2). This imagery reveals the mindset of Blake’s time to include physical darkness with corruption. Blake argues against the discrimination the boy suffers on earth, stating that he will experience a spiritual union with God in the afterlife. This vision is highly problematic because despite Blake’s efforts to promote the equality of the little boy, the injustice he experiences on earth is defended by the ideal vision of future equality in heaven. The boy reflects back to the injustice he experiences on earth as a result of his mother’s teachings. He believes his mortal mind that taught him, stating in lines three and four, “White as an angel is the English child: / But I am black as if bereav’d of light”. The boy focuses on the afterlife and hopes for a union with God, believing that he will be loved then. The last lines of the poem state, “To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. / And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me” (lines 26-28). The importance of the word “then” is used to emphasize that he is not loved by God in life on earth. Blake presents a complicated argument for racial equality that seems to silence the injustice experienced on earth. By telling the boy’s belief and hope for afterlife, Blake presents cruel morality and society reality of religion. Another important message of the illustration is the use of light, this is significant throughout the poem. The sun is a setting to the poem, foreshadowing the darkness that appears in the picture. This seems to suggest a role in the heat and light of God that is portrayed in the poem. Finally, the overall ideal imagery portrays black boy standing behind the white English boy, who actually touches God. This important factor, along with the fading sun, indicates the value of the black boy even in the afterlife. This is not explained within the poem, but one possible explanation is the typical belief of religion. “The Little Black Boy” indicates how important the people were concerned race and racial equality back in Blake’s time. Although Blake strongly illustrates the spiritual equality of the afterlife, this is limited because it seems to offer a justification to the racial injustices of English society, including the slave trade and slavery.
Blake’s important poem, Visions, also demonstrates his ideas about power relations and unnatural relationships. This poem describes Oothoon’s victimization by Bromion’s rape, and Theotormon’s belief that she is defiled and unacceptable, despite his love for her. Oothoon is enslaved by her condition as a useful woman. The poem begins, “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep a trembling lamentation”, immediately connecting slavery to the women in English society. Visions portrays the resut of society and religion’s warped control over human interactions, addressing several different power relations, including the dominance of men over women, master over slave and organized religion over society. David Erdman states, “…love and slavery prove to be the two poles of the poem’s axis” (Erdman, 242).
This poem promotes a more equal treatment of women by indicating Oothoon’s sadness and extreme despair. She grieves, “Are both alike: a night of sighs, a morning of fresh tears” (Plate 2, line 39). Her exploitation is obviously condemned in an interesting way because this oppression connects her to horrors of the institution of slavery, including sexual abuse and emotional despair. Blake presents quasi-feminist and abolitionist arguments against the sexual and economic exploitation of humans, because it distorts freedom and natural relationships. Institutionalized subjugation and enslavement does not simply destroy the victimized, such as Oothoon, but the entire society because it warps all human interactions. Bromion becomes enslaved by his violent act, while Theotormon is enslaved by his jealousy and inability to love Oothoon after she has been defiled. He is trapped by the standards of conventional religion and morality, specifically the notions of marriage.
The frontpiece to Visions of the Daughters of Albion serves as a dramatic visual representation of the poem’s portrayal of mental and physical bondage. Oothoon is shackled to Bromion, facing opposite directions from one another. Bromion faces out towards the sea with a look of horror, while Oothoon directs herself towards Theotormon, bending downwards in despair andresignation. Lukacher states that, “her jealous and inhibited lover cowers and withdraws into himself on the cavernous ledge about the enchained figures” (105). Theotormon’s body language indicates his self-entrapment and despair because the social restrictions he believes in prohibit him from being with the woman he loves. This composition utilizes Michelangelo-esque nudes and opposing body languages to contain and reduce the complex drama of the poem. The landscape also conveys the bleak tone of the literary work. The entrance to the grotto frames the figures and the background including a bleak sea, clouds and a darkened sun.
Visions clearly argues against the subjugation of women and the institutions that promote economic and physical exploitation on human beings, most significantly slavery and marriage. Blake promotes, instead, love as a equal spiritual and physical union. This notion of free love rejects the standards of Christian marriage in England, promoting an equal union between man and woman. The composition, Circle of the Lustful, exemplifies this notion well. This illustration portrays Virgil standing over the fainted Dante. Dante envisions his Paolo and Francesca released from purgatory and re-united together in the luminous orb. A whirling vortex of punished lovers rushes out of the river of purgatory. Blake liberates the lovers, freeing them from the sin that society condemns them for. The figures are mostly androgynous, indicating Blake’s vision of the ideal human form as containing both the male and female genders. This composition promotes free love, asserting the goodness of spiritual love, while also overturning Dante’s tradition that imposes strict moral and sexual codes on society.
Blake’s work, like Visions and Circle of the Lustful, deals with subjugation and exploitation as distortions of power and human relations. Blake condemned those who abused and exploited others through the misuse of power. His portrayals of this exploitation prompted Saree Makdisi to promote the reevaluation of his time. A specific example of Blake’s condemnation of the powerful is The Ghost of a Flea, a composition that portrays the profane spirit of this powerful man as a reptile-like creature. The comet indicates a supernatural event and the dramatic, stage-like setting emphasize the evilness of this creature. Although this composition is a specific condemnation of English industrialists, it demonstrates Blake’s view of the powerful that exploitNand subject the rest of society. Blake’s mythological vision asserts their impending punishment.
Visions condemns the mental and physical bondage promoted by the institutions of slavery and marriage. The poem is not, however, highly effective in promoting any real change. In a similar manner as “The Little Black Boy”, Visions addresses too many issues to be efficacious in directly promoting the feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft or the abolitionist cause. The poem is also rendered ineffective because the definition of slavery is blurred and turned into a multifarious term that applies any lack of freedom. In fact, the poem seems to deal more with spiritual and mental enslavement than with the political and economic practices of the slave trade and slavery. Blake concerns himself most greatly with the condemnation of the sexual limitations and moral codes of conventional religion. Susan Fox claims that Blake’s feminist agenda in Visions is ineffective because Oothoon lacks real assertiveness. “No woman in any Blake poem has both the will and the power to initiate her own salvation – not even the strongest and most independent of his women, Oothoon” (Fox, 513). Blake presents gender and sexuality in a similar way as many artists of his time; although he promotes the dignity and worth of women, the representation ultimately affirms feminine inferiority and lack of agency.
Visions’ large and far-reaching messages about slavery, power relations, sexuality and religion addresses many issue in a liberal and progressive way, but these multifarious and complex issues render the poem unable to directly confront any one issue to prompting real change. Blake is most successful in directly promoting abolitionism through the illustrations of actual events and atrocities of the slave trade, such as A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to the Gallows.
These etchings are politically subversive in a direct and real sense, because they specifically address the institution of slavery’s violation of human dignity. These images are clear criticisms of the atrocities committed by the slave trade, calling for real political action. These illustrations, however, are very simple artistic constructions that portray one figure’s suffering, asserting their humanity and dignity. Although they are not artistically complex or important, they do serve to directly promote the abolitionist cause during his time.