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William Blake: Romantic Poetry With An Angelic Message Of The Liberation Of Man From The Manacles Of Reason And Teachings

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The Age of Enlightenment brought about the Industrial Revolution and societal changes which greatly influenced the discourses of the time. With the Age of Reason, otherwise known as the Enlightenment, there was a change into a focus on reason and progress led to the movement of people into built up cities, with common discourse ultimately favouring those within the capitalist and theological institutions of the time. Poets such as William Blake greatly despised this change, and are notably great writers of the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment, and all it stood for. The works of Blake in his poetic collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789) critique the changes caused by the Enlightenment. Seen with aesthetic poetic devices where he forms a representation of his ideological ‘fancies’, Blake connects the artistic nature of his poetry with his personal beliefs and values. Blake achieves this intrinsic relationship through the use of poetic techniques and stylings, along with biblical discourse, in his critique of not only the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment, the power of the institutionalised Church, but most importantly on the restrictions and limitations placed on society through the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ which they are bound by.

With heavy emphasis on the base of reason and the mechanisation of industry, the period of Enlightenment valued the rational and productive, in such a manner that transformed the social norms of the 18th Century. The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Period of Reason, contributed to the illumination of human intellect and scepticism with notable figures including Voltaire and Isaac Newton bringing major scientific advancement. In the ‘forward march of human reason’ it left behind many in the venture of populist avenues, with not only women, but minorities and the lower class, left behind. This combined with the heralding of a new system of egalitarianism sparked the beginnings of a literature movement rejecting the new way of life, yearning for an idealised simpler past. As a movement within both literature and art, “the Romantics sought to engage with their society with a significant rejection of “modernity,” yet this opposition was the basis for re-energizing their own times.” Rejecting the oppression of industrial civilisation, writers of the Romantic period critiqued the favouring of reason and rationality over the exploration of the whimsical and freeing ways of imagination often using visionary figures and extended simile to embody the ‘natural’ liberation of man. This key characteristic of Romanticism was not only an empowering juxtaposition to the imprisonment of instruction and legislation, with many political revolts against the regimentation of society being linked to Romantic writing and the people of the Romantic reform. Blake, whilst often regarded as a pre-Romantic poet, held a particular interest in the Romantic ‘fancy’ of childhood. Throughout his poetic collections, a common discourse and appropriation of mechanical reason and the power of the Church appear throughout his poetry, key to the aesthetic and ideological styling of the Romantic period of literature and his personal ideologies. [0: ]

Often seen in his aesthetic appropriation of natural landscapes and beings, Blake places ideological emphasis on the emotive path of imagination and dreams over pursuing reason, particularly in using an extended metaphor and imagery. Summarised in Bowman’s ‘William Blake: A Study of His Doctrine of Art’ “... Blake’s aesthetic theory are his contentions that the imagination does not operate in terms of natural appearances - that the senses even limit and obscure the imagination - and that systematic reasoning as opposed to inspiration or illumination is an obstacle to the revelation of truth”. Within his poetry, Blake explores this idea of imagination and the revelation of a ‘natural’ truth, culminating in the portrayal Blake’s personal ideology (contrary to the common discourse of his time). In a time of great scientific discovery and a transforming philosophical understanding of the world, Blake presents an aesthetic response to the commonplace of the Enlightenment in his analogous approach to “the living power and prime agent of all human perception”. Directly seen through his extended metaphor of ‘shade’, and the repercussions of its limitations on the human mind in a systematic approach to understanding and reason, Blake presents reality in a new sense. This is seen in his poem ‘A Dream’ (from the Songs of Innocence) in which “Once a dream did weave a shade/ O’er my Angel-guarded bed” hints at the restriction of the persona’s dreams by the ‘shade’ of societies pursuit of strict, logical reason. Within writing of the Enlightenment period, and under the rationale of its concurrent train of thought, they believed imagination to show life as people wish, or dream, it to be - disempowering the Romantic fascination with the unbound man. The title, ‘A Dream’, notions to the revelation of man in his pursuit of personal aspirations and desires in the form of free thought (imagination), an ideology in which Blake favoured in his alignment to early Romanticism. The ‘shade’ woven by the dream of progress - easily linked to the Enlightenment in the restriction it places on Blake’s idealised freedom of thought and favouring of imagination - confines the “Troubled, ‘wilder’d, and forlorn,/ Dark, benighted, travel-worn” persona to the “tangled spray” of society, in which they have lost not only themselves, but their revelation of truth. In using metaphor and imagery, Blake links the aesthetic discourse of ‘shade’ and ‘dreams’ to the restrictive nature of society. Forming an emotive connection to the revelation of truth - found through Blake’s idealised imagination - Blake presents an alternative to his contextual discourse. [1: ] [2: ] [3: ] [4: ] [5: ]

The appropriation of a biblical discourse, seen throughout Blake’s poetry in its use of allusion and intertextuality, creates an aesthetic blend of the known and explored. Exploring familiar ideas linked to the teachings of the Church, Blake’s poetry uses direct allusions to verses of the Bible and the direct assertions made about the God of Reason, Urizen. A man of reputable madness, Blake was “a Christian who hated the churches”, particularly the exploitative nature of its giving to the misfortunate, believing that God - a being of man’s creation - stood for protecting children in particular. In both his poems ‘A Dream’ and ‘The Angel’ Blake opens the first stanza in direct allusion to Psalm 91, “For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go”. The symbolic nature of Angels as both messengers of God and the protectors of man is not dissimilar it uses to the teachings of the Church in a manner as to problematise the reality of the ‘messengers’ of God found in the Church of man. [6: ] [7: ] [8: ]

“And I wept both night and day,

And he wip’d my tears away,

And I wept both day and night,

And hid from him my heart’s delight.

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So he took his wings and fled”

Inconsistent with the passage of the Bible alluded to in the opening lines, the Angels of the Church rather force the persona to hide from God their delights, arguably their dreams and truths. This problematises the reality posed in the Bible which suggests that God would delight with you in your joys and “shelter you with his wings”. Whilst the notion of the female persona weeping is aesthetically displeasing, it builds upon Blake’s understanding of faith in a God who sends the Angel to guard the youthful nature of innocence. Within Blake’s time the Church undertook many actions that would go directly against the assertions of religious gatherings posed in both the Bible and historical discourse - this change encompassing many perversions of the Church that began to form during the late 18th Century, including the Swedenborgian Church which Blake was a former member until he cited inconceivable differences between his personal ideology, and that posed by all other religious institutions. The differing Churches of the time are all presented in ‘The Angel’ by the Church and its workings within society posing a rift between man and Blake’s man-created God in the persona's abandonment as the Angel “took his wings and fled” from the heart’s delight. Blake appears to portray “the angel as a negative symbol to castigate in the name of religion” signifying the toxicity of the Church’s disdain of personal journeys into faith and religious understanding. In understanding Blake’s personal journey through faith, we can understand that he places emphasis on God and his angels as presented through religious teachings as a perversion of the true God he sees as man-created. As eloquently stated by Helmstadter, “Blake…, throughout all of his writings, regarded religious institutions with suspicion”. This idea is significant in his poetry “with ten thousand shields and spears,'' Blake arms readers with a knowledge greater than that given by the Church in the acceptance of his truth, signifying the journey that must be taken outside of the Church to find, and re-gain true angels. Rather than furthering the gap between yourself and God, Blake rejects the teachings posed by biblical discourse and condones a personal journey exterior to the power and influence of the corrupted Church. [10: ] [11: ] [12: ] [13: ] [14: ]

Both the limitations on imagination and religious pursuit of knowledge lends itself to Blake’s key ideological focus found in underlying tones within each of his poetic collections. Blake’s use of extended metaphor, allusion and meter is used aesthetically to convey the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ which Blake argues restricts man not only in his reasoning and faith, but in the exploration of self. During the 1790s there was greater restriction on the people of England due to the growing threat of revolt against the British monarchy following the French Revolution. With greater restrictions on political opinion, many writers of the time explored the limitations of the Enlightenment as a train of thought, and these new political limitations. Similarly to his metaphor of ‘shade’, Blake uses the metaphor of ‘mind forg’d manacles’ to discuss the liberation of characters such as the Emmet and glow-worm as a metaphor for the people of his time who are lost and oppressed within this push for reason. The character of the Emmet, seen in not only ‘A Dream’ but also in Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, links to the restrictions imposed by the ‘shade’ in his pursuit to find the true version of himself “That an emmet lost its way”. This is seen in [15: ] [16: ]

“The Emmet’s Inch & Eagle’s Mile

Make Lame Philosophy to smile.

He who Doubts from what he sees

Will ne’er Believe, do what you Please” [17: ]

in which the emmet has broken free from the doubt that reason places on imagination, liberating himself from the restrictive institutions that are presented within the poem such as the Church and the education system. In his poem ‘The Land of Dreams’, whilst the Emmet is not directly alluded to, the journey of the Emmet is clear in the journey undertaken by the persona of the poem. A father concerned for the wellbeing of his son, the persona is freed from his self-inflicted ‘mind forg’d manacles’ when his son describes “The Land of Dreams is better far,/ Above the light of the Morning Star” where he meets his mother walking “Among the Lambs, clothed in white”. Blake not only alludes to Emmet and his journey, but introduces connections between biblical teachings (the Lamb, a metaphor used in the Bible to describe Jesus and his sacrifice made through the resurrection) and reason in the restrictions imposed on the persona. The persona’s inability to get to the other side of the Land of Dreams not only cites the restrictions imposed on thought and opinion - particularly important given Blake’s context within the late 18th Century with the Enclosure Acts and Treason Trials of which imprisoned many writers and thinkers of the time - but includes the man’s own inability to realise the truth affirmed through imagination and self-discovery. The liberation of man from his ’mind forg’d manacles’ is a particular ideology in which Blake holds independently on many writers within his time, presented through use of aesthetic throughout his poetry. [18: ] [19: ] [20: ]

With an understanding of both Blake and his context within the Enlightenment, we can see that the application of discourse and poetic techniques lends itself to the ideological values and beliefs of an author. As an advocate for many social changes, Blake places great ideological value on the alleviation of reason in order for the flourishing of one’s imagination, seen through his application aesthetic metaphor and imagery within his poetry. This not only compliments, but builds on the appropriation of both biblical and social discourses Blake alludes to in the freedom he supposes outside of the institutional nature of the Church and the Industrial Revolution. Blake, a Romantic poet and man of many ideological fancies, applies aesthetic techniques to the empowerment of all people in their pursuit towards self and true revelation in a time in which was restrictive and vindictive, suggesting that our own liberation is found when we can free ourselves from the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ in which we bound ourselves.


  1. Abbs, Peter. “William Blake and the Forging of the Creative Self”. The London Magazine: A Review of Literature and the Arts, June/July 2014 Issue. London, June 2014. pp. 58-59.
  2. Ankarsjo, Magnus. William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. McFarland and Company Inc, North Carolina, pp. 77
  3. Blake, William. ‘A Dream’ from “Songs of Innocence”. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946. pp. 96
  4. Blake, William. ‘Auguries of Innocence’ from “Verses and Fragments Second Series”. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946, pp. 150-154
  5. Blake, William. ‘London’ from “Songs of Experience”. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946, pp. 112
  6. Blake, William. ‘The Angel’ from “Songs of Experience”. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946, pp 106
  7. Blake, William. ‘Land of Dreams’ from “Verses and Fragments Second Series”. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946, pp. 161-162
  8. Bowman, Marcia Brown. “William Blake: A Study of His Doctrine of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 1, 1951, pp. 53–66. JSTOR,
  9. Essick, Robert N. “William Blake, Thomas Paine, and Biblical Revolution.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 30, no. 2, 1991, pp. 189–212. JSTOR,
  10. Helmstadter, Thomas H.. Blake and Religion: Iconographical Themes in the “Night Thoughts”. Studies in Romanticism. Vol.10, No. 3, Summer 1971, pp. 199-212. Boston University Press, USA.
  11. Kazin, Alfred. ’Introduction: The real man, the imagination’. The Portable Blake. Viking Penguin Inc, USA, First Published 1946, pp 1-55
  12. Marks, Cato. “Writings of the Left Hand: William Blake Forges a New Political Aesthetic.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 43–70. JSTOR,
  13. O’Reagan, Keith. Towards a Productive Aesthetics: History and Now - Time In Blake and Brecht. University of Toronto, Ontario, Oct. 2017. Taken from pp. 76.
  14. Sandler, Florence, and Joseph Anthony Wittreich. Modern Philology, vol. 77, no. 2, 1979, pp. 228–234. JSTOR,
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