Blake’s Body Politic: Some Speculations on the Politics of the Imagination

Karen Mulhallen
York University, 1989

The picture on the screen is a watercolour by William Blake, executed to illustrate an edition of a very famous, and now neglected, poem, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. The drawing was conceived and drawn by Blake only a year or so after he published, in 1794, on his own press, Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is a remarkable watercolour, dramatic in form, and colour, and rich in iconographical allusion. I have placed it here before you as a signpost of the range of Blake’s imaginative universe. I chose this particular design because it is nearly contemporary with the Songs, it is biblical and political and realistic in its imagery, and it is only very loosely related to the text which it might be seen to illustrate. It is characteristic of Blake that his designs are comments on his texts, rather than mere illustrations, that they carry with them their own meanings, and that they are at the same time often based on very particular materials. Blake called his designs illuminations, capturing in that one word the dynamic relationship between visual and verbal material.

Blake published Songs of Innocence (slide 2) in 1789, the year of the Fall of the Bastille, and he republished them in 1794 along with Songs of Experience (slide 3), the complete work now being titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience (slide 4).

Between 1789 and 1794 he completed a number of other works including a long poem called The French Revolution, while he witnessed from afar the stage of the French Revolution known as The Reign of Terror (1793). Shortly after the publication of the Songs, and of several of his prophetic books, including America and Europe, Blake watched as Napoleon Bonaparte rose and Britain under Pitt went to war with France.

This afternoon I want to sketch for you in brief a way of reading the Songs of Innocence and Experience which accommodates two propositions, one that the poems are general or symbolic depictions of two very different states, or contraries as Blake calls these states, and second that they are radical and politically engaged realistic works of art. The first proposition is a common place of Blake criticism, for Blake is usually referred to as a symbolic artist. The two states Blake depicts are of course innocence and experience, and in Blake’s designs which accompanied his Songs, there appear to be quite different patterns of imagery, or iconography, for these states. Commentary on the designs has tended to see them as symbolic representations of general attitudes, or typical scenes. Hence figures which soar, as in the frontispiece to innocence (slide 5), are assumed to represent joy, those which huddle, as in The Human Abstract (slide 6), depict terror. Thorns are seen as representative of a fallen world, and lambs of peaceableness (slide, The Lamb). So the world of Innocence is primarily a pastoral world, with images of flowers and lambs and groups of children playing. The state of Experience is darker; pilgrims with staves, motifs of thorns and chains and worms frequent its post-lapsarian, fallen spaces (slide 8, London). The Songs are Blake’s best known, and most accessible, works, and I think they are among his most cunning.

We all accept the notion that when we call an artist a symbolist we mean his images stand for something other than what they appear as, usually for an idea of something. Hence the symbolic artist is one who creates a static world of fixed imagery and ideas. And yet when we examine Blake’s imagery we find that in fact figures which soar can express terror or flight, and, lambs can be images of stupidity and even cruelty, as in The Clod and The Pebble (slide 9) so that the context in which his imagery, both visual and verbal, appears is all important. Because his imagery is dynamic and because he is always concerned with context I would argue that a more appropriate term for Blake in all his work, and his work is astonishingly diverse, is spiritual realist, or simply realist.

In Art and Revolution, John Berger discusses realism as an attempt to construct a totality. “In realist literature a man represents his whole life – though perhaps only a small part of it is described – and this life is seen or felt as part of the life of his class, society, universe.” Berger separates realism from naturalism.” The distinction between naturalism and realism has been applied to literature, notably by Lukacs, in a highly illuminating way. It is a distinction between two attitudes towards experience – formed, in the main, by the artist’s imaginative and consolidation of Britain’s status as a world power, and it was a period of tremendous political repression, a repression perhaps most memorably enshrined in a law, passed by the British Prime Minister William Pitt, The Younger (1783-1806; became Prime Minister at 24 years of age), known as the Law of Assembly, whereby any two people meeting at a street corner and deciding to stop to say hello, to have a chat, could be, and often were, arraigned, hauled off to court, and tried for high treason.” To defend the Bible in this year 1798”, wrote Blake, “would cost a man his life”. Dangerous times, indeed.

And the danger may be seen always lurking there in even the most innocent of those Songs of Innocence. In the Introduction to the Songs, for example where the musician- speaker converses with a child on a cloud, everything begins well enough with laughter and song. But the second stanza ends with the child weeping, although the reader perhaps assumes the child weeps for joy.

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child
And he laughing said to me

Pipe a song about a lamb
So I piped with merry chear
Piper pipe that song again
So I piped he wept to hear

The next stanza adds another dimension to the weeping, for now the child may be understood to weep because not everyone can hear what he has heard. His tears are then a lament for humanity and he asks the musician to write down his song in order to share it with everyone. Literacy in this tiny poem becomes a great democratic force.

Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read
So he vanish’d from my sight
And I pluck’d a hollow reed

In the last stanza the musician becomes a writer of pastoral works. His pen is “rural”, but he must alter the clarity of nature untouched, stain it, in order to create his happy songs.

And I made a rural pen
And I stain’d the water clear
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

And so we find in the opening poem of the Songs (slide 10, Introduction to Innocence), Blake is arguing that art is public, that art alters the natural, and that happy songs also carry with them an element of weeping. The illumination for the poem is remarkable for its containment. Interweaving branches form eight panels of figures caught in natural forms. The preceding title-page to the Songs of Innocence presents a contrasting openness of design, but also a vine encircling the tree, suggestive of the serpent in the Garden of Eden around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (slide 11; t-p innocence), and the title-page to the whole work shows Adam and Eve contained by the flames of Experience while birds of Innocence soar above slide 12.

Blake lived in a culture which – an inheritance from the English Civil war – discussed politics in moralistic and Biblical terms. Some viewed the American Revolution as a secular apocalypse, that is one which would overthrow poverty and cruelty (DVE, p.50). Others saw it as the Apocalypse, as set out in the Book of Revelation, the last chapter of the Christian Bible. Similar views of the French Revolution prevailed in the 1790s. The millenarian Richard Brothers (1757-1824), for example, who prophesied against the war with France, addressed letters to King George, Pitt and other ministers. He beseeched George not to proceed with the war and predicted the Apocalypse as a consequence if he did. Arrested in 1795, and incarcerated as a lunatic for 11 years, Brothers’ views were reiterated and expanded in several books by his lifelong friend and supporter John Finlayson. In The Last Trumpet and The Flying Angel, Finlayson identified the red dragon of the Apocalypse as George The Third himself, and the Beast whose number is 666 as the members of the House of Commons (pp.22-24; 1849). Not surprisingly this kind of odium theologicum became an important part in the English scheme of satire against Napoleon, who was compared to the Dragon and identified with the Beast of Revelation. Between 1797 and 1815 prophetic broadsides, leaflets and prints made the comparison more vivid. There was also English pottery decorated with Napoleon caricatured as the Beast of Revelation. An 1809 brochure by Louis Mayer, with a satirical frontispiece (1804) identifies Napolean as the Apocalyptic Beast:

His brutal and ferocious Dispositions are represented by the Body and Feet of a Tiger; his inordinate Desires, by the Chest, Wings,  and Claws of a Dragon, holding out Death and Slavery; his Head with Two Horns symbolizes his civil and ecclesiastical Authority; and is intended to point out that though a Dragon and a Tiger have been the most dreadful and destructive of all real and imaginary creatures, yet even their horrid natures are surpassed by the sanguinary and rapacious Dispositions of that implacable Tyrant.

What does this theological political satire have to do with the image (slide 1, Night Thoughts VIII, t-p) before you, and with the Songs of Innocence and Experience? I think a great deal. Let’s examine the image for a moment.

The design depicts the Scarlet Whore of Babylon seatedon the Great Red seven-headed, ten-horned Dragon of Revelation : its power portrayed in the law (you can see the judge’s wig in the lower right), the military (a steel-helmeted soldier), the merchant banks (a scaly, brutish, bearded, red-and gold-horned rams-horned image), the Church (the bleary-eyed figure with triple mitre and orb), the Monarchy (a ram’s –horned crowned King), and finally two ecclesiastically –hatted figures. The cleric uppermost in the left is especially intriguing.

In this period it was Napoleon who most frequently is embodied in the Dragon. A Rowlandson print of 1808 based on an earlier design shows the seven-headed Beast, in which the upper left head is that of Napoleon. Here we see features which seem distinctly his, that strong jaw, that prominent nose. It is a view of the Beast in line with the most popular satire of Blake’s time (slides 13, 14, 15; depicting close-up of NT Napoleon and Napoleon and a French satirical print using biblical beast imagery for political purposes).

What makes a study of Blake’s politics so fascinating is, for me, not only that the examples of political engagement in Blake’s art are indeed myriad, but also that these very examples raise fundamental questions about the very nature of politics and art-making.

Although the Songs of Innocence and Experience do not, so far as we know at present, depict specific figures such as Napoleon, or William Pitt, or Charles James Fox the Leader of the Opposition, nonetheless, in the Songs we are confronted with poem after poem charting political, social and psychological injustice. Unlike “the English cild”, the Little Black Boy (Songs of Innocence) is “Black as if bereav’d of light”, and looks forward to death: “When I from black and he from white cloud free. / And then round the tent of God like lambs we joy (slide 16, The Little Black Boy, page 2):

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon my fathers knee
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.

            Blake shared many of his contemporaries’ indignation against the slave trade, and also against the enslavement of women, and children. In Holy Thursday (S1) the poorest children march in tight procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral to display their piety. (slide 17, Innocence). In Holy Thursday (SE, slide 18) we are asked:

Is this a holy thing to see
In rich and fruitful land
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

For Blake’s England “is a land of poverty!”

And their sun does never shine
And their fields are bleak & bare
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

Similarly in The Little Vagabond, “the Church is cold/ But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm” (slide 19). The Priest in A Little Boy Lost strips the weeping child of his little shirt and binds him with an iron chain (slide 20):

And burn’d him in a holy place
Where many had been burn’d before
The weeping parents wept in vain
Are such things done Albions shore

And schoolchildren in The School-Boy “spend the day/ In sighing and dismay.” (slide 21).

In London, the largest city in the world, the poet wanders

…thro each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man
In every infants cry of fear
In every voice in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

There is sexual repression in this land, where “dark secret love” in the form of

The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

destroys the life of The Sick Rose (slide 22). The woman in The Angel arms herself against Cupid, “For the time of youth was fled/ And grey hairs were on my head” (slide 23 The Angel – Experience). The Chapel in The Garden of Love shuts itself against love, and fills the garden with graves (slide 24):

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

It is a world of impoverishment, “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody Poor” (The Human Abstract).

Images of Industrialism abound The Tyger (slide 25). Hands, fire, shoulders, twisting, hammers, furnaces, chains and anvils occupy the central stanzas of the poem. While the Tyger itself is the embodiment of energy, perhaps also of Lucifer, in the War in Heaven and even of a constellation, he can be understood as well as the furnaces of factories of the new industries burning brightly through the night.

I have deliberately left to end a discussion of Blakes’ two Chimney-Sweeper poems. In the Songs of Innocence (slide 26) the child is sold by his own father into a life of darkness and misery.

An my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep
So your chimneys I seep & in soot I sleep.

            One of the children dreams of being locked up in “coffins of black”, of washing in a river and shining in the Sun. The last line expressing the child’s naivete is deeply ironic “So if all do their duty, the need not fear harm.” The Songs of Experience chimney sweeper (slide 27) is quite explicit about the conspiracy of Church and State to enslave children. “A little black thing among the snow” cries weep, while his father and mother have gone up to the church to pray:

And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

The songs clearly carry Blake’s indictment of a society which subjects its children to conditions which are a living death, giving them “coffins of black”. The humanness and the symbolism of the poems need little explication. Some information on the social context of the poems however “gives force and point to the symbolism” (Nurmi, p.249), and “strengthens our awareness of the ironic disparity between” the tone of the speakers and the conditions under which the children live. Blake was writing at the time of the passage of the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 when the treatment of the sweeps was being publicized. Children became sweeps as young as four or five, the smaller the better to go up the narrow passages, “When my mother died I was very young/ And my father sold while yet my tongue/ Could scarcely cry “weep ! weep ! weep ! weep!” Although the children were apprenticed for seven years, long before that they would be too large to go up the chimneys. “Chimney sweeping left children with kneecaps twisted, and spines and ankles deformed, from crawling up chimneys as small as nine or even seven inches in diameter, with chimney sweeper’s cancer of the scrotum resulting from the constant irritation of the soot, with respiratory ailments, and eye inflammations.”

They lived in a world of blackness, in attics or basements. Their living conditions were appalling; they slept on the bags of black soot they had swept, arose in the dark, and often went without washing for months. The children’s heads were shaved that they would not catch fire in the chimneys, and they climbed naked as well. Fire, proddings and prickings were used to force them up the chimneys. Frequently the children got stuck in the chimneys which then became their coffins of black as they suffocated to death. Small wonder then that Blake’s Chimney-Sweep dreams of leaping, laughing, running and being able to “wash in a river, and shine in the sun.”

In A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweepers in London and Westminster (London 1785), Jonas Hanway (p.35) tells an anecdote which enlarges our understanding of the chimney sweep of Experience’s line that his parents have gone off to the Church to pray, while he cries weep weep in the snow:

“As an instance in what manner these poor children are treated, I remembered an anecdote of a little band of them, who had the fortune to be supplied with Sunday clothing: their faces, however, proclaimed them chimney-sweepers. Curiosity, or information that the churches were houses of God, carried them within the gates of church; but alas! they were driven out by the beadle, with this taunt. “What have chimney sweepers to do in a church?”

In both poems, Blake is able to make us feel the children’s innocence in the world of bitter oppression in which they live. In both cases, particular knowledge of the reality of the lives of the children expands our reading of the specific lines of the texts. These are no generally humanitarian or sentimental poems; they are affectingly realistic depictions of complex realities.

Will there come a time when we will read Blake’s Songs, and indeed all his other prophetic works, simply within their historical matrix? The recurrent negative theme is the mental bondage of political conservatism, of Antijacobinism, expressed in the lives of children and the young forced into apprentice slavery, harlotry and soldiery “by the bone-bending, mind-chaining oppressions of priest and king (E/Prophet Against Empire, 272). The Songs of Experience take us into the dismal streets and into schoolroom and chapel to see the effects of Empire on the human “flowers of London town”. Yet the Songs of Innocence and of Experience “reverberate with hope and energy, and defiance of repressive terrors. Despite the importance of the particular settings of many of the songs major themes, the poems are lyrics which are in many ways close to Blake’s ideal of art that rises above its age “perfect and eternal”. It is finally the way in which the poems contain the experience of their own time and endure as a total vision that allows us to call them realistic works of art.

To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularlize is the Alone Distinction of Merit-General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess Annotations to the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (E630)

Slide List

  1. Night Thoughts watercolour, title-page Night VIII
  2. Songs of Innocence, title-page, 1789
  3. Songs of Experience, title-page, 1794
  4. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1794
  5. Innocence, frontispiece
  6. The Human Abstract-Experience
  7. The Lamb- Innocence
  8. London-Experience
  9. The Clod and The Pebble – Experience
  10. Introduction – Innocence
  11. Songs of Innocence, title-page
  12. Songs of Experience, title-page

Turn back to slide one

  1. Close- up of uppermost left hand figure Night Thoughts, title page to Night VIII
  2. Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. French satirical print, 1790s, showing Beast of Revelation as the English
  4. The Little Black Boy – Innocence
  5. Holy Thursday – Innocence
  6. Holy Thursday – Experience
  7. The Little Vagabond – Experience
  8. A Little Boy Lost – Experience
  9. The School Boy – Experience.
  10. The Sick rose – Experience
  11. The Angel – Experience
  12. The Garden of Love – Experience
  13. The Tyger – Experience
  14. The Chimney-Sweeper – Innocence
  15. The Chimney-Sweeper – Experience