About William Blake
William Blake was born in London in 1757 and spent most of his long life there. The son of a hosier, he left ordinary school at the age of ten to join a drawing school, and at fourteen became apprenticed to a master-engraver, for whom he worked for seven years. Poetical Sketches, a book of verse Blake wrote between the ages of twelve and twenty, was published in 1783. When his apprenticeship finished in 1779 he became a visual artist, but his work was too unconventional to be accepted at the time and he earned his living working as a journeyman engraver.
Blake did not see poetry and design as separate forms of art, but worked to combine them. With the posthumous help of his beloved brother, Robert (who, Blake said, appeared to him in a vision to give instructions), Blake perfected a unique and laborious method of etching both poem and design in relief on copper plate. In 1789 he made the twenty-seven plates of The Songs of Innocence, from which the first ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poem is taken.
The other four poems read here are from Songs of Experience, produced in a similar way. The themes, however, are different; gone is innocent cheerfulness, replaced by indignation and pity for the sufferings of mankind seen in the streets around him. London is blighted by injustice and the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that produce it. The misery of the chimney sweep is condoned by the church while soldiers die for an indifferent king. Even the marriage bed is a hearse, blasted by the curses of the prostitutes who walk the streets.
The second ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poem, in contrast to the first, illustrates the movement of Blake’s thought and feeling. The little sweep rescued by an angel in the first, is now in the second the miserable victim of his parents’ hypocrisy in allowing him to suffer. The anger is political: anti-king and anti-church.
Of all the Songs of Innocence and Experience, ‘The Sick Rose’ perhaps most needs to be read in the context of the illustration. A worm invades the sickly red of the rose, and menacing thorns convey the pains of love on earth. By contrast, the illustration to ‘Tyger’ is less helpful: the creature is bland and inoffensive, while the poem is extraordinarily powerful and profound. There is a series of questions, none of which are answered; the mystery of the nature of the universe is set before us in hammering rhythms and images which remind us that Blake was first an engraver working with metal.
Poems by William Blake
Read by Mimi Khalvati
William Blake in the Poetry Store
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Books by William Blake
Songs of Innocence and Experience
The Complete Poems
Penguin Classics, 1977