The Early romantic age
The last part of the XVIII century is called the Early romantic age and it represents a transition between the Augustan age (the period of Enlightenment) and the Romantic age. The poets associated with the Early romantic age, including William Blake who is one of the major exponents, represent the connection between the two ages: they were born at the beginning of the century when the Early romantic age appeared, but they were educated with the ideas of the Augustan age. The classical world represented a point of reference for them but at the same time they also started to perceive and to become aware that both society and ideas were changing, so they mixed traditional forms with new attitudes.
Context and main features
During the Early romantic age poetry was essentially reflective. The experiences it dealt with were not presented for the sake of their immediate impact, but for the sake of generalized reflections: the poet wanted to make the reader reflect. The XVIII century in England was a period of revolutions and this strongly emerges in the poetic works of this period.
First of all, there was the Industrial revolution, which brought a great technological development and deeply changed the society, making England the first industrialized country and the major political power worldwide. It also jeopardized the existing relationship between human and nature: a lot of people moved to new industrialized areas, which will become the main English cities. Authors were sensitive to this kind of change and started to write about this new condition in their works celebrating the simplicity of rural life, free from the corruption of urban life. For these authors nature was God’s creation and as a consequence a source of innocence, delight, peace, perfection. There was a second approach about nature based on the idea of the sublime, pointing out its power, strength and destructiveness (see more on the sublime in our article on English Romanticism).
Then there were the political revolutions: the American revolution, which led to the independence of the thirteen colonies and the French revolution, which overthrew the monarchy. These events highly influenced the authors of the Early and Romantic age, including Blake. They all had a melancholic tone and a sad mood: they thought that the natural condition was the best for humans to live in and that also involved the idea of the country as a perfect place, while on the contrary the town is always imperfect and negative.
Life (1757 – 1827) of William Blake
William Blake was born in 1757 in a large and humble family. He was educated at home, especially by his mother. Blake immediately declared to have visions, to see figures accompanying people, to talk to God and to angels. At the same time it was immediately clear that he was very good at drawing: in 1767 he was enrolled in a drawing school where he apprenticed also to become an engraver. In 1779 Blake was admitted as a student in the Royal Academy; he would start to write poems only in his late twenties.
In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher. Illiterate, she signed the wedding contract with an X. Blake would teach her to read and write and he would train her as an engraver. Catherine would provide him a deep aid throughout their entire life, helping William to print his illuminated works and supporting him emotionally. Blake died in 1827 after promising his wife that he would be always with her and smiling because there were angels with him.
Main themes of William Blake
One of the main characteristics of Blake’s work is that he wants to match, unite and unify visual arts and poems, mixing a visual approach and a poetic one: in his poems he draws some visual parts using a method called “illuminated printing”. He engraves his poems also visually, considering the two aspects as a part of each other. They couldn’t exist separately and melting them together gives a better result to both: an important point in Blake’s production is the complementary opposites. Blake interprets the world as dualistic: it is based on the existence of two ideas which are antithetical, but also necessary for each other’s existence. It’s their unity that gives the possibility of understanding the world. This is summarized by a famous quotation by Blake: «Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence».
Blake is an early romantic poet and a precursor of Romanticism: it is evident in the importance he gives to the individual and in the role he assigns to imagination. In this period the poet was a sort of prophet who can see more deeply into reality, a figure which goes beyond common people. In Blake this difference is marked even more: the poet not only can see more deeply into reality, but he can also anticipate changes in society because he is aware of how the world functions. Indeed Blake is considered a visionary, a prophet who developed his own vision of the world (this is really evident in his work Visions of the Daughter of Albion, 1793).
Style and influences of William Blake
He uses a complex symbolism where symbols recall something which goes beyond reality. On the contrary the language used is not that complex. Actually he often adopts an apparently naive style: there is musicality, he tries to reach an harmony using simple words and rhymes and repeating lines. What is difficult is the meaning, the interpretation of what he wants to say (it is evident in the Songs of Experience, 1794). Blake doesn’t want to describe the world, but he wants to transmit the idea of a greater one, using symbols to describe something beyond reality. Blake is mainly studied as a poet, but in the second part of his career he also wrote some working prose in a more complex style.
In Blake’s production one of the main sources of influence is the Bible, together with his visions, where God is not only a loving father, but can also be an evil punisher. The physical world is not the real world, but a kind of appearance of the real one brought by Christ. He is influenced by this idea of Heaven and Hell, which represents another opposition: Heaven exists, has a meaning and gains importance because it’s the opposite of Hell and vice versa (he also wrote one prophetic book: The marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790). Other two important influences on Blake’s work are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Songs of innocence and Songs of experience
The two most important collections of Blake are Songs of innocence (1789) and Songs of experience (1794). In these works it’s evident how Blake was influenced by the events of his time: the two collections have a different approach to the world because the first one was realized in the year of the French revolution, while the second one five years later. Songs of innocence mirrors the positivity of the revolution and its ideals, which were perceived as a real possibility of change for European society. This made him think that the world was a positive place, represented as a state of innocence. Songs of experience expresses the disillusionment brought by the failure of the revolution and its ideals. Blake then modified his approach to society and to the world, which didn’t have those possibilities anymore.
The poems included in Songs of innocence reflect this positivity and they are mainly written in the pastoral mode: the setting is nature which is described as idyllic and archaic, using simple symbols. The world is represented in a positive way through childhood, which for the romantic poets represents the state of innocence: during it children are unspoiled, untouched by society which, according to the romantic poets, is the source of life’s negative aspect. As children grow up and become adults, they get in touch with society which has a negative influence on them. Here is the turning point of experience, which is the moment of awareness: the world can’t be seen as a positive place. The world of innocence is full of joy and happiness, while the world of experience is full of cruelty and injustice.
Blake expresses this concept using the figure of God, seen in Songs of innocence as a mild and loving father, while in Songs of experience turns into a fearful creature: he still is a father but with a different approach, much more authoritative and scary.In spite of this separation innocence and experience are complementary opposites: the world is the union of these two states. Indeed Blake structured these two collections as connected, with correspondent poems in each collection.