For today, I’d like to pose two questions:
A. Are Blake’s poems “beautiful”?
B. In what ways do Blake’s poems fit with the ideas of Romanticism? In what ways are they different?
Now, before the people who are in love with Blake’s poetry burn me at the stake like a little boy lost (heheheh), let me defend myself: it’s not that I don’t like Blake – in fact, I highly admire him. It’s just that I don’t think his poetry is conventionally “beautiful”, in the same way other Romantic poets are. Take this passage from John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, for example:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Sorry for that. I just think Romantic poetry in general is really lovely.
(Just a bit of an autobiographical aside…my high school English career featured a diet of primarily Romantic poetry. My teacher was basically the patron saint of literary techniques and emotional responses. Some classes, all we would do was sit around in a circle and talk about poems by Keats, or Wordsworth, or P.B. and Jelly (our affectionate nickname for Percy Bysshe Shelley), and have a jolly good time. So I might be a little biased. :P)
In contrast, however, as Prof. Mota stated, Blake’s diction is much more direct and understandable – a far cry from the lavish and happy turns of phrase of other Romantics, some of which might remind you of frolicking through a meadow or watching a tree’s leaves blow away on a temperate autumn day. (“I wandered lonely as a cloud…”) Also, the poems found within Songs of Innocence and of Experience take on a variety of speakers, from the Little Black Boy to the religious observer found in “Holy Thursday”. Most of the time, other Romantic poets seem to enjoy portraying the Rousseau-esque “prissy nature boy”, awed by nature to the point of loquaciousness. I know that authors like Shelley did write pieces that were more overtly critical of society, such as The Mask of Anarchy (that one’s quite a read), and I don’t know enough about Blake to say he doesn’t care much for nature in the same sense, but I think it’s safe to say that praising nature and its beauty isn’t what he’s famous for.
Indeed, again quoting Prof. Mota, maybe Blake would be more of a proto-Romantic. Some of the ideas of Romanticism are definitely present – some veneration of nature can be seen in the artwork and in pieces like “The Tyger” – but there are things that more immediately harken to eras before and after, from the rhythmical meter reminding me of Medieval ballads (“Night”), to the themes of poverty and societal distress looking forward to 19th-century realism (“London”, “The Chimney Sweeper”).
So, in a way, Blake is kind of an enigma to me, and that’s why I wanted to present about him. He seems to represent, for me, the very nature of poetry, precisely because there are so many possible definitions and frameworks under which he could be interpreted, and also because his subject matter – “Innocence” and “Experience” – allows him to portray an extremely wide variety of situations found throughout life. It’s almost like he takes us on a journey through life – one that goes backwards, forwards, and sideways, from understanding to ignorance, from perceived maturity to actual infantility and back again. His Songs seem to beckon – “Follow me on the road, and I will show you why nothing is as it seems.” He was such a rebel that it doesn’t seem so outlandish for him to still be showing new truths to us today.