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The Romantic Period
March 18, 2003
Social Tyranny and Visions of Brotherhood in the Poetry of William Blake
Romanticism was an intellectual movement that spread throughout Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century through to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was an age in which philosophers, artists, writers, and composers responded with enthusiasm to the forces of nationalism that were sweeping across Europe, but rejected the notions of the enlightenment that had dominated European thought since the early eighteenth century. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack state that romanticism “implies new emphasis on imagination, on feelings, on the value of the primitive and untrammeled, and particularly a narrowing of outlook from the universal to the particular, from humankind or ‘man’ to nation or ethnic group, and from the stability of community to the ‘fulfillment’ of the individual” (417). Romantics generally believe in the uniqueness of individual expression, as it is constituted by life experiences, M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt state:
Many of the writers, however, did feel that there was something distinctive about their time-not a shared doctrine or literary quality, but a pervasive intellectual and imaginative climate, which some of them called ‘the spirit of the age’. They had the sense that ‘Great spirits now on earth or sojourning,’ and that there was evidence of a release
of energy, experimental boldness, and creative power that marks a literary renaissance (5).
This period of Romanticism was a spiritual revolution for many of the philosophers, writers, artists and composers who existed in a world of limited possibilities, or as it is better known, a world encompassing the apocalyptic vision. Romantic poetry throughout this age was regarded in various different ways. According to M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, many eighteenth century theorists regarded it as “primarily an imitation of human life” or a “mirror held up to nature” (7). English poet, William Wordsworth, creatively refers to poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (7). Countless other Romantic theories consider poetry as an emphasis on the human mind and its inner feelings, emotions, and imagination; a reflection of childhood experiences; language of common people and their common experiences; stressing on the idea of individualism and the freedom from rules; commonly speaking of a sense of wonder, the supernatural and the gothic; frequent themes of exile and isolation; and finally, the harmonious use of the incorporation nature, landscape and human passion and intuition. Essentially, poetry has gone from thought emerging from the eighteenth century “head” to the nineteenth century “heart.” William Blake was a famous Romantic poet of the eighteenth century. Often in his poetry he introduces Romantic themes involving visions of brotherhood and social tyranny and it’s effects on the individual spirit.
William Blake was born in 1757 and raised in London, England. Throughout his career, he wrote a series of illuminated works: Poetical Sketches in 1783 where his poetry protested against war, tyranny, and King George III’s treatment of American colonies. Songs of Innocence was written in 1789 and was followed by Songs of Experience in 1794, in which he creatively incorporated engraved pictures to represent the lyrics of his poetry.
Blake was a nonconformist who, like many romanticists, privileged imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and his images, emphasizing that ideal forms should be created not from observations of nature but from inner visions. He often expressed his opposition to the English monarchy and to the recurring eighteenth century political and social tyranny. Despite his rejection to the harsh realities of oppression and racism, he still supports the notion of man existing in a sense of brotherhood with one another. Many of his poems portray these common motifs of social tyranny and brotherhood, such as, “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience and “The Little Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence.
Blake communicates his opposition against the working tyranny that dominates children employed in the workforce in his “Chimney Sweeper” poem from Songs of Experience. The poem depicts the miserable account of an innocently pure and unhappy boy who has been sold off to a life of labor by his parents. The boy is forced to work hard as a chimneysweep so his religious parents can frequently attend church: “‘Where
are thy father and mother? say?’/ ‘They are both
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Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake, Prophets, The Little Black Boy, The Chimney Sweeper, Romanticism, M. H. Abrams, Poetical Sketches, Romantic poetry, The Norton Anthology of English Literature
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