The Democratic-Bourgeois Revolution in William Blake’s Songs of Experience
Blake’s Songs of Experience was published in 1794 against the backdrop of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and England’s war with France. Blake, an English Jacobin who, as his biographer Gilchrist writes, “courageously donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality—the bonnet-rouge—in open day; and philosophically walked the streets with the same on his head” (93), was by this date becoming increasingly disenchanted in his hopes for sweeping political reform in England. One does not often speak of Romantic poets as political activists. (1) The image of the Romantic poet most common is the one put forth by Stanley Applebaum, who writes, “Even today the word poet conjures up the Romantic notion: an individualistic, inspired seer revealing his inmost thoughts in a spontaneous upwelling of emotion” (“Introduction” iii). This essay will endeavor to show that the Romantic emphasis placed on the individual’s creative power is a direct response to the gradual dissolution of feudal ties and class distinctions into the two great classes of bourgeoisie and proletariat. Further, Blake’s poetry will be considered as an exception to the image of the Romantic poet in social isolation drawing his inspiration from Nature. This exception is due in large part to Blake’s nearly lifelong residence in the heart of London.
For many, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are the archetypical English Romantic poets. Wordsworth especially conforms, in large part, to the stereotype discussed above. Applebaum informs his reader that Wordsworth’s “‘religion’ of nature provided the Romantics and their successors with one of their major abiding themes. The poet’s boyhood in the rugged and picturesque Lake District of northwestern England instilled this love of nature in him, and left him lastingly quiet, brooding and introspective” (vi). During the composition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and his sister were living off of a monetary legacy which freed them from their guardians and insulated them from the necessity of gainful employment, a freedom Blake never enjoyed. Applebaum contextualizes the famous relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge in the following passage: “In 1795, Coleridge met Wordsworth, and the two shared their existence in Dorset, Somerset, Germany (on funds supplied by the Wedgwood family) and the Lake District [. . .] until a bitter quarrel in 1810” (viii). These two men lived lives of relative ease, far removed from the political strife and economic realities during the entirety of what most critics consider the period of their finest work. (2) Coleridge would later move to London and write on literature and social thought; however, his poetic output does not reflect his sociopolitical sensitivities as overtly as Blake’s.
As previously stated, one of the overarching characteristics of Romantic poetry is its individualistic nature. Consider Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The poem is the speaker’s reflection upon revisiting a landscape, the recollections of which have brought him much comfort “in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din / Of towns and cities” during the five years lapsed since his original visit (26). The poem is all about the speaker’s perceptions. His sister accompanies him, but the reader is unaware of this until the final stanza when he cries, “May behold in thee what I was once, / My dear, dear sister!” (28). The presence of the speaker’s sister is only acknowledged so that he can express his desire to see his old self in her. The individual is far and away the dominant subject of this poem. Indeed, the speaker suggests that the individual plays a role in the very creation of the landscape which has come to view. In context, the following lines suggest that mere perception of the landscape is impossible. Earlier in the poem, the speaker recounts how the landscape made him feel five years previous. He then relates his disappointment about the present experience’s failure to measure up to the first. The woods and mountains are the same; the character of the speaker is the only variable. This realization leads the speaker to the conclusion that a person has some creative part to play even in the most banal perceptions. Wordsworth writes, "[. . .]Therefore am I still / A lover of the meadows and the woods, / And mountains; and of all that we behold / From this green earth; of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create, / And what perceive; [. . . .]" (27-8) In Wordsworth’s estimation, every individual ‘half creates’ every impression she perceives through her senses five. The individual nature of the creative process seems to be a common link which might tie all the Romantic poets together. Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” reinforces this conclusion through the fate of the mariner. The mariner tells the wedding guest, "Since then, at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns: / And till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns." (80) The focus is upon the mariner. Not only is his journey largely solitary, but the recitation of his tale is not for the edification of others, but for the relief of his own agony. Yes, his tale has a moral. For, the narrator writes of the wedding guest, “A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn” (81). But making his fellow men wiser, though sadder, is not his business. His is a self-interested, individualistic endeavor.
One is curious as to the roots of the Romantic poet’s emphasis upon the individual, a shift from the eighteenth century’s literary morality manuals, such as Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto, "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." (53) As one shall see, the capitalist exploitation Marx and Engels identified in burgeoning global economy of the 1840’s, the very same exploitation that continues today is not as naked and direct as they would have one believe. However, the current enquiry concerns the development of the emphasis upon the individual in Romantic poetry. If Marx and Engels are correct in their assertion that the bourgeoisie destroyed the illusion of the organic nature of the feudal social hierarchy, where every man was indebted to his ‘natural’ superior for his continued survival, then a vast majority of people would have been necessarily displaced from their former social stations. Elsewhere in The Manifesto, Marx and Engels suggest that “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat” (51). Whereas previously, during the feudal age, one could align himself with any number of very narrowly defined social groupings, in the Romantic era, which corresponds to the beginnings of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, (3) old social distinctions are disappearing. As such, one can either align one’s self with society, as a member of the bourgeoisie or proletariat, or against it as an individual. This sense of individuality seems to have been particularly common amongst artists and small craftsmen. The artists, a class of people who had previously been supported by private patrons, were now increasingly expected to appeal to the public market for their income and maintenance. One can easily see how this focus on the sale of the artist’s (the individual’s) productions in the capitalist marketplace (to society at large), often through galleries and dealers and other middlemen, might have led artists to feel as if they were selling themselves, their individuality. This phenomenon can be seen as the effective commoditization of the individual artist, as such. Blake resisted the commoditization of his art and his individuality. He rarely participated in gallery shows and sold his illuminated books of poetry and designs to order out of his own shop. He produced each copy by hand using his ingenious process of etching, printing from the plates, and then adding color to the images. He cut out the middlemen by offering his works for sale in his own shop. He was, however, largely unsuccessful in this regard. As Gilchrist relates, Blake owed the larger part of his and his wife’s maintenance to his longtime friend and patron Thomas Butts.
Blake was different from the majority of Romantic artists in several respects. Whereas Nature was the chief source of inspiration for Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, Blake drew much of his inspiration from the urban setting in which he lived. While Coleridge and Wordsworth were traveling through Germany, Blake was still in London struggling to sell his stylistically obscure prophetic works. By far, the most successful of Blake’s illuminated works was Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, published jointly in 1794. Yet, even in these works, whose theme is childhood, Blake’s politics are overtly showcased. In an effort to illustrate Blake’s leftist, proletarian politics, the remainder of this essay will undertake an examination of the poet’s “LONDON” and “The Chimney Sweeper,” both of which appear in Songs of Experience.
Blake’s poem, “LONDON,” is clearly written in protest of the society in which he lived. However, the poem’s speaker does not seem to be particularly active politically. For instance, the speaker simply wanders, without decrying the horrors he marks along the way. Simply marking, that is, registering these injustices rather than openly and vociferously decrying them suggests a resignation on the part of the speaker. A clue to the source of these horrors lies in the speaker’s repeated use of the word ‘charter’d.’ Charters, of course, call to mind America’s earliest chartered English colonies. These colonies, like Virginia, were founded largely for commercial purposes. Images of chartered companies, like the East India Trading Company, convey approximately the same sense of commercialism. But what is a charter, but something given and not claimed by right? This implies that the right to buy, sell, and trade is not given to all equally. In the poem, Blake refers to “the charter’d Thames” (8). In London, even Nature embodied in the city’s river, like the masses of humanity, has been reduced to a commodity, the use of which is given to some for commercial purposes and summarily denied to others. The speaker wanders through the city streets and ‘marks’ the ‘marks’ of weakness and woe in the faces of his fellow Londoners. The repetition is, of course, significant. The most obvious literary allusion to which the word ‘mark’ might refer is Revelation 13:17. The passage reads, “And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (KJV Revelation 13:17). This passage at once links the marks of weakness and woe the speaker identifies in his fellows’ faces with the mark of the beast, in and of itself a form of charter. If the mark of the beast is required to buy and sell, then the marks the speaker sees in all the faces he meets must be also the marks of the commercialism suggested by the repetition of the word ‘charter’d.’ Commercialism has effectively been equated with the Anti-Christ, a fairly scathing critique.
The next quatrain works to establish the universal nature of commercialism’s dehumanizing effects. The word ‘every’ is repeated five times, applied both to infant and man. The weakness and woe marked by the speaker permeate every age group. Every group with a ‘voice’ experiences and expresses this malaise. Blake situates the source of the problem with the government. He writes, “[. . .] in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” (8). The image of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ recalls Rousseau’s famous phrase, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is chains” (17). In Rousseau’s view, the ideal government would make every person freer. The world Blake’s speaker inhabits is not an expression of Rousseau’s idealized social contract. ‘Every ban,’ that is, every piece of restrictive legislation seems not to protect the populace, but to bind and enslave. Capitalism and free trade have manacled the City and all of its inhabitants to their jobs, despite the miseries and perils which attend them. The reader can only assume that ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ refers to the effects of ideological superstructures like religion, which effectively subdue the oppressed class and maintain the economic status quo.
Blake was particularly sensitive to the plight of the child chimney sweepers. They figure largely in “LONDON,” and are the exclusive subject of two other poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, both entitled “The Chimney Sweeper.” In the later poem included in Songs of Experience, the speaker addresses a young chimney sweeper who then replies to the speaker’s inquiries. The sweep is described as “A little black thing among the snow: / Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!” (6). The words ‘weep, weep’ are a phonetic play on the dropped ‘S’ sounds of a cockney accent. The child does not weep. Rather, he says, “I am happy, & dance & sing” (6). The young speaker possesses the innocence and resiliency of youth which the speaker in “LONDON” seems to have lost. But Blake is writing a ‘Song of Experience’ to an experienced audience. If one approaches this poem with the experience of the speaker in “LONDON,” then the chimney sweep’s ‘weep, weep,’ will be heard ‘in notes of woe,’ and understood to be a command to all who hear. The command implies, though it leaves unsaid, the indirect object ‘for me’ (as in ‘weep, weep for me’). The ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ the speaker hears might symbolize the capitalist superstructure in which the chimney sweeper’s mother and father are completely immersed. When asked where his mother and father are, the young sweep replies, “[They] are gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery” (6). As suggested previously, the ‘shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie is not as ‘naked’ as Marx and Engels would have one believe. The rational, egotistical calculations of the capitalist continue to be veiled behind the illusory ecstasies of religion. Blake recognizes this, and, as such, directs many of his critiques at organized, state sponsored religion.
In the fourth and final quatrain, the speaker says, “But most thro’ midnight streets I hear [. . .]” (8). The rhetorical construction ‘but most’ suggests a rising sense of indignation. One feels the speaker’s indignation is rightly aroused by the third and final class of fellow Londoners encountered in the course of his wanderings. He hears “How the youthful Harlots curse / Blasts the new-born Infants tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (8). The new born and the plagues (venereal diseases) mentioned are the hazards of the trade. Again, the reference to plague calls to mind biblical passages. What is most striking in this quatrain is the way in which the marriage bed is turned into a marriage hearse. The plagues of syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, et al., collectively the often deadly inevitabilities of her trade turn the harlot’s marriage bed into a vehicle to bear the harlot, her infant, and her several customers to their graves. The harlot and the young sweeper are both individuals without rights or land. They are powerless in the London Blake describes. One does not wonder, then, why Blake’s speaker seems most enraged by their pitiful conditions.
One is not suggesting the Blake’s poetry anticipates the work of Marx some forty-six years prior to the publication of The Communist Manifesto. The hope is, rather, that this essay has shown Blake to be more aware of the economic realities which shaped the Romantic movement than any of his Romantic contemporaries. His work engages the sociopolitical issues of his day in a sensitive and aesthetically pleasing way that often leads his readers to overlook the radical politics behind and within his poetry.
1 For all biographical information concerning Blake, see Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake.