Blake has often been described to be the “Precursor of Romanticism.” The Romantic poets of the nineteenth century struck a note of protest against conventional literature and social injustices.
Having written immediately preceding the Age of Romanticism, Blake paved the way for them, at least for Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron.
Although his voice against the oppression of institutional laws and rules was not so strong, he made a pointed attack on the social injustices and cruelty towards the down-trodden people in the name of philanthropy.
Blake’s Fight Against Social Vices by Means of Art
Blake was primarily an artist, so his way of fighting against the social vices is through the media of art. He uses symbols to indicate the tyranny of the so-called social and political institutions over human liberty and freedom.
In the poems ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience,’ we find many symbols representing oppression. In ‘London,’ we get a vivid and pungent picturization of 18th century London (Its roads and rivers are ‘chartered’- indicating the tyranny that rules over the people.)
The cries of London are the cries of misery. Its children are miserable; its citizens are the victims of oppression by the State or the Church. Society has been created in which corruption has become so rampant that we see the marriages are without love, and harlots’ curses lie heavily on the newborn children.
In ‘The School Boy,’ we get a milder attack on the education system. As Blake observes it, schooling thwarts the child’s natural growth and binds him to rigid, unimaginative discipline.
Blake’s Bashing of Religious Ethos And Industrial England
Blake ridicules the artificial ethos of religion that professes a total denial of man’s sensual life and strongly advocates for the sense and the spirit combination. He stands against those aspects of contemporary society that are detrimental to the uninterrupted growth of man’s mental powers.
The industrial growth of England during the eighteenth century had many evils. One of them was the inhuman use of children in machines and factories, causing the worst suffering to them. Charles Dickens had to fight much later against them.
Not only the children but the poor adults as a whole also suffered. The lack of a healthy working environment, even that of ventilation in the mills, led the poor people, especially children, to health and strength deterioration. The low wages compelled them to live their lives in extreme poverty.
At this juncture of affairs, Blake was one among a few that fought to set things right by highlighting the misery of the sufferers.
Blake’s Treatment of Children’s Innocence And Peril
The ‘Songs of Innocence’ deals with the pure innocence of children and the heavenly, secure, and gleeful pastoral world of sport and merry-making. However, he does not forget ‘The Little Black Boy’ or ‘The Chimney Sweeper even amidst joy.’
‘The Little Black Boy’ speaks out against racial discrimination. The little boy laments the black color of his skin, which makes him inferior to the white angelic English boy. Nonetheless, he learns from his mother that the skin is a cloud, and the soul counts.
The poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ throws light upon the miserable lives of young children subject to inhuman treatment in the society of Industrialised England. Blake portrays greedy fathers who sell their children for a few pounds and abandon them to the eternal hell of suffering.
Since the chimneys were too narrow, only small children like Tom Dacre were employed as chimney sweepers. Blake says:
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.William Blake, The Chimney Sweeper.
Blake’s Experience of Living in The Society
The ‘Songs of Experience’ is the fruit of his experience about the society in which Blake lived. He saw with his own eyes, while experience taught him how innocent joy ultimately turned into miserable cries.
In Blake’s experience, we notice guilt, misery, and tyranny lie within joy, security, and innocence. Here, the mood is one of total disillusionment. The beatific vision of the angels and guardians is no more since mighty tyrants like Urizen or Jehovah replace them.
Blake Portrayal of Urizen Symbolizes Earth’s Tyrants
To Blake, Urizen is the symbol of an arch-tyrant. His ministers are those in authority on earth; the king, the priest, the parent, the nurse, and so on. In fact, Urizen has been explicitly mentioned only in three poems, namely ‘Earth’s Answer,’ ‘Human Abstract,’ and ‘A Divine Image.’ He is ‘starry jealous’ or ‘cruel.’ His loath life and joy have brought the world under his iron law of prohibition.
In the poem ‘Holy Thursday,’ Blake hurts his defiance at the unjustifiable attitude of society towards the poor children of the charity school. The cold-blooded and insincere philanthropists treat the children with utmost negligence and cruelty, which the poet is furious against. Blake says;
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?William Blake, Holy Thursday.
Blake’s Rich England Is Poor in Its Heart
The poet calls the so-called rich England ‘a land of poverty,’ where the sun never shines, and eternal winter exists. He even speaks against Christianity which trumpets the gospel of love and kindness, but the church where people pray is indifferent towards the empty-bellied children. Thus church and religion are nothing but hollow and devoid of sincere love.
In the poem, ‘Angel,’ Blake speaks against conventional morality that works as an obstacle in the maiden’s way of her enjoyment, of her own passions. In the poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ belonging to ‘Experience,’ the poet condemns the cruel parents who leave their children as orphans in the street and take themselves to the church to praise God, the king and the priest. The child answers the question about his parents;
They clothed me in the clothes of death
And taught me to sing the notes of woe,”William Blake, The Chimney Sweeper.
Blake rejects the conventional codes of orthodox Christianity and attacks it for causing oppression to man. ‘The Garden of Live,’ ‘A Little Girl Lost,’ ‘A Divine Image,’ etc., are some of Blake’s most powerful poems showing his revolutionary view of religion.
To sum up, Blake revolted against all those institutions, customs, and conventions of the society, the king, and the church’s tyranny that caused man’s sufferings. He voiced his protest as a passionate rebel and wanted the end of all miseries, physical and spiritual.