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William Blake Symbolism

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William Blake was one of the most original authors in the history of world literature, though his life was seemingly prosaic and dull. He never even went anywhere from London (excluding a three-year period that he spent in the estate of one of his patrons). The only possible explanation for this is that Blake did not need external impressions, because his soul was always full of impressions inside.

Between 1784 and 1789 Blake wrote Songs of Innocence. This cycle of poems illustrates the philosophical system based on a biblical view of the world. It is permeated with the spirit of fair and merciful God, who takes care of his children and suffers with them. In this cycle, the poems are imbued with joy, light, images and symbols typical for traditional Christianity. Several years later Blake created Songs of Experience based on new philosophical views in contrast to Songs of Innocence. The Songs of Experience collection reveals a picture of moral and social evil having no place for the idyll.

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The finest threads link Blake’s poems together. They acquire their true image colors only in the context of the entire cycle. Each poem in the collection Songs of Innocence has its correspondence with Songs of Experience. As a result, the books look like the author’s debate with himself. If the first book tells a story of all-forgiving eternity and supernatural essence of the soul, then the second one shifts the poet’s attention to earthly reality. The new Blake’s concept can largely be called naturalistic. The poet states that true spirituality is inherent in the nature and natural human aspirations, which mean the victory of imagination over the cold reason.

A characteristic symbol of Songs of Experience is a burning tiger considered to be a personification of evil, terrible and wonderful in its strength at the same time. However, Blake showed the same evil  not only as a generalized symbolic image, but also as a real social aspect: the picture of London slums with their poverty, debauchery and human misery (depicted in the poem “London”) anticipated the social realism of Dickens’ novels. Many of the Blake’s poetic and artistic images were inspired by his mystical visions. Trying to give a visible image of unusual, fantastic heroes arising in his mind he freed the consciousness from all conventions. This mind freedom contrasted with the traditional English notions of art and literature with the generally accepted dogmas and morality. Thus, scholars treat William Blake as a precursor of symbolism.

Blake was not only a poet but an artist as well; he did not separate these two spheres of creativity. First, a visual image appeared and the verbal one followed it being even more striking. Blake’s most famous poem “The Tyger” is a good example of such interconnection. The very structure of the poem is quite unusual: 24 lines contain 15 impulsively consecutive questions, which are not classical rhetorical ones; they express nude immediate feelings of the poet. The combination of words “burning bright in the forests of the night” strikes with its concentrated expressivity. The second strophe explains that it may be not the tiger burning, but just its eyes in the dark light. However, Blake does not recognize one-dimensional images: the verb to burn is strongly associated with the fever of impatience, the glow of passion, the fire of anger, the flames of fury, and so on. Thus, a popular phrase “a bright image” tarnished of the frequent use regained its original meaning.

Admiring the sinister beauty of the tiger, the poet reflects unity and eternal struggle of light and dark forces in the world. According to Blake, the evil is an essential part of the world order, as well as the good: “And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?”. The tiger in this poem inspires not only fear, but also admiration. The evil capable to break the traditional concept of life is not only a symbol of spiritual freedom, but also a mover of development. The unity of countervailing forces is a basis of global balance, without which the life seems impossible. Both in symbolist poetry and in the Blake’s works polarities intersect without denying each other, and this recognition and acceptance of opposite states is a necessary condition for being a person.

Various interpretations follow the tiger’s image. For example, some of the modern scholars seriously treat the tiger as nothing but the nuclear power prophetically predicted by Blake. It is another reason for considering the poet to be a predecessor of symbolism and impressionism. Blake was ahead of his time and all the depth of his images could not be understood by his contemporaries. He often used common words in symbolic rather than literal meaning. He also used a lot of archaisms, synonyms and antonyms, which created deeper layers of his images.

To understand Blake’s real intentions, it is necessary to emphasize the duality of every poem. Seemingly, simple and clear verses use plain symbols; however, each of these symbols is an archetype including enormous volume of hidden information: human’s ancient fear of the tiger, innocence of the lamb, beauty of the rose, vileness of the worm, selfishness of the pebble and altruism of the clod. Ability to see and express these layers of different meanings Blake regarded as the supreme wisdom, involvement in the divine mysteries of the world.

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The struggle of good and evil is an often-repeated theme of Blake’s poems. Another example of this opposition is “The Sick Rose”, in which the Rose personifies beauty and innocence. This image becomes even more obvious when paying attention to constant references to religious (first of all, biblical) topics in the Blake’s works. The Rose symbolizes the life of Adam and Eve in paradise before its fall. The allusion is amplified due to the contrasting image of the worm that is a symbol of Satan, who seduced Eve in the form of a snake. Besides, the similar image is present in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The top point of this dialectic unity of good and evil is presented in “The Clod and the Pebble”. This poem provides an absolute symmetric balance of the two opposing sides. Twelve lines of the poem are equally divided between the opponents discussing the essence of love (6 lines to each). Moreover, the first strophe is totally given to the Clod; the third one is the Pebble’s speech, but the central second strophe unites both opinions. This is an illustration of the law of unity and struggle of oppositions, which is basic for dialectic philosophical concepts. To understand the inner tension of these poems, it is necessary to take into account Blake’s methodological ideas presented in the rest of his works. Philosophy of his poems opposes traditional British rationalism by Francis Bacon and John Locke. Blake treated rationalism as utilitarian spiritless philosophy that only hampers imagination – the highest human ability, person’s hidden spiritual and moral energy.

Presently his works seem to be a necessary link connecting spiritual and artistic traditions of the European history in the earliest epochs with the issues appropriate to the modern culture. Sustained continuity in the development of arts and the whole humanist direction is impossible without Blake as well as without his favorite poets Dante and Milton. Blake is traditionally considered the first poet of the English Romanticism. Such a view is seriously reasoned, although it is not entirely accurate. The point is that Blake was almost totally isolated from the artistic life of the Romanticism epoch, the most prominent representatives of which were either not aware of the brilliant poet or treated him with obvious bias. Besides, there were deeper reasons that determined Blake’s conflict both with the leaving Enlightenment epoch and the coming Romanticism. Strictly speaking, he did not support any of the major social, philosophical or aesthetic aspirations of that time. By the very spirit of his poems Blake definitely belongs to Romanticism direction, and his criticism of individuality to the prejudice of general concepts inherent to Romanticism seems surprising.

In conclusion, the analysis shows that Blake’s poetry has always been characterized by a special, internal poetic vision that is focused on his contemporary philosophy or the tastes and interests of the public. Like symbolists, Blake believed in his prophetic gift and kept to his spiritual ideals till the end of life. The basic poetic concepts, the need for spiritual freedom and for the coming era of love and earthly paradise also unite Blake’s works with the symbolist poetry. The theme of life integrity and completeness of human experience piercing Blake’s poetry is central in the works of symbolists. Not recognized by contemporaries, but in many ways anticipating the further development of world literature, Blake’s poetry is now regarded as an essential link that connects spiritual and artistic traditions of different epochs and literary styles.

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