Contrary States of Human Soul

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William Blake, an English poet, painter and printmaker, was born in 1757 in London. We do not know much about his childhood and his parents. Some scholars point out that the parents who are often mentioned in his poems, ``are the abstract and eternal father and mother and have no individual touches``. (Chesterton, 2005 : 14). Blake left school at the age of ten and he started writing poetry at the age of twelve. His parents could not afford to send him to a painter`s apprenticeship and because of that he started his apprenticeship with the engraver James Basire. Six years later, when he finished his apprenticeship, he joined the Royal Academy of Art.  From then on, his art and his engravings were divided. He drew and wrote because of his longing for spiritual fulfillment. On the other hand, he engraved to earn money. As an accomplished engraver, Blake began to experiment with printing techniques and he made his first illuminated book, ``Songs of Innocence``, in 1788. Blake illustrated his poems in order to create the effect he wanted. In 1974, he complied his ``Songs of Experience``. William Blake was not respected enough during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he is now considered as a significant figure in the history of both poetry and visual arts. His art was too unconventional for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and he was ahead of his time.  Blake was fully recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nowadays, he is regarded as a great visionary poet and as forerunner of Romantic Movement in English literature.

William Blake`s poetic imagination is very wide, strong and often full of contradictions. That`s why it is almost impossible to classify his various opinions in order to present one viewpoint. One gets the impression from his contradictory works that Blake`s state of mind was discordant. Many critics do not understand his poetry. In their opinion, Blake is a mystic enraptured with incommunicable vision. They emphasize that ``Blake was standing apart, a lonely and isolated figure, out of touch with his own age and without influence on the following one``. (Frye, 1990 : 1 ). One of Blake`s main influences was the society in which he lived.

Living near the end of the century, born in period of imperialistic wars, coming to maturity during the American Revolution and to the full bloom of his genius during the French Revolution, aware of impending economic change and sick to the bone of ruling hypocrisy, he viewed the events of his own days as the fulfillment of prophecy``.  (Hagstrum, 1964 : 97).

 He lived during revolutionary times and witnessed the downfall of London during Britain`s war with republican France. His disgust with society grew as he grew older and ``The Songs of Innocence and Experience`` describe this change. He also had radical religious ideas for that time. He did not believe in ``religion of nature and reason, but thought man`s nature was imaginative and mystical``. ( Lister, 1988: 27).

However, his work represents his wish to explain the world in all possible ways. Besides, this kind of conflict gives Blake`s poems their power. The ``Songs of Innocence`` and ``The Songs of Experience`` were separated by a span of approximately six years. They were also inspired and produced under different circumstances. These poems demonstrate Blake`s evolution as well. But they are not just abstract, artistic thoughts about innocence and experience.  They also reflect the interior world of a man struggling to understand two difficult concepts and their complicated relationship.   This inner battle gave birth to these poems, and it is this opposition and conflict that drives most of their passion. Like the interrelationship between innocence and experience themselves, Blake`s relationship to his own work is frequently very complex; therefore, his poems are full of tension and power. It is obvious that William Blake was a great admirer of essential energies and divine instincts of human soul. As a matter of fact, Blake`s philosophy supports the opposition of systems with regard to human soul. The contrasts of human soul is the striking point of his ``Songs of Innocence and Experience``. The ``Songs of Innocence`` portray an imaginative vision of the state of innocence. The poet describes the child`s world of happiness, simplicity, purity and security.  Childhood is the stage of life when love radiates the human soul and it alleviates human sufferings. In the ``Songs of Innocence``, life is beautiful and free. When danger threatens, parent figure is always at hand to comfort and to console. On the other hand, the protective guardian is absent from the world of the ``Songs of Experience``. The world in the ``Songs of Experience`` is a world of cruelty, guilt, tyranny, repression and suffering. However, Blake`s conception of experience is not only an absolute destruction of innocent harmony. The ``Songs of Experience`` are more expressive and they show larger range of emotions. Blake often used poems from his earlier book as thematic and stylistic templates for later poems. He integrated his ``Songs of Innocence`` into the ``Songs of Experience``. Passive and harmonious poems in the ``Songs of Innocence`` are transformed into poems full of vitality and power in the ``Songs of Experience``.  Therefore, something static, celestial and simple is changed into something alive, material and very complex. There is no doubt that ``Songs of Innocence`` were the outcomes of an innocent mind, unaffected by the real world. Events in the society and his personal feelings transformed Innocence into Experience.

Blake contrasts the ideal of childhood freedom and unity with nature with adult cynicism in two poems that share the same title. William Blake`s practice of including contrasting poems with related titles and thematic material in ``Songs of Innocence`` and ``Songs of Experience`` is exemplified by the two poems titled ``Nurse`s Song``(Brown, 2011 : par. 1)

            ``Nurse`s Song`` in ``Songs of Innocence`` portrays childhood innocence from an adult`s point of view. The nurse represents the ideal unity of man and nature. Her soul is full of divine peace. While she watches the children playing on the green, she is happy. As night begins to fall, she tells them to go home. But the children do not obey her and they say: ``No, no, let us play, for it is yet day``. The nurse answers them: `` Well, well, go and play till the light fades away``. ``Nurse`s Song`` in `` Songs of Innocence``, begins with the same line: ``When the voices of children are heard on the green``. However it departs from the first song right away. In the first song, the children were laughing, and in the second ``whisperings are in the dale``, suggesting swearing and gossip. The nurse is not satisfied as she hears the children play. On the contrary, they remind her of her own childhood and her ``face turns green and pale``. Instead of being amused with their games, she is jealous of their youth. The last line, ( ``And your winter and night in disguise``), indicates that she thinks that the children`s innocence is unreal, a disguise hiding hateful nature of human beings. The second nurse`s soul is full of jealousy, bitterness and cynicism.  

           

In the comparison of the poem ``The Lamb`` and its counterpart in ``Songs of Experience``, ``The Tiger``, the contrast between the good and evil is the most obvious. In both poems, the poet used the familiar method of ballads, nursery rhymes and hymns, applying them to his own, frequently unconventional conceptions. The combination of the traditional and the unusual is constant with Blake`s permanent interest in reevaluating the theories of human thought and soul.

 ``The Lamb`` has two stanzas, each containing five rhyme couplets. Repetition in the first and last couplet of each stanza gives the poem its song-like quality.  The  first stanza  begins with the question: ``Little lamb who made thee?`` The speaker, a child, asks the lamb who made it. A child admires the lamb and wonders who gave it life. The speaker wants to know how it obtained its soft, bright, delightful clothing and how it acquired its tender voice. The question, (``who made thee?``),  appears to be a simple one. However, a child is asking a deep and eternal question that all human beings ask about their own origins. In the second stanza, a child answers his/her own question. The poem ends with a child bestowing a blessing on the lamb (Little lamb, God bless thee!).  A child`s answer shows his/her strong belief in his/her Christian faith. The lamb symbolizes Jesus. The traditional image of Jesus emphasizes his meekness, gentleness and peace. The image of a child is also associated with Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus shows a special loving care for children. The Bible`s description of Jesus as a child shows him as naïve and vulnerable.  This poem portrays the poet`s attitude towards positive aspects of conventional Christian religion. But, it does not provide an entirely acceptable doctrine because it does not depict the presence of pain and evil in the world. ``The Tiger`` is the pendant of ``The Lamb``. ``The Tiger`` is found in ``The Songs of Innocence``. Taken together, ``The Lamb`` and ``The Tiger`` give a mental outlook on religion that contains the good, simple and pure as well as the horrible and inexplicable. These poems complement each other to produce more complete description than either of them offers individually. They also present an example of how the poet stands somewhere outside the images of innocence and experience he creates.

The poem ``The Tiger`` has six quatrains in rhymed couplets. The meter is rhythmic and regular. Every stanza is a question and a string of questions all contribute to the articulation of a single, central idea. The poem begins with the speaker asking a fearsome tiger what kind of divine being could have created it (``What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?``).  Each subsequent stanza develops this idea and contains further question. Every question refines the first one. In Blake`s opinion, nature, like a work of art, must have a reflection of its creator. The tiger is exceptionally beautiful and at the same time dreadful because of its capacity for violence. What kind of God, then, could create perfectly beautiful and yet perfectly destructive creature? What kind of God could create such a dreadful, cruel, merciless beast as a tiger? In other words, what does the indisputable presence of evil and violence in the world tell us about the nature of God, and what life is like in the world where a creature can be both beautiful and horrific? The smith represents an image of artistc creaton and Blake applies it to divine creation of the natural world. The ``forging`` of the tiger suggest a physical, hard, laborus and intentional work. It also points out the tiger`s majestic physical presence  and excludes the idea that such creation could have been accidently produced. The third stanza points out that it is not just the tiger`s body but also the tiger`s heart that is being forged. Mentioning of the lamb in the fifth stanza implies that the tiger and the lamb have been created by the same God ( Did He who made the lamb make thee?). ``The Tiger`` consists solely of unanswered questions and the poet leaves the reader to worship the complexity of creation, the unlimited greatness of God`s   power, and the mystery of God`s will. The theory of experience in this poem presents the acknowledgement of what is incomprehensible in the universe, showing the evil as the principal example of something that cannot be ignored.

In early childhood, the human soul is like the lamb. It gazes innocently at the beauty of the world. It is full of faith in kind and loving God. Innocence is a state of perpetual faith in the good. Unfortunately this state is confined to the youth.  When the human soul becomes more mature, it becomes aware of ``the tiger``, or the evil in the world. It travels from a perfect world of innocence towards imperfect world of experience. In other words, as a child grows into adulthood, his/her soul gradually experiences negative forces in the universe and innocence fails to confront them. Violence, greed, secrecy and jealousy corrupt the naïve and loving child`s soul. The poem ``The Tiger`` demonstrates that the world is not always the safe place and that there are things that can kill you. This poem comes out from a mature soul that knows that God is not always there to protect you. Blake describes violence in order to show us the other side of the human soul. There are many qualities that make human soul. William Blake described two contrary sides of the human soul: a dark side and a bright side. Every mature human being wants to balance out the two sides and live in harmony. Some people achieve that goal and they believe that the good will always conquer the evil. However, for some people it is an impossible task. Dualism refers to a concept that the human soul can be described in terms of two essentially antagonistic forces – such as good and evil, or innocence and experience. Dualism can be found in all religions and philosophies of many cultures. One of the best-known examples is the yin-yang philosophy of Taoism. This philosophy views everything as a product of a dark,  feminine, passive, cosmic force, called yin, and light, masculine, active cosmic force called yang. All people are said to have some degree of both yin and yang. Harmony is achieved when the elements of yin and yang are in their proper balance. William Blake believed that human beings could achieve harmony between the two opposite forces of the human soul. The poet does not identify himself with innocence or experience.  He stands outside innocence and experience, in a distanced position from which he hopes to be able to see and correct the misconceptions of both. 

 

Bibliography

  1. Brown, Paul. (2011). William Blake`s Two ``Nurse`s Song`` Poems. Retrived December 4, 2012, from suite.101.com/article/william-blake-two-nurses-song-poems-a369967.
  2. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. (2005). William Blake. New York: Cossimo Classics.
  3. Frye, Northrop. (1990). Fearful Symmetry – A Study of William Blake. Princeston: Princeston University Press.
  4. Hagstrum, Jean. (1964). William Blake – Poet and Painter.  Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  5. Lister, Raymond. The Paintings of William Blake. (1988). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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