About @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

A Divine Image — appendix to Songs of Experience

CRUELTY has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forgèd iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace seal’d,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

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How William Blake is helping my students become independent learners

It’s fascinating watch my students struggle with Blake’s poetry. You can almost see some of them actually grapple with the man, flinging him onto the ground in frustration as they try and make sense of the poetry, the images, the contexts he arose from. Yes, they are struggling. They are finding him difficult. And it’s difficult for me too teaching them Blake. The temptation is to step in and say: “Well, this poem MEANS this. Here’s a ready made explanation for you, all neatly tied up in a bundle, away you go and write a nice essay on him.” I know a huge amount about Blake, but that’s not important, what’s important is what my students know and how they acquire their knowledge about him. They need to be told to read him by themselves and work out their own meanings for him, they need to read critical commentaries on him by themselves and try and work out how critics’ views can used in their own essays and work.

Some students are fine with it; they are used to finding work difficult. There are three students who are doing A Level Art in one of the classes, and as soon as they realised that Blake was an artist, they began to make sense of him. I watched them today annotate a critical commentary on his life and work published by OCR which can be found here. Initially, they found the academic tone of the commentary hard to deal with, particularly without a teacher (me) explaining it all for them. One student asked me what “spiritual non-conformist” meant, I answered by asking her what she thought it meant. After some thought, she said it was someone who didn’t conform to the normal religion. Yes! I said, you’ve got it. Did she need me to tell her? No, she didn’t. After I explained to her and her group that I wanted them to annotate the text, ask questions, and take notes on what might be relevant for them, they started to “get it”; you could see the lights go on. They started asking all the questions that were nagging them: “If Blake rejected Christianity, why does he use so much Christian imagery? Why did he print his own books? Why was he never imprisoned for his views?” And so on.

My other class seemed to be on task with writing about the poems, but one student was really, really struggling. “I just don’t get it. We’ve got to do a piece of coursework on this in a few weeks and I just don’t understand ANY of the poems!” He was looking at the Clod and Pebble, for which they are very few notes on Gradesaver etc. I found myself getting a bit sharp with him because he really kept saying he didn’t get it, and I felt blaming me. “Why can’t you just explain all of them to us?” he said. I replied that I wanted him to have a go at working it out for himself. I asked him to read the first verse of the Clod and the Pebble to me and explain the lines. He did so, and was really able to say what the lines meant: they talk about how people who really love care for other people more than themselves. The second verse though totally flummoxed him because a “Clod of Clay” was speaking. First, he didn’t know what a “clod” was! Second, after I told him about clods,  he found it very difficult to comprehend how Clod of Clay could speak. What was the point? I realised that this was at the root of the problems that many students were having with the poems; they, so used to having everything neatly explained to them, found living with the uncertainty and instability of Blake’s symbolism very disturbing. Blake frequently provokes more questions than answers; he can’t easily be “bundled up” into a “message of meaning”. And yet, there are clear ideas lurking within the poems; ideas that argue for generosity of spirit, openness of interpretation; the discourses within the poems powerfully argue against restrictive, regulatory ways of thinking.

However, within the echelons of Blake research, there are a number of critics who argue that Blake needs to be read in a “closed” fashion, that one can “pin down” his symbolism to certain mystical or social meanings, particularly if you look at the illustrations as well. ‘The Tyger’ generates the most controversy because it’s so popular and yet so elusive in meaning. Here’s one critic who argues that you can only understand it if you look carefully at the illustration, which apparently is of a tiger smiling.

Blake is forcing my students to think for themselves; they are learning so much by looking in depth at his poems; learning to research, to grapple with poetry written in a variety of styles, learning how to work out what something means when they don’t fully understand it straightaway.

A student’s analysis of ‘A Dream’ and ‘London’

A Dream- William Blake

Taken from ‘Songs of Innocence’, the poem by William Blake ‘A Dream’ you see a man who left home, then finds his way home. However is also possible that he had found his way to some form of heavenly home, which is a recurring theme in Blake’s poems such as ‘The Chimney Sweep’. The tone of this poem seems to be very dark and gives the very strong image of someone being lost, as a reader you feel fairly sympathetic for towards character especially as the start of the fourth stanza; ‘I dropped a tear’ and when the rhetoric question ‘do they hear their father sigh?’. Both of these quotes also suggest that the traveller isn’t away from home out of choice and thus creates further sympathy. The tone of the poem put further emphasis on the point that the traveller may have found some form of heavenly sanction rather than finding his way back to his actual home.

London- William Blake

This poem was taken from William Blake’s writings in ‘Songs of Experience’ and basically speaks about the division between rich and poor, he especially puts emphasis on the misery of the poor people. Blake focuses mostly on pain and misery throughout this poem through lines such as ‘in every infants cry of fear’ which presents a certain amount of imagery for the reader, and may make them quite uncomfortable. This feeling is kept up through the whole poem and shows that Blake wants to show the city of London at its worst and shows his dislike for the way people were having to live during that time.

 

A student’s analysis of ‘Spring’, ‘Blossom’, ‘The Laughing Song’ and ‘The Fly’

Analysis of Blake’s poetry.

 

Spring

Spring is a poem that is used to “welcome in the year”, the fact that the poem is written in spring time makes the reader think that Blake’s new year starts in the spring time and that his new year is when nature is remade and renewed, it’s when nature starts it’s new life when Blake celebrates his new year. At the time the romantic poets led a movement to celebrate nature and natural environments and felt that nature embodied the human imagination, this could be why Blake celebrates his new year in the spring time because as a poet he feels that nature is key to his imagination and creation, this makes the poems key meaning more clear, as they celebrate nature the biggest celebration would come when nature starts its new cycle of life.

 

The Laughing Song

This poem describes all the different ‘laughter’ of nature and its surroundings, for example the woods, stream, air, hills, and meadow are each said to laugh just by being there, maybe the different sounds made by them are their way of laughing for example the stream trickling and the wind rustling through the leaves of the trees that make up the wood.

 

Blossom

This is another one of Blake’s poems that describes nature and life. It is full of many cheerful images such as “leaves so green” and “happy blossom”, this is representative of Blake’s view on nature, he sees it as key to life and something to cheer people up. This poem tells a story of two different birds and their experiences with their lives, the first a sparrow, who is content with its living and the surroundings it’s in, the other is of a robin, who is distressed in its existence, this makes the second stanza full of negativity. The two birds could be representing two classes of Blake’s time, the first a upper-ruling class who is content with itself, and a lower, poorer class who sees no meaning to their life and lives under the upper classes.

 

The Fly

The poem is told in a voice of mindlessness. The poem sees the narrator, being the fly, go from its thoughtless state to one of realization and mindfulness. It leads to the ending of “Then am I a happy fly, if I live, or if I die”, this makes the fly aware that can it really be happy and careless as it once was even if it dies, how the fly comes to this conclusion as the poem goes on is amazing because of how it comes to the quick conclusion it takes many to come to for an age.

 

A student’s analysis of ‘Infant Joy’ & ‘Infant Sorrow’

Whilst the poems ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ are companionable, both poems, although they share the same context, are surprisingly contrasting. The title of the poems for example, immediately highlights the differing contexts; the word ‘Joy’ is juxtaposing to the word ‘Sorrow’ thus portraying Blake’s conflicting ideas to the reader. ‘Infant Joy’ as the title suggests, focuses on the joyous gift of a new born baby; Blake expresses his belief on how the strongest feelings, of ‘Joy’ in this case, are often the least complicated and most precious emotions. Blake explores the relationship between mother and baby, the mother pretends to have an imaginary conversation with her new-born child. ‘I happy am,/Joy is my name’. Through this powerful conversation between two connected minds, the mother names her baby Joy. The physical and emotional bond between a mother and her child is one so powerful and Blake studies this joining of life. ‘Sweet joy befall thee!’ The repetition of this phrase emphasises the love and care a mother has for her child – even whilst in the womb, the gift of life is joyful. Blake very much believed in the idea of loving God, hence why the poem concentrates on the happiness, love and magic of new life entering the world. These religious connotations are skilfully embedded and weaved between the lines of all of his poems – religion had a great influence over his writing.
In comparison to the blissful imagery created in the poem ‘Infant Joy’, ‘Infant Sorrow’ views the same situation from the perspective of a baby rather than the mother of a child and therefore, the poem bares a more sorrowful tone. William Blake captures the pain of childbirth, however this time, from the infant’s viewpoint. In contrast to the joy experienced by a mother in ‘Infant Joy’, the child in this poem finds itself ‘Helpless, naked’. The adjective ‘helpless’ reveals how the baby feels scared as it is no longer protected by the womb of its mother – this safety and security has ironically disappeared through the ‘joy’ of being born into the world. ‘Sorrow’ is not an emotion commonly associated with an infant; it is a very complex emotion, a mature emotion, contrasting to the simplicity of the emotion ‘joy’ portrayed in its partner poem. Once more, Blake questions life and the power that we have over it; he implies that, from birth, we do not have power over everything – we are unable to control everything we do. God does. Furthermore, both of these brief poems reveal William Blake’s inner thoughts regarding life and creation; by investigating birth from two different viewpoints Blake cleverly exposes the powerful differences between the emotions experienced by the two human beings that are, ironically, so closely related.

Comparison questions on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

The Introductions to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Earth’s Answer, The Voice of Ancient Bard

How are the figures of the Piper and the Bard similar and different in these poems?

A “child on a cloud” and the “Holy Word” appear in these poems? Do you think they are connected in some kind of way? If so, why?

The first Introduction is written like a nursery rhyme, while the other Introduction, and Earth’s Answer are structured in a more unorthodox way. Why is this do you think?

All three poems are about people being “called” to do things? What are these things that they are “called” to do and why have they been “called to do them?

How do these poems use rhythm and rhyme to create tension and draw attention to key ideas, feelings and images?

The Shepherd, The Lamb, Night, The Chimney Sweeper (Innocence), The Little Black Boy, The Tyger

All of these poems make reference to lambs: how and why? Is there a common theme here?

Spring, Blossom, Introduction to Innocence, The Ecchoing Green, Night, Earth’s Answer, The Nurse’s Songs

How does Blake depict nature in these poems? How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

The Shepherd, The Garden of Love and the Nurse’s Songs (both Innocence and Experience)

The figure of the “Guardian” or parent is very important in these poems. How does Blake reveal two very different parenting styles? What is Blake saying about being a guardian or parent in these poems?

The Ecchoing Green and the Garden of Love

How are the societies that Blake depicts here similar and different? What has happened to the world of the ‘Ecchoing Green’ in ‘The Garden of Love’? Why has it been destroyed?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

The Little Black Boy, The Chimney Sweeper poems (Innocence and Experience) and The Little Vagabond

In what ways do these poems present children? Why and how are they presented as victims?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow, London, The Chimney Sweeper poems (Innocence and Experience) The School Boy

How are these poems similar and different in their depiction of young children and the world they are born into? What is Blake saying about education in these poems?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found (Innocence) A Little Boy Lost, The Little Girl Lost, The Little Girl Found, A Little Girl Lost(Experience)

What similar experiences do all these lost children experience in the poems? In what way do the parents behave in these poems? What role does religion, religious imagery and religious authority play in the poems?

How is the world of Experience different from that of Innocence?

How is the use of rhythm and rhyme similar and different in the poems?

Why do you think Blake kept returning to this story again and again?

The Nurse’s Song (Innocence),  Laughing Song, The Chimney Sweeper (Experience), The Nurse’s song (Experience)

These poems explore different emotional states of children and adults. What states do these explore and represent, and why?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

The Divine Image, Another’s Sorrow, The Human Abstract, The Clod and the Pebble and The Poison Tree

All three of these poems explore the ways in which individuals affect the world around them. How and why do they do this?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

Holy Thursday (Innocence and Experience), London, The Garden of Love and The Chimney Sweeper poems

These poems look at the treatment of children by the religious authorities. What is Blake saying about religious authority in these poems? How does he use poetic techniques to achieve his purposes?

How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

The Lamb, The Tyger, The Fly

What is Blake saying about animals in these poems? How and why does he use them as literary devices? How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

A Dream, The Chimney Sweeper (Innocence), The Angel

What role do dreams play in Blake’s poems? Why are they so important do you think? How does he use rhythm and rhyme to achieve his effects?

One student’s interpretation of ‘The Fly’

 

This five-stanza poem takes on a playful rhyme scheme and meter, despite its serious and somewhat morbid subject. Blake himself  compares himself to the fly because like the insect’s, his existence is insignificant: mortal (he too will be brushed off by a hand, in time) and devoted to apparently frivolous activities (“I dance and drink and sing”) which will be interrupted just as brutally as the fly’s “summer play”.This poem also returns to Blake’s theme in Songs of Experience of the place of thought in the quality and quantity of human life. The speaker harms the fly with his “thoughtless hand,” indicating that thoughtlessness leads to death. It is the concept of the lack of thought behind the fateful actions that Blake seeks to develop in this poem. Had the man given thought before brushing aside the fly he might not have done so, and he might have realised that he had the power of life and death in his hand. However, the fly does not know this, and its behaviour is unchanged because it has no way of knowing that its life could be about to end. I like this poem due to its seemingly simple appearance as it has a word count of only 69, but on closer inspection it is actually an in depth poem filled with a deep meaning. Are we as humans as insignificant as a fly?