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.

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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.

Students’ thoughts on first reading Blake

M wrote:

From first reading through the poems of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience,’ I found that some of the poems were clearly related to the title of the collection, and others seemed to have a more abstract take on the idea of ‘Innocence and Experience’.

For example, the poem titled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ gave an immediate impression of a young, vulnerable child within the opening few lines of the first stanza. The beginning of the poem seemed to have a strong focus upon innocence and was suggestive of the fact that the young boy had a considerably lack of experience because of his age, ‘weep weep weep weep’. The repetition of the dynamic verb ‘weep,’ seems really powerful within the opening of the poem, because it suggests that the young chimney sweeper is innocent and vulnerable, possibly because of the experience of his mothers death and his father’s suggested dismissal of him.

In contrast to this, the poem titled ‘The Clod & the Pebble’ didn’t seem to give any impression of being relatable to either innocence or experience when initially reading through the poem. The concepts within the poem seemed very abstract, and the idea of the poem portraying a sense of ‘experience’ was something that I did not find immediately obvious. When thinking about this poem further, it seems to be relatable to love and relationships, and a possible interpretation of this poem would be that it is a metaphor, and is representative of the experience that love can give you, but is hidden within a more simple concept of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.

T wrote:

FIRST THOUGHTS ON POEMS

As a group, we decided to read through all of the poems first before stopping to analyse them. Obviously, the common theme through the first half was innocence however it proved to us that sometimes it is hard to identify what the link to innocence or experience in the second half was. For example in songs of innocence a lot of the poems seemed to be to do with youth, either portrayed through children or animals (lamb) or even simply young minded. I thought that some of the poems seemed sad e.g. the chimney sweeper. I enjoyed reading the poems further to see how they linked and connected because reading through all of them gives you a better first understanding than analyzing deeply into one after a first look at it. Our group brought up the question of whether our original views of what innocence and experience was were changed after reading the poems. Sometimes, we found it difficult to understanding what was going on in the poems, I found it confusing that there is no definite beginning, middle and end like a story has. I think the poems try to get information across without saying it directly, I get this opinion because some of the poems do not link and connect.

First thoughts on reading Blake: my classes’s response to innocently reading him…

Today, the William Blake project began in earnest with my Year 13 classes reading all the poems in groups together. I asked them to read them all at a go, without lingering too long over what they are about. The whole point was that they would get an overview of the poems.


 

I introduced the poems today by getting the students to sit in my “poetry circle” which some seemed excited about! I talked about how I appeared on Radio London this morning talking about a letter a number of experts have written about the need to raise the formal schooling age to 7. Their remarks tie in a great deal with what William Blake thought: he believed that children learnt through play, that it was through play and being creative that children learnt, that it is not a “bolt-on extra” to learning but absolutely integral to the learning process. I spoke on the Radio London breakfast show defending their approach, saying that if learning is too formal at an early age, then children can become like “robots”, programmed to learn but without creativity.

He wrote in The School Boy:

But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, The little ones spend the day, In sighing and dismay.

Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour, Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learnings bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing. How can a child when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring.

The task of reading all the poems through in a group without teacher commentary/intervention is not a “traditional”, “upfront” teaching approach; I suppose some teachers would immediately start reading and analysing the poems as a whole class, without giving classes a chance to read the poems for themselves. Or possibly getting them to read them for homework by themselves. Reading them together in a group for the first time is possibly a different approach; one that immediately invites communal discussion.

However, many teachers would do what I am doing; encourage independent reading skills and a sense of independent inquiry.

As I listened to the groups, I could hear a degree of laughter and enjoyment as they read the poems; the lexis is not difficult and the poems have an easy, lilting music. The rhythms of Blake’s words really came through for me. I heard one student saying, “I quite like that one!”.

It was strange listening to the words I know so well mouthed by unfamiliar voices, but also invigorating; it made me see these poems in a new light. They live in the mouths of young people.

Here is one response from a student which is illuminating:

“I found William Blake’s Songs of Innocence thoroughly enjoyable and pleasant when reading them in todays English lesson. The majority of poems in this collection included an obvious rhyming scheme that continued throughout, making the poems easy to read and far more entertaining. A theme throughout all of the poems in Songs of Innocence was religion, whether this was a direct address to religion or a subtle undertone running continuously through the poems. The poems were written in a period of history when religion was a major part of everyone’s lives. The poems contained within Songs of Innocence are all relatively short and sweet, a lot revolving around children – this is due to the fact that children are often associated with innocence.”