William Blake and his contexts

William Blake and his context

LO: to learn how to relate contexts to texts.

Starter: what is context? Why is it important to study?

 Find the poem which goes with the “contextual” quote or comment.

 The Greek God Pan is associated with playing a pipe in the countryside, with conducting  parties, with playing with nymphs, with drinking and singing and poetry.

John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

John 10:14 – I am the good shepherd, and know my [sheep], and am known of mine.

Psalms 23:1-6 – (A Psalm of David.) The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.

John, 1.36

The next day, John seeth Iesus comming vnto him, and saith, Behold the Lambe of God, which taketh away the sinne of the world.

 Slavery was abolished in 1833. Blake wrote the Songs of Innocence and Experience between 1789-94.

The Romantic poets led a movement to celebrate nature and natural environments and felt that nature embodied the human imagination.

“At the age of four and five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, due to their small size. These children were oppressed and had a diminutive existence that was socially accepted at the time.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chimney_Sweeper

In London, even by 1760, almost a decade and a half after the level of infant and child mortality had begun to fall, 49% of all children were dead by the age of two, and 60% by the age of five. Blake himself, one of a family of four, was born two years after the death of his infant brother, John.

DR. WATTS’S CRADLE HYMN (1674-1748)

HUSH, my dear; lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed;
Heavenly blessings, without number,
Gently falling on thy head.

William Blake’s childhood home in Soho was next to a Workhouse where young orphans were brought up. They were taken to Wimbledon Common by “Nurses” who were hired by the workhouse to supervise them. They would play in the fresh air there. Later on, this practice was stopped, and the children were kept in the workhouse most of the time. (Bedard)

It is a heresy (against the law of the church) to say that all religions are the same, and that the human brain is where God lives.

During Blake’s time, England was emerging as a world empire, and was engaged in various wars and conflicts with other countries. Its chief enemy was France, which had had a revolution in 1792 and abolished its monarchy. Some people viewed the animal of the tiger as a symbol for the French revolution because it was an angry, devastating animal. Blake was very sympathetic towards the French revolution before it became very violent. He wrote a number of other poems which explored the horrors of the British empire.

Once a year, beginning in 1782, as many as 6,000 homeless children were mareched from their charity schools all over London to attend services held in St Pauls Cathedral. This spectacle in honour of the patrons and founders of the schools took place on a Thursday. (Johnson and Grant, p. 32)

King Lear Act IV, sc 1, l. 36-37 “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport.”

Many dissenting sects (factions of the Christian religion which were banned by official Christianity) held their meetings in ale houses and pubs during Blake’s life-time.

Many years after Blake died, Sigmund Freud developed a theory about “repression” in which he argued if people did not talk about their emotions, particularly anger and sexual attraction, they would become “neurotic” or mentally ill and do things that were harmful to themselves and other people without knowing why they had done them. This was because they had “repressed” their emotions. He also argued that many of their secret desires would emerge in their dreams.

The figure of the Bard, or the travelling poet, is a powerful one in early English mythology; it is believed he was a wise man who people listened to. Artists and poets were though in Blake’s lifetime viewed with considerable suspicion and sometimes arrested for their beliefs. Blake himself was put on trial for sedition, being accused of criticising the King, but was acquitted. The experience was very traumatic for Blake.

EXTENSION:

Isaiah wrote about “the wolf dwelling with the lamb while the leopard lies down with the kid… and the young lion” (Isaiah 11:6).

From Wikipedia:

Chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, attributed to Paul the apostle covers the subject of love, principally the love that Christians should have. In the original Greek, the word αγαπη agape is used throughout. This is translated into English as charity in the King James version; but the word love is preferred by most other translations, both earlier and more recent.

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.

4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Paradise Lost 1, 254-55, John Milton

“The Mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”

 

 

 

POSSIBLE ANSWERS:

Introduction to Songs of Innocence

The Greek God Pan is associated with playing a pipe in the countryside, with conducting  parties, with playing with nymphs, with drinking and singing and poetry.

 

The Shepherd

John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

John 10:14 – I am the good shepherd, and know my [sheep], and am known of mine.

Psalms 23:1-6 – (A Psalm of David.) The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.

 

The Lamb

John, 1.36

The next day, John seeth Iesus comming vnto him, and saith, Behold the Lambe of God, which taketh away the sinne of the world.

 

The Little Black Boy

Slavery was abolished in 1833. Blake wrote the Songs of Innocence and Experience between 1789-94.

 

The Blossom, Spring.

The Romantic poets led a movement to celebrate nature and natural environments and felt that nature embodied the human imagination.

The Chimney Sweeper

“At the age of four and five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, due to their small size. These children were oppressed and had a diminutive existence that was socially accepted at the time.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chimney_Sweeper

The Lost Children poems: little girl lost

In London, even by 1760, almost a decade and a half after the level of infant and child mortality had begun to fall, 49% of all children were dead by the age of two, and 60% by the age of five. Blake himself, one of a family of four, was born two years after the death of his infant brother, John.

 

A Cradle Song

DR. WATTS’S CRADLE HYMN. (1674-1748)

HUSH, my dear; lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed;
Heavenly blessings, without number,
Gently falling on thy head.

 

The Nurse’s Song

William Blake’s childhood home in Soho was next to a Workhouse where young orphans were brought up. They were taken to Wimbledon Common by “Nurses” who were hired by the workhouse to supervise them. They would play in the fresh air there. Later on, this practice was stopped, and the children were kept in the workhouse most of the time. (Bedard)

 

The Divine Image

It is a heresy (against the law of the church) to say that all religions are the same, and that the human brain is where God lives.

London

During Blake’s time, England was emerging as a world empire, and was engaged in various wars and conflicts with other countries. Its chief enemy was France, which had had a revolution in 1792 and abolished its monarchy. Some people viewed the animal of the tiger as a symbol for the French revolution because it was an angry, devastating animal. Blake was very sympathetic towards the French revolution before it became very violent. He wrote a number of other poems which explored the horrors of the British empire.

Holy Thursday

Once a year, beginning in 1782, as many as 6,000 homeless children were mareched from their charity schools all over London to attend services held in St Pauls Cathedral. This spectacle in honour of the patrons and founders of the schools took place on a Thursday. (Johnson and Grant, p. 32)

The Fly

King Lear Act IV, sc 1, l. 36-37 “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport.”

The Little Vagabond

Many dissenting sects (factions of the Christian religion which were banned by official Christianity) held their meetings in ale houses and pubs during Blake’s life-time.

A Poison Tree

Many years after Blake died, Sigmund Freud developed a theory about “repression” in which he argued if people did not talk about their emotions, particularly anger and sexual attraction, they would become “neurotic” or mentally ill and do things that were harmful to themselves and other people without knowing why they had done them. This was because they had “repressed” their emotions. He also argued that many of their secret desires would emerge in their dreams.

The Voice of the Ancient Bard

The figure of the Bard, or the travelling poet, is a powerful one in early English mythology; it is believed he was a wise man who people listened to. Artists and poets were though in Blake’s lifetime viewed with considerable suspicion and sometimes arrested for their beliefs. Blake himself was put on trial for sedition, being accused of criticising the King, but was acquitted. The experience was very traumatic for Blake.

Night

Isaiah wrote about “the wolf dwelling with the lamb while the leopard lies down with the kid… and the young lion” (Isaiah 11:6).

The Clod and the Pebble

From Wikipedia:

Chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, attributed to Paul the apostle covers the subject of love, principally the love that Christians should have. In the original Greek, the word αγαπη agape is used throughout. This is translated into English as charity in the King James version; but the word love is preferred by most other translations, both earlier and more recent.

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.

4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Paradise Lost 1, 254-55, John Milton

“The Mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Initial thoughts on Blake’s poems by a student

After reading some of Blake’s poems, I have found that I really enjoy his work. I feel that Blake is very insightful and observant, using his poems to communicate various views in imaginative ways. In result, it causes the reader to consider his views and investigate the meanings of the imagery that he uses in some cases. Poems such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Schoolboy’ in particular, are extremely evocative, and caused me to consider the reality of issues both in the time of Blake, and also those that are apparent in today’s society.
In result, I already feel that I prefer Blake to many poets that I have previously studied. This is largely because the issues he raises are much easier to relate to, than that of someone like Carol Ann Duffy who often reflects of personal experiences or memories. Further still; I value the way in which Blake maintains a clear message through and alongside carefully considered imagery. For me this is preferable to some poems in which the message is almost disguised by flamboyant symbolism, which I often find confusing.

This is another student’s response to London in a Word document here.

One student’s top four Blake poems

Introduction – Songs Of Innocence
What drew me to this poem in particular was the story it told. The child he sees could be interpreted in two ways, in a literal way or a figurative way. If it is thought of in a literal way the poem could be about how Blake told a child a poem of his, and the child very much enjoyed it and encouraged Blake to write more poems so “every child may joy to hear” them. If it is thought of in a figurative way then it could be interpreted that Blake had a dream where he saw a child in a cloud and that he had an epiphany that he should write his poems down and take it more seriously then he possibly did before. For me it was an interesting insight into Blake’s poetry as it was the first poem of his I read, and in my opinion it was a very fitting poem to start on.
The Schoolboy
What interested me about this poem is how relevant it is, even after hundreds of years when this was first written. The message in it is something that I also believe in. The fact that children are put in such a suppressive environment every week for hours on end does not make sense to Blake, and to me. I felt a connection to this poem as soon as I had finished reading it for the first time. The imagery of the bird stuck in the cage was very poignant for me; it really went well with the idea of a child being confined into school and still being expected to have “fun” and to “enjoy” it.
The Chimney Sweeper
This poem was very confusing for me at first as I initially thought that the chimney sweeps had died. But upon reading it again it had become one of my favourite of Blake’s poems. The idea of the chimneys sweeps thinking about death and going to heaven every night in their dreams is haunting; it leaves the reader in an inquisitive state of how bad life must be for the boys. The fact that death and going to heaven keeps them warm and happy when they wake up is very bittersweet. It’s something that would be depressing for me if I thought of death every night, but it is a motivation for them, and this is something that completely fascinates me.
Nurse’s song
This poem is in my top 4 of Blake’s poetry because of the fact that it is, in my mind, such a lovely story. It is simple short and sweet and it leaves a warm image in my mind after I have read it. I also enjoy the way in which it ends. The whole poem rhymes until the last line when Blake rights “And all the hills echoed”. This helps the last line to stand out from the rest and leaves imagery of children’s laughter echoing round green hills. A generally calming and warm image.

A Student’s First Thoughts on reading the Songs of Innocence and Experience

The echoing green – I particularly enjoyed this piece because of it’s use of pathetic fallacy to represent god, and all of the heavenly joys that one experiences when religious and innocent.
The fly – The fly attracted me as it uses what is perceived as an ‘ugly’ animal to show the troubles that are faced by many different people or races in their every day life, the ‘ugly’ nature of the animal connotes the ‘ugly’ nature of the problems many face.
The chimney sweeper – I like this poem especially because of it’s contrasting imagery, the chimney sweeper is black with soot, In contrast to the heavenly, innocent connotations of the snow around him, which could also be seen as pathetic fallacy, also shows deprivation and the exploitation of child labour.
More in-depth analysis
Holy Thursday (experience)
The poem opens with bold rhetoric devices, linking the divine purity of heaven and god, with ‘misery’ and poverty, this juxtaposition instantly casts us into the harsh, unforgiving world of experience, possibly like the one that Blake witnessed in his childhood. The use of irony in the negative descriptions of the land add to the intensity of the poverty and suffering as the land is branded as “rich and fruitful”. The ironic rhetoric question, “can it be a song of joy?” Adds to the negativity of this piece, coupled with the exclamatory use of the issue directly, “poverty!”. I feel the children are used as a catalyst in this poem to create guilt and sorrow from the reader, the use of child-like innocence gives them similar heavenly qualities. The imagery used in conjunction with this world gives it a painful, empty feel – “thorns” , “bare” – which is uncannily illustrative of the emotions of the people, the time scale of this seemingly post-apocalyptic situation is described as an ‘eternity’ acting as an intensifier to the aim of this piece; to raise awareness. I feel that in this poem, God and prosperity are represented by the sun, and it’s rays, never to shine upon this derelict, futile land. This extended metaphor continues to explain wherever the sun does shine, poverty shall be absent and again, the use of children to show this improvement, intensifies the effect.

Holy Thursday (innocence)
The opening of this piece also contains heavenly connotations, much like it’s experience related counterpart, however, this version brings together all the joys religion and god can bring, linked with words such as ‘clean’ rather than ‘misery’. The use of colour connotation with children creates a feel of happiness as bright, vibrant colours are used, “red, blue and green”. I also believe the fact that the children are paired, never alone, portrays a very positive, unifying view of innocence, unlike experience in which we all stand alone and aware. Winter is also seen in a different light for the innocence poem, it is directly connoted to heaven and purity unlike the ‘eternal’ ‘misery’ it supposedly causes in the experience version of the poem. Similarly, animal imagery also represents innocence whilst denoting some religious beliefs, such as Muslims who feel the ‘lamb’ is holy. As the ‘thousands of little boys and girls’ join in unification, the power of their action is described as “mighty” implicating that innocence is a strong attribute, only to be lost when exposed to the many taboo situations throughout life.

What happened when I asked some students to perform some of Blake’s poems

So today I encouraged one of my Year 13 classes to set Blake’s ‘The Ecchoing Green’ and ‘London’ to music by taking them to the Music Theatre and seeing what would happen.

Perhaps a little fool-hardy, but I was interested in a) what poems they would choose having the whole range of poems to choose from b) what they would do.

One group weren’t keen on the idea, but chose to read ‘The Ecchoing Green’ without a huge amount of enthusiasm. One student asked what the point of the exercise was; why couldn’t they be in class taking notes on the poems, like most poetry lessons? I tried to explain about Blake’s “aesthetics”; that he believed that poetry needed to brought alive by illustrations, by music, by being read aloud. We then looked at the ways in which the poem deploys a rising rhythm, using iambs and anapaests to create a sense of hope, of optimism, with the beats constantly rising, until the final verse when the dactylic “darkening” is used to create a sense of falling.

This group had been organised and knew that we were supposed to be in the Music Theatre; they are a studious group, with people in it keen to do well. They were, however, very self-conscious. There was a sense that they were “experienced” in the sense that a certain playful ‘jouissance’ which you can sometimes find in younger children doing this kind of exercise was missing from them.

However, the other group – who hadn’t listened about where we would be and went to the wrong classroom initially – embraced the idea with a child-like abandonment. It was almost as if I had let go of a pressure valve; they lost their inhibitions. They went completely mad on the drums and xylophones but in the end produced quite a powerful reading of ‘London’. The version was very, very rhythmic, the group caught the marching rhythm of the poem, which uses iambs in a very different way to his approach in ‘The Ecchoing Green’.

There was some debate about students reluctance to post things on the blog; they preferred to put things in their books where it could be definitively marked, rather than responded to. I have thought about this, but still feel a blog is a good venue for posting ideas and thoughts for the students because everyone can read it, and learn more easily from each other. This could be done on a discussion forum on the VLE, but that shuts down at the end of the year and everything is lost.

I suppose I left the lesson feeling that Blake’s teaching are still very radical; that they challenge not only what you teach but how you teach. His aesthetics demand a holistic engagement with his work rather than a lecture-based approach.

Next week though, having introduced the poems in this way, I am going to make the lessons much more “traditional”; the students will be researching allocated poems in depth and presenting their thoughts to the class, having looked at the relevant critics. I am aiming to teach them about the historical and literary context of Blake’s poems.

What do teenagers today think innocence is?

My William Blake project began in earnest today because I conducted my introductory lesson by getting my A Level students to do a “P4C” type exercise, exploring what innocence is. Many of them hadn’t done “P4C” — Philosophy For Children — and weren’t familiar with sitting in a circle and interrogating a topic with lots of searching, philosophical questions. However, after a stuttering beginning, many students “got into it”. It set me thinking that P4C is very useful for English teachers because it does really get students analysing a subject in much more depth. I think at the heart of many of my students’ problems with in-depth analysis is that they don’t quite real fluency with asking searching questions of themselves, of their own thought processes and other people’s. But I could see with practice, the P4C way, they could do this.

I asked the question: “What is innocence?” to one person, and then the group asked questions about what that pupil had said. After doing this with two classes, a few key themes emerged: most students felt that innocence often connected with naivety, of ignorance, of not knowing stuff, and that experience was “knowing”. Innocence was generally agreed to be a pleasurable state but also a worrying one because you were vulnerable as one pupil put it; you could easily be manipulated, and you could easily be corrupted. Experience, on the other hand, was a different state; a state of “knowing”, of being “self-aware”, of “self-consciousness”. There was general agreement that children and babies are born innocent, with original sin, and are, in a funny way, in a state of grace because of what they don’t know. We had a wide ranging discussion and many students were thinking outside the box.

One student’s thoughts on the two ‘Nurse’s Songs’ from Innocence and Experience

The Nurse’s Song –Innocence

When reading the poem ‘The Nurse’s Song’ aloud, it allows the audience to get a different perspective of the poem.  For example it may be the way a person reads the poem aloud; perhaps stressing certain words or the volume and tone they read it in.  By reading aloud each individual will have a different take on the poem and this allows discussions and opinions to become more interesting and fluent.

What interests me most about the poem is the relationship between the nurse and the children.  The nurse is portrayed as a kind, gentle and compassionate woman, almost seen as a mother like figure.  It seems that the children really look up to her and obey her rules and regulations.  The nurse takes pleasure in watching the children play, its as if their cheerfulness inspires her to be at peace.  She supports them rather than overshadowing their innocence.  In the poem we also see that the children are not threatened by her; if they ask for more play time she allows it.  There does not seem to be any evidence of alienation between the nurse and children which emphasizes the happiness and joy of the poem.

The Nurse’s song is about a group of children playing outside in the hill’s whilst the nurse watches over them like a mother would her child.  As twilight arrives she kindly orders them inside, however they ask to play until bedtime.  The nurse gives in to their pleas and the children are overjoyed.

This particular poem portrays the theme of innocence by using the four stanzas to express the happiness and freedom of childhood.  In the poem it mentions “And all the hills echoed”  meaning that the children’s happiness is rebounded around them- in other words it symbolizes that joy is carried and spread around the playground.  This ending quote sums up the poem nicely as it brings an content  atmosphere for the audience.  The poem is also rhymed with an ABCB pattern, allowing the poem to become much more interesting and fun to read.  This highlights the main theme of innocence and happiness throughout the poem as William Blake’s words and patterns make the audience happy too.

The Nurse’s Song- Experience

What interests me most about this poem is that it opposes ‘The Nurse’ Song- Innocence’.  I find this incredibly intriguing as it is as if the poem has been continued into the future.  It explains how growing up allows you to experience new activities and sights, which will in turn lead to the loss of childhood innocence.  This particular poem also juxtaposes with ‘The Nurse’s Song-Innocence’ as it is not as cheerful and joyful.  It allows the reader to recognise the harsh reality of society and how important childhood is to an individual.

This poem begins with the nurse hearing whispers from the children which suggest that they are partaking in secret activity which allows them to become experienced.  When hearing this, the nurse ‘turns green and pale’ and reflects upon the previous innocence of the children.  The nurse then realises that the children are becoming young adults and are aware of their own sexuality; in other words, they are growing up.

The rhyme scheme in this poem is not the childlike rhyming pattern used in the previous poem, this suggests that the nurse is upset and displeased that the children are growing up and losing their innocence.  The experienced ‘Nurse’s Poem’ is half the size of the innocence poem with only two stanzas instead of four.  This could represent the rapid growth of the children from the first to the second poem and allowing the audience to sense the nurse’s loss and disappointment she is feeling.