William Blake was incredibly spiritual and certainly a strong Christian, although he disliked organised religion as he saw it to be an oppressive tool. His brother died of consumption at quite a young age, and this had a profound effect on Blake, who is said to have seen his soul ‘ascend heavenward clapping its hands for joy’. I feel it is fair to argue that Blake used his poetry to express his religious views, and criticise the Church’s repressive nature.
Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience certainly contain many poems with religious overtones. Blake uses various techniques to show his own feelings for, in particular, organised religion and the church. Animal imagery is particularly prominent. Holy Thursday, from Songs of Innocence depicts an image of children visiting St Paul’s Cathedral. The title itself suggests the celebration of the day Jesus’ friend Judas betrayed him, and as a result he was taken on the following day, now known as ‘Good Friday’ to be killed. On this day Jesus gave the commandment ‘That ye love one another as I have loved you.’ It is this feast that the children, usually from Charity Schools, seem to be celebrating.
The children are described by Blake as ‘walking two and two in red and blue and green’, despite the vivid colour imagery used here the opening stanza still seems to be a criticism of the church. The description of the officers employed to maintain order in the church, ‘Grey headed beadles’ is much more morbid and contrasts well with the brighter colours used with reference to the children. This may be Blake’s way of showing his contempt for the Church. ‘Walking two and two’ references the bible and the story of Noah’s Ark but also depicts the regimentation of the children, who are later described as ‘multitudes of lambs’. This imagery illustrates the innocence of the children and the suppression of their individuality, as it seems Blake is implying that they all look the same, at least, perhaps, through the eyes of the church. The ‘lambs’ give an impression of innocence or purity, which could be Blake’s way of showing his disdain for the church, as it, as an organisation, is arguably taking away this innocence or using the naivety of the children to impose its values, taking away their choice. Either interpretation supports the idea that Blake uses his poetry to reflect his own beliefs.
The Lamb, also from Songs of Innocence also arguably reflects Blake’s religious views. The poem itself seems to be questioning the mystery of creation, ‘Little Lamb who made thee? / Dost thou know who made thee?’ It has a simple structure and uses uncomplicated language to convey a complex meaning. The tone is happy, which is enhanced by the rhyming couplets, although it is possible that this was intended to disguise Blake’s cynicism, again making the poem much more complex than it first seems.
Religious imagery is used again in this poem. The explicit reference to a lamb in the title immediately implies innocence, and, again, could be an indication of the sacrificial lambs of the bible. The protagonist seems to be addressing the lamb directly, although it is possible that Blake actually intended it to be and enlightening poem. The use of the pronoun ‘He’ could suggest that the lamb is Jesus, ‘He is meek and he is mild; He became a little child’, although it could too be symbolic of all children. It can be argued that Blake’s intention was to use biblical references to connect with all people, as, in the time of his writing, the church was far more prominent than it is today. Although this poem implicitly references the bible with the ‘lamb’, it could too simply be Blake’s way of criticising the Church’s treatment of innocent children. This being said, I feel it is possible that Blake did not intend to overtly portray his religious views in this poem.
The Divine Image, from Songs of Innocence uses anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things, to convey its religious content. The word ‘divine’ means ‘relating to Gods, gods, or goddesses’, again showing a specific religious reference. The poem seems to convey a message of God encompassing all that is positive, ‘For Mercy has a human heart, / Pity a human face’. It is possible that Blake intended this poem to contradict his other, more critical religious poems. Despite his spirituality, it would be feasible to view Blake as an atheist, because of his contempt for the church. This poem, therefore, is arguably the most accurate in showing his own religious beliefs, laid bare and free from criticism. The final stanza begins with the message ‘And all must love the human form, / In heathen, Turk or Jew’, which seems to be advocating compassion, although it is also plausible that Blake is begging the question – why single people out? This seems to add on Blake’s own interpretation of Christianity. Overall, the poem has a positive tone, as it suggests that all the divine qualities of ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’ are held by each individual and suggests, rather than pointing out negative qualities, that people are actually inherently good.
Blake also shows his religious views through his Songs of Experience, an example of this being A Little Boy Lost. Blake seems to grow increasingly negative in the Experience section of the collection. Blake uses the young boy as a symbol of free-thought, as he questions religion, ”And father, how can I love you, / Or any of my brothers more?” Blake presents the church to be repressive, enforcing moral laws to the detriment of children. The title itself implies innocence, as ‘Little Boy’ suggests a naivety. Blake’s shows the church to be irrational, reacting to his innocent questioning in an over the top fashion. By the third stanza the imagery is very aggressive, ‘In trembling zeal he seized his hair’. I think it is possible that Blake uses the Priest to reflect upon the reader the attitudes of the society of the time he was writing. Priests would have generally been held in high esteem, so even the violence towards the child at the hands of the church is unlikely to have been questioned. Also, the binding imagery, ‘bound him in an iron chain’ suggests oppression and this is typical of Blake’s own beliefs. The tone is sarcastic at times, and ‘Priestly care’ seems to be and ironic statement.
Blake’s Songs of Experience contains a number of poems that mirror the ones from Innocence, Holy Thursday being an example of this. The language and imagery of this poem is much harsher than that of the Innocence poem. Blake is questioning life on earth, and the contrast between the second line of the poem and the final line of the second stanza, shows his contempt; ‘In a rich and fruitful land’…’It is a land of poverty!’ The structure of this poem is also different to its counterpart, as the sentences are much shorter and many more questions are posed about society. Blake uses negative diction throughout, ‘Babes reduced to misery’ and ‘eternal winter’ being examples of this. The poem implies people living in unorganised innocence, passively accepting things that they believe they cannot change. This poem certainly seems to impose upon the reader Blake’s cynicism of organised religion and perhaps the passiveness of people, who fail to question religion, as shown also in A Little Boy Lost.
In conclusion, I think it is far to argue that Blake does use his poetry to reflect his own religious views and does this through his sarcasm and cynicism of the church. Arguably the poems in Experience show this more blatantly, as the imagery and diction becomes increasingly negative. The Songs of Experience do show his beliefs, but in a less aggressive way than the Songs of Experience. The impression I receive from the Songs is one of Blake’s distrust of the church, and of society, but a great belief and faith in God and the capacity of well-doing held by individuals. Religion is a prominent theme in the collection, but I feel that the tone is the most important technique he exercises, as it shows his sense of humour too.