William Blake: Sane Or Mad? Essay, Research Paper
William Blake: Sane or Mad?
“[There] is no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in his madness which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott,” William Wordsworth said in reference to William Blake. Blake, unlike other writers, was born and lived in moderate ways, with many talents; he lived throughout the romantic period, and wrote many of the greatest and controversial poems of his time including “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” These poems are from two books known as the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake, as well as a writer was also a very great painter, engraver, and printer. William Blake failed to receive the credit he deserved until long after his death.
William Blake was born the second of five children in London on November 28, 1757. Blake was son to James Blake, a hosier, and Catherine Blake. He lived most of his life in poverty. At an early age Blake was an apprentice to James Basire, an engraver, which encouraged Blake to enroll in his only formal schooling at the Royal Academy of Arts for a very short period of time. In 1782 William Blake married Catherine Boucher, a daughter of a market gardener. Catherine was illiterate and she signed the marriage certificate with an “X”. Blake taught Catherine to read, write and help him with his engraving and printing work once he opened a print shop in 1784. Unfortunately, the shop failed a year later. William Blake took upon many works as an engraver, poet, and illustrator, along with his dedicated wife, to make a small living.
William Blake was often noted as mad, insane, and abnormal. His state of mind was much different from others of his time. At a very early age Blake saw many different visions, including one that editor Beer described, “as a child he once saw a tree full of angels, spangling every bough” (90). This vision was seen shortly after he received a leashing from his father for telling a lie. These visions continued throughout his life, including another vision after his favorite brother passed away, “appearing to him in a dream [...] passing through the ceiling of his bedroom, clapping his hands for joy” (92). After this occurrence Blake collapsed into a sleep for 3 days and 3 nights which led him to believe more firmly in the existence of a spiritual world. Blake was moved by the discovery that his own psyche was not a simple entity, but changed according to his physical state (92). A power such as this is occasionally found in young children and is seldom seen beyond the age of twelve, but in Blake it lasted his whole life.
Many of William Blake’s paintings and writings are very abstract and with out the use of imagination, they are not very impressive. Anderson notes that in a letter written by Blake that he suggests “As a man is so he sees [ ] to me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination” (618). William Blake’s art and motive were to change the way that people “see” and to open up new worlds to them. Blake also said, “I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody doesn’t see alike. Many people that read and saw only Blake’s poems and paintings thought Blake to be mad, because they didn’t see the work the same as Blake had intended. Yet the people who had the opportunity of knowing Blake denied such an implication to be true (617).
William Blake lived during a time of intense social change. Editor Mack described that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all happened during his lifetime. These changes gave Blake a chance to see one of the most dramatic stages in the transformation of the Western world from a feudal, agricultural society to an industrial society where philosophers and political thinkers campaigned the rights of the individual (785). Blake lived through the American Revolution, which involved the loss of the thirteen England colonies in North America that were theirs. This was a loss of economic proportions, but it was also a loss of confidence and prestige that England had at the time (785). Anderson describes the French Revolution as coming to represent the England ruling class’s worst fears by having an overthrow of an anointed king by a democratic “ramble” (600). From another point of view, the English conservatives saw the revolution as the triumph of radical principles. The final Revolution Blake lived through was the Industrial Revolution. This revolution was a shift in manufacturing the production of the goods. Before this time goods were made by hand, at home, as opposed to the new way of factories where machines could work faster than human hands.
William Blake lived throughout a period of time called the Romantic period. He was partially responsible for bringing about the Romantic Movement in poetry. The Romantic Period is the shortest period of English literary history starting in 1798 and ending in 1832. The period was split up into two generation of writers, the first including Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. The second generation consisted of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. The first generation, which Blake was a part of, looked at Milton and Shakespeare for their inspiration. Although Blake was considered a Romantic, Anderson tells that his life was not as “romantic” or “poetic” as Coleridge, Shelley, or Keats (617). He seems less “poetic” and “romantic” because unlike the other Romantics, he was a full time professional artist. This and his older age kept him away from being a member of the younger group of poets led by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
William Blake had many of his own styles, used through out his writings. Blake was very philosophical and poetic. Many of his poems included his religious beliefs and references from the Bible. Blake’s poems make you use your imagination and look further into what he is trying to express. He was a very religious man and preached through his writings. This was uncommon to the people of those days because they were use to poems about the nature and their beautiful surroundings. Because of Blake’s style, he was thought to be weird and insane.
The Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Expressions were two books with sets of poems that William Blake published. Each book was published individually, but in 1794 the two were combined with a subtitle “Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” Blake’s thoughts on the Innocence State is well described by Anderson in saying “Blake conceived [Innocence State] as state of genuine love, and na ve trust toward all humankind, accompanied by unquestioned belief in Christian doctrine” (620). He describes the Innocence State as not knowing any harm, and trusting everyone including their beliefs and principles because of what they were taught. In the introduction of Song of innocence Blake writes “And I made a rural pen, And I stain’d the water clear, And I wrote my happy songs, Every child my hear.” Blake describes the joy of these little children that he writes about and how clueless they are of the world around them.
William Blake’s set of poems, Songs of Experience, was written in contrast to his Songs of Innocence. Anderson describes Blake’s thoughts on the state of “experience” as “one seeing cruelty and hypocrisy only too clearly, but is unable to imagine a way out” (620). The experiences of the children and animals in his poems are too drastic to see the innocence in anything. He writes about children that are sold to do manual labor for money. Blake’s purposes in writing these poems were for the reader to see the different ways of life.
One well-known poem from the Songs of Innocence is “The Lamb.” William Blake used his philosophic knowledge in writing the poem. In the first two lines of the poem Blake asks, “Little Lamb who made thee doust thou know who made thee?” Blake starts the poem with this question and then goes on by describing how wonderful the lamb is by showing that the creator gave the lamb life, food, fleece as clothing, and a “tender voice.” In the second stanza describing the creator of the lamb, Blake writes, “He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb.” If you were to take the quote literally rather than philosophically it would mean nothing, but Blake is meaning for the “He” to be Jesus Christ. Blake in saying that Christ calls himself a Lamb is referring to what is know as “pass over.” Anderson describes pass over as being when the Israelites spread blood of a lamb on their door posts so the angel of God would “pass over” their homes and not kill their first born sons (622). Jesus Christ is referred to as the Paschal Lamb because he was God’s first born son and sacrificed his life. So in the poem the lamb is not only literally a lamb, but is also a symbol of innocence, purity and meekness (622). This is the reason that Blake wrote “The Lamb” in his book with the Songs of Innocence.
One of the most powerful poems in the Songs of Experience is “The Tyger.” William Blake wrote “The Tyger” in contrast to the Lamb. Goodman points out that the tiger in the poem is a beast like creature resembling darkness and evil (263). Blake writes in the third and fourth lines, “What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” As in “The Lamb” Blake asks the question who made this creature. Blake also adds “thy fearful symmetry” resembling the symmetry of the tiger’s fearful stripes. Since we can tell that Blake is comparing the two animals, we can assume by the lines saying, “On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire,” that Blake is suggesting that the tiger is from a hellish beginning. Goodman responds to these lines saying that Blake may have argued that the Fallen Archangel Lucifer is the creator of the tiger. Blake again asks who made the creator when he writes “And when thy heart began to beat, what dread hand? and what dread feet?” Blake wants the reader to think if God can create a dreadful creature, does it make God’s hands dreadful (264)? William Blake also says “Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” It is thought that Blake is suggesting that God has the capacity for tenderness, and dreadfulness and neither is more pleasurable (264). Blake also is mentioning that when someone creates something they should take pride in it, because with time it may be better understood. The poem ends with a similar line from the beginning of the poem but with the word ‘”could” substituted with “dare.” “Dare” emphasizes the courage and divine of the creator. “The Tyger” has been debated upon for many years on what Blake actually wanted the reader to see from the tiger. What we do know is that the tiger and the lamb are contrasted in each poem and the almighty God made both.
William Blake was a magnificent writer. He died in 1827 in near poverty and he was little known for his artwork and less known for his poetry. William Blake during his lifetime and shortly after was thought to be a mad man, because of his unusual writing and painting styles. He wrote many poems recognizable today, including “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Blake received little credit for his works until nearly 100 years after his death. Yet Blake is now one of the most widely recognized poets in the English canon. The question should no longer arise if Blake was sane or mad, he was a sane genius!