Blake’s Themes


There are certain characteristic themes in Blake’s poetry and although they often overlap, they are worth separate consideration, if only to bring them into focus. These are some of the more specific ways in which Blake pursues the dialectic of Innocence and Experience. They emerge both as part of Blake’s indignation at conditions In late eighteenth-century England end as part of his healing visions. They are, of course, delivered explicitly and implicitly in his patterns of symbolism. An exploration of the following key themes will deepen an understanding of the poems and Blake’s relationship to contemporary conditions.


Blake’s understanding of innocence was not grounded in an absence of understanding, rather, it was a consequence of insight Into the mysteries of the cosmos. In other words we should not underestimate the complexity of Blake’s understanding of Innocence. He was never sentimental or naive about innocence. He once wrote: ‘unorganized innocence: an impossibility. Innocence dwells with wisdom, but never with ignorance (note written on the back of an edition of The Four Zoas). As with much of Blake’s writing, the reader should be alert to levels of meaning, in this case, from simple child-like innocence, to a vision of a universe of love and harmony.



In Blake, innocence is not entirely the preserve of children; it is also manifested in the attitude and actions of men and women filled with the spirit of the divine as in The Cradle Song and The Divine Image. A central theme in Blake’s poetry is that of guardianship. The successful guardian is the adult who listens, who is alert to the voice of innocence and responds appropriately.


Social and political themes

Blake’s sympathy for the suffering of ordinary men, women and children in the real world was profound. He was a friend and associate of many radicals of the time Including Thomas Paine. He may be seen as a ‘visionary’ but he was also acutely aware of social and political realities, as we have seen in the discussion of London, and was particularly appalled by the complacency of the Church in respect of social abuse.


It is in this theme that some of the others coalesce. An extension of his interest in Innocence is a concern for the vulnerable and exploited, especially children. Conversely he targets those adults who represent the worst features of the failure of guardianship, for example the adults in The Chimney Sweeper and in both versions of Holy Thursday which reveal the vulnerability of the exploited and Blake’s indignant response to their treatment.


Blake was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, which he believed would eradicate tyrannical monarchs, and false religion. He articulates much of this in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Tyger is a complex poem which has been interpreted in a number of ways: one of these is as a celebration of revolutionary energies that cleanse a corrupt world and establish a new order.


Conventional Religion

Blake was particularly hostile towards conventional religion and especially the Church of England which he included amongst the ‘dark satanic mills’ in And did those feet in ancient time.


The Enlightenment rationality that arose from Newton’s physics also shaped forms of belief in eighteenth-century England. Blake attacked the priesthood of the Church of England for promoting a rational religion which denied the divinity in the human. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake argues that a faith based on reason is a denial of desire (energy). A ‘thou shalt not’ morality (see The Garden of Love in Songs of Experience) leads only to corruption and a passive response to authority: ‘Good is the passive that obeys reason’ (Plate 3). The rational (i.e. repressive) Church is instrumental in the process of closing up the ‘doors of perception’ (Plate 14) and deprives human beings of sight of the Infinite. A clear example of this can be found in the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where Blake says ‘Let the priests of the raven of dawn no longer, in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy; nor his accepted brethren (whom, tyrant, he calls free) lay the bound or build the roof; nor pale religious lechery call that virginity that wishes but acts not. For everything that lives is holy.


Blake’s attack on the false guardians took on particular significance when he turned his attention to the clergy, whom he described as corrupt, parasitical and repressive (see, for example, ‘the villain’ and ‘the sneaking serpent’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Plate 2).


Love and Sexuality

What is notable about Blake in the religious and moral climate of the times is his celebration of sexuality because of its association with innocence, energy and desire. Blake was aware (for example in ‘A Little Girl Lost’) of the possibility that experience could corrupt sexuality and this dialectical opposition is revealed in the symbolism of The Blossom and its contrary The Sick Rose. In the Songs of Experience, therefore, Blake explores the potential for human sexuality and the hazards that it faces in the world of experience.


On Being an Artist

Blake firmly believed that his art would make a contribution to the moral, spiritual and intellectual revolution he envisaged. In this respect he was in line with other conceptions of the Romantic artist - the inspired genius with special insight and visionary powers. Artists were distinguished by the powers of their creative imagination. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake conveys his own artistic manifesto and his wish to dedicate his prophetic craft to achieve social renewal, and idea that can perhaps also be seen in the transition from piper to bard in the Introductions to the two sets of poems