Symbolism in Blake's PoetryIntroduction
The poetry as well as the whole art of William Blake is abundant with symbols. There is hardly any poem in the "Songs of Innocence and Experience" which does not possess symbols. A symbol is an object which stands for something else as Shelley's wind symbolizes inspiration, Ted Hughes's Hawk symbolizes terrible destructiveness at the heart of nature and S.T. Coleridge's Albatross represents a psychological burden that feels like a curse. Most symbols are not like code signals, like traffic lights, where red means stop and green means go, but part of a complex language in which green can mean jealously or fertility, or even both, depending on context. The major symbols in Blake's poetry are; lamb, rose, children, tiger, garden, stars, forest, looms and net.
William Blake loves lambs. They connect religion with both human and natural world. Traditionally, the lamb is a symbol of renewal, victory of life upon death, gentleness, tenderness and innocence. White colour of the lamb stands for purity. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus Christ is compared to a lamb because he goes meekly to be sacrificed on behalf of humanity. Moreover, lambs, as baby sheep, are connected to the theme of childhood that runs through the "Songs of Innocence". By contrast, "Songs of Experience" contains only one reference to a lamb. The Speaker of "The Tyger" asks,"Did he who made the lamb make thee"?2. Rose
Sunflower, lily and rose are the common flowers that appear in Blake's poetry as symbols. Sunflower represents a man who is bound to earth, but is pinning for eternity. Lily is a symbol of love which is without any self-reference, neither defending itself nor causing any pain and destruction. Rose, as a symbol, has a rich and ancient history. In the ancient Rome, roses were grown in the funerary gardens to symbolize resurrection. According to medieval tradition, they represent chastity or virginity and thus are associated with young girls. In Christianity, the rose is a frequent symbol for the Virgin Mary, who is called a "rose without thorns". The rose garden is a symbol of paradise. However, the rose of William Blake symbolizes beauty, virginity, innocence and London.
On account of their playfulness and freshness, Blake sees children as symbols of imagination and artistic creativity. He also uses them as an image of innocence. The child motif emphasizes the suggestions of simplicity and lack of sophistication. Much of the moralistic teaching of Blake's day stressed the infant and boy Jesus as a figure with whom children could identify. However, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and childhood include experience of human violence and so emphasize the vulnerability of the child. Thus like the lamb, the child represents gentleness and innocence, together with vulnerability and openness to exploitation.
It is unclear what the tiger exactly symbolizes. It may symbolize the violent and terrifying forces within the individual man. The splendid but terrifying tiger makes us realize the God's purposes are not so easily understood. At the same time, the tiger is symbolic of the Creator's masterly skill which enabled Him to frame the "fearful symmetry" of the tiger. But the lion described in the poem "Night" offers an interesting contrary to the tiger. Both the beasts seem dreadful, but the lion, like the beast of the fairy tale, can be magically transformed into a good and gentle creature: the tiger cannot. The tiger also represents the energy and imagination of man. Really, the list is almost infinite. The point is, the tiger is important, and Blake's poem "The Tyger" barely limits the possibilities.
The garden is a symbol providing the location of love and temptation leading to captivity. The garden is commonly recalled in the "Songs of Experience". In the garden, mankind is walled or fenced off from his neighbours; man tends his own desires, particularly by self-conscious affections and jealousies. The garden is a sickly consolation among the evils of London. There are "Soft Gardens" and "Secret Gardens". In a garden of delight, mankind is surrounded by shadows. Urizen himself planted a "garden of fruits". This is Eden, never associated with innocence, but always with temptation, the tree of mystery and forbidden knowledge. This aspect of Eden is prototype of Blake's symbol of the garden.
Stars are often used to symbolize heavenly bodies, purity, distance, light in the darkness, unattainable things, good luck and eternity. In dreams, a shooting star is a sign of self-fulfillment and advancement in life. However, Blake uses the star symbol in his own specific sense. The stars are never romantic. At one level, stars and darkness are commonly assumed to endanger health. The symbol of the stars assumes another dimension when it is associated with material and spiritual repression. This is said to reflect Blake's reaction against the rational thoughts of his times.
The forest, that seems to overgrow the hills of Innocence, with its impenetrable superstition, is one of Blake's most powerful symbols. The conventional beginning is seen in the "Poetical Sketches" where the "thickest shades" provide concealment from the sun in "To Summer", and in "To the Evening Star", the lion "glares through the dense forest". This poem is typical in its refined holiness of eighteenth century mannerism, which Blake soon outgrew. In "Songs of Innocence", the groves of "Night" and "The Little Black Boy" still occur in a religious context, and we are moving towards the mention in "America" where the Royalist oppressors crouch terrified in their caverns.
8. Looms and Net
A loom is a device used to weave cloth. The basic purpose of any loom is to hold the warp threads under tension to facilitate the interweaving of the weft threads. In the prophetic books, the symbols of loom, with the action of weaving, the web and the net represent the soft, delusive terror of sexual dominance and these symbols run together. "The silken net" in "How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field", suggests the trap of tenderness. The eighteenth century sought in public works to slave its conscience over prostitution, poverty and disease. For Blake, it was hypocrisy, while the old order perpetuated itself, and an oppressive social and moral code fostered the destitution and traffic in childhood that all professed to deplore.
It is established that Blake is a highly symbolic poet. His use of symbolism is unique and cinematic. It paints a lively and pulsating picture of dynamic life before us. He has depicted nature and human nature; animals and plants as simple but profound symbols of powerful forces. What is different in Blake is that he is not modeling after any symbols but his own. His handling of symbols is markedly different from that of the French symbolists. His symbols are not mechanical or inflexible. He has used archetypal symbolism in his poetry. In short, symbolism is the main trait of William Blake as a poet and this has been well crystallized in his legendary work, "The Songs of Innocence and Experience".Notes Prepared By: Prof. Shahbaz Asghar
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