By Sasha Griffiths
It is easy to think of poets like William Blake as being outdated and estranged from the trials and tribulations of modern society. It is often asked whether, and how his poetry is still relevant today. But, beyond the differences in religion and rule, the topics he wrote on are not that far removed from our own concerns today.
“insights into our own lives in capitalist modernity”
Blake’s most well-known collection – Songs of Innocence and Experience – is, on the surface, a reflection on the journey from childhood to adulthood, the change from life in the country to life in the city, or more implicitly from the blissful ignorance of the Garden of Eden to the injustice and cruelty of the world after The Fall. Within Songs of Innocence is the suggestion of ideals like free and open love, relationships without restriction, childhood without suppression, and a life without the misery of the industrial revolution.
In contrast, Songs of Experience focuses on the flip-side of these ideals, exploring the realities of living in a tainted world far removed from God, where suffering is rife and childhood is stunted. Some of Blake’s most famous poems comment on the problematic nature of life for many people in the city, and can offer valuable insights into our own lives in capitalist modernity.
‘London’, a well-known poem by Blake, brings to light the issues of poverty, illness, and hard labour; issues that still resonate today. Within the poem, Blake takes readers on a journey through the “chartered streets” of London, bringing to life the people of the city and their afflictions. As we walk alongside him, we are made aware of the cruelty of the city, where atrocities like “the hapless soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace walls” and the “youthful harlot’s curse blasts the new-born infant’s tear”.
Blake doesn’t mince his words when he points to these obvious injustices and this is something we could learn from today where much suffering goes unnoticed or ignored. Blake’s image of London is not too different from the London we see today, where homelessness is still a pressing issue and hate-crime is on the rise. We are most certainly not living with a picture-perfect London.
We are not living with a picture-perfect London
Another of Blake’s most famous poems is ‘The Schoolboy’ tells of a young boy’s experience of going to school. The boy declares that he would much rather be playing outside than spending “many an anxious hour” with his head in books trapped indoors. Blake contrasts the “bird that is born for joy” being forced to “sit in a cage and sing”; an allusion that doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the education system in our own society where younger and younger children are under increasing pressure to sit exams at an age where they should be playing stuck in the mud. School shouldn’t be a detention centre, but a place of nurture where children can express themselves and feel the freedom of childhood.
This poem makes the important point that self-expression is impossible in a cage-like environment, and although the cruel punishments of the teachers’ past may have disappeared, the restrictive and regulated way of teaching and learning continues to repress children’s excitement and energy.
Blake’s collection not only focuses on these practical matters of society, but provides a comment on what it means to be human. In poems like ‘Divine Image’ he explores virtues and “the human form” and thinks about the way we ought to treat those who are different from ourselves, something particularly poignant today. In others, like ‘A Poison Tree’, he thinks about anger and forgiveness and the fact that harbouring or repressing emotions can often be destructive to our relationships with others.
Overall Blake’s poetry has a timeless feel which allows us to connect modern societies problems with the systemic issues that have plagued humanity for centuries. Blake’s poetry is universal and will be worth reading for centuries to come.
Image: Angelbattle bros via Flickr and Creative Commons