Comparing the symbolic treatment of Childhood in Blake and Wordsworth

Both Blake and Wordsworth particularly emphasise childhood in their poetry. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience for example especially appear to treat childhood as a symbol of the human condition as seen from Blake’s perspective. His poem The Voice of the Ancient Bard in Songs of Innocence, starts with the lines:

Youth of delight come hither

And see the opening morn,

Image of truth new-born.(3)

This sense of pleasure and newness is typical of the impression Blake gives throughout Songs of Innocence. In a mixture of words such as ‘Little boy / Full of joy’(4) – ‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy’(5) and frequent usage of rural imagery, lambs and sunshine, Blake uses childhood and joy as a symbol of an aspect of human experience. But it is only when the Songs of Innocence are read against the background of Songs of Experience and other writings such as All Religions are One, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that one can begin to grasp what childhood symbolises in Blake’s writings.

In ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ we read that “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained”(6) and “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”(7). Blake is maintaining in such lines that as humans we have no lower nature – ‘everything that lives is holy’. For Blake Heaven was what he called Poetic or creative genius. Hell was man’s body and all the energies of movement, emotions and delight that it generated.

Comparing the positive imagery of ‘Innocence’ with the changed tone of ‘Experience’ we find such lines as:

In every cry of every man,

In every infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind forged manacles I hear:(8)

As Blake is also writing about childhood in ‘Experience’ we cannot simply assume the difference is between childhood and adulthood. The poem Infant Sorrow makes this plain:

My mother groaned, my father wept!

Into the dangerous world I leapt,

Helpless, naked, piping loud,

Like a fiend hid in a cloud.(9)

Who is the fiend and what the cloud though?

Perhaps this is clearer in the poem A Little Boy Lost.

The weeping child could not be heard;

The weeping parents wept in vain.

They stripped him to his little shirt,

And bound him in an iron chain.(10)

Something has been hidden, something bound, something stripped of its possible apparel. Blake appears to be describing what he calls the natural ‘energy’ that is the opposite to nursed ‘unacted desires’. He is delineating how different the world appears when we are bound by religious or social views that lead to constraint. Blake was a self-taught youth, allowed to read and explore in his own manner, and he may well associate his own genius with this ability to follow natural inclination. Apart from this however, he makes it plain that aspects of religion and social restraints lead to social and personal sickness – ‘Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion’.(11) Blake does not appear to mean a simplistic judgement by this. More likely it refers to the sort of social attitudes that not so long ago led many women to madness or suicide when they were pregnant with an illegitimate child. Today we would think such levels of stress very strange in an unmarried mother.

Michael Mason, in his Introduction to Blake’s poems, warns the reader that one must resist the temptation to simplify Blake’s intent. To quote Mason, “Blake, who is so readily simplified by his readers, was the great anti-simplifier, always probing for contradiction and tension.”(12) Blake may even be pointing out a way of doing this when he wrote, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”(13) “Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.”(14) To have ones own response to life, full of its contradictions and conflicts, and attempt a marriage of these antipodes of human experience, is recommended by Blake.

Wordsworth writes in quite a different way about his physical surroundings and childhood, but nevertheless, still describes nature and youth as representing something more than simple trees, rivers or scarcity of years. In his poem Michael, we read:

Careless of books, yet having felt the power

Of nature, by the gentle agency

Of natural objects, led me on to feel

For passions that were not my own, and think

(At random and imperfectly indeed)

On man, the heart of man, and human life.(15)

Just as a story in a book may lead us on to form a picture, or even an understanding that is not explicit in the words, so Wordsworth is suggesting in the above lines that nature intimates or leads to certain thoughts or understandings about human life. He defines this further in LinesTintern Abbey:

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams …

To me was all in all. – I cannot paint

What then I was. The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood …”(16)

The words “what then I was” refer to childhood, and the state defined as “That time is past.”(17) This with the words ‘all in all’ suggest the experience of nature in childhood was complete in itself, experiences that have meaning, but perhaps meaning which is the very think known, rather than what may later be thought or interpreted, written about.

Bibliography

William Blake. Edited by Michael Mason. Published by Oxford University Press, 1994, UK. ISBN: 0-19-282305-1

Wordsworth. Complete Poetical Works. Published by Oxford University Press, 1936, UK. ISBN: 0-19-281052-9

(1)

Notes

William Blake. Edited by Michael Mason. Published by Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-19-282305-1

(2)

Wordsworth. Poetical Works. Published by Oxford University Press, 1936, UK.

(3)

William Blake. Page 66.

(4)

William Blake. Spring. Page 64.

(5)

William Blake. Laughing Song. Page 65.

(6)

William Blake. Page 75.

(7)

William Blake. Page 78.

(8)

William Blake. London. Page 124.

(9)

William Blake. Page 125.

(10)

William Blake. Page 127.

(11)

William Blake. Proverbs of Hell. Page 76.

(12)

William Blake. Introduction. Page xi.

(13)

William Blake. Jerusalem.

(14)

William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Page 77.

(15)

Wordsworth. Michael. Page 104.

(16)

Wordsworth. Lines – Tintern Abbey. Page 164.

(17)

Wordsworth. Lines – Tintern Abbey. Page 164.

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