I have found time recently to introduce William Blake into Year 8 or 9. My students sit an exam in the summer which has focused in part on an appreciation of “London”, as an unseen poem. The question has followed the WJEC GCSE model – “write about this poem and its effect on you…”, although we no longer sit this examination. I like the open nature of the question. Students are being encouraged to respond to the writing as well as to recognise key poetic devices and their effects. It is worth stressing at this time that focus on effects of devices is vital. This is not a game of I-spy and whilst technical language is welcome, it is by no means an end in itself.
To prepare the students for the exam I work for a few lessons on two pairs of poems from The Songs of Innocence and Experience – the Chimney Sweeps and the Holy Thursdays. I use other poems as time allows – notably The Divine Image and the Human Abstract, though this does push the unit into a longer time and greater depth than is sometimes ideal.
Students are asked to address poems using the mnemonic derived from the WJEC questions (the bullet points) –Content, Ideas, Meaning, Language and Effect. The idea is that Content refers to an overview of the poem, Ideas a closer look at the philosophies contained by the poem and so on. Students learn or revise the techniques around PEE structure in responses and gain confidence that their ideas are probably valid and simply need to be conveyed clearly and accurately.
This is not intended as a step by step SOW, but as a range of ideas. The attached PowerPoints are ones I have used in lessons and the brief analyses of the poems could serve as downloadable handouts or stimulus pieces or whatever seems to work well.
Before starting, some time must be spent (often as a group research activity) engaging with the idea of revolution and the beginnings of Romanticism. The idea that individual voices began to challenge the accepted authority of much of Europe is exciting. Blake can be seen as a revolutionary who was brave enough to criticise those in authority – both rules and clergy. Students should become familiar with the ideas of the Rights of Man and the hostility shown to such revolutionary figures by the establishment. That Blake became disillusioned after the Terror began and produced the Experience poems is not beyond students at this level. Thus two levels of innocence and experience become recognised – the purity of the child becoming tainted by puberty and the reality of childhood in the eighteenth century and the pure ideals of the revolution becoming tainted by greed and depravity. Students are easily able to recognise the social criticism developed by Blake – today’s press is full of it.
The final thread of the work is creativity. Students are encouraged to engage with Blake’s art and will create their own version of any of the four key poems based on their readings and using images which they can easily relate to. These may be created or produced using images found on computers. After the exam, as part of the give back process, they will produce a work of art to represent “London” and annotate it to show how the visual ideas have developed from the written word. Finally they produce a poem on the same model to convey their home town in the same manner that Blake has presented London. Teaching in Slough, I have had many poems based around Windsor that convey well the clash between the tourist-rich Royal town and the reality of recent immigration and relative poverty of much of the surrounding area. This is an area to develop depending on particular issues which might arise in specific areas.
The Chimney Sweep (Innocence).
Content: At first glance this is a poem about a chimney sweep, who has been orphaned at a very young age, though many will realise that this has been brought about by unusual means: “My father sold me…” and that the narrator of the poem is telling us a story about a dream that a friend of his has had. The dream seems comforting and the children get up and go off to clean chimneys.
At this stage, this is enough to find. The “C” bullet requires a quick overview of the poem and no more. It is the next section which enlarges upon the ideas found within.
Ideas/Meaning: The poem is deceptively simple, written in a childish ballad form with AABB rhyming in each four line stanza. It is possible to read into this the authentic voice of a child-narrator. With this in mind, the reader can determine the criticism inherent in the subject matter (this may be INNOCENCE, but no one could present chimney sweeping without criticism, surely?). In the opening stanza the child’s state of mind is clearly shown in the repeated “’weep, ‘weep, ‘weep” which echoes the street-cry of the sweepers whilst clearly introducing the idea of sorrow and suffering into the poem. Blake stresses the youth of the child – “very young”, “could scarcely cry”- and makes the reader aware that they are partly culpable –“your chimneys” is a direct accusation and should warn the reader against complacency.
Blake than introduces the colour symbolism which will dominate the poems under consideration. It is too simple to equate white with good and black with evil, but at this stage the ambivalence is not obvious. That will happen when the students read the Experience Sweep. Tom’s hair is described using the Biblical image for purity in the form of the lamb and we notice that in its shaving, his innocence is removed. Lambs are innocent. They are also animals used for sacrifice and slaughter. Blake is beginning to show his ideas clearly through the symbolism.
The narrator calms Tom, though is hardly convincing, and in Tom’s dream, the wider ideas are revealed. The “coffins of black” seem to represent chimneys as well as clearly conveying the doomed childhoods of the sweeps and they are released by an “angel with a bright key”. Years 8 are unlikely to have read Milton, but we can show them the ambiguity of this image – the key to heaven or the key to hell? is the question we might ask. Certainly the children are freed form immediate bondage and the imagery abounds with joy and colour as they romp in the countryside, but at the end of the poem the message seems confused. If Tom is a good boy he will never “want” joy. Want can mean both desire and lack and here the message is muddied. God might well provide comfort, but even if this is the case, the children return to work and to cruelty and a certain early death; the comfort my be illusory, however, and act as a placebo and so reduce the wish for joy and consequently encourage an adoption of the status quo. In this darker reading there is little comfort to be gained from God and Blake seems to reinforce this by the fact that the children wake in the dark and set off in the cold. The final line could almost have been taken from the manifesto of a totalitarian state – it may be true, but seems to reinforce the idea that all should accept their lot in life and never complain.
The writing is straightforward, though we should notice the way in which Blake uses colour to determine ideas and also the way in which he stresses the size of the problem – “thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack” – suggesting by the choice of Christian names the commonality of the problem. Children are identified by name and thus made familiar, but their names are common diminutions of more formal names, suggesting youth and familiarity, but also that these are ordinary boys, from poorer backgrounds.
Stanza four is useful for the effects by which Blake conveys the happiness of the released children. The alliterative Ls give a bounce and energy to the movements described and the use of “laughing” stands out by the strong contrast between this emotion and the prevailing emotion of the earlier part of the poem. The plain is “green” – Blake using strong colours for strong ideas as green ties in with the idea of Eden and the image of the countryside as something “good” – and the stress that falls on “wash” provides an onomatopoeic depiction of the children jumping into the water. After this they “shine” and are linked by language to the “bright key” and therefore to the angel.
As the reader becomes more aware of the hidden complexity of this poem, the basic effect should probably be one of sorrow or anger. The criticism is muted here and generally implied rather than stated. This may well add to the depth of emotion felt by the reader.
EXPERIENCE: CHIMNEY SWEEPER
Much of the symbolism is the same as in Innocence and students respond well to this familiarity. There should be a discussion here about the nature of “experience” in this context and recognition that the Experience poems seem in some way to develop or to answer questions raised by the Innocence set.
Content: As before a story is being related about a chimney sweep, but now there is a closer focus on the responsibility of society in putting him in this role.
Ideas/Meaning: The opening line makes the reader reassess the white/black ideas found in innocence. Nothing is clear cut now and the “black thing” can not be seen as evil, rather as doomed or ill-fated. Against the snow, he stands out, but snow can not be seen as white and therefore as goodness. Even goodness deceives and the coldness of the snow reflects the harsh and unforgiving nature of the society in which he lives.
There is also a sense of explanation here which was absent in the earlier poem. The use of “because” seems to offer an explanation for the sweep being in this state. It is almost as though society refuses to look beyond face value to recognise the reality beneath. Blake attributes this in part to the role of the church in life at the time. The parent figures are in church where they give thanks to the revised Holy Trinity of the day. The word order shows Blake’s revolutionary ideals clearly “God, and his priest and King”. The King is given prominence – he rules in God’s name but is set up as the most powerful force in this reversal of Divine precedence. Whether one chooses to see “his priest” as the Pope or as an attack on the hypocrisy of the lower clergy could be debated another time.
The final line is opaque but presumably suggests that the heaven – not capitalised and consequently not necessarily Heavenly – experienced by society is not only false but is based on the suffering of the poor. The recipe for revolution is stated clearly.
Whilst still in a similar structure as before, the language has become more opaque with apparently simple ideas carrying resonance beyond the obvious (black/white). Blake is clearer about the meaning of “’weep” attaching it here to clear “notes of woe” and has introduced a second voice – that of the concerned onlooker. A clear link is established between church and oppression as the child refers to his “clothes of death” – a visual metaphor as well as a factual statement – being given to him “because” he was “happy on the heath”. The child can only smile now, but the word stands out by the fact that along with “I” there are no other similar vowel sounds in the stanza where the predominant assonance is the “oe” sound of “woe, snow and clothed”.
The use of the third person – “they” – is accusatory and is given prominence and the final stanza as Blake explores the ability of society to overlook pain and suffering.
Effect: The effect is clearer and the tone is angrier than before. The second voice introduces the possibility that Blake is clearly showing his response to what he sees around him. The general effect should be to recognise the ability of society to support itself on the suffering of those least able to protect themselves.
INNOCENCE: HOLY THURSDAY
The format has not changed here, but the lines are much longer than in the Sweep poems. Some students might recognise this as resembling a hymn to be sung in church with this longer formation, but many will not.
Content: The poem shows a large group of children entering St Paul’s cathedral for the annual service of thanksgiving for their benefactors. A narrator is telling us the story with little sense of criticism and a wealth of descriptive language.
Ideas: The dichotomy between Innocence and Experience is clear from the opening as the “innocent faces” are juxtaposed against the “grey headed beadles” and the “aged men, wise guardians of the poor”. The children are held up as pure, natural beings without any of the taint of society. The have a “radiance” and seem to define purity and innocence. Having read the Sweeps however, the reader must see the “multitudes of lambs” with a shudder. Lambs are pure and innocent but also dumb animals led to slaughter. Blake seems to use this image as a double edged sword, designed to hint at the potential suffering beneath the veneer of acceptability.
Language: Colour is again a major element of this poem. The colourful children are juxtaposed with the cold, white wands. White has a “dark side” in these poems and here it is used of the wands with which the beadles – neither white not black but an ambivalent grey – charm the children into church. The colours are picked up in the metaphor of the “flowers of London town”. The image is charming, but flowers wither and die and seem somewhat out of place in the urban setting. Brief bringers of pleasure possibly, but doomed to a swift death.
The assonance of the “u” vowels in the second stanza captures the sound within the church as the children wait to sing, but somehow the “companies” in which they sit reduces their individuality, an impression further made by them “raising their innocent hands” as though being interrogated by a harsh schoolmaster.
When they sing, the double simile suggests the power to move heaven. At the moment the thunderings are “harmonious” and do not immediately suggest any ill-fortune. Nevertheless, “thunderings” in heaven generally portend ill.
The benefactors are described as sitting “beneath them” and stress is placed on “wise” which destroys the iambic flow after the caesura as though Blake wishes to inflect the word. I would suggest that this is ironic, as though by acting as a “guardian” one is protecting the poor. One is also trapping them and keeping them under guard.
Meaning: Blake is not being overtly critical here, but the last line suggests a meaning. The reader is being asked to “cherish” pity, the idea being that if one does not show pity, the “angel” that is driven away might well end up in this parentless, empty existence. The children are shown to be fragile and beautiful and yet they are herded into church like sacrificial lambs and we remember the idea from the Experience Sweep: “And because I am happy and dance and sing, / They think they have done me no injury”.
EXPERIENCE: HOLY THURSDAY
After the first three poems the form of the final one stands out. The poem has a single stanza full of repetition and with a terseness that is missing from the Innocence Thursday poem which is notable for the length of its lines.
Content: This is an angry diatribe against the hypocrisy of the state and the church. It is written as a sequence of rhetorical questions which force the reader to criticise society for themselves and thus to awaken to Blake’s revolutionary and Romantic fervour.
Ideas: The poem sets up the disparity between the wealth of the country –“a rich and fruitful land” and the abject poverty of the underclass –“It is a land of poverty”. Presumably this poverty is a moral poverty as well as making a clear statement about the balance of rich/poor in the land.
Blake uses nature to reflect the harsh life of the poor for whom it is “eternal winter”, before stating what he sees as the obvious fact that in a world where sunshine is plentiful and rain falls – i.e. everywhere, but especially for Blake in England – babies can not be allowed to go hungry and poverty should appal all right thinking people. Sadly, he implies, this is not the case in the current situation where society has disrupted natural processes.
Language: From the outset, Blake suggests that “holy” is a corrupted force. We know from the earlier poem that the children are in church giving thanks to their benefactors and now Blake is questioning that which seemed in the Innocence poem to be a good thing. Language choice is key to this – the benefactors now have a “usurous hand” and the implication is that of the charity being given as a means to raising money for themselves, and the song which thundered to heaven is now reduced to a “trembling cry” as the reality hits home of the weak and feeble voices as they sing. Blake asks his reader directly “can this be a song of joy?” Of course, the expected answer is a resounding “NO!”
The repeated triplet of “And…And…And” serves to pile the images up and carries within it images of a sacrificed Christ in the thorns which fill their ways. The image is one of darkness and a hostile environment in which the “flowers of London town” are doomed to fail and die. There is no optimism here.
The cryptic final pair of lines are designed to end with the word which Blake intended to impress on his readers – “appall”.
After reading these poems the students are ready to address London on their own. The degree of essay planning or technique required depends on the students and the task could work just as well as a less formal group oral activity.
Content: The poem describes in the first person the sights and sounds seen in a night-time walk through the streets of London. Many of the images are familiar from the work undertaken on the earlier poems and it will be no surprise to discover that the images are not positive.
Ideas: The idea seems to be that even in the organised, mapped and controlled city (“chartered”) there are few inhabitants who are not suffering. The list includes men, women and children all of whom are seen in their distinctive roles. The men are “hapless soldiers” dying at the behest of their monarch; the women are harlots giving birth in the gutter and ruining marriage – that sacred union – by their various venereal diseases. The children are the “infants” and “chimney sweepers” of earlier poems as Blake stresses the youth and innocence of the victims. The poem offers no solution for the problems, but draws attention to the reality that lurks beneath the veneer once darkness falls and night reveals the truth behind society.
Language: Repetition of “every” serves to draw attention to the all-consuming nature of the problem as perceived by Blake. He repeats “chartered” at the opening to show the hubris of society. Even the Thames is said to be chartered as though nature is controlled by man, yet within this all-powerful framework there is little other than poverty and depravity. As he repeats “mark” in the first stanza he plays with the homophone to allow the sense to shift from noticing to a physical scar that is visible.
Stanza two presents a metaphor of extreme power in the “mind-forged manacles”. Not only are the masses incapable of action, but this inability is entirely due to the mental state in which they are maintained –a state of fear reinforced by the constant teaching of churches which are shown to be appalling by each “chimney sweeper’s cry” and the power of the monarchy which oppresses and drives soldiers to their deaths. The metaphor of the “sighs (running) like blood down the palace walls” is a powerful image enabling a clear visual link to be made between authority and futile death. Today we talk of rulers having “blood on their hands”.
In the final stanza Blake uses “youthful” to stress the depraved nature of a world full of harlots and places “blasts” in strength at the start of the second line. The alliterative power of the word indicates the strength of emotion felt towards the new-born baby and Blake further his attack on the hypocrisy of the church by referring to “plagues” as the blight of the “marriage hearse”. Marriage is seen as a union in the eye of God. We notice that it is not adultery which harms marriage, although that would be in breach of one of the tem commandments, but it is disease. Blake seems to be implying that adultery is acceptable, and in doing so suggests that the word of the church can be twisted to suit the needs of the “believer”.
To attach “hearse” to marriage and to end the poem with the word is the clearest indication of how Blake feels about the ritual at the centre of society. Marriage is death – perhaps death of the individual, perhaps death of women who become entrapped in it. Whatever view is taken, the image carries within it the same white (marriage)/black (hearse) image that we have seen throughout the poems. Given this, is marriage the end of innocence and the beginning of experience?
Effect: The effect is generally one of anger and sorrow with emotive phrases such as “marks of weakness, marks of woe”, or “every infant’s cry of fear” causing the reader to reflect on what he is reading. There is a sense of bitterness brought on by the quantity of examples presented in such a concentrated poem. The reader may well chose to extend his reflection to the town in which he lives and consider whether such a damning critique of society is still applicable. In many places, little will have changed.
resource book: blake 9 gcse
A sound version of this post can be find here: http://soundgecko.com/view/CKyyBlD-KECLPexVLAIKJAKoxkfq4R/working-with-blake-in-ks3?source=