William Blake’s Egalitarian Vision

‘You can see what I see, if you choose.’

by James Graham


As a child William Blake saw angels sitting in a tree, and the face of God at his bedroom window. He claimed to have conversed with the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. His parents worried about him. Though they were devout Christians, they were afraid his visions might be precursors of madness.

Finally they seem to have decided their son’s affliction was something short of madness — a hyperactive imagination — and tried to channel it by sending him to Henry Pars’ drawing school in the Strand. When he left there at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire, and engraving brought him a modest income for the rest of his life.

James and Catherine Blake had done the sensible thing by their eccentric son. But there were things in his nature that, understandably, they failed to see — especially the extraordinary premium that, even in childhood, he placed on the imagination. In maturity he would set it above reason and every other faculty as ‘The human existence itself’.

Another aspect of his childhood visions — however we may explain them — was carried forward into adulthood. As a child he never thought he was strange or different; he thought everyone else could see angels and talk with the Virgin Mary. At some stage he must have learned otherwise, but he maintained until his dying day a belief in the universality of imagination. In old age he told an acquaintance: ‘You can see what I see, if you choose. You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done’. He believed that everyone else had the same gift — at least potentially — as himself. Long after childhood, he still didn’t believe he was strange or different.

We may be sceptical about this claim that the man on the Clapham omnibus is so richly endowed. But if we simply leave it at that, we miss Blake’s huge magnanimity. He wants every living person to realise their full humanity.

On another occasion he said to a friend: ‘You have the same faculty as I, only you do not trust or cultivate it.’ This is not to say that most of us have a ‘faculty’ for writing poetry equal to that of Blake, or painting pictures equal to those of Leonardo — or indeed those of Blake. It is to say, however, that we can enter into the vision of great artists. Without fear of losing our bearings, we can cross into their territory and live there.

Let’s do just that. Since he credited us with that faculty, let’s use it to make an excursion into the country of Blake’s vision, explore a poem from his Songs of Innocence, and see if we find it hospitable.

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved; so I said,
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

And so he was quiet, and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight! -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel, who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins, and set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind:
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm:
So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Our experience of it begins with the simple things. We are impressed by the simple language — this poem of dismay and protest is written in the language of nursery tales. We feel pity for the boys, that they should be so cruelly abused. We know that what is done to them is wrong. We extrapolate into our own time and think of child labour in the poor world. We feel equal pity, and pass judgement equally on the modern exploiters, who use children because they are cheaper than adults. We are moved by the boy who is the speaker in the poem, by the way he comforts his unhappy friend. We are moved by the vision of liberation — though there seems to be something not quite right about it. Certainly the Angel seems a poor liberator.

But ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t like some plain but beautifully shaped piece of pottery that we look at and say, ‘I like that very much’, and there’s an end to it. No, this is a poem with a depth almost beyond fathoming. Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ might have been given alternative titles, none of which would have done much to sell copies, but which might have spelled out for the reader what was meant. The meaning of the book’s title is at least twofold.

First, the Songs might have been called Songs of Unexpanded Consciousness: of a poverty of awareness of the full context of one’s life. This kind of poverty leads us, among other things, to suppose that our circumstances, our plight, the way we see human relations operating around us from day to day: that these things are the natural law, the way human beings are, the way the universe is ordered. What do mice do? They eat bread and grain and live as long as they can, until a cat gets them. What do little boys do? They climb chimneys and their lungs fill with soot, and they live until they die.

The chimney-sweepers can’t go to the mountain top and look down, and see the true nature of the master who possesses them as chattels and who exploits them. They can’t see that King George who reigns over them is no better than the wicked king of the fairy tales. They can’t understand that their situation comes at the end of a century of cumulative dispossession, which has seen the expansion of manufactories, and in which the artisan weaver has become the hired servant of the textile industry capitalist.

A century too of growing poverty and inequality, the deliberate creation of which is not the work of God or Nature but of man — of men who can be named, of King George and his forebears, of Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, of Bristol merchants and Norfolk landowners. These men have created the conditions in which a father has to sell his son to a master of chimney-sweeps. Of course, the children are too young to understand such things, but even those who survive into manhood will have little access to such understanding.

Alternatively the Songs of Innocence might have been called Songs about the Victims of Innocence. Each boy chimney-sweeper is a unique human being of inestimable worth. The poem resonates with Blake’s belief that this is so. In his later years Blake was once asked what he thought of Jesus Christ. He said, ‘He was the greatest man who ever lived. And so am I. And so are you.’ And so are the young chimney-sweepers, every one. But they are reduced to a far, far lesser status. They are not merely innocent children; they are kept in innocence, for innocence is blameless ignorance. Their innocence is a part of their deprivation.

I have said the Angel is a poor liberator. The dream in which he appears is deceptively beautiful: the boys dive into the river, wash away all the soot, no doubt dowse each other and wrestle with each other in the water; and then, magically, they find themselves rising into the air to ‘sport in the wind’. But they have been released from their coffins so that all this can happen. It is nothing but the old religious pie in the sky. Tom will be sure to sport in the clouds — after he is dead. Meanwhile he should ‘be a good boy’, serve his master, clean the chimneys of the masters of indentured leather-workers and watchmakers, live humbly and honour the King.

And Tom wakes from his dream, and as he collects his bag and brushes he is happy. This is innocence. Knowing no better, he is comforted by the promise of the Angel, and cannot see that the Angel is an agent of the ruling elite and its hierarchy, and an advocate of the exploitation and cruelty their social system makes possible. For Tom, an understanding of the conditions of his life, and of the possibility that he and his comrades might even become historical agents, able to act against their oppression, is not as out of reach as we might suppose; and yet it is as remote as the ends of the universe. Tom’s happiness is heartbreaking. Indeed, much of Blake’s book is heartbreaking, but it is also a bright illumination. It’s a true vision.

‘You can see what I see, if you choose.’ Does Blake’s passion for the imaginative fulfilment of all humanity extend even to the chimney sweepers? Of course it does. But he would have had to say to Tom, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack: You can see what I see, if you are not taken into virtual slavery; if you are allowed, figuratively, to ‘sport in the wind’ not in dreams which induce a false, fragile cheerfulness, but in all your waking hours. Blake’s vision is profoundly egalitarian; he is heartsick that these children of the London slums are denied ‘the human existence itself’.

‘You have the same faculty as I, only you do not trust or cultivate it.’ Yes, Mr Blake, I do believe I have; I need to trust and cultivate it even more. But I also learn from you that I am not strange or different in that regard. We can all set out on the road to enrichment that you have shown us. However they may manifest themselves — in ways very different to yours perhaps — we can all see the angels in the trees.


Copyright © 2013 by James Graham

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