Bewildering Stories discusses...
“Blake’s Egalitarian Vision” appears in this issue.
[Bill Bowler] I read the essay on Blake with interest as the subject is dear to my heart. He’s my idol, if the truth be told, up there with Mozart. The essayist’s point that Blake’s poems are socio-political criticism couched in the form of nursery rhymes is well taken. But this is not surprising, and you would be hard pressed to find a more acute social critic than Mother Goose herself.
I wander down each chartered street
In every cry of every man,
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
But most, through midnight streets I hear
The end of “Chimney Sweeper” is kind of a political cop-out, but it is consistent with a vision of Innocence where Right and Good prevail on the cosmic level and our earthly travails are but an illusion.
The discussion in the essay about political criticism of King George and about alternate titles for “Innocence” seems to miss the point entirely. The Songs are precisely of Innocence and the ultimate justice of cosmic reality masked by earthly suffering.
That Innocence is ripped to shreds, of course, in the Songs of Experience. Compare “London” to “Chimney Sweeper”: there is no cosmic redemption, no “Holy Virgin issue forth,” only the bitterest and most scathing depiction of human suffering and injustice on earth, a Dickens novel condensed to sixteen lines.
[Gary Inbinder] Blake is an odd fish. Politically, he aligned himself with early anarchists like William Godwin, but unlike his ideological peers, Blake remained a Christian. And he wrote a poem criticizing Rousseau and Voltaire for mocking traditional Christianity. Perhaps he could be compared to Tolstoy, an unorthodox Christian pacifist/anarchist?
[Don Webb] Nothing prevents a poet — or any author — from expressing one point of view and then turning around and saying the opposite just as forcefully. That’s where dramatic tension comes from.
But Blake writes poetry, not fiction. Are “The Chimney Sweeper” and “London” therefore contradictory? For some, perhaps; but the poems actually represent two complementary views of the same thing.
The first half of “The Chimney Sweeper” duplicates the “Dickensian” squalor depicted in “London.” The second half shows the sweepers redeemed in a heavenly afterlife, for “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” The sweepers will do their job and Blake will do his.
“London” offers no such redemption. Rather, both church and government have failed their duty; “mind-forged manacles” remain and the many voices in the poem go unheard :
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
What of the “youthful harlot’s curse”? It depends on one’s politics whether the failure is one of punishment or of compassion. But both poems emphasize the plight of children. “The Chimney Sweeper” focuses exclusively upon children at hard labour; “London” hears children’s voices twice: once in fear, once in abandonment.
“The Chimney Sweeper” shows children as “innocent” and as deserving a better fate in the next world. “London” challenges the readers’ “experience” by implicitly asking, “What are you going to do about it in this world?”
Copyright © 2013 by Bewildering Stories