William Blake’s Symbolism

Blake is a highly symbolic poet and his poetry is rich in symbols and allusions. Almost each and every other word in his poems is symbolic. A symbol is an object which stands for something else as dove symbolizes peace. Similarly, Blake’s tiger symbolizes creative energy; Shelley’s wind symbolizes inspiration; Ted Hughes’s Hawk symbolizes terrible destructiveness at the heart of nature. Blake’s symbols usually have a wide range of meaning and more obvious. Few critics would now wish to call Blake a symbolist poet, since his handling of symbols is markedly different from that of the French symbolistes’, but the world inhabited by his mythical figures is defined through quasi-allegorical images of complex significance, and such images are no less important in his lyrical poetry.  The use of symbols is one of the most striking features of Blake’s poetry.

There is hardly any poem in the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” which does not possess a symbolic or allegorical meaning, besides its apparent or surface meaning. If these poems are written in the simplest possible language, that fact does not deprive them of a depth of meaning. The language of these poems is like that of the Bible—at once simple and profound as the following lines read:

“O Rose, thou art sick!”
When Blake talks of the sick rose, he is really telling us how mysterious evil attacks the soul.  Flower-symbolism is of particular importance in Songs of Innocence and Experience, being connected with the Fall by the motif of the garden; and its traditional links with sexuality inform the text of ‘The Blossom’ and the design for ‘Infant Joy’, which are taken up in Experience by the plate for ‘The Sick Rose’. ‘Ah! Sun-Flower’ is a more symbolic text, and has evoked a greater variety of responses. Declaring this to be one of ‘Blake’s supreme poems’, we can interpret the flower as a man who ‘is bound to the flesh’ but ‘yearns after the liberty of Eternity”. Harper claims that it describes the aspiration of all ‘natural things’ to ‘the sun’s eternality’. Identifying the speaker as ‘Blake himself. Blake travels from flower-symbolism to animal symbols as in the ‘Tyger’:
“Did he smile his work to see
Did he who made the Lamb make thee!”
If the lamb symbolizes innocence and gentleness, the tiger is to Blake a symbol of the violent and terrifying forces within the individual man. The lamb, innocent and pretty, seems the work of a kindly Creator. The splendid but terrifying tiger makes us realize that God’s purposes are not so easily understood, and that is why the question arises “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” At the same time, the tiger is symbolic of the Creator’s masterly skill which enabled Him to frame the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger. But the lion described in the poem Night (in the “Songs of Innocence”) offers an interesting contrary to the tiger of the “Songs of Experience”. Both the beasts seem dreadful, but the lion, like the beast of the fairy tale, can be magically transformed into a good and gentle creature: the tiger cannot. In the world of Experience the violent and destructive elements in Creation must be faced and accepted, and even admired. The tiger is also symbolic of the Energy and the Imagination of man, as opposed to the Reason.  Blake was a great believer in natural impulses and hated all restraints. Consequently he condemns all those who exercise restraints upon others. He states in Holy Thursday II:
“And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there”
The eternal winter are symbolic of total destruction of the country and the perpetual devastation and ‘Grey-headed beadles’ in ‘Holy Thursday I’ are symbolic of authority and it is they exploit children for their own material interests. In the poem London, oppression and tyranny are symbolised by the king (who is responsible for the soldier’s blood being shed), social institutions like (loveless) marriage, and ‘”he mind-forged manacles”. Even further, personal and social relationships have been symbolised as:
“In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree”
A Poison Tree is another allegory. The tree here represents repressed wrath; the water represents fear; the apple is symbolic of the fruit of the deceit which results from repression. This deceit gives rise to the speaker’s action in laying a death-trap for his enemy. The deeper meaning of the poem is that aggressive feelings, if suppressed, almost certainly destroy personal relationships. On the surface, however, the poem is a simple, ordinary story. Thus symbolism is crucial to understanding Blake as poet of earlier romanticism. What can be more symbolic than the following lines from, ‘Auguries of Innocence’?
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour”
Thus, Blake’s poetry is charged with symbols. He has depicted nature and human nature; animals and plants as simple but profound symbols of powerful forces; “contrary states of the human soul” – for example, good and evil, or innocence and experience throughout his poetry. What is different in Blake is that he is not modeling after any symbols but his own. The symbols always have an inner relatedness that leads us from the outer world to the inner man. The symbols live in the ordered existence of his vision; the vision itself is entirely personal, in theme and in the logic that sustains it. Blake is difficult not because he invented symbols of his own; he created his symbols to show that the existence of any natural object and the value man’s mind places on it were one and the same. He was fighting the acceptance of reality in the light of science as much as he was fighting the suppression of human nature by ethical dogmas. He fought on two fronts, and shifted his arms from one to the other without letting us know—more exactly, he did not let himself know. He created for himself a personality, in life and in art, that was the image of the thing he sought.
In short, it is established that William Blake is a highly symbolic and even allegorical poet. His use of symbolism is unique and cinematic. It paints a lively and pulsating picture of dynamic life before us. Especially, the symbolic use of
Sun-flower’ gets so much stamped on the mind of the reader that it is difficult to forget it. He mentions a tiger it becomes a symbol of God’s power in creation, his lamb turns out to be a symbol of suffering innocence and Jesus Christ and his tree is symbolic of anger and desire to triumph over enemies; the dark side of human nature.  Symbolism is the main trait of William Blake as a dramatist as a poet and this has been well-crystallized in his legendary work, ‘The Songs of Innocence and Experience’.
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