William Blake is a romantic poet. The sparks of romanticism are vividly marked on his poetry. The question arises what is Romanticism? The answer is that it is a phenomenon characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature.
It was Schelling who first defined romanticism as ‘liberalism in literature’. Though romanticism officially started by the Lyrical Ballads jointly penned by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1830, poets like William Blake made cracks to classicism towards the end of the18th century. In Romanticism, a piece of work could become, as Blake described, “an embodiment of the poet’s imagination and vision.” Many of the writers of the Romantic period were highly influenced by the war between England and France and the French Revolution. In the midst of all these changes, Blake too was inspired to write against these ancient ideas. ‘All Religions Are One’, and ‘There is No Natural Religion’ were composed in hopes of bringing change to the public’s spiritual life. Blake felt that, unlike most people, his spiritual life was varied, free and dramatic. Blake’s poetry features many characteristics of the romantic spirit. The romanticism of Blake consists in the importance he attached to imagination, in his mysticism and symbolism, in his love of liberty, in his humanitarian sympathies, in his idealization of childhood, in the pastoral setting of many of his poems, and in his lyricism.
“Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire”
The above lines from, ‘Jerusalem’ amply justifies the point. “Poetry fettered”, said Blake, “fetters the human race”. In theory as well as practice, the Romantic Movement began with the smashing of fetters. In his enthusiastic rage, Blake condemned the verse-forms which had become traditional. He poured scorn upon all that he associated with classicism in art and in criticism. “We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own imaginations”, he said. The whole critical vocabulary of neo-classical criticism had evidently disgusted him. He could not endure it. The visions that Blake started seeing in his childhood and which he kept seeing throughout his life were doubtless a product of his ardent imagination. His visions profoundly controlled both his poetry and his painting. Of many of his poems he said that they were dictated to him by spirits. In this most literal sense he held that, inspiration could come to the aid of a poet. In a state of inspiration, the poet made use of his imagination. “Human imagination is the Divine Vision and Fruition”, he said. Energy and delight accompany this expression of the Divine Vision. All these views on the subject of poetry spring from the intensely romantic nature of Blake. It is not merely the revolutionary spirit that permeates his poetry. The subject of child is more crucial to his art. We see in Holy Thursday I:
“These flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit
with radiance all their own”
The child is here the symbol of the most delicate and courageous intuitions in the human mind. The elements of Romanticism are present in these poems, some of them in the highest degree, such as the sense of wonder, the contemplation of Nature through fresh eyes, an intimate sympathy with the varieties of existence. Other elements of Romanticism are found in a much less degree, such as the obsession with the past, or the absorbing sense of self. Everything that the eyes of the child see is bathed in a halo of mystery and beauty. The words in these poems are perfectly adapted to the thought because they are as simple as possible, and the thought itself is simple. Blake’s first style is in a way a juvenile form of Romanticism. The “Songs of Innocence” most completely fulfil the definition of Romanticism as “the renascence of wonder”. The world of Nature and man is the world of love and beauty and innocence enjoyed by a happy child, or rather by a poet who miraculously retains an unspoiled and inspired vision. Despite his strong emotions and his unfamiliar ideas, Blake keeps his form wonderfully limpid and melodious. Besides love for children, imagination plays a key role in his poetry as Tyger embodies:
“When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears;
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he Who made the Lamb make thee?”
Symbolically, this poem is an impassioned defense of energy and imagination which occupy a commanding position in Blake’s thinking. The tiger is Blake’s symbol for the “abundant life”, and for regeneration. The poem effectively conveys to us the splendid though terrifying qualities of the tiger. The climax of the poem’s lyricism is reached in the lines which, though somewhat cryptic, effectively produce and effect of wonder and amazement. Blake was a great champion of liberty and had strong humanitarian sympathies. This is another aspect of his Romanticism. Blake’s humanitarian sympathies are seen in such poems of Experience as Holy Thursday, A Little Boy Lost, The Chimney Sweeper, and above all London as in the following lines:
“In every voice, in every ban.
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear”
In London, Blake attacks social injustice in its various forms, as it shows itself in the chimney sweeper’s cry, the hapless soldier’s sigh, and the youthful harlot’s curse. He appears here as an enemy of what he calls “the-mind-forged manacles”. Nor does, Blake show any mercy to the Church. The boy in Blake’s poetry finds the church an inhospitable place, while the ale-house is warm and friendly because the church imposes religious discipline like fasting and prayer. Pastoralism, too is feature of poetry. The little pastoral poem ‘The Shepherd’ has a delicate simplicity. It celebrates the happiness of rural responsibility and trust. Noteworthy also is ‘The Echoing Green’ with its picturesqueness in a warmer hue, its delightful domesticity, and its expressive melody.
Finally, it is established that Blake is a romantic poet. Blake is one of the major Romantic poets, whose verse and artwork became part of the wider movement of Romanticism in late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century European Culture. His writing combines a variety of styles: he is at once an artist, a lyric poet, a mystic and a visionary, and his work has fascinated, intrigued and sometimes bewildered readers ever since. For the nineteenth century reader Blake’s work posed a single question: was he sane or mad? The poet Wordsworth, for example, commented that there “is no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in his madness which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott”. Blake’s use of images, symbols, metaphors and revolutionary spirit combined with simple diction and spontaneous expression of thoughts and emotions make him a typical romantic poet.