With the onset of the first cotton mill factory in 1760s, England witnessed a turnover in its social, economical and political structures; such that the newly established norms of the Industrial England gave way for much dissent in the group of people that lay at the base of its social pyramid. It is hence that the voice of William Blake, despite all its disparity to common day discourse, stands as a faithful witness to the congested and coagulated mass that came to be known as the “working class”. E. P. Thompson in the Preface to his book “Making of English Working Class” highlights the questionable nature of demarcating the working class as a group comprising of multiple separate subgroups –
“...Working classes” is a descriptive term, which evades as much as it defines. It ties loosely together a bundle of discrete phenomena. There were tailors here and weavers there, and together they a make up the working classes.”
To which he adds:
....If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.”
So, Thompson clearly establishes class as a social relationship which arises out of “similar experiences and interests”. A similar vein of understanding runs in the Blakean corpus where man is represented in four principal relationships: man and his world, man and his body, man and his fellow men, and man and his past & future.
It is here that the reading of Blake’s Songs of Experience finds appropriate context. In the hands of Blake, the elements of the society - from the flowers to the people and wild nature to religious institutions - become elements which turn into symbols. Unlike the later romantic poets Blake’s writing finds its radical undertones in the ideas that it foregrounds with the face of contemporary elements. And while the careful reading of these symbols uncovers the purpose of the writing, a guarded investigation narrates a commentary of Industrial England.
Perhaps no other poems than “The Human Abstract”, “Chimney Sweeper” and “London” from the Songs of Experience bear the explicit markers of the struggles of everyday life of the working class. While in “London” Blake describes the wantonly state of affairs in the heart of England where the streets and the river are “chartered” and in such political oppression in every face he meets, he identifies the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”. In the Chimney Sweeper, Blake critiques the institution of family and the Church as the harbingers of pain which perform the function of contaminating the innocence of young “chimney sweepers”. Though “The Human Abstract” credulously critiques the social order and sums up a graphic picture of England as a place devoid of humanity –
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
Therefore, the three poems investigate the relationships of man with his world and his fellow men but it is noticeable that the categories of relationships investigated above are born out of the hustle & bustle of the new social structure - the realities of whom retain the same form even in their contrary songs from the “Songs of Innocence”. The Chimney Sweeper in the Songs of Innocence bears the same “burden” of work and his social position demands a resolution that does not contradict his everyday reality. Thus, “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm/So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”. The “Divine Image” which runs a contrary of “The Human Abstract” expresses a similar vein where man becomes an embodiment of the four virtues of Love, Peace, Mercy and Pity and yet it is only through prayer that such virtues are remembered -
“Then every man, of every clime/That prays in his distress/Prays to the human form divine/Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.”
Hence it is imperative to conclude that in his Songs Blake does not assume a respite for the miseries of the working class for even in the oblivious world of Innocence the harsh reality of then Present, is not reconcilable though the approach of its bearers shows drastic difference.
But Blake does not merely attempt to contrast the two states of the society: Pre-Industrial Revolution and Post Industrial Revolution, but he presents the inevitability of such a movement. By satirising the state of Innocence as a “naturalistic and imaginative” existence without bearing the capability of regeneration, Blake emphasises the “organic and creative” existence of the realm of Experience. In the contrasting pair of “The Lamb” and “The Tiger”, such necessity becomes a link of association. “The Lamb” comes with an engraving of a little boy with a herd of lamb while the accompanying poem refers to the conversation between the both. On the other hand, “the Tiger” becomes a series of unanswered questions about the creation of the tiger which lead to an answer which is never iterated for the fear of its symmetry. Both the poems deal with the philosophical question of creation and the power of the creator. While in the Lamb, the creation in its form is attributed to the one who “calls Himself a Lamb”, the Tiger comments on the fearful nature of the creation but in a way that sarcastically questions the diminutive perception of the questioner. As many critics observe, the questioner of the Tiger, creates an image of the bright and burning figure as fearful for it stands in contrast to the “forest of the night”. In his Auguries of Innocence, Blake defines the night as the state after the fall, not in the Miltonic conception, but in the sense of loss of imaginative power: “We are led to believe a Lie/We see not thro the eye/Which was born in a night to perish in a night/when the soul slept in beams of light”. Therefore, the questioner in the Tiger bears the power of creative potential where he unknowingly perceives a dreadful creature in his limited perception.
It is with the same relation that “the Tiger” becomes a symbol of the emerging force of the working class. At the base of the economy, the working class generated the energy which sustained the social structure, and yet the limiting means of resource, hard ways of living which were crystallised in 18 hours of work and the strict political repression, added to their ignorance of self identity. As a collective force then, the rising of the working class becomes a narrative of rise to wisdom which is exemplified in the later centuries.
To conclude then, it is observable that through his Songs of Innocence and of Experience Blake not only shows the various evils that pervaded in the society from the wake of the Industrial Revolution but also comments on the associations that the bearers of the society i.e. the working class had as an individual force with the world around it and itself. So, while he qualifies the state of the working class as neglected and disadvantaged he locates the weapon of their emancipation in their creative and generative potential. Thus, The Industrial England is not merely a ground on which the two states of being are found but also the canvas on which they meet.