These were Blake’s words on the detrimental action of unnatural impositions on the human imagination. He saw forces at work in the world around him that were working to limit the extents of human potential, clashing with the dominant scientific view at the time. Blake presents a range of forces as a hindrance to this human potential, which is not something he believed could be rationalised by a scientific explanation.
Thus science and the imposition it placed on children through education was one of these hindering forces, in conjunction with his rejection of the organised system of religion that was in place at the time. This was closely linked to the system of governance. Oppressive religion spilled over into everyday life, encouraging a negatively paternalistic approach to the family and society, being perhaps responsible for the break down of parent child relationships. Whilst these ideas are more usually glimpsed in the Songs of Experience through both stark presentation and more subtle somewhat ironic indications, his views are made most clear when contrasted with the Songs of Innocence’s idealistic presentation.
The forces of science Blake believed to be acting against the imagination. Although a revolutionary at heart, Blake’s views were not sympathetic to the Industrial Revolution going on around him, driven by scientific advances. The commercialisation that was driving the ‘development’ comes in for biting criticism in London, with reference to “each charter’d street”, referring to the commercial practice of chartering the streets. Here, his treatment of the force hindering human potential is an exact description, raising the reader’s awareness to the practice. The criticism is taken a step further when referring to “the charter’d Thames”, whereby the natural imagery of a river as both a thing of beauty and a source of life is polluted by the industrialisation of the city. The juxtaposition of imagery created sits uncomfortably with the reader. Indirectly, through use of imagery, therefore, Blake presents the force of industrialisation as hindering the human potential.
It is no coincidence that Blake then goes on to describe the human condition, with reference to “the youthful Harlots”, “every cry of every Man” and “Infant’s tear”. It is implied that this is result of the new technology in London that is fuelling industrialisation. Blake plays on the fears of his audience – that the harlots are youthful, suggesting that the new way of things is corrupting the young, as there is little hope for the potential of a young girl in prostitution. This is confirmed by reference to children’s tears. Repetition of the word ‘every’ in the second verse (the word is used four times in three lines) strongly places the emphasis of the line on an entire society, including the author and his readers. This transfer of experience from the abstract to the personal haunts the reader, making them painful aware that despite their comfortable position they may be hindering their own potential. Most significantly, Blake makes reference to “the mind-forg’d manacles”. To a reader with all ready heightened sensitivity to personal address, the suggestion that his hindrance to human potential has come from within humanity rather that an abstract force that could be easily blamed is a stark presentation of a truth most likely uncomfortable to Blake’s audience.
Also within the Songs of Experience, Blake provides evidence for when this corruption of the imagination starts. In The School Boy, a boy caged in his classroom misses the freedom of the natural world outside. Although there is an obvious physical limit to his potential, Blake implies there is also an imposition on his mind. Here, Blake uses powerful metaphor to present hindrances to human potential. The lines, “Nor sit in learnings bower, / Worn thro’ with the dreary shower” are the key development of the poem’s metaphor as the boy now associates ‘shower’ with ‘dreary’; it is not a refreshing, rejuvenating spring shower by a dull drizzle of unexplained work. Thus, Blake uses metaphor to express the realities of education as a force to hinder human potential.
Education was one aspect of a repressive system that controlled every aspect of life in Blake’s time. Upholding this system was the organised, and compulsory, religion at the time. Blake believed this to hinder human potential; as seen in The Garden of Love. The building of a chapel where a garden was has turned a place of freedom and pleasure into a graveyard. This is a theme seen throughout the Songs, as in The School Boy; the perpetual transition from the freedom of childhood into the restrictive world of the adult, with human potential kept down by the system. This notion is supported be the line, “And Though shalt not, writ over the door”. The familiarity of the biblical commandment when presented in a context of forbidding play suggests to Blake’s audience that it is, in fact, the religious system that is hindering human potential. That “Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds” is partially onomatopoeic – gowns, walking, and rounds have open, round vowel sounds that are all encompassing, reinforcing the notion that there is no escape. In this manner, Urizen figures have indeed taken everything into their control. There is a switch in rhythm in these last two limes from trimeter to tetrameter. The effect of this is tangible evidence of the heavy-handedness as they enforce rules that limit human potential.
Oppressive forced of religion have permeated everyday life also. Ona, the young woman in A Little Girl Lost, has experienced joys of life when “Parents were afar”, but the presence of her father causes her joy to give way to terror. That “All her tender limbs with terror shook” suggests a strong, patriarchal figure inspiring fear. Blake is commenting on the relationships around him; families were generally patriarchies perpetuating a repressive moral law. This moral law can be seen as his “loving look” is “like the holy book”. The father’s love only knows the boundaries of contemporary social norms that reflected the beliefs of the church. Blake is demonstrating that the relationship between parent and child does have limits, being unable to transcend social boundaries to give genuine care and affection. The father’s look may be “loving”, but it is the wrong sort of love – it knows bounds. The “trembling fear” of the little girl is affecting; Blake most certainly does not approve of this ‘barrier’ erected by the conspiring forces of religion and society between father and daughter.
This is a concerning theme which Blake continues into the Chimney Sweeper poems. In Innocence, the stilting rhythm of the first stanza tells us “When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me”. The scene is set – and the child is deprived of any protective adult figures. In Experience, Blake assumes the role of an adult questioning a sweep, with the line “Where are your father and mother? Say?”. The two question marks break up the last section of this line creating a sense of firm outrage as the questioner presses for an answer. In this manner, Blake presents an indignant anger at the absence of the child’s parents when he is still of an age when they should be there. The child is thus forced into the world of work and industrialisation, which only hinder the human potential. That there absence is due to the fact “They are both gone up to the church to pray” further presents Blake’s frustration at the intrusion of the church into family relationships. The rationale presented by the child for his abandonment: “Because I was happy upon the heath” presents the parents’ decision as illogical and distinctly irrational. There is little hope for the potential of a child sold to a chimney sweep, something Blake has made clear by assuming the voice of such a child.
In conclusion, Blake presents a scathing indictment of the forces which he saw all around him in his home in London that were working to limit human potential. Blake explores several of these forces in a variety of different manners, from stark presentation to subtle, haunting imagery. At every turn, Blake forces the reader to acknowledge exactly what is going on around them with such indignant questions as those asked in The Chimney Sweeper of experience. However, although it is in this way that Blake explores the forces of evil around him, the Songs are also a source of great joy. His perception, incite and resultant cutting critique of the society around him is placed with a simpler, more pastoral ideal that many believe to be truly, glimpses of heaven.