10 Most Famous Poems by William Blake

10 Most Famous Poems by William Blake

 

William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker, who remained largely unknown during his lifetime but rose to prominence after his death and is now considered a highly influential figure in the history of poetry and one of the greatest artists in Britain’s history. Blake’s most renowned work in poetry is Songs of Innocence and of Experience, considered one of the leading poetic works of the Romantic era. His collection often contains poems with similar themes, and at times the same title, to contrast the innocent world of childhood in Songs of Innocence with the corruption and repression of the adult world in Songs of Experience. Blake was deeply opposed to slavery; oppression of Church and the ruling classes; and the harmful effects of the Industrial Revolution. These themes often feature in his poems. Here are the 10 most famous poems of William Blake including The Lamb, The Tyger, A Poison Tree, London and The Chimney Sweeper.

 

#10 The Little Black Boy

Published: 1789

Collection: Songs of Innocence

Published at a time when slavery was legal, The Little Black Boy questions the conventions of the time with basic Christian ideals. The speaker is an African child who tells how his loving mother taught him about himself and God. He then passes on this lesson to an English child telling him that when they are both free of their bodies he will shade his white friend until he, too, learns to bear the heat of God’s love. The Little Black Boy is build on clear imagery of light and dark; and centres on a spiritual awakening to a divine love that transcends race.

Excerpt:-

Thus did my mother say and kissed me,

And thus I say to little English boy;

When I from black and he from white cloud free,

And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:

 

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,

To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.

And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him and he will then love me.

 

#9 Holy Thursday

Published: 1789 & 1794

Collection: Songs of Innocence and of Experience

This title is shared by two poems of William Blake published in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). In Songs of Innocence, the poem depicts a ceremony held on Ascension Thursday, which commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It describes the clean-scrubbed charity-school children of London marching to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The children in their colourful dresses are compared to flowers. In Songs of Experience, Blake focuses more on society as a whole than on the ceremony. The theme of this poem is the hypocrisy of formal religion and its claimed acts of charity while children are still “reduced to misery”.

Excerpt:-

And their sun does never shine,

And their fields are bleak and bare,

And their ways are filled with thorns:

It is eternal winter there.

 

#8 The Sick Rose

Published: 1794

Collection: Songs of Experience

This is a short poem of two quatrains in which the speaker addresses a rose that is sick as an invisible worm has wriggled its way in and infected it. The “dark secret love” of this worm is destroying the rose’s life. The Sick Rose is regarded as one of the most enigmatic poems in the English language. There are numerous interpretations of the poem and many critics interpret it as a poem related to sex. Others consider the worm in the poem to be an agent of corruption and regard it as the direct equivalent of Man. The Sick Rose remains one of the most popular poems of Blake for its perplexing symbolism and various interpretations.

Poem:-

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

 

#7 Auguries of Innocence

Published: 1863

Collection: The Pickering Manuscript

Written in 1803, this poem remained unpublished for 60 years till it was published along with Alexander Gilchrist’s biography of William Blake. Auguries of Innocence is a long assembly of different couplets which show cruel situations and auguries (signs) about what might happen if these kinds of injustices continue. In each of the rhyming couplets we see the juxtaposition of innocence and cruelty. The poem serves as a stark warning about the inevitable consequences for society when there is deliberate mistreatment of people and nature. The first four lines of the poem, in which Blake beautifully captures how one can find the universe in the smallest of things, are extremely renowned. Auguries of Innocence is among Blake’s most critically acclaimed works.

Excerpt:-

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.

 

#6 The Chimney Sweeper

Published: 1789 & 1794

Collection: Songs of Innocence and of Experience

This poem was published in two parts in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. During late 18th and early 19th century, child labour was prominent in England and four-five years old boys were sold to clean chimneys as their size was small. William Blake hated child labour and in this poem, he has expressed the difficult lives of working children. In Songs of Innocence, one of the chimney sweeper has a dream in which an angel rescues the boys from coffins and takes them to a sunny meadow; while in Songs of Experience, an adult speaker encounters a child chimney sweeper abandoned in the snow. The Chimney Sweeper is one of the most renowned poems of William Blake and it is considered an influential work on the exploitative nature of child labour.

Excerpt:-

Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smiled among the winter’s snow,

They clothed me in the clothes of death,

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

#5 The Lamb

Published: 1789

Collection: Songs of Innocence

The Lamb is one of the most important poems in Songs of Innocence. It’s parallel in Songs of Experience is Blake’s most famous poem, The Tyger. The Lamb is regarded as a poem on Christianity. In the first stanza, the speaker, a child, asks the lamb how it came into being. In the second stanza, the speaker answers his own question by stating that the lamb was created by one who “calls himself a Lamb”. The lamb is a common metaphor for Jesus Christ, who is also called “The Lamb of God”. The tone of the poem is innocent, simple and reassuring; though it focuses on the deep and complex theme of the nature of creation.

Excerpt:-

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is callèd by thy name,

For He calls Himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and He is mild,

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

We are callèd by His name.

Little lamb, God bless thee!

Little lamb, God bless thee!

 

#4 A Poison Tree

Published: 1794

Collection: Songs of Experience

A Poison Tree presents two scenario. In the first, the speaker is angry with a friend. He talks about his displeasure with his friend which helps him to overcome his wrath. In the second, he is angry with an enemy but is unable to speak about it. This increases his resentment with time and the feeling of hatred grows within him. Blake then uses the metaphor of a tree growing in the speaker’s garden to demonstrate how the anger continues to grow. The enemy of the speaker sneaks into his garden and eats an apple of this tree, which has been poisoned with hatred. The next morning, the speaker is happy to see that his foe is lying dead under the tree. A Poison Tree talks about the consequences of repressing anger and explores the themes of indignation, revenge and the fallen state of mankind. It is one of the most famous and acclaimed of Blake’s poems.

Excerpt:-

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 

#3 And did those feet in ancient time

Published: 1808

Alternate Title: Jerusalem

This is a short poem included in the preface of an epic poem by Blake titled Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Today it is popular as the anthem “Jerusalem”, whose music was composed by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It shouldn’t be confused with a much longer poem by Blake called Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. It is usually interpreted to be describing a Second Coming of Jesus Christ leading to the establishment of a New Jerusalem in England in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. Jerusalem in the poem is used as a metaphor for Heaven. “Jerusalem” is considered to be England’s most popular patriotic song; and The New York Times stated that it was “fast becoming an alternative national anthem” in England. It is used in many schools in UK and it was the opening hymn for the 2012 London Olympics.

Excerpt:-

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

 

#2 London

Published: 1794

Collection: Songs of Experience

This poem consists of four quatrains in which the speaker describes the plight of London while he wanders through the city. He uses the term “chartered” for the city streets as well as for River Thames to indicate the oppressive and constraint atmosphere in the region. He sees despair and fear in the faces of the people he meets. Among other things, he talks about the money spent on church buildings while children live in poverty. London presents a bleak view of the city during the Industrial Revolution with the society being corrupt and dominated by materialism. It also points at the contrast between upper and working class people and suggests that the this could lead to a revolution in London like the recent French Revolution.

Excerpt:-

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

#1 The Tyger

Published: 1794

Collection: Songs of Experience

The Tyger is the counterpart to Blake’s poem in Songs of Innocence, The Lamb. In The Tyger, the speaker again focuses on the subject of creation asking who could have made such a terrifying beast as the tiger. The speaker talks about the fearful features of the tiger and wonders did he who made the Lamb make thee? before he ends the poem with the question with which he began, “What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”. The Tyger, with its strikingly powerful words, serves as a counter to the innocence and tenderness of The Lamb. It is one of the most analysed poems and Cambridge calls it the “the most anthologized poem in English”. The Tyger is not only the most famous work of William Blake but also one of the most popular poems in the English language.

Excerpt:-

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

 

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

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