Strong words for Henry David Thoreau

We’re still a couple of weeks out from Henry David Thoreau on the HUMN 221-09 Fall 2015 syllabus, but when we get there, it won’t be hard to find an example of HDT in the news. In a combative article titled “Pond Scum,” New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz wants to know, “Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?”

It will be interesting to compare our reading of Walden and “Resistance to Civil Government” to hers.

Disillusionment Characterized by Move from Innocence to Experience

Holy Thursday, also called Ascension Thursday, is a time where the church community comes together to take pity on the poor and hold a service for the impoverished children of London’s charity schools. Holy Thursday as depicted in the Song of Innocence seems to be an idealized take on the service portraying the impoverished children of England singing in unison with their “clean innocent faces.” Their song is a “harmonious thunder” and a “mighty wind”. Blake takes the same scene and questions its validity in his Songs of Experience. Blake ponders is that “trembling cry a song?” “Can it be a song of joy?” Blake questions the society that would allow it’s children to be subject to such harsh conditions,  despite the prima facie angelic scene described in the Song of Innocence. 

Blake and Revolution: How Blake Utilized Politics to Form His Art

Humn 221-09 Group 1


It is well documented that William Blake ran against the grain of British society during his lifetime. He actively involved himself in the radical politics developing in London between 1776 and 1850. These radical politics began with the actions of Charles James Fox, who called for every man in England to have the right to vote. From this position, the movement gained steam and proposed a series of extreme political reforms, many of which stemmed from the French Revolution. The English radicals saw the French Revolution as an opportunity to discuss the problems of absolute government in their own country. The resulting political discourse, which involved Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others, became known as the Revolution Controversy. The Revolution Controversy helped to advance the radical philosophies and politics by involving some of the most distinguished and famous members of public life.

Blake, however, represents an artistic turn for the radical movement. Where most of the radical movement produced political actions, Blake produced artistic actions that incorporated elements of the radical movement. His artwork took on a sort of prophetic quality and incorporated idyllic scenes and notions. In this way, Blake established an early link between London’s radicals and the subsequent Romantic artistic movement, which emphasized a pursuit of the beautiful and ideal aspects of nature. As such, Blake stands at an important juncture in the history of art and society; his work stands as an act of defiance against the norms as much as it stands as an invigoration of the form itself.

Swedenborg and the connection to Blake Group 4

The church that Swedenborg led, New Jerusalem Church, is the only church on record that is known to have had William Blake in attendance.  According to the Esoteric article, “Even when Blake seems to be making purely theological statements, there are inevitable links to be drawn to Swedenborg’s diatribe against the Christian Churches and the way they have duped man into spiritual inaptitude. This dimension is not always expressed with full clarity in Blake’s writing without familiarity with the source texts to which he alludes.” It also states: “There was a widespread tendency among Swedenborgians to turn their prophet’s teaching into a social gospel that fitted a radical and anticlerical outlook of the late eighteenth century.” This tendency can be identified in Blake’s writings throughout Songs of Innocence and Experience.

In an article on Swedenborgs influence, Blake was known to have created paintings based on the writings of Swedenborg. it also states that: “Blake was strongly attracted to Swedenborg’s vision of divine love pervading the universe and giving life to all of creation”. Blake owned several of Swedenborg’s major works and was attracted to the radical ideas and the romantic movement that were prevalent in Swedenborg’s writing. Both Swedenborg and Blake believed in the underlying spiritual force to the world but rejected the ritual and dogma of organized church. Blake still maintained christian values, which were heavy influences in his work but still possessed a opposition to the church and the clergy as he supported the ideas of the church but not the implementation, specifically because he disliked organization of the church.


Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” and Child Labor


William Blake published “Songs of Innocence” in 1789; child labor was very much exploited and lowly disputed against. Chimney sweeping child laborers specifically were subjected to low wages, deadly working conditions, and harsh punishments for not meeting standards. Blake was anti child labor. In his poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake discusses his detest for the current regulations on child labor. Child labor laws of 1789 were inefficient to say the least. Children were allowed to work as young as eight years of age. One of the only restrictions was that the children must be washed once a week, and that they must not climb chimneys with a lit fire inside. Blake made note of this cruel abuse when he stated that “boys (and even girls) as young as five were apprenticed by their parents to master sweepers in what amounted to both child labor and involuntary servitude.” He compares the children to slaves by saying involuntary servitude because they are not able bodied for the work they are doing, nor are they able to decide their fate in this situation, as they are only children. Further into the poem, Blake continued on the severe working conditions. Young boys had to sleep on bags of ashes that they swept. He goes on to describe the narrow and soot filled chimneys as “black coffins” to imply digging themselves into an early grave and not living their lives as children should be. The children had high risk of getting trapped and choking to death in the chimneys. Finally, Blake brings into context the idea of a merciful angel bringing the child laborers to their early death. Death was something to look forward to when these children had such horrible lives. This mention of the angel really drives Blake’s point home, instilling in the readers a strong sensation of empathy for the poor children laboring themselves to death.