How William Blake chooses to portray selfishness as a corrupter of humanity.
William Blake’s poetry anthology ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ has often been acclaimed by both scholars and the wider public due to its impressively progressive nature, given that it was written in the late 18th Century. The poems tackle issues of the oppression of the lower-class, the damage caused by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, racism, and the manipulation of God’s word to justify abuse and societal hierarchies. However, closer analysis may also reveal that selfishness unifies all of these issues, and acts as the root of all evil.
In his novel, ‘The Selfish Gene’, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposes, amongst other ideas, the theory that individuals act (subconsciously or consciously) for their benefit only, thereby ensuring the survival of the individual, but not the group. While Blake lived before the discovery of evolution, a similar idea certainly seems to be implied throughout Songs of Innocence and Experience, as individuals, with or without power, feign altruism and attempt to increase their own gains through the misery of others- instead of genetic, however, this value in only preserving oneself appears to be a disease plaguing humanity specifically. No poem makes this more clear than the Experience poem ‘The Sick Rose’; although only two quatrains long, the poem perfectly captures a despondent inference of the increasing vanity and seclusion of individuals. The floral imagery of a “Sick Rose” represents the death of what was once beautiful, perhaps similar to the destruction of humanity due to an increasingly hard-hearted population. The fact that the perpetrator is “invisible” represents a plague that cannot be seen, and it ‘flying’ “in the night, In the howling storm” implies that it is masked by darkness and harsh clamour- perhaps, given the context, the “howling storm” may be the tumultuous noise produced by the increasing number of factories. “His dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy” can serve as personification of selfishness at its peak; it destroys the lives of others, either for pleasure or for monetary gain.
Moreover, it is important to analyse how Blake presents the selfishness of specific individuals in order to emphasise the destruction of moral values due to a rise in ideals related to ego-centrism. ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ represents a disparity between two different beliefs in love, with the Clod suggesting “Love seeketh not itself to please”. The Pebble refuses to accept this, suggesting that true love is to ‘build’ “a Hell in Heaven’s despite”, and to only serve oneself. Such a selfish view on the purpose of love may represent Blake’s despondence with the ever-growing trend of selfish motivations in Western society- marrying into wealth became much more common, perhaps giving way to the view that relationships founded on love were becoming less common. The ‘Experience’ rendition of ‘Nurse’s Song’ is also a perfect example of selfishness corrupting an individual, leading to the misery of others. The first quatrain represents a deceitfully idyllic scenario, similar to the ‘Innocence’ rendition, however the “whisperings” of the children imply fear, and expectations are subverted by the Nurse’s face turning “green and pale”- with the colour green likely symbolising jealousy. The hyperbole “Your spring and your day are wasted in play” represents a preference of maturity and discipline over naivety and freedom, and it’s plausible that the Nurse may be projecting her own self-loathing onto the children- if the Nurse cannot enjoy the pleasures that exist outside of normality, then to her, neither can the children.
A bigger issue than the growing selfishness of certain individuals, however, appears to be the self-serving nature of privileged societal groups, which ultimately subjugates those not afforded the same privileges. This is most clear in the poem ‘London’, which details a mans stroll through the capital, allowing him to fully witness how the selfishness of those in power has lead to the plight of the average person. The repetition of the emphatic “every” dominates the play, showing how the selfishness of the few in power is omnipotent in its oppression. The “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” also serve as an allegorical representation of the unregulated free markets branding their workers; unfair labour practices allowed factories to work their employers for as long as they wanted, usually stretching far beyond the modern 8-hour working day. This then manifests itself into the exhaustion that Blake could be referring to when he asks the reader to listen to “the chimney-sweeper’s cry”, and “the hapless soldier’s sigh”, with the acrostic “HEAR” suggesting the prevalence of dismay in a society where only aristocrats rule due to a self-serving social hierarchy. This selfishness also extends to the malformation of religious teachings into manipulative jargon that causes children to obey horrific working conditions, as seen in both renditions of ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’. In the ‘Innocence’ version, “little Tom Dacre” has a dream in which he is persuaded to keep up his work, as “He’d have God for his father, and never want joy”. Given the subtle nature of the ‘Innocence’ part of the anthology, this dream may simply serve as a euphemism for a lesson taught to the child, either by his peers, his parents, or his employers. The ‘Experience’ rendition reveals fully to the reader the selfish nature of those putting their own children to work; the contrast of the child being “happy” to him being “clothed…in the clothes of death”, and him being “taught” his oppression represents the impact of his selfish parents, and highlights truly the dismal nature of child labour. The closing sentiment that the Clergy “make up a heaven of our misery” presents one of the biggest enablers of selfishness in society, due to their teachings that such practices are moral and even Holy.
It’s not clear whether Blake’s opinions of such selfishness are founded in pessimism or hope; it could be rational to conclude that, due to a lack of solutions given to solve the plague of selfishness, Blake takes on a pessimistic view and ascribes self-centered actions to being a direct human flaw that is irreversible, perhaps as a consequence of Original Sin. However, the pure nature of the children, and of those who don’t fit into societies most privileged roles may imply that Blake is actually optimistic regarding humanity’s nature to do away with sin; all it takes is revolution.