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Europe in the 18th century was an absolute mess. The Seven Year War ended and the Treaty of Paris was signed, meaning France had no money, no army and was forced to give up everything they once had to Great Britain. Years later, France continued to fall into debt and citizens became frustrated with the monarchy. The Americans had succeeded in their revolution and it was only time before the ancien régime was overthrown and the French Revolution would quickly transform all political and social institutions, people wanted change, as explains Henri Sée, a professor at the University of Rennes. Citizens in the 18th century experienced countless wars, reigns, and social revolutionary movements. The Romantic era emerged when people were lacking a connection, emotion, and clarity. Writers such as William Blake and Anna Letitia Barbauld were revolutionary in using those notions to enrich the world. Blakes “The Tyger” was written in 1794 as part of the Songs of Experience Collection and Anna Barbauld wrote “To a Little Invisible Being who is Expected Soon to Become Visible” in 1825. Although 31 years apart these poems portray similar notions; references to the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror, a connection to nature, and the importance of imagination. However, it can be difficult to interpret these poems as such, because they use simple language and are implied to be for children. Conversely writers of the romantic era, specifically William Blake and Anna Letitia Barbauld actually had hope in the new generations to think critically in a whole new way. Writers often turned to imagination and nature to parallel political up rests that were present at the time. Bound together, imagination, nature, and the sublime all convey a particular sense of escapism on the reader, pushing them towards a form of social clarity.
The Oxford English dictionary states that the definition of imagination is the power or capacity to form internal images or ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses, including remembered objects and situations. Nature is defined as the physical strength or constitution of a thing, esp. a natural substance. It is important to note the strength of nature can be physical as in someone’s body, or environment. The two versions of these definitions are seen in “The Tyger” and “To a little invisible being…”. For example we see the nature of a woman who is about to give birth versus a creature of nature that everyone fears. Love and fear, two elements on the opposite spectrum of the sublime. Edmund Burke in his essay on “the sublime and beautiful” published in 1757, defined the sublime as an “emotion mainly characterized by feelings of amazement and fear, and to a lesser extent admiration, respect, and reverence.” Burke adds that “sublime emotion means experiencing passions painful or delicious, terrible or pleasurable, depending on a person’s proximity to real danger. It is triggered by the experience of subjugation to something greater than oneself, such as nature, the divine, or the institutionalized power of kings, and is associated with awe and “a connection with terror”. Anna Barbaulds text is the perfect example of subliminal amazement, while William Blake’s “The Tyger” represents subliminal fear. Subliminal amazement is evident in the theme of a woman experiencing such strong emotion as she gives birth to her child:
Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow
For many a moon their full perfection wait, —
Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go
Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.
Here the mother expresses her deep love for her child. She knows this baby will be perfect, powerful and happy- she is smitten with it already. She is soon to experience the sublime. To contrast, Blake goes on to mention notions of the fearful sublime describing the tiger with deadly claws, “Dare its deadly terrors clasp!” and fiery eyes “Burnt the fire of thine eyes”. Even the line “And when thy heart began to beat,/ What dread hand? & what dread feet?” implies a presence of internal fear, even as a reader. Whether it be subliminal love or fear, the imagination, the natural and the sublime work cohesively. The sublime acts as a form of escapism because it can make one feel miniscule in the presence of something, whether it be the birth of a new born baby, or of a snarling tiger. Correspondingly many writers of the romantic era used emotion and the sublime as a form of social understanding. As previously mentioned the sublime can put things into perspective, and make one forget their personal problems to have a moment of awareness. Blake and Barbauld use powerful objects to portray a deeper meaning beyond what is at face value.
With this in mind, William Blake and Anna Barbauld added connotations towards the French Revolution, and more specifically the Reign of Terror. Barbauld writes, “Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!” which parallels the revolutionary storming of the Bastille prison. Blake contrasts this naïve perspective of the French revolution by embodying in the tiger, the more evil side of it:
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
Blake is hinting at the extremists of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and the horrors that came with that government as well as the implications of overthrowing them. These authors were before their time, hinting at the lessons of history and morals of humans.
In one of Blake’s previous poems, “The Lamb” part of his “Songs of Innocence” Collection he implies that God made the lamb, by contrast on line 20 of “The Tyger” he suggests a lack of faith in God:
When the stars threw down their spears
water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Blake is suggesting that with all of the horrors of the world: the wars, the killings etc. How could there be a God? It is argued that spirituality is key to understanding peoples’ emotions and is a central element of environmental experience (Frederickson and Anderson, 1999). Before the revolution, many citizens started to lose faith in God and the Church, which occupied a large portion of the country’s money. People were starting to perceive spirituality in a whole new way, which in turn changed the way they perceived nature. This is also evident in “To a little invisible being…”:
If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,
With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,
Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,
Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.
The mother is implying that prayers have no power, rather the “germ of new life” holds the power; proving a lack of trust in God and religion. “Launch on the living world, and spring to light!” is the spiritual emergence of an invisible being into light. “Nature for thee displays her various store,/ Opens her thousand inlets of delight.” Again, this notion of nature and the inner self that holds power over money and weapons. Nature and the environment is the true delight. The end of the first stanza of The Tyger says “What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” and the end of the poem finishes with “What immortal hand or eye,/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”. Robespierre romanticised death and killing during his Reign of Terror and would later face the same fate of being guillotined that he so heavily forced upon others. In this passage Blake is coming full circle by finishing his poem in the same way it started. Although here, he is finishing it with a threat. Nature often sees symmetry as a form of beauty. Like the tiger being symmetric, Blake is playing on that notion of symmetry and beauty; what happens to one side must happen to the other to create symmetric balance. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror ended the same way they started. Overthrowing the leader and publicly executing them. While Anna Barbaud suggests a “naïve” perspective on the French revolution, with hope for the next generation and a brighter future, William Blake mocks the chaos of the revolution and the radically terrible ideals that society seemed to ignore (the fiery tiger in front of them).
Although this may be true, it is important to note that both of these works were published as an “immature” perspective; written using simple vocabulary with children in mind as the audience. Hence they are difficult texts to interpret because of the simplicity and audience in mind. They were written with youthful vocabulary possibly for a youthful audience, so one must not go too far into interpreting gory parallels of the 18th and 19th century.
By now we have explored the blend of imagination and nature, the sublime as escapism, and some connotations towards the political uprests at the time. Now the question is, how does all of this push us towards social clarity? The theological foundation of Coleridge’s view of imagination is that it not only unifies the mind in one process but also is (or is at least a part of) the creative force of eternal reason as it works in the universe”. In essence, our imagination can offer reason and clarity. While nature and the sublime offer perspective and understanding. All of these elements combined bring social awareness to the reader. The poet holds a significant power to transcend its readers into their work, a form of escapism combined with imagination, and nature, and often the sublime, we are able to experience social clarity.
All things considered, it is not surprising that William Blake and Anna Barbauld were revolutionary sympathizers. Through their poetry the authors have the ability to bring imagination, emotion, and subliminal feelings, as well as social awareness to their readers. It is ironic that both of these poems are arguably written for children because of their simplicity. Even more specifically in To a little invisible being… it is being written about a nameless, genderless, and classless child. Blake and Barbauld are supporting revolutionary ideals by writing about seemingly “educated” and “high-class” issues, in a way that is “immature and childish”. In a time of utter chaos and death, these two authors were able to provide a form of escape from reality, while still providing truth and clarity about it.
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