So Monday I'm off to the United Kingdom for my honeymoon! I have been scrambling to get all of my homework done before this weekend so that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself for sixteen days. One of those items was a paper for my British Literature class. I liked it so much I decided to share it with you here. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. (All quotes taken from the Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A - the Romantics and Their Contemporaries, Second Edition.)
In William Blake’s poems about innocence - The Chimney Sweeper and The Lamb in particular - we can see that being a child in Blake’s world was a dangerous thing if you were impoverished or without parents. This was because of the profiteering off of their innocence and weakness. Children were encouraged to lead precarious lives, to be exploited and used for commercial reasons, a patriarchal design condoned by the church. This exploitation of the innocence of children is reminiscent of the way that women were expected to behave and be treated, a trend that was criticized by early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
William Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, speaks of little orphan boys who are used to climb up into chimneys to clean them out. Their little bodies could fit, but also got stuck, and many were left to die of suffocation or diseases of the lungs and testicles. In the poem poor little Tom is told, “if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy” (122). According to Blake, The Church clearly supported this practice; little boys were brainwashed to believe they were doing God’s work.
In The Lamb there is a trichotomic juxtaposition of the word “lamb.” There is the animal, the child, and the child version of God – or Jesus. The child tells the lamb, “He is meek and he is mild, he became a little child” (120). This indicates to us that like God (and like the lamb) little children are to be “meek and mild,” or submissive and quiet.
Both of these poems could be seen as analogous to the patriarchal idea of female submission and the innocent devotion to what the church teaches can be seen as the naïve and ignorant submission to male authority. In his poem, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, presumably his response to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, he links “sexual tyranny and oppression to slavery, including the ravages of colonialism and the exploitation of children” (149). This is an idea that Wollstonecraft argued about.
Wollstonecraft saw that the cultural ideal was that women should be kept in a perpetual child-like state. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women she “deplores that women, in particular are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion” (232). She attributes this to a “false system of education” that only focuses on etiquette and how to catch a man (232).
As a result of poor education, Wollstonecraft says, women have no ability to reason. They are taught manners, not morality; are expected to speak softly, and are “treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species” (232). She argued about the dangers of placing this requirement upon women, because if they were without money or a husband, they would be literally left in peril, unable to support or care for themselves, and like orphans, forced to live in the street and exploit themselves just to make a living. Because of these expectations Wollstonecraft is left at a loss for “how women are to exist in a state where there is to be neither marrying nor giving in marriage” (247).
While Blake and Wollstonecraft are alike in this seemingly feminist and anti-ignorant way of thinking, they differ on the subject of reason. Wollstonecraft was severely against women having romantic notions. She felt that women “waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been” (246) with a husband who would love them passionately. She reasoned that a woman would be no unhappier with a bad husband than she would be pining away for a good one.
Wollstonecraft even went as far as to openly treat other women “like rational creatures instead of flattering their fascinating graces” (233). She refused to treat women “as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (233). She pleaded to women to “acquire strength, both of mind and body” and that their quiet and submissive natures were “synonymous with weakness” (233).
Wollstonecraft believed that the submissive expectations of women and their lack of any ambition for anything other than that which pleases men, and the denial of “civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark” was a form of slavery (230). To Mary Wollstonecraft, without total devotion to reason and the snubbing of all romantic notions, women will never be free.
In William Blake’s poem, Mary, he made reference to the expectations of women to be “weak as a Lamb & smooth as a dove” (274). He clearly sympathized with her plight of not being “born like this Envious Race” (274). While he evidently believed that women should have the same freedoms as men, he believed in “imaginative freedom over psychological inhibition” (113), because when you are ruled by reason alone you miss out on what it really means to be human – all the emotions, good and bad.
In his letter to Dr. John Trusler, Blake expounded that the world “is a world of imagination and vision” (155). The idea that one should place so much importance in “visions of fancy” (155) is not one that Wollstonecraft would have agreed with, but then again, William Blake was a man and Mary Wollstonecraft was only a woman.