With Blake’s Stroke of a Pen

By Trudy A. Martinez

The first few lines of the novel A Tale Of Two Cities, a fictional historical novel, written by Charles Dickens presents a narrow view of history that sets the atmosphere and the tone of the era in which William Blake aspires. The novel’s plot begins in the year one thousand seven hundred fifty-seven, the year of Blake’s birth.

“It [is] the best of times”

The nobles maintain their sanction status; the church, the Catholic Church, continues to support the corrupt government. The bourgeoisie, the upper-middle-class, prosper, increasing in wealth and position; some of the upper-middle-class use foresight by purchasing titles thus exempting themselves from taxes and the dual standard employed within a society of classes. The Population increases as a result of the accomplishment of industrialization.

“It [is] the worst of times”

The middle class begins to stagnate; the working class and the peasantry are oppressed and left to the mercy of the nobles and the bourgeoisie, the upper-middle-class, who abuses them. Factory workers labor long hours for subsistence wages; the peasantry is like dirt under the feet of the upper classes; their human dignity stripped; they are like animals with no rights; their death means nothing to the upper-class. Stealing a piece of bread or a few pence to survive means imprisonment, torture, and possible death at the whim of an aristocrat. Cities are overcrowded and so are the prisons.

“It [is] the age of wisdom”

The scientific community made discoveries in the 17th century that revolutionizes thought processes; those processes are carried further in the 18th century which sees further achievements in astronomy, chemistry, and biology. As a result, new ideas surface.

“It [is] the season of light”

Reaction to the age of wisdom and foolishness produce the age of reason; then subsequently a new idealism in opposition to materialism and finally humanitarianism and an increase emphasis on reform movements in answer to problems that face society.

“It [is] the season of darkness”

The upper-middle-class on down to the peasantry lost their faith in the system. The population increases along with taxation. Oppression is on the rise, illness, disease, abuse, and death increase dramatically. All hopes of improvement fades.

As hopes fades for the oppressed, William Blake begins to address the issues of the time while at the same maintaining his faith in the Lord. One can only revere such a poet who appears as a rebel in his own time, the era of the romantics. During this era, greed became a virtue (greed is no longer seen as a vice) that leads the upper middle class to the pillars of society through the persecution of the lower classes. It is an age when man is not free to express openly his thoughts or the truth of all matters.

Blake’s courage became a distinct mark upon time when he addresses his concerns for a society gone astray through his articulations in poetry. His mastery of technique may be seen in the poems. He writes of what he hears and of what he sees as if in answer to the scripture of the Holy Bible (Ezekiel 22 verse 2): “Now, thou son of man, wilt thou judge, wilt thou judge the bloody city? Yea, thou shalt shew her all her abominations.” And Blake, a man of God, surely did show the abominations of a bloody city. Blake speaks of a life, of misery, of death, of injustice and of infidelity; he writes in such a manner as to grant the reader a perceptive scene to behold the grievance, to distinguish the injury upon the citizenry, and discern the encroachment power of industrialization. When Blake drafts his weapon, the all-powerful pen, he fights against the despotism of progress.

The despotism of progress appears as a “. . . mark in every face. . . “. With Blake’s execution of words, the “mark” emerges as if an expression of sadness, of pain, of suffering on the faces of everyone on the “chartered streets” of London, the streets where special privileges (sanctioned by government) are granted to business and to the church immunity, immunity from guilt. The immunity from guilt stretches out to encompass “. . . every infant’s cry of fear . . . every voice . . . every ban, and the mind-forged manacles . . .”[Blake hears]. In other words, Blake hears the babies cry of hunger, the fearful cry of not knowing where the next meal will come from or if it will come at all, the fear of imprisonment in an oppression of not only the body but of the soul with the freedom of thought prohibited, chained to the mind, a crime if voiced while the oppressors ignores the situation or looks the other way.

Blake sees the crimes of the church as he hears “…the Chimney-sweeper’s cry”, the cry of innocence, the cry of horror upon becoming lost in the miles of tunnels “Every black’ning church appalls . . . “ Here Blake seems to imply that the church condones the act of sending children into the miles of tunnels to clean the chimneys even though the church knows the children’s innocence may be blackened not only by the soot of the chimney’s but also by the crying agony of the death the tunnels might hold them and that the chimney tunnels might thus become their coffin and the church their pall bearer.

Blake hears “…the hapless Soldier’s sigh” as he appears to envision the mark of the legless man’s weariness, his sorrow, his regret for the blood all soldiers shed for their country, their government; and therefore the Soldier’s sighs “[ran] in blood down Palace walls.”

As the blood ran down the Palace walls, the blood seeps into the streets darkened by the immunity pledge to industrialization through its charter. There Blake hears “…through midnight streets…the youthful Harlot’s curse”. In other words, Blake sees the disease, hunger, and death –the plight of young girls being forced into prostitution merely by the desire to survive the hell of their existence. Blake also sees the curse live on in the cry of the young girl’s offspring “[as the curse blasts] the new-born infant’s tear”.

The infant’s tear cries out with the knowledge of its destiny to Blake; And Blake transfers the infant’s appeal for life on to paper. In doing so, Blake bestows upon others his benefaction of sight, his ability to examine the “…mark on every face” and therefore to detect and distinguish “…every infant’s cry of fear”, the hopelessly of their lives, the birth of the affliction of their death, “…blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Blake with the courage of a warrior and as commanded by the Lord with the stroke of a pen shows the city: “all her abominations” and perhaps inspires the

“. . . The Spring of Hope” and helps to prevent “. . . a winter of despair”.

The previous winters had not been pleasant; in fact, they had been quiet rough for the oppressed with their subsistence existence, death, and the injustice within society. Their future did not promise much hope. Blake left very few stones un-turned when he also exposes the virtues of women who give themselves willingly to men in secret only to destroy their purity and innocence in the poem, “The Sick Rose.”

While Dickens brings into focus the attitudes and climate of society by focusing attention on the individuals of each class within the society, Blake shows the City of London all its abominations. Thus the personal attitudes of the individuals are given logic and reason through their level of self-esteem, their suspicions, their beliefs, their mastery, and their behavior and through their association of religion, learning, achievement, and past experience. As a result of the perception of the individuals, the reader’s personal, general, perception of attitudes and behavior of the rich and the poor and the practices and developments within the society are conceived. The literary maneuver of Dickens gives a structure of justice and injustice which in turn defines and distinguishes the good and the evil that confronts the society and William Blake.

Perhaps, the writings of Blake inspire the English under the reign of George III to revitalize its middle-class with the hope of a better future and thus prevent the “topsy-turvy” effect the French experienced. One can only imagine what may have inspired the great poet to express his independent thoughts during a period of time when freedom of thought or speech is not apparent. But Blake seizes the opportunity his quill affords him and speaks out against oppression as he transcribes what he perceives in a fashion that marks his courage forever on the pages of time through the stroke of his pen.

The Rejected Cry: A Stylistic Analysis of Blake’s London by Trudy A. Martinez

The Rejected Cry:  A Stylistic Analysis of Blake’s London  By Trudy A. Martinez 

Blake reveals the inner logic (the logos) of his poem London, first through the artistic arrangement of his plate (see figure 1 below).  Here a child is seen in a path of light guiding an old man toward a door as if he were blind, lost, and in need of assistance.  And then, in keeping with this illustrated theme (together with placement, usage, and meaning), Blake etches and imprints a portrait of a society and invites the reader to see London (figure 2) through his eyes.  In his quest, he leads the reader’s eye toward sight like a blind man toward what can not be seen but only heard.  In the process, he establishes a society of man, paralleling what is heard to what is seen and visible through symbolic color imagery, thus creating a sense of balance.  But then, he abruptly takes away the sense of balance, leaving the reader discerning for himself while emotionally groping like a blind man for the key to the structure and questioning why did this happen?
The emotional appeal (the ethos) takes form with the formation of a hypotaxis that “lets us know . . . what derives from what” (Lanham 33), while at the same time, sets a play on words in motion; this is best illustrated by the Placement and Usage Chart (figure 3).  Even though parts of speech are assigned each word, some words lack a sincere devotion to that particular assignment and induce the meaning of another.  For instance, the form of the last word (ban) in the string of prepositional phrases is that of a verb but used as a noun in context.  The effect prohibits the placement of the subject on the same level of existence, consciousness, or development.  According to Lanham with the development of “a hypotactic style,” you are encouraged “to read from top to bottom as well as from left to right”(44).  Every right column “top-to-bottom reading represents a rank” of society in descending order while each left-to-right reading of the right column represents “a movement down from one rank to another” (Lanham 44).  For instance, “the charter’d streets” symbolizes the upper-class who own the land where “charter’d” action takes place, earning them their place at the top.  The deviant usage of the word, charter’d ( a verb out of context used as an adjective in context), “heightens awareness and understanding” (Chapman 27), bringing a sense of action to the descriptive.  Repetition intensifies meaning and petitions dual significance.  When industry engages the “charter’d Thames” and transports goods for a stipulated price, they pay very little for labor requirements.  Consequently, the string of prepositional phrases, representing the various levels of the middle class and working class, reflect “marks of weakness [and] marks of woe” that mirror their suffering.  The dual usage of the word mark emphasizes the narrator’s ability to see the consequential outcome of the situation.
“The left column, read by itself top-to-bottom, establishes the top-ranking basic assertion” (Lanham 44) made by the narrator.  The anaphora: I + wander, (I) + mark, I + meet, I + hear represents the narrator’s path through London which builds the structure of the poem, linking both the stanzas and the societal participants together, while at the same time, expressing what is seen “in every face” and heard in the voice “of every man” who accepts the prevailing customs that produces the “Infants tear.”  A pun is intended on tear because a tear (separation) has occurred that separates the participants (a child from both parents) and makes them (the mother and child) undeserving of voice through “every ban,” keeping them oppressed and barred from acceptance.  Hence, “mind-forg’d manacles” prevents upward movement.
The lower-class, positioned at the bottom left of the chart, are held down beneath the weight of their affliction by “the mind-forg’d manacles.”  Influences or “specific details” that affect their part of the structured society are represented to the right of their position.  For instance, the unfortunate Soldiers, who may have lost their limbs in the service of their country, can be seen as losing favor in the eyes of the government since no action (or action word (Verb)) describes the cause of their sigh.  Instead, they are the recipients of “Runs” in blood.”  Here again, the word “runs” lacks a sincere devotion to a particular part of speech.  In other words, “runs” as a noun implies a freedom of movement of a continuous series in uninterrupted course of events from one point to another; whereas, as a verb the meaning takes a different direction and becomes converted to a liquid state as if a pursuit of a different subject (blood) with the purpose to deprive the meaning of life because of the object’s (Palace) refusal to admit an injustice.   However, in keeping with the hypotaxis style, the word is a noun that demonstrates that there are two levels of existence, consciousness, and development apparent in the presentation.  Runs as a subject has a predicate (down) that states firmly, positively, and assuredly, multiple meanings exist because of its capability of assuming multiple roles within a sentence (see figure 4).  Together Runs and down trace the source of the affliction brought upon the Soldiers as a result of their being forgotten and left to die on the streets of London.
Since Blake wandered the streets of London, he came to see and he came to know the destructive nature of this society.  Blake has a true gift of recognizing, describing, and establishing blame using symbols.  His description of pain and suffering are open and recognizable, whereas when he places blame for wrongful actions, he does so using symbols as if to say, I am not the judge, but I cannot close my eyes to the apparent injustice I view.  I believe Blake wrote this poem to shed light ( for us, his reader’s) on his subjects, i.e., the chimney sweepers, soldiers, and Infants, by bringing knowledge of their circumstances through his poem.  Consequently, he is capable of leading the reader’s eye as if he were blind toward what can not be seen but only heard and toward the objects (the Palace, the Church, and the tear) of his play with words.
A switch from the verb style to the noun style  (stasis) exposes his objective word play.  A monotonous rhythm  (sounding) almost like a funeral march (figure 5)) builds up within the first stanza and leads into the second.  Here, the noun strategy, a string of prepositional phrases (isocolons), suggests non-responsibility and works against its subject, creating a syntactic democracy, while at the same time, exposing an unusual pattern that creates ambiguity but yet, elicits understanding:
In   every             face        P + Adj + N
   of              weakness        P +  N
   of                      woe         P +  N
In   every              cry         P + Adj + N  (N with action verb implications)
   of every             man       P + Adj + N
In   every Infants cry         P + Adj + Adj  + N (Adj and N with subject
                                                                         and action Verb implications)
   of                      fear         P +  N
In   every          voice          P +  Adj + N
In   every             ban         P  + Adj + N (N with action verb implications)
In                       blood         P +  N
The pattern’s effect highlights the P + Adj + Adj + N scheme as the central concern.  The break in design manufactures the necessity to question:  What is “In every Infants cry” doing in the structured society of man?  Both the design and the words inspire confusion.  For example, Infants is presented as a plural proper noun, symbolized by capitalization and the absence of an apostrophe.  As a result, the effect disorientates the reader’s thought process and formulates a desire to add an apostrophe.
Is the reader given a license to play with the standard punctuation:  period, comma, colon, and semi-colon?  Was the person copying the manuscript to the plates given the freedom to choose or determine which punctuation was used?  The rules of English grammar were not as clear then as they are today; this is evidenced by the various plates (see figure 1, 5, and 6).  Although the plates may appear the same, with close observation, the differences become apparent.  For instance in figure 1, the old man and the boy are in the path of a narrow stream of light directed downward upon them; whereas in figure 5 and 6,  the lighting deviates.  The charactery of the child sitting by a fire highlights the dissimilarity of figure 5 and 6.  The contrast of punctuation is the least obvious variation between all the plates.  Still, the fluctuating punctuation does exist and hints of a desire to give the reader some freedom in their quest for understanding.  However, adding an apostrophe deletes the narrator’s voice and therefore, is not a plausible option.
Nevertheless, the desire to change the part of speech to an adjective by adding an apostrophe so that Infants  will appear to fit in and coincide with what is heard remains.  But this is against the rule; the rules of English accentuate the message.  So if we can not change the usage of the word, we must question to gain understanding.  If Infants is a noun out of context, it rightfully follows cry is a verb.  However, “Infants cry” is housed in a jailed structure (preposition phrase: P + Adj + Adj + N) that doesn’t measure up to its need.  Hence, “every Infants cry, ” an adjective describing a sin of society, is demanding release through the printed word yet, inhibited liberation by the jailed structure (the preparation phrase).  An auditory quality, the pronounced possessive (what is heard), lacks the power to emancipate.
Nonetheless, the stifling effect of imprisonment creates a plea that screams for proper placement (noun and verb position) within the structure of the sentence just as “Infants [would] cry” for reconcilement to their proper place within the structure of society.  The prepositional phrase immediately preceding and following lack restriction and are properly sequenced: P + Adj +N.  However, the next two phrases (P + Adj + N (with  action verb implications)) that proceed upward and downward from the center of the column, even though they are in proper sequence and correct, have words occupying the object position that advocate versatility through the possibility of action in the content of a sentence.  But the string of phrases works against their subject, therefore opposing actual movement by their structure.  Consequently, they are shown in opposition to each other on the chart (figure 3).  Consonance, alliterations, and inner rhymes bring the attention back to the narrator.
With the third stanza, there is an abrupt change back to the verb style where an asyndetic pattern slows down the narrative and splashes color upon the scene, turning parallelism into a mirror that connects the phonological quality the reader hears and the graphological quality the narrator hears to what is seen through the addition of colors, suggesting and bringing about a consequential pattern of balance and a feeling that this happens because of this or because of this this happens.
However, the sense of balance and connections is quickly lost when the fourth stanza takes an abrupt turn with “But most” to the parataxis verb style, relinquishing the ranking of “what derives what from what” to the reader.  The unbalanced nature creates a pathetic plea (the pathos).  Consequently, a play on words:  a duel between the phonological and the graphological, a duel between the rhetoric and the linguistic, and a duel between meanings creates a need to question Blake’s word choice and creates a desire to resolve and stabilize the uncertainty.
According to Chapman, the desire to resolve prompts the reader to respond to the “paradigmatic deviance” in a way established by his reactions “to the defeat of regular linguistic expectations” (69-70).  He goes on to add
“It is necessary to consider the force of the chosen word in relation to other possibilities . . . which might be considered more likely;  also whether meaning is heightened or blurred by the deviation:
But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse (Chapman 69-70).
But is the meaning as derived above really the most likely possibility?  What meaning is heightened?  What meaning is blurred?  Blake emphasizes what he hears holds the greatest significance through the repetitive “I hear:”   this emphasis reminds the reader what Blake hears (the plural) and what the reader hears (the possessive) are not the same.   The graphological (the written word) represents what Blake hears (the plural), whereas, the phonological (the spoken word) represents what the reader hears (the possessive).  By using a graphological deviant (see examples in figure 4), Blake creates a transparent chiasmas (not immediately apparent) that takes on dual meaning and dual significance.  True, Blake leaves the reader discerning for himself whether to hear or see or to hear and see while perceiving the reasons for the harsh tones created by the alliterations, consonance, assonance. 
But he maintains hope that the reader will resolve any misgivings and link what he hears to the “Infants cry” in the second stanza.
The rejected “Infants cry” is the key that unlocks and releases the parallel action of the society described through the written word with the structure built from the placement of the words.  Blake hears the (plural) Harlots curse (swear) as evidenced by his earlier version of the last stanza:
But most the midnight harlots curse
From every dismal street I hear.
Weaves around the marriage hearse
And blasts the new-born infants tear.
However, in the most current version (figure 2), we hear the (possessive) Harlot’s curse.  Consequently, we are left deprived of complete understanding.
But with the knowledge of the dual forces at work here both heightening and blurring meaning and contributing to the deprived state, the veil is lifted.   Blake lets the reader know what must be known.  The reader has to wrestle with his conscious and mentally force himself to seek and find the resolution.  To gain comprehension, the reader has to turn the key on the parataxis verb style, unlock the jailed structures, and rid them of fear, so that the tear (separation) can mend and the rejected cry heard (by the fathers in the working class) and the tear (shed by the infant in the lower class) may unite (and be given rightful placement within the society, thus mending the tear).  Consequently, the poem’s effect on the whole calls up the Holy scripture:  Matthew 13:13-17 (figure 8) as if to bless the reader for correcting the inadequacy in the society by joining the end and inner rhymes in the last stanza to the second stanza.
-Trudy Martinez-