Poem Sampler

William Blake 101

Tracing the full scope of his visionary poetry, from the pastoral to the prophetic.
Illustration of  William Blake.

Best known in his time as a painter and engraver, William Blake is now known as a major visionary poet whose expansive style influenced 20th-century writers and musicians as varied as T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan. Blake’s body of work is large and sometimes extremely dense, often fusing complicated writing with awe-inspiring illustrations. Though many readers may be familiar with his lyric poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, such as “The Tyger,” Blake was an active political poet who later produced ambitious, radical works. His “Prophetic books”—including The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Book of Urizen, and Milton—depict a vast mythology of figures and fantastical entities in response to the sociopolitical climate of his day. From his small, popular lyrics to his sprawling, obscure epics, Blake’s works remained rich and subversive. This brief sampling of poems, presented in rough chronological order, shows Blake’s varied work and introduces the multiple voices he captured in his long, sometimes baffling, career.


Introduction to the Songs of Innocence
Blake worked as an engraver’s apprentice in London for many years before publishing his first book, a collection of 19 poems titled Songs of Innocence (1789). The poems were especially musical and engraved on large plate sheets, with the poems often in conversation with the watercolor artworks on the plates themselves. The first poem in this collection, labeled “Introduction,” focuses on a piper figure being called on by a weeping angel to write for the pleasure of others. These themes of vocation, religion, and the power of art figured later in Blake’s themes on a much grander scale but here are presented as a somewhat straightforward introduction to his work.

The Lamb
Also from Songs of Innocence (1789), “The Lamb” is one of Blake’s most Christian lyrics. Written in the voice of a child, “The Lamb” features rhymed couplets and repetition, a style that may remind readers of a nursery rhyme. The lamb is depicted in a rural setting, but its existence is also framed in terms of manufacturing; the speaker refers to the lamb’s wool as “clothing” and asks “who made thee,” as if the lamb itself were manufactured by God. The speaker sees a harmony in creation, between himself, the lamb, and their shared creator, who “became a little child” on Earth, as the speaker once was, and who “calls himself a Lamb” in the Bible. Despite being a meditative poem enjoyed on its own terms, “The Lamb” is most notable for its connection to “The Tyger,” Blake’s more famous poem.

The Tyger
Perhaps Blake’s best-known work, this poem was included in Songs of Experience (1794) as a companion piece to his earlier poem “The Lamb.” The poem’s repetitive, lyrical sounds and innovative syntax help frame its serious questions about religion and the nature of creation. “Did he who make the Lamb make thee?” Blake asks the Tyger, questioning how a moral God could create both the innocent and vulnerable lamb and the violent tiger of “deadly terrors.” After posing many questions, Blake chooses to leave the question unanswered, creating a powerful, ambiguous space for readers to explore their own answers.

Unlike “The Tyger,” “London” is one of the few poems collected in Songs of Experience that has no companion piece in Songs of Innocence. Much like its subject, this poem itself is solitary: its narrator wanders through crowded London streets absorbing the misery of many kinds of workers. Many aspects of Blake’s later skepticism are included here, such as his critiques of institutions of power for their corruption and neglect of human rights and his vivid descriptions of bleak living conditions in a violent, chaotic, polluted capital city. This poem has remained widely read, and the phrase “mind-forg’d manacles”—a debated term possibly referring to the oppressive nature of narrow or unimaginative thinking—is one of Blake’s most quoted phrases.

From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The Argument
This opening poem to his sprawling prose epic represents a decisive shift for Blake. With the disappearance of rhymed, metrical quatrains, Blake’s poetic voice becomes less restrained here, and his references grow more obscure. The tone of “The Argument” is apocalyptic, further adapting the street language of overpopulated, industrial London. In addition, Blake begins to introduce figures from his personal mythology, such as Rintrah, a symbol of cosmic wrath. As a whole, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell can be a harrowing read because it possesses what T.S. Eliot called Blake’s “peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying.”

"The Book of Thel"
Continuing his move away from realism, Blake tells the story of a shepherdess searching for her purpose in The Book of Thel (1789-1793). After speaking to multiple pastoral figures, the shepherdess confronts a worm who offers to give her entrance to his “house.” In line with Blake’s increasingly bizarre aesthetic, the final section of the poem takes a decidedly psychedelic turn, featuring the protagonist confronting “couches of the dead,” standing at her own grave, and hearing a voice, perhaps her own, speaking about sexual desire and death. Containing many of Blake’s prior themes, this poem offers a glimpse into the poet’s later tendencies toward surrealism and sudden revelation.

I Saw a Chapel
Never published in Blake’s lifetime, this political poem, composed around 1800, was found among his notebooks. One of Blake’s more obvious critiques of the Church of England, this poem is commonly read as a commentary on how political corruption influences organized religion. A spiritual writer throughout his life, Blake wanted to expose religious corruption and refocus modern worship on its pure origins. Like much of his religious work, this poem contains subtle sexual imagery and violence, themes Blake explored on a larger scale with the “Prophetic books.”

From Milton: And did those feet in ancient time
Commonly considered Blake’s epic masterpiece, the prophetic book Milton (1804–1810) combines many of the artist’s previous themes, such as innocence, imagination, destruction, transcendence, and art. Though Blake’s longest poem ends with a permanent shift of human perception and a confrontation with literary predecessor John Milton, it begins with this small prefatory poem, which connects the “feet in ancient time” to the idyllic future of “England[’]s green & pleasant Land.” This poem continues to be popular today: a song version was sung at Kate Middleton and Prince William’s royal wedding and is the official anthem of the England rugby and cricket teams. Because Blake was virtually unknown in his lifetime, it makes sense that his poetry looks forward in time. This quality might explain why we, centuries later, continue to uncover new meaning and pleasure from his ambitious, otherworldly, and astounding body of work. 

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2016

The editorial staff of the Poetry Foundation.

Related Content
  1. December 3, 2016

    This hardly does justice to a great visionary! I think you could have at least analysed his theme of contraries, the nature of evil and the path to redemption. Not to mention his symbolism and mythology.