William Blake, the environmentalist?

There is a long-standing and deep seated bond between literature and environmentalism. Even if the they would not describe themselves as conservationists or environmentalists, for centuries writers have attempted to comprehend the complex world they inhabit, and particularly the wonders of the natural environment. Famously, after reading Silent Spring, Aldous Huxley is said to have proclaimed, “We are losing half the subject matter of poetry.”

Great British poet and artist William Blake expresses wonder and fascination at the natural world

Below are two poems by English poet William Blake (1757-1827), one of which you might know very well if you were schooled in Britain. The poet has a fascination with the natural world, as demonstrated by the time and sensitivity he uses to explore natural images. I’ve felt a similar awe at the sheer magnificence of our environment, and you can read about it in my previous posts on bees and ladybirds.

Have a quick read – they aren’t particularly long and they are exceptionally good – and then I’ll briefly suggest an environmental reading.

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I will not provide a complete analysis of both poems – you can find extensive explanations across cyberspace – but look at the view of nature that both present. The Fly could be read as the gradual realisation that all creatures on the earth, from the humble fly to the human being, are exposed to exactly the same frailties of existence. The question is posed in the second stanza: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” By the poem’s conclusion, it appears that Blake concedes that we are all the same. It is important for humans to remember that just as easily as we can swat a fly away, an illness or disaster can sweep aside a human life. We are all part of one ecosystem and while humans may be the most powerful of all creatures, this does not give us immortality and omnipotence.

The Tyger, or at least its first and last stanzas, will have a resonance to every schoolchild in this country. On a literal level, Blake is looking at tiger with its wondrous appearance, so alien to the simplicity of the English countryside, and asks from where such beautiful design came. The classic reading is that Blake is using the tiger as a metaphor to question the role of God in creating the complexities of the natural world. Ultimately, the poem is left undecided with no answer to the question posed in the opening and closing stanzas. Yet, at its core, the poem is Blake expressing wonder at the creatures inhabiting our world. This awareness that we are blessed to live on such a planet and therefore it should be protected is at the heart of conservationism.

Of course it would be anachronistic to claim Blake was an ‘environmentalist’. The name and defined concept came decades after he was writing. But fascination with the natural world runs through his poetry, right across the two bookend collections he wrote Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Blake placed it within a religious framework but, even in our less spiritual age, we might still seek to comprehend the singular magnificence of nature.

Finally, these poems have underlined to me the power of literature and the other arts to spread the message to stop the onrushing flood of environmental degradation. For me, the best way to communicate these concerns is not to reiterate constantly the dangers we face. I believe most people have tuned out the messages of Silent Spring and An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, positive messages  need to come first, extolling the virtues of the planet and through the education system encouraging people to appreciate the beauty of nature. Such a positive message is what Blake is giving in his poetry.

The arts help capture the imagination, allowing people to comprehend the world around them in a new light. This is true of the visual arts, literature, music and cinema. If the arts can help to make people realise how lucky we all our, then perhaps when damage to our planet occurs, there will be more of a sustained reaction.


2 responses to “William Blake, the environmentalist?

  1. Two other oblique lines from Blake have always given me hope that humans have a higher calling…
    To see the world in a grain of sand…

    If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting!

      It’s a beautiful line once again. I guess the counter argument is that we have to restrict our perception of the world in order to not be overwhelmed by the infiniteness of it all.

      Yet, of course we need a sense of the bigger picture and, as Blake seems to be calling for here, a deeper appreciation of just how lucky we are.

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