Introduction (E) - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Blake was concerned to express what he believed was his true understanding of Christianity. He was writing for a public that, for the most part, was Christian and shared Blake's familiarity with the Bible. He drew on – and questioned - Christian images that he knew his readers would recognise.

Bard – Blake presents the poet as Bard. Although this term became a general one for a poet, originally a bard was a professional poet, employed by a ruler to sing his praises. Here he addresses the fallen and sinful Earth, asking it to return to God, though it is not clear what kind of God the bard serves. Since the bard is the spokesman of the ruler, and rulers are generally to be distrusted in Blake, it would seem likely that the bard's is not a voice to trust. As a professional, adult poet who has spanned all time, he contrasts with the freedom of the angel / child piper introducing the Songs of Innocence.

Holy Word - Blake was very influenced by the poet John Milton. Here, he uses Milton's idea in Paradise Lost that Christ, also referred to in the Bible as ‘the Word', discovers the disobedience of Adam in Eden.

Ancient trees – ‘The ancient trees' evokes the image of the Garden of Eden. God is described as walking there, seeking his creation. After disobeying God's injunction not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hide among the trees because they now know they are naked (see Genesis 3:8-9).

This imagery makes it clear that the poem is concerned with Blake's understanding of the Fall of humankind (see Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, second Adam). It also lends the poem and the voice of the bard all the resonances and authority of this biblical narrative.

Lapsed Soul – The Bard refers to the soul after the Fall. Blake's perspective on this biblical teaching was that:

  • The soul falls into divided self-consciousness and into the division of the sexes
  • This fallen soul creates for itself a religious system which binds people in cruelty, jealousy and possessiveness
  • However, these are its own tendencies and it thus creates a God and a world in its own image.

Here, it is not certain whether the Bard wants the soul to return to its undivided state or whether he wishes the soul to be back under the rule of a possibly authoritarian ‘God'.

Light and dark – The arc of human life overseen by the Bard is represented by the twelve hours between dusk and daybreak:

  • The Word walking among the trees is associated with early evening - the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8), which is succeeded by the arrival of dew
  • Evening dew gives way to a starry night sky. (Elsewhere in Blake's poetry he associates the stars with a rational God.)
  • Then night-time nears its finish (is ‘worn) and the sky starts to lighten (the ‘morn / Rises')
  • Finally daytime will come again as the dawn breaks

The picture is of fallen humanity having entered the darkness of sin / night-time, through which it can be led to a new dawn offered by the Word. Blake's imagery echoes that of a well-known hymn by Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
*thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

*[referring to God / Jesus]
Verse 4 of And can it be

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What difference does your understanding of the underlying imagery make to your understanding of the poem?


Fall and redemption

The light and dark symbolism, as well as that of falling and rising, indicates Blake's belief that the rebellious, un-whole fallen human nature could be rescued and restored. Currently, it inhabits a world of darkness, occupying an abject position in a constrained environment (bounded by the ‘floor' and ‘shore').

The identity of who it is

‘That might control
The starry pole …'

is ambiguous:

  • Blake could mean the lapsed human soul which has within itself the ability to change its destiny, if only it realised that power
  • Alternatively, he could be pointing to God (the ‘Holy Word') who is in charge of the universe and has the power to reverse humankind's descent into darkness by bringing about a new dawn.

The nature of God

The God depicted here can be interpreted in different ways:

  • The Word is one who actively seeks a relationship with his children and weeps over their current fallen state, a far cry from what he'd created. He can be read as a God who is down in the dew and darkness, alongside the creation, and who has provided a safe ‘floor' and secure boundaries for it until the light / salvation comes.
  • Alternatively, the poem's fierce prophetic tone could convey a stern God who weeps at the sins humanity has committed, commands them (via the Bard) to return and whose light will expose and judge them (see John 3:19-20, Ephesians 5:11-14).
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