The Voice of the Ancient Bard - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Light and dark – The poem commences in light – the dawn of the ‘opening morn' - but soon there are ‘clouds', then ‘dark' arguments, until the blackness of ‘night' makes people blind (by allusion – see Synopsis and commentary)

MazeMaze - The image of the maze here works both at a physical and symbolic level. Being in a maze suggests wandering lost among multiple possible paths. Seeking the ‘right' path is a metaphor in the Bible for finding God / Christ. So Blake may be suggesting that traditional religion, with what he felt was its man-made ‘mystery', is ‘foolish'.

[Tree] - The language regarding roots implies the image of the tree, which, in The Human Abstract, Blake identifies with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In Blake's view, this tree actually grows out of the human brain. It produces fruit such as cruelty, tyranny, sexual repression and the repression of creative imagination. It is the tangled roots of this tree which trip those already wandering in the maze of folly.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What does awareness of the significance of the maze and the hidden image of the tree add to your understanding of this poem?


Although none of these themes is directly raised, the imagery and language of the poem makes it clear that they inform the poem and provide its thought.

Attitudes to the body and the life of the senses

This connects with Blake's opposition to John Locke. (See Religious / philosophical background > Blake's religious world > Dissenting attitudes to Locke.) Blake believed that humans are essentially spiritual beings and that the body should be an expression of a person's spiritual nature. Yet he felt that people did not believe this. They believe that their bodies are purely physical and that reality consists solely in what can be understood via the senses. In this way, their senses trap them in a materialist approach to life and they are unable to experience themselves, including their bodies, as spiritual beings. Those who believe this are the blind guides who are lost in folly's maze.

The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy.

God in man's image

Blake disagreed with the creation of the image of an external God-figure, as simply being a projection of human needs and attitudes. Blake felt that merely human understanding created a limiting vision of the creator, simply as a projection of its own human qualities, which may be the folly and blindness he alludes to here.

Snares, confinement

The maze and roots are a snare to the unwary, stopping them from walking freely in the light. Blake the revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment' – the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all aspects of human behaviour. He also opposed conventional morality when it confined the natural instincts of humanity. However, he also saw that the human spirit was frequently the author of its own imprisonment, creating its own ‘mind forg'd manacles'. It was because fallen humankind could no longer see truly that Blake the visionary needed to illustrate what he perceived as the truth about the creation and humanity's role within it, hence the prophetic tone of the Bard.

Investigating themes

  • Blake moved this poem from the Songs of Innocence.
    • For what reasons do you think its themes make it appropriate to a Song of Experience?
  • How far would you agree with the critics who believe it is summing-up the whole sequence?
    • What do you think are Blake's themes and intentions in writing this sequence of poems?
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