Earth's Answer - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Earth MotherEarth - Earth is traditionally personified as female (as in the expression ‘Mother Earth') because the earth gives life to vegetation and produces food by which humankind lives. In Christian tradition, earth is connected to the physical existence of humans, since, according to the creation narrative in Genesis 2:7, Adam was made from the dust of the earth.

Here, the earth's prone position and subjection to a male God's control would tally with the view of male / female relations in Blake's day. However, here the traditional warmth and fecundity associated with ‘Mother Earth' has been reduced to darkness, coldness, greyness and stoniness. Instead of the hope of new life, there is ‘despair'. Instead of a reciprocal relationship with God, Earth seems resentful.

Bondage – Terms of confinement echo through the poem – ‘Prison'd', ‘Chain'd', ‘heavy chain', ‘bondage' and ‘bound'. This reflects Earth's perspective that she is confined to the darkness because God is wantonly cruel and selfishly fears what Earth might achieve if released from his control. There is no recognition that the darkness and bondage is a consequence of human actions, over which God weeps. According to Christian understanding, it is human rebellion which has opened the way for death and decay.

Procreation – the Earth complains that the natural progress for the ‘virgins of youth' towards ‘free Love' is hindered by the darkness. The images of nature coming to fruition – ‘bud' turning into ‘blossom', seed being sown for an eventual harvest, after the land has been ‘plow[ed]' are symbolic of sexual activity.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Modern ideas about male and female roles are very different from those in Blake's time
    • How do you think a modern reader responds to the personification of the earth as a woman?


How the human mind sees the nature of the world and its creator

In this poem, Earth believes she is the prisoner and victim of a jealous God. According to Blake, this is a consequence of the Fall. However, Blake's perspective on the Fall is not the conventional one. He believed that:

  • It results in people having a divided inner state
  • They project all their negative fears and instincts outward into an image of a tyrannical God
  • This image of God forbids the expression of human instincts and emotions
  • Thus, their bodies become dead prisons to them rather than means of communication and relationship with others and source of pleasure.

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 believes that people do 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. This seems to be the entrapment against which Earth protests.

Investigating themes

  • Compare the use of these themes with their use in The Lamb.
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