William Blake’s idiosyncratic beliefs and his poetry

Seminar Paper, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. William Blake’s religious views
2.1 William Blake and the Church of England
2.2. Blake’s scepticism against the Deists
2.3. Blake and Swedenborg

3. Blake’s religious views in ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’
3.1. The Chimney Sweeper
3.2. The Little Black Boy
3.3. The Tyger


5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The English poet and painter William Blake appears to be mysterious, mainly because his works are not easy to comprehend. His poems and books are full of religious and philosophical questions and metaphors, some of his works are even accompanied by paintings which make his legacy even more complex.

Blake lived in revolutionary times. The era can be characterised as a time of big upheavals and major changes in society. Reasons for this are the French and the American Revolution which had an influence on writers of the early Romantic period. Furthermore the first signs of industrialisation in the late 18th century showed the need for political reforms. A connection between the events in France and the apocalyptic prophecies in the bible was drawn - a belief in a universal peace, similar to the promise of paradise following this apocalypse in the bible. When this hope was not satisfied, thinkers did not abandon it, but started a quiet, moralistic revolution.

In Blake’s work, both the social criticism and the religious aspect can clearly be found. This paper wants to find out about William Blake’s (religious) beliefs which are often seen as idiosyncratic. It tries to explain the most significant influences on Blake and his writing by illustrating his relationship with the Church of his time, the ideas of the Deist movement and the influence of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Afterwards it will describe the influences of religion on the well-known volumes of poetry “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” by commenting on exemplary poems of both volumes.

Within the scope of this paper it is unfortunately not possible to look at every movement that might have had an influence on Blake. This paper aims to give an overview about William Blake’s religious and philosophical statements, by presenting the most important influences on Blake and his work.

2. William Blake’s religious views

Throughout his life Blake was interested in religion and philosophy and persistently tried to find his own religious view. The following chapters discuss Blake’s very critical attitude towards the Church of England, his sceptical approach with reference to the Deists of his times and the influence Swedenborgian theology had on him. The ideas that will be presented are those most significant for an understanding of Blake and of the poetry presented in this paper.

2.1 William Blake and the Church of England

Blake’s attitude towards the church of his times can be seen as quite ambivalent. Although it can be said that he rejected the institution, he also shared some ideas and beliefs of the Church of England. J.G. Davies states in his work “The Theology of William Blake”: “At his own wish he was buried according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England in Bunhill Fields, on Friday, 17 August 1827”[1]. This might indicate that Blake, even though he criticised the institution on several occasions, also felt a certain sense of attachment to their ideas.

The reasons for his rejection of the Church were diverse: Blake distrusted the clergy of his time and its failings, since they were “[…] spending so much time and energy in promoting their own interests, they took little notice of the miserable plight of the majority of the population, and those few priests who did so only threw into greater relief the apathy of the Church as a whole”[2]. One might say, a problem which has always been discussed in ecclesiastical history, Davies even compares Blake’s disgust for the clergy with the rejection of the biblical Pharisees.[3] Furthermore Blake as an artist was opposed to the Church’s view of arts and “its […] way to neglect the works of painters”.[4] However, it is questionable whether this neglect had its roots in the beliefs of the Church, or existed due to other factors within the epoch Blake found himself in. In general, “the atmosphere of religious crisis that pervades Blake’s poetry is partly a reflection of the times in which he lived”.[5]

He rejected the Church for its heartlessness towards “sinners” and insistence on doctrine - to Blake this was not the idea of Christianity: “The Church was lacking in compassion and forgiveness […] all the Church did was to preach stern duty, passive obedience to the ‘stony law’”[6]. Even more controversially, it supported the rulers but was neglecting the poor. However, Blake also detected that the Church played an important role in caring for the sick and weak in its support for St. Thomas’ Hospital[7].

There was also one private reason to dislike the Church of England: Blake never supported the idea of praying in a public place, such as a church, together with others. “He could perceive no casual connexion between churchgoing and good deeds, in fact, worshippers seemed worse rather than better than other folk”[8]. Furthermore, Blake saw a “[…] collaboration of all the churches in the exploitation of the poor, the degradation of labor, the subordination of women, the abridgement of political liberty, the repression of sexual energy and the discouragement of originality in the fine arts”.[9]


[1] Davies, John Gordon. The Theology of William Blake. (Hamden: Archon Books, 1966) 8.

[2] Davies 9.

[3] Davies 20.

[4] Davies 11.

[5] Ryan, Robert. “Blake and Religion.” 2003. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 150.

[6] Davies, John Gordon. The Theology of William Blake. (Hamden: Archon Books, 1966) 16.

[7] Davies 20.

[8] Davies 19.

[9] Ryan, Robert. “Blake and Religion.” 2003. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 150.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


William Blake’s idiosyncratic beliefs and his poetry
University of Trier  (Fachbereich II, Anglistik)
Literature and Religion: From the Renaissance to Romanticism
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Quote paper
Selina Kunz (Author), 2009, William Blake’s idiosyncratic beliefs and his poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/133907


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