William Blake was born in Soho, London, England in November of 1757. After leaving school at the age of ten, and falling under the tutelage of his mother, Blake claimed to have had the first of his famous angelic vision. It was an experience that would become a reoccurring theme in his life.
As he aged, he developed a love for drawing, painting, engraving and writing. Some training in his youth helped prepare him for his later artistic endeavors. In 1782 he was married and during the following years he published his collection Poetical Sketches. After his brother died, Blake claimed he came to him in a vision, inspiring him to create an original printing method for his artwork, known as “illuminated printing”. Blake utilized this technique in his best-known collection Songs of Innocence and Experience.
William Blake died in August of 1827 leaving behind a number of unfinished collections, as well as illustrations for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progresses, Dante’s Inferno, and an illustrated manuscript of the Book of Genesis. You can read more about William Blake and his biography here.
Top 10 William Blake Poems
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Perhaps Blake’s best-known poem, and certainly one of the most widely anthologized, ‘The Tyger’ delves into the nature of God and creation. The speaker considers the ferocity of the tiger and how they are supposed to reconcile its fearsome nature with the goodness and peacefulness of God seen through other elements of his creation. Blake’s speaker asks the tiger where its eyes were made and how any divine being could’ve made the decision to craft it in such a way. Although admitting his own fear of this creature, he also acknowledges its beauty and the skill it would’ve taken to create it.
‘The Lamb’ is the companion piece to Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. It was published at the same time and uses the lamb as an image of God’s goodness and overarching will. The perspective is a little different in ‘The Lamb’ than it is in ‘The Tyger,’ but there is a similarity in that the speaker, this time a child, is addressing the title animal. They speak to the creature and takes note of its soft wool and the simple noises it makes. The second stanza answers any questions the speaker posed in the first half. The childish speaker tells the reader and the lamb that it was in fact God, another lamb, who created everything on earth including the child himself.
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
‘Never Seek to Tell Thy Love’ describes one man’s choice to reveal his true feelings to his “love” and the failure of that effort. The speaker addresses the reader of the poem, whoever that might be. He tells them that if they are considering sharing their emotions with another person, they should abstain. The confessor might think that sharing their most intimate feelings is a good thing, but even a “gentle wind” is felt. Everything has an impact.
The first stanza of the piece is very regular, as the speaker has found some perspective and is able to look back with less emotion. The following two are filled with emotional reminisces and end up reading as more sporadic. This is due to the structure of the meter. The changes that he felt when he confessed his own love, while invisible, still carried a big impact. By the end of the poem he decides he must move on and save his own life.
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
This piece was published in two parts in 1789 and 1794 in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It focuses on the horrors of child labor, a practice that was unfortunately rampant in 18th century England, and around the world. In the case of this poem, the speaker considers the plight of young boys who were sold as chimney sweeps. Due to their small size, they were able to fit into the smallest of places. Through ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Blake makes his political and social opinions very clear, denouncing child labor through the poignant images of desperation and salvation as seen through abandonment and divine intervention.
Father, father, where are you going
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
Or else I shall be lost,
‘The Little Boy Lost’ was first published in 1789 in William Blake’s famous volume, Songs of Innocence. It is only eight lines long, but it digs deep into the terrifying struggles of a young child. Broadly, the poem tells the story of a boy who while out searching for his father gets lost in the woods. By the end of the poem, an important moral message comes through. Blake seeks to compare the loss of faith the child felt in the woods and their doubt that they were going to find their father, to a loss of faith in God.
How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride,
‘Till I the prince of love beheld,
The female speaker of this poem tells the distressing story of her capture by Apollo (referred to as “Phoebus”). Apollo is notorious in Greek mythology for his often unwanted forays into relationships with women. He is the clear antagonist in this text, but his status as a god complicates the narrative. Apollo kidnaps this woman from a field after appearing to her as the “prince of love”. When things aren’t progressing as quickly as he would like he places her in a cage. The reader is left with a cliffhanger ending.
This piece was first published in William Blake’s collection Poetical Sketches in 1783. But it was written much earlier. Scholars have come to the conclusion that it was likely composed when Blake was only fourteen years old.
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
‘A Poison Tree’ was published in 1794 in William Blake’s Songs of Experience. It is noted for its simple language and a rhythm that evokes the patterning of nursery rhymes. But, there is much more to it than initially meets the eye. Blake’s speaker considers what anger is, and two different ways of confronting it. First, one might move past it by speaking about its cause. In the second, the anger takes root through the image of a tree that unfortunately bears poisoned apples. This is an outcome that is far from ideal and only perpetuates the cycle of anger and violence.
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
‘On Another’s Sorrow’ was published in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and is one of the longer poems on this list, reaching nine stanzas. God’s enduring love is the main theme of the poem, and the conclusion of nine stanzas of build-up as the speaker moves through natural imagery. He discusses the worth of the smallest of creatures, such as the wren, and how everything and everyone suffers.
The second half of the poem is directly addressed to God. He is able to become all those who suffer. As well as sit by those who are in the depths of despair, no matter who they are. If one cares for the world’s smallest and (seemingly) insignificant creatures, they are acting as God would.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
This is one of William Blake’s best-known poems. It is made up of one extended metaphor that alludes to perceived female purity. The speaker compares the rose, a symbol of nature, beauty, and fragility to a woman’s innocence or chastity.
In ‘The Sick Rose’ the speaker makes clear that the woman alluded to in the text is not “pure”. The rose has a sickness, a worm is feeding off of the rose’s beauty, depleting it of its worth. The worm’s “dark secret love” poisons the rose. It has its life destroyed. The worm, which clearly represents a phallus, kills the rose’s (aka, the woman’s), virginity.
‘London,’ like the other William Blake poems on this list, was published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It speaks on the difficulties of life in London through the structure of a speaker’s walk through the city. He travels to the River Thames and looks around him. He takes note of the solemn and resigned faces of his fellow Londoners. The speaker also hears and feels the sorrow in the streets. There are true pain hearts of men, women, and children. The most prominent of those suffering in London’s streets are the prostitutes.‘London’ ends with a fantastical image of a carriage that shuttles love and death together around the city.