Two Poems by William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827)

Arguably known as much for his painting skills as for his poetry, British Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) was recognized for neither during his lifetime. Blake has been posthumously recognized for the philosophical undercurrents in his self-proclaimed prophetic works.

Blake was said to be influenced at one point, as were many writers of his time, by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions. His vocal criticism of organized religion and idiosyncratic viewpoints likely did nothing to help him gain prominence in literary circles during his lifetime; however, the rise and fall of many writers’ reputations throughout the centuries has more to do with the ideologies and sentiments of modern critics than actual fair analysis of one’s work in the context of their own time and circumstance.

The third of seven children, Blake was homeschooled by his mother after age 10. He entered into an apprenticeship for seven years to become a professional engraver, after which he became a student at the Royal Academy. In 1781, he married the illiterate Catherine Boucher, who he taught not only to read and write, but how to engrave. She subsequently helped him in his craft for the rest of his life.

Blake’s most recognizable poems include “The Tyger” and “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young,” both of which are found below.


The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Two Poems by Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

A contemporary of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, British Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) is probably best known as the author of “The Fairie Queen,” an epic fantasy poem celebrating the monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth I.

Spenser, however, did much more than write a flattering poem paying tribute to the queen and her family line. He also wrote many sonnets and is considered one of the founders and most respected craftsmen of English verse.

Born in London and twice married, Spenser’s life was spent writing and socializing in literary circles. His foray into politics was suppressed during his lifetime, possibly due to his incendiary viewpoints regarding the Irish. His prose pamphlet entitled “A View of the Present State of Ireland” argued for destroying the customs and language of the Irish people, by violence if necessary, to force them into a more submissive stance toward the English. He died in London at age 46 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminister Abbey.

Aside from his most famous (and very lengthy) epic fantasy poem, “The Fairie Queen,” the following two sonnets are from his collection Amoretti and are among the most notable poems Spenser wrote.


Amoretti LXXIX: Men Call You Fair

Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And vertuous mind, is much more prais’d of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Deriv’d from that fair Spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair, like flowers untimely fade.


Amoretti LIV: Of This Worlds Theatre in Which We Stay

Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay,
My love lyke the Spectator ydly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguysing diversly my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in myrth lyke to a Comedy:
Soone after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I waile and make my woes a Tragedy.
Yet she beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughes, and hardens evermore her hart.
What then can move her? if not merth nor mone,
She is no woman, but a sencelesse stone.