With the Stroke of a Pen
By Trudy A. Martinez
The first few lines of the novel A Tale Of Two Cities, a fictional historical novel, written by Charles Dickens presents a narrow view of history that sets the atmosphere and the tone of the era in which William Blake aspires. The novel’s plot begins in the year one thousand seven hundred fifty-seven, the year of Blake’s birth.
“It [is] the best of times”
The nobles maintain their sanction status; the church, the Catholic Church, continues to support the corrupt government. The bourgeoisie, the upper-middle-class, prosper, increasing in wealth and position; some of the upper-middle-class use foresight by purchasing titles thus exempting themselves from taxes and the dual standard employed within a society of classes. The Population increases as a result of the accomplishment of industrialization.
“It [is] the worst of times”
The middle class begins to stagnate; the working class and the peasantry are oppressed and left to the mercy of the nobles and the bourgeoisie, the upper-middle-class, who abuses them. Factory workers labor long hours for subsistence wages; the peasantry is like dirt under the feet of the upper classes; their human dignity stripped; they are like animals with no rights; their death means nothing to the upper-class. Stealing a piece of bread or a few pence to survive means imprisonment, torture, and possible death at the whim of an aristocrat. Cities are overcrowded and so are the prisons.
“It [is] the age of wisdom”
The scientific community made discoveries in the 17th century that revolutionizes thought processes; those processes are carried further in the 18th century which sees further achievements in astronomy, chemistry, and biology. As a result, new ideas surface.
“It [is] the season of light”
Reaction to the age of wisdom and foolishness produce the age of reason; then subsequently a new idealism in opposition to materialism and finally humanitarianism and an increase emphasis on reform movements in answer to problems that face society.
“It [is] the season of darkness”
The upper-middle-class on down to the peasantry lost their faith in the system. The population increases along with taxation. Oppression is on the rise, illness, disease, abuse, and death increase dramatically. All hopes of improvement fades.
As hopes fades for the oppressed, William Blake begins to address the issues of the time while at the same maintaining his faith in the Lord. One can only revere such a poet who appears as a rebel in his own time, the era of the romantics. During this era, greed became a virtue (greed is no longer seen as a vice) that leads the upper middle class to the pillars of society through the persecution of the lower classes. It is an age when man is not free to express openly his thoughts or the truth of all matters.
Blake’s courage became a distinct mark upon time when he addresses his concerns for a society gone astray through his articulations in poetry. His mastery of technique may be seen in the poems. He writes of what he hears and of what he sees as if in answer to the scripture of the Holy Bible (Ezekiel 22 verse 2): “Now, thou son of man, wilt thou judge, wilt thou judge the bloody city? Yea, thou shalt shew her all her abominations.” And Blake, a man of God, surely did show the abominations of a bloody city. Blake speaks of a life, of misery, of death, of injustice and of infidelity; he writes in such a manner as to grant the reader a perceptive scene to behold the grievance, to distinguish the injury upon the citizenry, and discern the encroachment power of industrialization. When Blake drafts his weapon, the all-powerful pen, he fights against the despotism of progress.
The despotism of progress appears as a “. . . mark in every face. . . “. With Blake’s execution of words, the “mark” emerges as if an expression of sadness, of pain, of suffering on the faces of everyone on the “chartered streets” of London, the streets where special privileges (sanctioned by government) are granted to business and to the church immunity, immunity from guilt. The immunity from guilt stretches out to encompass “. . . every infant’s cry of fear . . . every voice . . . every ban, and the mind-forged manacles . . .”[Blake hears]. In other words, Blake hears the babies cry of hunger, the fearful cry of not knowing where the next meal will come from or if it will come at all, the fear of imprisonment in an oppression of not only the body but of the soul with the freedom of thought prohibited, chained to the mind, a crime if voiced while the oppressors ignores the situation or looks the other way.
Blake sees the crimes of the church as he hears “…the Chimney-sweeper’s cry”, the cry of innocence, the cry of horror upon becoming lost in the miles of tunnels “Every black’ning church appalls . . . “ Here Blake seems to imply that the church condones the act of sending children into the miles of tunnels to clean the chimneys even though the church knows the children’s innocence may be blackened not only by the soot of the chimney’s but also by the crying agony of the death the tunnels might hold them and that the chimney tunnels might thus become their coffin and the church their pall bearer.
Blake hears “…the hapless Soldier’s sigh” as he appears to envision the mark of the legless man’s weariness, his sorrow, his regret for the blood all soldiers shed for their country, their government; and therefore the Soldier’s sighs “[ran] in blood down Palace walls.”
As the blood ran down the Palace walls, the blood seeps into the streets darkened by the immunity pledge to industrialization through its charter. There Blake hears “…through midnight streets…the youthful Harlot’s curse”. In other words, Blake sees the disease, hunger, and death –the plight of young girls being forced into prostitution merely by the desire to survive the hell of their existence. Blake also sees the curse live on in the cry of the young girl’s offspring “[as the curse blasts] the new-born infant’s tear”.
The infant’s tear cries out with the knowledge of its destiny to Blake; And Blake transfers the infant’s appeal for life on to paper. In doing so, Blake bestows upon others his benefaction of sight, his ability to examine the “…mark on every face” and therefore to detect and distinguish “…every infant’s cry of fear”, the hopelessly of their lives, the birth of the affliction of their death, “…blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Blake with the courage of a warrior and as commanded by the Lord with the stroke of a pen shows the city: “all her abominations” and perhaps inspires the
“. . . The Spring of Hope” and helps to prevent “. . . a winter of despair”.
The previous winters had not been pleasant; in fact, they had been quiet rough for the oppressed with their subsistence existence, death, and the injustice within society. Their future did not promise much hope. Blake left very few stones un-turned when he also exposes the virtues of women who give themselves willingly to men in secret only to destroy their purity and innocence in the poem, “The Sick Rose.”
While Dickens brings into focus the attitudes and climate of society by focusing attention on the individuals of each class within the society, Blake shows the City of London all its abominations. Thus the personal attitudes of the individuals are given logic and reason through their level of self-esteem, their suspicions, their beliefs, their mastery, and their behavior and through their association of religion, learning, achievement, and past experience. As a result of the perception of the individuals, the reader’s personal, general, perception of attitudes and behavior of the rich and the poor and the practices and developments within the society are conceived. The literary maneuver of Dickens gives a structure of justice and injustice which in turn defines and distinguishes the good and the evil that confronts the society and William Blake.
Perhaps, the writings of Blake inspire the English under the reign of George III to revitalize its middle-class with the hope of a better future and thus prevent the “topsy-turvy” effect the French experienced. One can only imagine what may have inspired the great poet to express his independent thoughts during a period of time when freedom of thought or speech is not apparent. But Blake seizes the opportunity his quill affords him and speaks out against oppression as he transcribes what he perceives in a fashion that marks his courage forever on the pages of time through the stroke of his pen.