The greatest poems by William Blake selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key figures of English Romanticism, and a handful of his poems are universally known thanks to their memorable phrases and opening lines. Blake frequently spoke out against injustice in his own lifetime: slavery, racism, poverty, and the corruption of those in power. In this post we’ve chosen what we consider to be ten of the best William Blake poems, along with links to each of them.
‘Jerusalem’. The hymn called ‘Jerusalem’ is surrounded by misconceptions, legend, and half-truths. Blake wrote the words which the composer Hubert Parry later set to music, but Blake didn’t call his poem ‘Jerusalem’, and instead the famous words that form the lyrics of the hymn are merely one part of a longer poem, a poem which Blake called Milton. The poem has been read as a satire of the rampant jingoism and Christian feeling running through England during the Napoleonic Wars, and has even been described as anti-patriotic, despite the patriotic nature of the hymn it inspired. It features the famous, rousing lines:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
Click on the link above to read the full poem and learn the true story behind it.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
This is one of Blake’s finest poems. In ‘London’, Blake describes the things he sees when he wanders through the streets of London: signs of misery and weakness can be discerned on everyone’s face. Every man’s voice – even the cry of every infant, a child who hasn’t even learnt to talk yet – conveys this sense of oppression. It’s as if everyone is being kept in slavery, but the manacles they wear are not literal ones, but mental – ‘mind-forg’d’ – ones. The poem has been interpreted as a response to the French Revolution, and Blake’s wish that Englanders would follow suit and rise up against the authorities and power structures which tyrannised over them.
‘The Sick Rose’. This little poem seems to be very straightforward, but its meaning remains elusive. Is the worm that destroys the rose a symbol of death? By contrast, roses are often associated with love, beauty, and the erotic. In Blake’s poem we get several hints that such a reading is tenable: the rose is in a ‘bed’, suggesting not just its flowerbed but also the marriage bed; not only this, but it is a bed of ‘crimson joy’, which is not quite as strong a suggestion of sex and eroticism as ‘scarlet joy’ would have been, but nevertheless bristles with more than simple colour-description.
‘A Poison Tree’. Blake originally gave ‘A Poison Tree’ the title ‘Christian Forbearance’. It begins:
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.
The speaker of the poem tells us that when he was angry with his friend he simply told his friend that he was annoyed, and that put an end to his bad feeling. But when he was angry with his enemy, he didn’t air his grievance to this foe, and so the anger grew. The implication of this ‘poison tree’ is that anger and hatred start to eat away at oneself: hatred always turns inward, corrupting into self-hatred.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The opening line of this poem, ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’, is among the most famous lines in all of William Blake’s poetry. Accompanied by a painting of an altogether cuddlier tiger than the ‘Tyger’ depicted by the poem itself, ‘The Tyger’ first appeared in the 1794 collection Songs of Experience, which contains many of Blake’s most celebrated poems. The Songs of Experience was designed to complement Blake’s earlier collection, Songs of Innocence (1789), and ‘The Tyger’ should be seen as the later volume’s answer to ‘The Lamb’ (see below). Framed as a series of questions, ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’ (as the poem is also often known) sees Blake’s speaker wondering about the creator responsible for such a fearsome creature as the tiger. The fiery imagery used throughout the poem conjures the tiger’s aura of danger: fire equates to fear. Don’t get too close to the tiger, Blake’s poem seems to say, otherwise you’ll get burnt.
‘The Clod and the Pebble’. This poem is about two contrasting ideas of love – the ‘clod’ of clay representing a selfless and innocent kind of love and the ‘pebble’ in a brook symbolising love’s more pragmatic, selfish side.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light …
Blake published ‘The Little Black Boy’ in 1789 and the poem can be seen in part as an indictment of slavery. Blake’s poem gives a voice to a black boy born into slavery, whose skin is black but, he maintains, his soul is white. ‘White’ here suggests purity and innocence, that central theme in Blake’s poems of 1789.
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
So begins the counterpoint poem to ‘The Tyger’, or rather, ‘The Tyger’ is the ‘experience’ version of this ‘innocence’ poem. The lamb is a well-known symbol for Jesus Christ, and Blake draws on this association in this poem, telling the lamb that it was its namesake, the Lamb (i.e. the Lamb of God) who made the lamb, along with all living things. The composer John Tavener set ‘The Lamb’ to music.
‘The Garden of Love’. In this poem, Blake’s speaker goes into the Garden of Love and finds a chapel built on the spot where he used to play as a child. The gates of the chapel are shut, and commandments and prohibitions are written over the door. The garden has become a graveyard, its flowers replaced by tombstones. This idea of love starting out as a land of liberty and promise but ending up a world of death and restriction is expressed very powerfully through the image of the garden:
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green …
Click on the link above to read the full poem (and learn more about it).
‘Never seek to tell thy love’. This untitled poem, written in around 1793, would have to wait 70 years to see publication, when the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti included it in his edition of Blake’s poems in 1863. The poem suggests that sometimes it’s best not to confess one’s love but to keep it secret. In one manuscript version of the poem, the first line actually reads ‘Never pain to tell thy love’, but many subsequent editors have altered ‘pain’ to ‘seek’.
If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend the affordable Oxford Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics).
Continue your odyssey into the world of Romanticism with our pick of Coleridge’s best poems, our analysis of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and the curious story behind Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Watercolour portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807; Wikimedia Commons.