By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.’ This couplet constitutes the other most famous quotation from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ after ‘To see the world in a grain of sand’. But what is the meaning of this quotation?
To understand the meaning of Blake’s famous couplet, we need to know its context – and specifically, the poem in which it appears.
Unlike many of his other celebrated poems, William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ remained unpublished for decades after his death, and was only first published in 1863. Written in around 1803, the poem offers various images of innocence, juxtaposing them with images of corruption, decay, or evil.
The Robin Redbreast represents innocence. The cage, by contrast, symbolises evil, because the bird – which should be freely flying around – has been imprisoned by man so that it can be kept as a pet.
So here we see ‘innocence’ being destroyed by man: putting birds in cages or birdhouses restricts their freedom, and is abhorrent to Blake. Unnecessary and pointless acts of suffering and destruction, especially of animals, are Blake’s specific target in ‘Auguries of Innocence’.
‘A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.’
Note the mention of ‘Heaven’ in the second line of the quotation. Blake suggests that God himself is angered by man’s cruelty towards another of God’s own creatures. What right does man have to restrict the life of the bird?
The robin isn’t the only bird which Blake mentions. It is merely the most famous. The opening sections of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ do, in fact, contain a series of couplets about birds, and other creatures, being kept in various states of captivity:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright
Every Wolfs & Lions howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul
Like the robin, these other creatures are all ‘dumb’: that is, they are voiceless. Blake’s poetry often gives a voice to the voiceless: those who are unable to defend themselves. He does this elsewhere for children, too, such as in his poem ‘Infant Sorrow’:
My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.
An ‘infant’ is a child who is literally voiceless: the word comes from the Latin infans which means ‘unable to speak’. Blake’s robin redbreast is one of many creatures in his work who are unable to stand up for themselves or cry out against the injustices visited upon them.
William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the ‘Lake Poets’.
Blake’s key themes are religion, poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society. His famous line about a ‘Robin Red breast in a Cage’ putting ‘all Heaven in a Rage’ is a good example of his championing of the oppressed and overlooked, and, most importantly of all, those without a voice of their own.