Class Blog

The Melancholy Irony of a Sunflower Graveyard

William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” takes on a new dimension of melancholy loss when considering it through a lens of economic privilege and tourism. In this poem, the speaker watches a joyful, youthful scene which he can watch wistfully, but cannot participate in. The speaker reminisces, “Ah! sun-flower, weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the sun, / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done” (Blake l. 1-4). The manifest content has dual implications. The first is that he, the speaker, is the sunflower: stationary and worn from observing the world, he awaits the sunset anxiously because it promises rest from his work. The second is the speaker addresses the sunflower as a friend observing the sublime journey of the solitary traveler, world weary yet determined to accomplish his goal. The ambiguous meaning of the lines is accentuated by the rhyme scheme, abab, which increases anticipation of the resolution by distancing the conclusion as if to mimic the slow setting of the sun. 

Both conclusions are fascinating to follow through to the next stanza which illuminates an economically critical impulse to the poem. The speaker continues, “Where the youth pined away with desire, / And the pale virgins shrouded in snow, / Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 5-8). In the first two lines, the speaker observes the young lovers in Renaissance language, revived from Greek myth, describing the “youth” usually a lustful or strong young man, and the “virgins,” beautiful women, who waste time among the sunflowers with their lovers. This reading elicits some jealousy on the part of the speaker because the traveler has the privilege to rest among the leisurely youths of antiquity, who can enjoy the scene while they must wait and work until the day is out. For the sublime traveler and his youthful company, money seems to be no object, as they can “pin[e] away” the day on a whim of desire, and the women can afford such delicate adornments as “snow.”  

The lines in this poem contain repeated spondee in the meter which creates the illusion of a hitched breath of desire for the speaker: “Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 7-8). The content of these lines emphasizes his hidden desire to join these wanderers in their careless joy. In order to fit the rhyme scheme and increase anticipation, the clauses are reversed. As they currently stand, they give the impression that the youths rise from their graves to enjoy one last dance together in the sunflower field, and perhaps this is what the speaker images and desires. But if the lines are reversed, they also reveal that when he watches the lovers, the speaker’s buried dreams of joining them stir in their graves in sunflower field, desirous once more to join them. But because the speaker does not have a monetarily privileged gaze, he must continue to work, and his wishes must remain wishes. 

Limón and Blake: Similar ideals, hundreds of years apart

Who gets to look? Ada Limón would say that anyone who wishes to look, can, and should look. This act of looking is the primary role of a tourist, an onlooker full of interest, attention, and appreciation. Tourists travel from place to place, looking at countries, streams, oceans, castles, churches, ruins. Most importantly, tourists, whether literal or metaphorical, look at life, acknowledge life, and savor the act of being, and what has been. During her Dickinson Stellfox residency, Limón noted that she was most interested and inspired by the fact that we live, and we die. 

This same inspiration is exceedingly apparent in William Blake’s work, specifically in his poem The Fly. The speaker of the poem views the fly’s life from an outside perspective, as someone whose “Thoughtless hand/ has brushed away” (3-4) the fly; but also sees the fly from a very familiar perspective. The speaker realizes that both live and both die, making them quite similar in a very simplistic way. They take note of the little things like the fly itself, but doesnt see the fly as small. Instead the fly is viewed simply: as a living being who experiences high and low points in life just like humans do (even if its ultimate low point is being brushed away.) When viewing life in this way there is no gender, and there is no class. There is only the simple act of being alive. With no confinements or definitions, and only viewing life, being watchful, and being a tourist or watcher who thinks, lives, and is interested and appreciates their being, as well as the fly’s. “Am not I/ A fly like thee? / Or art not thou /  A man like me?” (5-8) efficiently equates man to fly, and suggests that even the “little fly” (1) is capable of this appreciation and experience of a good life, just like the speaker and just like Ada Limón’s ideas. 

Both poets share a similar appreciation for intersections between nature and mankind, as well as the simplicity in life itself. Being mindful, stopping to think, to look, to watch, or listen, was the advice of United State’s 24th poet laureate, Ada Limón. Her words, alongside Blake’s, suggest that there is a certain greatness in taking a moment to be a tourist, who is simply watching and exploring life.


On The Rights of Earth

William Blake’s “Earth’s Answer” from Songs of Experience is radically anti-God. It is a piece of speculative fiction that places Earth and the heavens at odds with each other, and in doing so sets up a primordial battle between oppressor and oppressed which can be mapped on to other conflicts through a political lens. The conflict is established most directly in the second and third stanzas where earth states that they are “Prison’d on watry shore / Starry Jealousy does keep my den” and that the “father of men” is selfish. Starry jealousy refers to some malicious intent from the angels, often represented by stars, which leads them to prevent earth from shining like them. The charechterization of God, the father of men, as selfish, is interesting in that it does not complain about humans directly or even blame them for what they have done to earth, but instead goes straight to the source, a move which challenges the idea of free will.

Earth does not only complain of its own cause, however, in the second half of the poem it shifts it begins to expand its argument for the oppressed beyond itself.

Can delight
Chain’d in night
The virgins of youth and morning bear.
Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower?
Sow by night?
Or the plowman in darkness plow?
…free Love with bondage bound.
At multiple points these lines demonstrate that the conflict being articulated by earth is one between nature, and restraint. In Earth’s case its natural state of being, a bright hot molten rock (of love?) is restricted by a “watry shore” and a “cold and hoar” den. It equates this prison to nonsensical restrictions that do not exist: restricting delight to the night would prevent it being enjoyed by the innocent, no one would expect spring to be somber, nor for farmers to work at night. Tracking this argument onto the political issues of Songs of Innocence and Experience, a connection can be made to the rights of child workers, we should allow children to exist as their nature dictates, not restrict it with work, Women and Slaves should be free full stop. It is a simplistic argument but by positioning the reader with the earth, a difficult thing to sympathize with, Blake prepares them to be more sympathetic to other, more rational causes.

Christian Divinety and Slavery

Although most literature from the Romantic period did not engage with or challenge popular religious ideology, writers still used religious references and comparisons to enhance their ideas about humankind and sublime experiences. Both William Blake, in “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence, and Ann Yearsley, in “Death of Luco”, reference Christianity, however Blake emphasizes religious divinity in the ordinary world while Yearsley criticizes religious hypocrisy. Using a religious lens to examine these two poems highlight the distinction between what Christianity should represent, and what it actually represents. 

In “The Divine Image”, Blake conceptualizes four main tenets of Christianity- mercy, pity, peace, and love- as parts of a divine being as well as parts of a human being. He writes that these virtues are both “God our father dear” and “man, his child and care” (l. 6-8). Mercy, pity, peace, and love inherently have divine connotations in the Church, as it is believed that only God can perfectly uphold these virtues, but Blake explicitly personifies these virtues to show their presence across humanity. Blake writes that “Mercy has a human heart”, “Pity, a human face”, “Love, the human form”, and “Peace, the human dress”; he intentionally capitalizes each virtuous word to emphasize its importance and transcendental nature (l. 13-16). By describing the presence of these otherwise divinely religious concepts in average human forms, Blake challenges the strict separation between God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection. This optimistic perspective suggests that the religious ideals of mercy, pity, peace, and love, while divine in concept, are ordinary in appearance and can be found within “every man of every clime” (l. 13). Rather than reserving Christianity for only the most pious individuals, Blake supports the notion that anyone and everyone can participate in the Christian faith. 

As a part of the collection Songs of Innocence, the inclusive Christianity depicted in “The Divine Image” represents an idealistic, and even naive, understanding of Christianity rather than the reality. Yearsley, however, presents a less idealistic depiction of Christianity in “Death of Luco”. This poem tells the story of Luco, an enslaved man, and the violent and hateful actions directed toward him by his Christian slave owners. Yearsley explicitly refers to Luco’s master as the “remorseless Christian” and the “rude Christian”, and she later extends her criticism to all of slave owners that “dare avow to God” (l. 253, 259, 285). Her criticism of slave-owning Christians speaks to the hypocrisy of those who believe in a kind, forgiving God while simultaneously owning, torturing, raping, and killing enslaved human beings. Unlike Blake’s depiction of Christianity, Yearsley uses the sociopolitical issue of slavery to contextualize the contradictory reality of Christianity. Therefore, Blake presents the perfect image of Christianity, based upon God’s divinity and the principles of mercy, pity, peace, and love, and Yearsley describes the same Christianity, only after it has been appropriated by humankind. Where Blake shows humanity’s potential for divine goodness, then, Yearsley shows humanity’s actual dismissal of divine goodness.

Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, and The Female Vagrant

William Wordsworth’s “The Female Vagrant” tells the first-person narrative of a woman whose life and family have been destroyed by war. Wordsworth details the destructions of war through a feminine lens and emphasizes the lasting ramifications of war on the family and woman. By doing this, Wordsworth presents war not as a singular event on a battlefield, but as an event that harms all involved at various points in time.

In Wordsworth’s poem, even before the husband is officially sent to war, the family is facing destruction. Wordsworth writes, “My husband’s arms now only served to strain / Me and his children, hungering in his view” (lines 302-303). The grammar and line structure of this sentence is particularly interesting. On the one hand, one could read this line as the narrator saying the husband’s labor has forced the family to relocate. They are straining, or pulling, themselves to move to America. Alternatively, this line could be read as the husband’s arms no longer having the ability to be around his children and wife. His body is no longer meant for love, only work. He is property. This leaves the wife and children begging for his attention in his view. Read either way, the husband can see his family, but due to the demand for his labor, he is unable to properly fill the role of loving father and husband.

The concept of the body being strained for physical labor is present in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft writes that for the poor man who has no liberty or property, “His property is in his nervous arms” (125). Wollstonecraft follows with the image of these arms pulling at a “strange rope” highlighting the absurdity of this labor. As Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth point out, the poor man becomes property of the nation.

However, Wordsworth goes even further to suggest that the entire family is part of the war effort. Each member of the family is partaking in some form of labor, even if it is solely emotional. The second stanza ends with the line, “We reached the western world a poor devoted crew” (line 304). The words ‘poor’ and ‘devoted’ following one another is crucial. The family could be poor in the sense of not having wealth or in the sense of being afflicted with a terrible situation. Either way, this family’s devotion is forced. Moreover, the woman refers to her family as a ‘crew.’ The female narrator is acknowledging that herself and her children are as much a part of the war effort as her husband. Each member of the family has made a sacrifice.

Wollstonecraft calls attention to the concept of the family as a unit or crew. She writes that the “distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them […] were regarded as “vulgar sorrows” (125). Though Wollstonecraft is exposing the mindset of the rich, she still regards the family as a unit.

Unfortunately, this unit does not remain intact for our female vagrant. Wordsworth writes, “All perished, all, in one remorseless year” (line 320). The poem then takes an especially dark turn as the woman returns to England only to discover a nation she does not recognize. As heartbreaking as the second half of Wordsworth’s poem is, it is crucial to recognize that the poem continues even after the narrator’s children and husband die. She has to go on living. The effects of war do not end once the fighting on the battlefield is over. War has never-ending consequences, absurd heartbreaking beginnings, and demands labor from all as both Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft detail.

The Echoing Greens and Childhood Joys

In the poem, “The Echoing Green” by William Blake, there is a sense of peace and an ultimate rest. The first stanza of the poem talks about the sun rising and how everything is alive on the “echoing green,” there are birds singing. The second stanza of the poem continues this youthful theme as there are old people talking about their childhoods “on the echoing green.” The last stanza of the poem is the one that ultimately breaks the cycle. While the first two stanzas end with “on the echoing green,” this one ends with “on the darkening green,” (30). This subtle difference in the ending of the stanza shows how this stanza becomes a turning point. The first line is “Till the little ones weary” (21). Starting the stanza with this, there is already this connotation of the day ending and it contrasts the first line “the sun does arise,” as does the “darkening green.” Not only this, the sun descends in the third stanza, showing that their day comes to an end. “Round the laps of their mothers, / Many sisters and brothers, / Like birds in their nest, / Are ready for rest;” (25-28). These few lines in the third stanza create a peaceful scene, one of bedtime and the resting of children. For most kids, their mother’s lap is where they find comfort, where they feel safe. Blake compares the children to birds; this is intriguing as previously mentioned he talks about the birds singing. It is though the playful children are like birds in the way that their play provides joy for others much like the birds singing provides joy for those listening. Like birds, the children cannot play forever, they must rest at some point and be in their safe space. By including the word “ready” while talking about rest, it seems that Blake is conveying that the children cannot play anymore, they are exhausted. Slowly, the children will turn into the “old folk” in the second stanza, those who reminisce on their past joys that they no longer have. As the children get more and more tired, their youth fades.

The poem seems to be about finding rest and joy in nature. However, the old folk in the poem do not seem to find their joy, instead they just look fondly at the past and remember when they were once young. “The Echoing Green” becomes much sadder when focusing more on the second stanza in which they appear. “’Such, such were the joys. / When we all girls & boys, / In our youth-time were seen, / On the echoing green.’” (17-20). The old folk are pitied in a light-hearted way as they talk about the joys in past tense, they no longer enjoy the echoing green as they once did. The rhyme here of the old folk talking gives them a wistful voice and because the rhyme does not break, it shows how they are still connected to this echoing green although they are old. However, they do not feel the joy much like the speaker in “To The South Downs,” a poem by Charlotte Smith. The speaker in her poem tries to find the peace that she had as a child by returning to nature but it is no longer there.

The poem also talks about the cycle of human life in the metaphor of the sun rising and setting as mentioned before. Youth does not last forever and as the sun sets, the children begin to rest and ultimately turn into the old folk. When people age, their joy fades as shown in this poem, they are no longer the singing birds, instead, they are the old folk sitting on the green, wishing they had the joy that the children have.

Form and Meaning in “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce”, or “The Slave Trader in the Dumps”

In William Cowper’s Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce, or The Slave Trader in the Dumps, the conflict between form and meaning leaves the reader with a complex understanding and perspective in interpreting this poem. Throughout the poem, the consistent use of the repetition of “Which nobody can deny, deny, Which nobody can deny”, ultimately evokes a jolly and upbeat feeling which can be attained by the reader. The presence of repetition in the poem gives it a singsong feel, drawing the reader in and making them more attentive. Within the verses containing rhyme, the content provided by the narrator contradicts this upbeat mood by providing horrific detail and description in the life of a slave. Though, this conflict between form and meaning ultimately amplifies this attentiveness gained by the reader, providing a shock factor in the conflicting aspects of the poem.

Another aspect of the poem that stood out to me was the title, or the two titles, rather. Cowper is seemingly utilizing metaphorical language with “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce” through multiple ways. “Sweet Meat” is a metaphor for the benefits that privileged people have gained because of slavery, specifically the sugar trade, as well as benefits that are “sweet” to those in power. The “Sour Sauce represents the “sour” reality of how the “sweetness” has come to be: from the horrors of slavery.

The significance of the title also calls back to the form of the poem which works to elucidate its meaning. For example, the juxtaposition, or contrast between “Sweet” and “Sour” ultimately factors back into the form of the poem in the juxtaposition between form and mood.

Though, with the other title, “Slave Trader in the Dumps”, the meaning is less metaphorical, and more so stating the perspective of the narrator. This leads to a question I would pose in interpreting the titles in relation to the meaning of the poem: Why did Cowper include two different titles?

Blake and Wollstonecraft: The Problem of Poverty and Salvation

For this blog post, I wanted to explore William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from “Songs of Innocence” by comparing it to Mary Wollstonecraft’s views on the poor. “The Longman Anthology” mentions that Blake admired Wollstonecraft and that both were part of the same group of “artists and religious dissenters joined by progressive politics and support of the French Revolution” (Perspectives 171). Both rejected the way the poor were treated, but they approached the issue in different, and perhaps conflicting, ways.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” Blake writes through the eyes of a young boy who works cleaning people’s chimneys. Part of an industry of exploitation and toil, Blake makes no attempt to cover up the harshness of his situation: the boy was sold by his father before he could speak, sleeps in soot, and works with other crying children (Lines 1-4). After quickly establishing the impoverished life of these children, the majority of the poem dives into young Tom Dacre’s dream, where he saw “thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (Lines 11-12). These coffins can be interpreted as the early deaths that often followed these young children who were forced to work in extremely dangerous and hazardous places (the Notes in the back of the Penguin edition notes that boys usually died of skin cancer from the heat at a young age). This fate, of just being another anonymous Dick, Joe, or Ned in a line of dead bodies, is inescapable for the poor children with no means to change their social mobility or place in life. 

An angel then appears in the dream to set them all free, reminding the boy that “if they all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Line 24). This echoes the sentiment that Wollstonecraft fights against, that the poor will reach salvation after a life of toil, and must suffer through “the will of Heaven” (Perspectives 129). Blake believes that this indoctrination from the Church is just a way to force these children into a life of submission, telling them they will be rewarded for their “duty” after they die. These children take solace in religion, which is an elusive, far-away ‘reward’ to their current life. Wollstonecraft directly ties into the rejection of this fantasy, claiming that “it is, Sir, possible to render the poor happier in this world […] They have a right to more comfort than they at present enjoy; and more comfort might be afforded to them, without encroaching on the pleasures of the rich” (Perspectives 129). What stands out to me is her focus on “in this world,” and how they must move away from this ‘salvation solution.’

However, Wollstonecraft seems to be coming at this issue of poverty from a middle class point of view, stating that humanity should get rid of the system of inheritance and allow for fluctuating wealth among members of a family. However, does this inheritance-based approach really help the children like the one in Blake’s poem who’s “mother died when I was very young, / And my father sold me” (Lines 1-2)? How does Wollstonecraft’s approach help those of the lowest class, with no property or wealth of their own? Both push back against the popular idea that the poor will be compensated in heaven and therefore do not need to be helped now, but both don’t really provide a truly concrete answer on how to help. 

Story of Yearsley, Death of Luco

Ann Yearsley’s poem, “Death of Luco” from On the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade is unique within the collection of abolition-focused poems we read for class in that it focuses on a specific character’s story within a larger context rather than the overall context itself. The entirety of the poem details a conflict between Luco and his master or overseer “Gorgon, remorseless Christian” (l.253) on an unknown plantation which ends in Luco’s violent death. I found this approach to dealing with the topic of British slavery interesting, as it was a departure from the broader condemnations of the practice as a whole from poets such as Cowper and More. However, Fiona Stafford’s chapter “Common Causes: The Abolition” offers insight into Yearsley’s own background, and how it contributes to her achievements as a poet. According to Stafford, “…she had been presented to the public as the remarkable ‘Milkwoman of Bristol’, discovered by Hannah More in a lowly cowshed” and “Universal equality was especially appealing to a poet whose own poverty had been publicly displayed” (Stafford 71). Stafford argues that Yearsley’s personal “story” is an important contextual feature that undergirds all her poetry. She “had to overcome the double difficulties of gender and class in order to have her opinions taken seriously, poetry offered a public platform which would have otherwise been unattainable” (70-71). Thus, when viewing Yearsley’s work through Stafford, it is impossible to separate the poet’s work from the poet’s story. Yearsley becomes almost character-like herself, due to the adversity she publicly overcame before becoming successful. Yearsley perhaps shows an awareness for the importance of poetry in providing a platform for individuals rather than issues in “Death of Luco”. The brief final stanza of the poem takes a more general questioning approach, “Gracious God! /Why thus in mercy let thy whirlwinds sleep/O’er a vile race of Christians…” (l.291-294), but this functions more to summarize the devastation of the poem and the focus is still primarily Luco’s story. Yearsley’s choice denotes an awareness of the likeliness of public empathy to be directed more towards individuals, like her own “despite-the-odds” appreciation. Stafford’s insight into Yearsley’s experience as a poet with a unique backstory demonstrates the inspiration for her anti-slavery sentiments to be grounded within a single character’s story.


In Hannah More’s 1788 abolitionist work “Slavery: A Poem,” she writes “The unconquered savage laughs at pain and toil, / Basking in Freedom’s beams which gild his native soil… // And thou, white savage…” on lines (123-125).  Within these lines, she utilizes the word “savage” twice to refer to white people.  This word choice serves as a reversal of roles, framing white people as the barbarians rather than black people.  White people had been describing black people using terms such as “savages” for years as a means of justifying slavery.  By calling them savage, white people created a subcategory of “lesser” humans and forced black people into them.  If black people could be considered less-than-human, or beasts, white people could feel better about enslaving them and treating them poorly.  More’s reversal of roles serves as a psychological attack against people who support slavery, ultimately contributing to the propagandist nature of the poem as a whole.

White, anti-abolition readers who remain “unconquered” feel what it is like to be dehumanized while being fully human.  Being insulted the same way they insult black people (being called a savage) may evoke empathy in some of them, allowing them to see how unjust it is to have their human status unrightfully stripped away from them.  More’s use of the word “savage” also points out the hypocrisy among supporters of slavery.  More hints that the more white people treat black people like they are savages, the more savage they themselves become.  What makes someone less human is not the color of their skin, but their cruel treatment of those around them.  In other words, one who dehumanizes others is only ultimately dehumanizing themself.

The effect these lines of the poem have on white readers who are anti-abolitionist is one that elicits feelings of empathy, guilt, and shame.  Perhaps some of these readers will have an epiphany, finally realizing how supporting slavery has turned them into barbaric monsters.  The final line of the poem, line 226, states that “Conquest is pillage with a nobler name!”  Anti-abolitionists’ reasons for slavery, the idea that black people are subhuman and that conquest is noble, are revealed by More to simply be savage justifications.  The other purpose of these lines is to rally support against anti-abolitionists by insulting them and separating them from abolitionists.  More unites people who are anti-slavery by revealing that there is a “bad guy” and they deserve to understand what it feels like to be “conquered.”