The "Mind-Forg'd Manacles" of Blake's Poetry

By: Elizabeth Whitney


The English Romantic poets were generally concerned with the human imagination as a counter to the rise of science. The growing intellectual movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries placed scientific thought in the forefront of all knowledge, basing reality in material objects. The Romantics found this form of world view to be restrictive. The Romantics felt that imagination was essential to individual happiness because it allowed the individual to, as Wordsworth stated, "half-create" the world. The individual shapes the reality he perceives because he brings certain a priori knowledge to every experience. The imagination also provides a common human bond; it provides a means of sympathy, of identification. However, the absence of imagination, the Romantics felt, would lead people to apathy and a false sense of being. The English Romantics accepted the reality of the link between man and nature in the form of the human imagination as the basis of human understanding, rejecting the scientific world view of materialism.

The Romantics attempted to discover the hidden unity between man and nature. Imagination is a force, or energy, that allows such a connection to be made. The realization of this interdependent relationship carries with it a kind of freedom for the individual. William Blake saw the human imagination as essential to human understanding of the world; he saw reality as a "mental construction." According to Blake and the other Romantic poets, once the energy of imagination is used effectively to realize the connection between man and nature, the individual gains freedom from the restrictive bonds of unimaginative thought.

William Blake expressed his belief in the importance of the imagination by attacking what he called the "mind-forg'd manacles." Unimaginative thought imposes shackles on the human spirit. Blake believed that the outside, sensory world has no inherent meaning, but becomes meaningful through the contributions of the human imagination, thus his stance that reality is a construction of the human mind. Humans bring meaning to nature in the form of imaginative thought. However, Blake recognized the limitations that humans often place on themselves , limitations that are inflicted by the human mind. Self-imposed social and intellectual restrictions deprive humans of experiencing nature and the true human spirit. The "mind-forg'd manacles" represent Blake's perception of self-limitation and the denigration of the human imagination.

Blake explores this idea of self-limitation in his poems entitled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Blake first creates a world of innocence where the inhabitants are child-like and are completely accepting of knowledge without any concern for truth or meaning. He then progresses to the world of experience where nature has been abandoned and evil prevails as a result.

In Songs of Innocence, the dominant symbol is the child. The poems are narrated from the point of view of a child and represent the youth of the human imagination. At this point in its life, the imagination is not fully formed and does not yet contain its own distinctive character. The child is dependent on the information he receives from adults and does not question their faulty reasoning. This relationship is intended as a commentary on the Christian belief of dependence on God as akin to the child's dependence on its father. The innocent believes that the world is inherently good and that individuality is not important. The innocent's world view is one of "Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love" where God the creator bestows meaning upon nature. However, Blake does not believe that an external source can endow nature with meaning. Blake believes that divinity resides within the human breast and so it is the human imagination that gives meaning to the world. He does not believe that the innocent can be truly happy because the innocent does not know the wonders of the human imagination, and so does not truly know nature, not does the innocent have any sense of individuality. The innocent is unknowingly limiting himself because his version of the world is based upon what he has been taught and not a creation of his own imagination.

The poem "The Lamb" expresses the innocent's view of the world as a creation of God and not a creation of the human imagination. The innocent asks, "Little Lamb, who made thee?/Dost thou know who made thee?"(51). The innocent is only able to conceive of the origins of the lamb being due to a creator god and not as a product of his imagination. The innocent sees the lamb as a symbol of goodness and since he has been taught that God is a good and benevolent god, the lamb must have been entirely created by God. When the innocent describes the creator of the lamb, he says, "He is meek, & he is mild"(52). The creator of such a meek and mild being like the lamb must also be meek and mild because be must be inherently good if he creates such a being. The innocent projects his expectations of "Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love" on to the world and so they are projected back. He does not question his observances of the world and so his imagination is shackled in the world of innocence.

The poem "The Chimney Sweeper" portrays the innocent doing his duty. He does his job and does not question the religious beliefs that hare handed down to him; he bears his cross. The narrator tells Tom not to question why he is subjected to such treatment, but to do his duty and be faithful. The narrator takes the role of a parent comforting a child. However, the narrator is a child himself and so the innocent is assuming the role of the adult that has been handed down to him. The narrator rationalizes Tom's distress by saying, "Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare/You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair"(54). This sort of false reasoning has been passed from generation to generation of people who have not bothered to question the standard. At the end of the poem, the narrator offers a moral: "So if all do their duty they need not fear harm"(54). The innocent is incapable of projecting his own imagination, desires, or energies upon the world, but is resigned to repeating what he has been taught. He suffers from "mind-forg'd manacles" because he limits himself by not questioning authority.

In opposition to the world of innocence is the world of experience. The Songs of Experience depict a world of where the inhabitants are self-limited to sensory experience and not imaginative. The images of the world of experience are those of a fallen world where cynicism, anger, frustration, sorrow, and despair are prevalent. The narrators of experience are the parents of the innocents who are jealous of their children's youth and freedom. Blake's idea of the imagination as the driving force behind human experience extends to include other expressions of human energies and desires. He saw several sources of energy within the human that represent areas of strong emotion. However, when one grows old these energies diminish and one begins to fear his own energies and the energies in others. So, self-restraint and doubt arise within this person; his fear then produces outward attempts at restraint aimed towards young people who are bursting with such energies. The person of experience becomes jealous of the person who appears more free than he yet he is afraid of the energy that produces such freedom. The person of experience is self-limiting because he does not allow his imagination to run free, but relies on the materialism of sensory knowledge.

The poem "The Tyger" is a complement to "The Lamb" of the world of innocence. Whereas in "The Lamb" the narrator is sure that a meek and mild God must have made the lamb, in "The Tyger" the narrator is baffled at who could have made such a fearful creature as a tiger. The narrator asks, "Did he who made the lamb make thee?"(59). It would be incomprehensible to the innocent that the same God could make good and evil. The person of experience is limited by his ability to understand only sensory perception, and so he views the tiger as nothing to create good and one to create evil, than to fathom a god that creates both because such an idea would involve the process of projecting his individual imagination out onto the world.

The poem "London" depicts a world of life in death. "London" represents the fallen world; it is a world where there is no imagination. The narrator says, "I wander thro' each charter'd street"(63). The urban grid is an external, concrete image of the "mind-forg'd manacles" where imaginative vision is transformed into something void of thought. The urban setting is restrictive to the imaginative, according to Blake. As Blake portrays the urban setting, it is fill of sorrow and despair and lacking imagination and energy. The narrator says, "In every cry of every Man./In every infant's cry of fear,/In every voice, in every ban,/The mind-forg'd manacles I hear"(64). London is crawling with weakness, with misdirected cries of people who do not know how to express themselves of how to attain a sense of individuality. The person of experience is doomed to carry out a predestined life cycle because he cannot perceive anything further than what his senses tell him.

The person of experience is limited by his self-imposed inability to perceive anything other than sensory input, his ability to project his imagination out onto the world, and by his fear, jealousy, envy and other signs of inner conflict and derision. The innocent is limited by his refusal to question authority and his inability to create his own sense of individuality by cultivating his imagination. Blake's ideal situation is one where people are able to transcend these worlds of innocence and experience and are able to assert their energies and desires. Imagination would run free and the relationship between man and nature would blossom as man brings his imaginative vision to his meetings with nature. The "mind-forg'd manacles" would be thrown off and left in the dust of innocence and experience.

Work Cited

Perkins, David. English Romantic Writers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers: Fort Worth, 1967.