Blake and Betjeman: Critics of Their Society

Blake and Betjeman are indeed both critics of their society. Through their poetry, we are able to gain a clear insight into their perspectives on issues that were prevalent in their society. In Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper”, we witness his social critique at its best. Blake wrote this poem during a period in which we know that children were used as chimney sweeps because of their suitability for the task (i. e. they were small enough to crawl up the chimneys). By the end of the poem, Tom Dacre is `happy and warm’, but we as readers are left questioning the injustice that faces the young chimney sweep.

He is a victim of his own innocence and in reality, he is clearly being exploited. The line `If you are a good boy’ suggests that if the sweep does as he is told and subjects himself to this life of misery, he will be rewarded in Heaven. Blake clearly does not agree with this viewpoint, and alludes to his opinion that you should not have to suffer in this life and be grateful, simply to be happy in the next. He is criticizing the society he lives in for providing the poor youths with false hope. Similarly, Betjeman expresses his personal views regarding the state of his society.

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In his satirical poem, “How to Get On in Society”, his versatile mocking tone is very apparent. Betjeman’s witty poem highlights the social politics of his time. His descriptions of the ridiculous conventions of the upper-class are made to seem futile and indeed comical. Instead of lighting the `logs in the grate’ they are `switched on’. This is a subtle hint by Betjeman at the modernisation of the household. The persona in the poem is clearly lower down the social scale than she would wish and is aspiring to become more socially accepted.

The persona uses the word `cruets’ in place of salt and pepper and `serviettes’ in place of napkins in a vain attempt to elevate her in the eyes of others. Betjeman’s disapproval of such pretentious neurosis is clear and serves as another example of the critical eye with which he viewed his society. Blake’s distrust of contemporary society can be closely paralleled with Betjeman’s dislike for modern society. In “London”, Blake addresses the question of the alienation of man. In this poem, Blake presents the `fallen’ world that was the London in which he lived.

It is a clear attack on the `establishment’ in 19th century London. The first stanza relates to the strict uniformity of London’s plotted land along with the poet’s observations of troubled citizens `marks of weakness, marks of woe’. The second verse expands upon Blake’s views of public constraint, implying that citizens have been trained into believing that their lives are tolerable; they have in essence become `mind-forged manacles. ‘ The term, `mind-forged manacles’ implies that the government and charters of London have prevented people from using their own minds and imaginations.

When Blake writes, `In every infant’s cry of fear,’ he is remarking that the next generation will have the pain and torment of the current one – thanks to London. This line is also implicit of London’s child labour and offers an insight into the fears of the children who were forced to work. In the third line of this stanza, Blake uses the word `ban’. This refers to the restrictions on the freedom and liberties of the individual and is something with which Blake was firmly opposed. Another example of this can be seen in Blake’s poem “Slough”, in which he uses negative imagery throughout the poem to emphasize his opposition.

Repeating the word `tinned’ in the second verse, conveys the idea that the people in Slough are eating artificial food and have consequently become artificial themselves. This is supported in verse 9 by the use of words such as `synthetic’ to convey a feeling of artificiality. This is an excellent example of Betjeman’s dislike of all things modern in society. He uses humour and satire to provide this limited view of Slough in which his moral outrage and disgust at the modernisation of society in Slough is clearly visible.

Betjeman was an avid conservationist and he aimed his poetic wit at those who he felt threatened to spoil the English countryside. In his poem, “Chelsea 1977”, we see Betjeman at work as the social observer that he was. In this slightly cynical Italian sonnet, carefully composed into 14 lines, we are made aware of Betjeman’s strong sense of melancholy. The combination of the `winter sunset pink’ and `the dying embers of the day’ cleverly juxtapose prettiness with death and adds to the effectiveness of the poem by means of contrast.

The last line is very powerful and the use of the word `Satan’ is forceful as it conjures up a number of animated connotations. It is clear from the tone of the poem that Betjeman is not impressed by the `covering cables, sewage-pipes and wires’ that threaten to destroy his beloved countryside. In Blake’s “Holy Thursday”, we see the poet using irony to its fullest extent. “Holy Thursday” is a poem about a church service given for orphans and it illustrates what Blake hated about society and leadership. Unlike the sheep, the children have no freedom.

They are in uniform, “In red and blue and green,” and so there is little room for individuality. They also walk “Two by two” in organised rows. Blake even makes it sound military when he writes, “Seated in companies they sit. ” Again, this provides an organised and restrictive image. At the end of the same stanza, Blake insinuates that there are too many homeless children in the world and that they need help. He writes, “thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands. ” This poem, at first glance, gives the impression of happiness and kindness. However, it is in fact the opposite.

The children are orphans and this in itself evokes a feeling of pity. This underlying feeling of sadness permeates much of Blake’s writing and ensures that the reader fully understands Blake’s personal standpoint on the societal issues being addressed. In Betjeman’s “Executive”, his contempt for the changing modern societal values is highlighted and his use of reflective satire is evident. The poem is an amalgamation of Betjeman’s usual anti-pretension and anti-modernist themes. The initial impression of a typical, honest and well-respected executive is diffused by the revelation that he does wear the `other hat’.

If he is only an ordinary worker, driving the `firm’s Cortina’, how can he afford an Aston-Martin and a speed-boat made of `fibre-glass’? The explanation can be found in the fact that the executive `will settle any buildings that are standing in our way/ The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay. ‘ Betjeman is commenting on the corrupt nature of businessmen and the fact that they are prepared to destroy Victorian architecture for their own business gain. Betjeman’s ironic and comical tone clearly shows his aversion to the modern business executive present in his society.

Betjeman and Blake are most definitely critics of their society. Although their poetic styles differ greatly, the basis of their work stems from the same point; they are two poets who use their lyrical skill to address contemporary issues. The times in which these two poets wrote were ones of great change, and it is these social and political changes that have allowed them to write so emotively. The poetry of Blake and Betjeman provides us with a valuable insight into the contrasting worlds that they lived in.