Romantic poets such as William Blake believed human imagination could counter scientific principles that defined reality using material objects. Blake believes that this view of the world is limiting, seeing as happiness depends on an individual’s ability to recreate their environment in their mind. People shape their understanding of events because they incorporate their life experiences into different scenarios. Fredrick Douglas’s quest for freedom began with the emancipation of the mind. His self-education facilitates the development of insight into his circumstances and the eventual pursuit of sovereignty. While the emancipation of the mind is critical to the construction of reality, the experience of true freedom is impossible without the manipulation of corporeal obstacles in the physical world.
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Blake posits that imagination is a key determinant of how people perceive their surroundings. In his view, reality is a mental construct that exposes the connection between people and nature and frees individuals from the restrictive shackles of unimaginative thought. Blake’s reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles” is meant to emphasize the notion that the lack of imagination imprisons the human spirit (Blake 102). The poet believes that the sensory world gains meaning when there is active input from an imaginative mind. He notes, however, that the mind is capable of imposing certain restrictions that deprive individuals of the opportunity to experience nature and true freedom. Therefore, the aforementioned manacles represent humanity’s self-limitation and deprecation of human imagination.
Douglas had to overcome internal as well as external obstacles to attain his liberty. For instance, slave owners used ignorance as a tool to maintain slavery. The author highlights how the people believe that blacks are incapable of participating in civil society and that forced labor is a natural fact. Refusing to give enslaved individuals information about their dates of birth or paternity robs them of their identities. Douglas learned how to free his mind from the shackles imposed by white men intent on controlling patterns of thought. The clarity of purpose was the first step in the quest for freedom. Learning how to read and write imparts knowledge that influences an individual’s liberation struggle. The power of knowledge is abundantly clear when Auld stops his wife from teaching Douglas the basics of education (Douglas 29). Access to information helps the oppressed articulate the injustice they experience and facilitates the creation of specific identities. The resultant awakened consciousness brings suffering as affected individuals loath the masters who continually commit unspeakable acts of cruelty.
Some readers will argue that the use of imagination as a result of renewed insight does not ensure one’s freedom. While Blake argues that unimaginative individuals are incapable of understanding nature and the real human spirit, using one’s imagination does not guarantee engagement in these exploits. Therefore, opening a slave’s mind does not physically remove them from slavery. Even though they develop an acute awareness and disdain for the inhumane treatment from their masters, they remain trapped. Using their minds to transport themselves to a world where they lead dignified lives causes suffering because their reality is full of constant pain. Perhaps leading ignorant lives is an act of mercy. Perceiving slavery as a normal part of life unburdens their psyche and limits their expectations. Individuals that choose to escape do so knowing that they could lose their lives. Therefore, while freeing the mind is admirable, the rules governing the physical world have a greater influence on an individual’s reality than their thoughts.
Douglas’s confinement as a slave and the physical abuse that came with it were external shackles to his liberty. He sought freedom by escaping from his master’s clutches and gave lectures in an attempt to refute claims that an individual with his accomplishments could have once been a slave. In addition, Douglas married a free woman to further cement his identity as a liberated Black man (Douglas 99). These acts demonstrate his resilience in the quest for liberation in America.
However, Blake depicts how self-limitation affects the characters’ lives in his songs of innocence and songs of experience. In “The Lamb,” the poet expresses the innocent’s perception of the world when he states, “Little lamb, who made thee?” (Blake 67). The innocent are only able to conceive the lamb’s origin as a creation of God rather than a manifestation of their imaginations. On the contrary, the poet uses “The Tyger” to highlight how experienced individuals are so dependent on sensory stimulation that they are incapable of perceiving a God capable of creating both a tiger and a lamb. This is evident when the poet states, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” (Blake 85). The relationship between humanity and nature would thrive as people dismantle the “mind-forg’d manacles” that define their lives (Blake 102). In the same way, slaves should risk everything to be free. The awakening of the mind should spur them into action as they seek to live venerable lives.
Mental liberation is a critical step in the quest for freedom. The lack of imagination restricts individuals from truly experiencing nature and the full extent of the human spirit. However, freeing the mind through education and knowledge does not guarantee the end of slavery. While the oppressed gain the ability to articulate their frustrations and desire for dignified lives, they remain ensnared by ruthless masters. The longing for independence must include actions to achieve success. The willingness to risk everything is the only way individuals can extricate themselves from desperate circumstances.
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Blake, William. The Poetical Works of William Blake. Edited by John Sampson, Oxford University Press, 1906.
Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. The Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.