Songs of Innocence and Experience
“How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?”
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
William Blake, it seems, was a visionary from birth. He recounts that, as a child, he was beaten because he told his mother that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields peering in at his window. In "A Vision of the Last Judgement", he wrote that his answer to the question "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" was "Oh no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty."
What are we to make of these claims? As practical people who are guided by our senses (note the plural) we might well dismiss such statements as madness; and indeed it has often been suggested that Blake was mad. (Several commentators have claimed that Blake was institutionalised because of dementia, but this is untrue.) However, our scepticism might well be a comment not on Blake’s state of dementia but on our own limitations. Science and philosophy tell us that the evidence of our senses is not reliable (and we need only to look at the science of our primary sense, sight, to realise the truth of this.) Blake believed that our senses can blind us to the real truth of the world around us (see Blake's "Ghost of a Flea"): his “visions”, it could be argued, are a truer representation of the reality of the universe than our own sense impressions, which are of necessity limited by the bounds of our mortal bodies.
Blake’s poetry, therefore, is his attempt to help us break away from a slavish belief that those limitations are all existence has to offer. Blake talks about seeing the world though "four fold vision": and his poetry is the lens he gives to allow us access to this way of seeing the glories that lie behind the mundane sense-perceptions of the world. In the great, complex prophetic books (such as Thel, Jerusalem, Milton) that lens can be hard for us to focus; the surface simplicity of Songs of Innocence and Experience therefore gives us an easier opportunity to experience Blake’s own world picture – so long as we do not dismiss the “songs” as being simplistic rather than simple, childish rather than child-like.
When William Blake finished Songs of Innocence in 1789, we do not know whether he had already planned a further volume of poetry. Indeed, considering the laborious way in which he chose to produce his books, it might not be surprising if he did not. For Blake was that rare thing: both an artist and a craftsman (although I suspect he would have cavailled at the distinction.) Rather than simply writing his poems and then seeking publication, Blake as a professional illustrator and engraver married his talents, and hand-etched his illustrated poems onto copper plates, producing a plate that could then be inked and stamped on paper to produce an outline that could then be hand coloured. It has been suggested that the corrosive action of acid on copper he employed is a fitting metaphor for his poems, which are designed to burn away the reader’s superficial views of the world, exposing something true, deep and illuminating beneath.
In the introduction to Songs of Innocence, Blake adopts the persona of a piper, “Piping songs of pleasant glee”, who is instructed to “sit thee down and write/In a book that all may read" by a child who, cherub-like, rests on a cloud, and both joys and weeps to hear his songs.
Perhaps this holds the key for a true appreciation of Songs of Innocence: we need to adopt a child-like response. Many of the “songs” (the noun in the title is deliberate therefore) seem to have a child-like naiveté (look, for example, at “The Blossom”) with nursery-rhyme lexis, rhythm and rhyme. Indeed, in this book Blake frequently adopts the persona of a child (“The Lamb”, “The Ecchoing Green”, “The Chimney Sweep”). So, are we to dismiss the Songs as “fit for a nursery wall? Is the comfort the chimney sweep derives from a dream simply naive? Or is the whole concept of “naiveté” a product of our own cynical, limited vision and mentality?
Of course, there is a further question. Are these songs as simple as I am suggesting? Whilst “The Lamb” can be seen as a child’s version of Christian myth, the interlayering of symbol upon symbol (lamb/Lamb of God; child/Holy Child) has its own complexity. What is the force of the last words of “The Ecchoing Green” – “…darkening green”? Why, in “The Blossom”, is the robin “sobbing”? And who is the narrator of this poem? These are issues ripe for exploration.
In 1794, Blake added Songs of Experience to the work: the new volume was entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience with the subtitle, “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul”. Some of the new poems seem to mirror the Songs of Innocence: so we have “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” (with the line “Did he who made the lamb make thee” as a possible cross-connector); a poem in each book entitled “The Chimney Sweep” and “Nurse’s Song”; “The Blossom” and “The Sick Rose”, and perhaps “The Ecchoing Green” with its rural setting and “London” with its urban. Seeing the poems as pairs perhaps helps to underline that these are “the two contrary states of the human soul”.
The introduction to Songs of Experience also bears examination. Instead of the joyful piping of the piper who sings “songs of merry chear", we are given the “voice of the Bard” who has heard the lamentations of the creator for his creation that has turned away from him. And Blake shows the distancing which is a product of experience by adopting the third person, rather than the first person in the Introduction to Songs of Innocence.
The differences between the two sets of poems are marked. Both have song-like simple rhyme and rhythm; however, in Experience the rhythm frequently feels restrictive, whilst the more varied rhythms of Innocence suggest freedom. The setting of Innocence, as with the Introduction, is usually rural, that of Experience often urban. Parents or caring figures appear in both, but the care in Innocence is nurturing, whilst in Experience it is restrictive. This can also be seen in the illustrations of the plates: in Innocence there is a freedom and an energy in the decorations around the central figures, an energy often suggesting flames, whilst the framing images in Experience tend to restrict and hem in the central figures.
Another important antithesis is in the portrayal of religion. The church and priests are for Blake restrictive and controlling presences, “Binding with briars/My joys and desires”; in “London”, Blake writes that the chimney sweeper’s cry “Every blackening church appals” – the church is appalled not because it is shocked by the plight of the young children forced to serve the industrial machine of London but because it is not – indeed, it condones their treatment by its failure to speak out against it. The church is both physically and morally blackened because it teaches people to accept their lot: in the words now excised from the child’s hymn, “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate;/God made them, high and lowly,/And ordered their estate.” In the Songs of Experience, priests and the church interpose themselves between man and god; in Innocence, man has a direct relationship with the divine.
It is possible to see the two sets of poems as exploring prelapsarian and postlaspsarian states – the Songs of Innocence generally seem to be set in Eden-like moral landscapes before the Fall of Adam and Eve, whilst the moral landscape of Experience is defined by “the mind forg’d manacles” we have adopted since the Fall. In this interpretation, the maker of the lamb who “is called by thy name” is a very different being from the unknown creator who smiles at the making of the Tyger. Blake, of course, may well be inviting us to see the poems in these terms in the Introduction to Songs of Experience: the words “lapsed soul” is an explicit reference to Christian and Judaic myth. This might help to reveal some of the layers of the two “Chimney Sweep” poems: whilst both are set in a postlaspsarian urban (London) landscape, and in both children are abused and exploited by an inhuman state and religion, in Innocence the narrator is a child who views his situation with the eyes of prelapsarian innocence, in Experience the narrator is an adult who understands the plight of the child, unlike the child’s parents who “Because I am happy and dance and sing/They think they have done me no injury.”
Of course, this indicates that Blake’s view of religion is not a conventional one. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake writes
"All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3 Energy is Eternal Delight."
To underline his rejection of organised religion, in the great Prophetic Books Blake creates his own pantheon of gods and his own myth sequences. Through creations such as Urizen, a restrictive Old Testament god figure, the rebellious and destructive Orc, the bright Los and the lovely Enitharmon, Blake seeks to create myth without religious affect, myth that we can respond to without the prejudice and bigotry that accompanies the religious myths we have grown up with. Blake’s visionary soul and corresponding belief in the superficial and blinding nature of our five senses belief in the divine – but for Blake, this means a belief in “The human form divine”: for “All deities reside in the human breast.”
For me, the central poem is perhaps “The Clod and the Pebble”. Here, it seems, the viewpoint of Innocence and of Experience on love are counterpoised. As we might expect, the Innocence response is soft (metaphorically and literally, the voice being that of a “Clod of clay”) and self-abasing, focused on the comfort of the beloved, whilst the Experience view is hard (“a Pebble of the brook”) and concerned with the joy of self at the expense of the other. The voices of the Clod and the Pebble are balanced in the poem, a stanza each separated by a narrative stanza; and Blake does not allow us to simply take the Clod’s side. Indeed, although at first self-abasement might seem more noble than selfishness, the poem raises questions. Why does the narrator call the words of the Pebble “meet” (fitting)? Why does Blake tell us that the Clod is “trampled by the cattle’s feet”, whilst the Pebble of the stream is able to retain its own integrity? Do we really want our lover to lose her or his identity in loving us?
And another question is raised, one central to an understanding of Blake’s work. “Heaven” and “Hell” are dangerous words in Blake’s lexicon. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake writes
“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
So we cannot presume that the Clod’s love, that “builds a heaven in hell's despair” is necessarily a positive thing, nor that the Pebble’s building “a hell in heaven's despite” necessarily negative.
Blake’s belief in the necessity of contraries, then, brings us back to Songs of Innocence and Experience”. Perhaps Blake is arguing that for a true understanding of love we must listen to both the Clod and the Pebble: and if the two books of Songs are designed to show “the two contrary states of the human soul”, then it would follow that we need to open ourselves to both Innocence and Experience to be fully human – that is, to recognise our own divinity.
The University of Toronto has provided this compendium of Blake's poetry.
Songs of Innocence - poems and colour plates - provided by Richard Record.
Songs of Experience - poems and colour plates - provided by Richard Record.
T.S. Eliot's 1920 essay on Blake.
The University of Virginia's's William Blake Archive is the most comprehensive resource for this poet.
A must for all lovers of Blake: Tate Britain has a wonderful collection of paintings by William Blake. If you can't get there in person, search for William Blake on their website and marvel at the creativity of his "four-fold vision".
The British Library has some interesting articles on Blake as poet and as engraver.
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