Songs of Innocence and of Experience
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Paired Poems and Symbols
Innocence is often related to purity, being naive, and youthfulness while experience is associated with attributes like wisdom, knowledge, and adulthood. These two terms are also linked with certain images. For example, innocence is connected to lambs, angels, and children. On the other hand experience is correlated to images such as an old man’s white beard, scars, and reading glasses. These two terms are frequently interconnected and can be used with each other. An often seen cliché with innocence and experience is a when character starts out being innocent, but then over time the character becomes experienced from certain situations over time. In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he uses paired poems and symbols of innocence and experience within the poems to show innocence and how it can either rival or transform into experience.
William Blake was a first generation English Romantic. Early in Blake’s life he claimed to have seen spirits such as angels. Blake continued to see spirits throughout his life until his death in 1827. The Romantic period lasted from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. During this period writers stressed the content of their works instead of the style. The romantic authors also wanted to involve emotion, imagination, and individualism more than previous period. In 1789 Blake wrote Songs of Innocence. This book was based on a shepherd writing poems after he sees an angel child during a walk in the countryside. Blake specifically writes the poems that all people, no matter their social status, age, or sex, could read them. “Happy Songs” are how the poems are described and are often related to children’s nursery rhymes. Five years later in 1794, Blake added poems to the book and changed the name to Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake tried to convey a main theme of “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” in the new and expanded book. Illustrations were also made for each individual poem in the book, some were more detailed than others, but all their own individual styles. Blake even pairs poems from Songs of Innocence to the latter Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
One example of these so called paired poems is “The Chimney Sweeper”. There are two versions of this poem, the first is in Songs of Innocence and then a sequel in Songs of Experience. In the first version a boy, Tom Dacre, is very sad because of his harsh, tough job of chimney sweeping. He then sees an Angel in his dreams and starts to be satisfied with his job because he sees that God will take care of everything as long as he does he job right. This belief is evident when the narrator says: “Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Blake 23-24). The quote is saying that if Tom and the rest of the boys continue to work hard and work with the right mindset and attitude then God will take care of the rest. Blake also includes images of lambs, angels, and children playing in pastures within the poem. These symbols, especially children, are seen as innocent and even Biblical. In the sequel of “The Chimney Sweeper” an unidentified boy, who could be Tom Dacre, is wandering around in the snow looking for his parents. This boy is less naïve and knows that his parents have given him up to become a chimney sweeper. Chimney sweeping has given him very bad experiences for such young boy. He is referred to as “a little black thing” who is described as wearing clothes of death. The color black is almost always linked with death which often comes with some sort of experience. The chimney sweeper says that God, Priests, and Kings make up a heaven of misery. This makes the boy sounds less like an optimistic and innocent child, but instead more like a boy who has endured a series of terrible experiences. Even though the focus of both poems is a child, the second poem deals with a maturing and less innocent child who has to deal with adults and their experience. Overall, Blake uses this poem pairing to show the transformation from innocence to experience while using the young chimney sweeper as an example.
Not only was the pairing of both “Chimney Sweeper” poems used to show the transformation and differences of innocence and experience, but Blake also paired two other poems. The first part of the pair is called “The Lamb”. This is a poem about not just one lamb, but all lambs and their creator. Blake writes of the lamb’s great attributes while giving hints that God created this creature. The poem also talks about God being a lamb in his own way. There are many references to innocence in “The Lamb” such as: a lamb being meek, children, and creation of life. The significant of the lamb’s meekness is shown in a critical essay when the author says, “These lines give reference to Christ’s message that ‘the meek shall inherit the world’ and the concept that gentleness and love is the ideal way of behaving in the world. Blake’s narrator also links the behavior of the Divine to the behavior of a little lamb” (Smith and Tomason). This excerpt shows the innocence of God and how God made the lamb meek and innocent. The second part of the pairing is called “The Tyger”. This poem has serious tone compared to the soft and tender tone of “The Lamb”. “The Tyger” has many questions within the poem, having one in almost every other line. Blake mentions fire multiple times in the poem as well as using personification about heaven and the stars. These are complete opposite as one refers to the fires of hell and on the other hand, heaven and its light and innocence is referenced. The tyger is a mean and vicious animal that prowls through the forest looking for prey. An author of a critical essay said, “Although the “Tyger” initially is constructed by Milton’s Satan, this fiery beast of Experience, ultimately, is handed over to Blake’s Christ” (Miner). This quote shows the terribleness and experience of the tyger. Blake creates a dilemma with God and the tyger. He makes the reader question how God, such an innocent being, could create such a nasty beast of experience. William Blake once again uses two linked poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”, to show the transformation from innocence to experience.
Blake often uses pairings of poems to show innocence and experience, and he does it again with “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”. Although, these two poems are both in Songs of Experience instead of being split in between Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The first poem is the story of a little girl named Lyca. She gets lost in the forest and her parent’s adventourous journey to find her. There are many symbols of innocence and experience throughout the poem. For example, Blake writes that the girl is just seven years old and still has not experienced much of life. But then on the other hand the mother, a woman who has probably experienced a decent amounts of tradegies in her life, just lost her own daughter which is going to be the worst experience of her life. In the latter poem, Lyca’s parents look for seven days until a lion approaches them and instead of attacking them, the lion leads them to Lyca. The use of the lion is similar to “The Tyger”, but this time the lion is seen as innocent not an experienced beast like the tyger from the different poem. Blake’s use of the innocence and experience contention is evident in this excerpt from a critical essay: “In “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” we come to the borderland between Innocence and Experience. Blake moved these poems from one group to the other, and this convertibility helps us understand the relationship of “contrary states.” In the two border poems, the seeming forces of evil prove to be as gentle and fostering as parents” (Price). Not only does he show the rivalry of innocence and experience but also how they can be disguised within one another. As well as in the last quote this quote shows how Blake intertwined and rivaled innocence and experience. From the same critical essay the author says, “If we stress the faith that is strong enough to transcend the power of the world, these poems clearly fall into the pattern of Innocence. If, on the other hand, we stress the adversity to be overcome and the courage with which it is faced, they move toward Experience, although they remain the most triumphant of the Song of Experience.” (Price). Also, at the end of “Little Girl Found” Lyca’s parents find her sleeping “among tygers wild” (Blake 48) which is ironic because the tygers are supposed to be beasts of experience, but then they accept Lyca as one of their own as she begins to live with them. Once again, Blake uses paired poems, but this time from the same group of poems to show the rivalry of innocence and experience.
Throughout Songs of Innocence and Experience William Blake routinely uses paired poems and the symbols within the poems to show the rivalry between innocence and experience as well as the possible transformation from to innocence to experience. Innocence and experience were connected to Blake’s two contrary states of the human soul. Along with this comes many images and symbols that represent innocence and experience.
William Blake’s Interpretation of the States of Human Soul
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, exposes us to two contrary states of the human soul. Written as counterparts to one another, these poems contrast different stages we go through in our lives. In literature, the theme of age and youth seem to constantly appear. In these poems, Blake approaches this theme in an interesting way, by giving us opposing sides of a similar aspect. In this way, we can better grasp the notions of youth and innocence and how they compare to age and experience. “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” for instance, both have the same subject matter, but with different perspectives. In a way, they are like mirror images of one another, one showing a somewhat different or even distorted reflection of the other. The setup of these poems not only contrasts these themes, but also gives us a better understanding of the larger structure of the text. While “Infant Joy” gives us an optimistic perspective of childbirth, “Infant Sorrow” gives us the pessimistic and dark side of it. Thus, as we look closely at these texts, we begin to see how elements of innocence and experience emerge, which contribute to our understanding of the two states of our souls and more importantly, how Blake intended to project them.
To begin with, the Songs of Innocence were written before the Songs of Experience. In fact, they are listed before the latter in books, and this minor detail already shapes the structure for these poems. The Songs of Experience are obviously reflections of the late and developed stages of our lives. We go through a process of maturation, which really is a process of deterioration. However, we all come into this world as innocent beings. Infant Joy is a poem we can all relate to, as it depicts our natural states as newborns. The speaker of this poem, in fact, seems to be the child itself and the poem’s form consists of two short sestets. These features represent the simplicity of the poem, which in turn represent the innocence of the child/speaker. We are introduced to a conversation between this child and its mother presumably. The mother asks, “What shall I call thee?”(line 3) and the newborn simply replies, “Joy is my name” (line 5). These lines evoke pleasant emotions and make us see the wonders of being a pure, innocent child, who hasn’t yet fallen into the hands of experience i.e. corruption. There is a happy mood throughout the poem and this is sensed by the repetition of the word “joy.” In fact, “joy” is repeated six times throughout the poem, which really just talks about the happiness of this child. Since experience is paired with age, naïveté is similarly associated with youth. And so, the simple words of the poem, along with the rhyme scheme, hint at this naïveté. The short, unrhymed lines, coupled with the inconsistent rhyme scheme, are representative of the child’s lack of development. Only images of serenity and purity come to our minds in this poem.
On the other hand, Blake gives us a sharp contrast in Infant Sorrow. Even before reading it, one notices the change made in form. Here, we have longer lines that appear to be more structured. The speaker in this case commands our attention to rhyme and meter. Thus, we see a transformation; a sort of development that occurred to this child. We can view this child as the experienced speaker compared to the former child. More importantly, the diction here sounds more elevated and complex. Age or in this case, experience, has taught this speaker to express more things concisely. The poem begins on a sad note: “My mother groand! My father wept” (line 1). The speaker here is playing with our auditory senses, exposing us to noises of sorrow and anguish. This sets up the dark and disturbing tone of the poem, which is the complete opposite of the tone we felt in Infant Joy.
It continues further on with descriptions of the child’s birth. So again, we see the arrival of a newborn in this poem, but from a different point of view. “Into the dangerous world I leapt” (line 2); the experienced child knows the evils of this world. It does not want to be a part of it. Words like “helpless,” “naked,” and “pipping loud” tell us that this is not a birth to celebrate. The bringing of this child is really just a horrible experience. As opposed to the child in Infant Joy, who is “happy,” “sweet,” and “pretty,” this child is actually “struggling” and “striving.” These words are complete opposites that assist our understanding of the tensions occurring in this poem. While the child in the former poem seems to be welcomed and accepted by its family, the child in this poem is rejected and subjected to misery. And so, Infant Sorrow becomes a dark scene of an unwanted baby, who describes its birth as a traumatic experience, something we don’t normally associate with childbirth.
Interestingly enough, these two different perspectives were illustrated by Blake in his early engravings. The illustrations (Figures 1 & 2) portray the conditions of each child and help us visualize the state of their existences and consequently, the states of the human soul. In Infant Joy (fig. 1), we view a kind of unity with the round shape of the flower, which seems to be enclosed around the family. It is acting as a kind of shelter or perhaps protection against experience. The flower looks like a rose, which is usually a motif for love or beauty. In this case, I see it as a symbol of rejuvenation and life, as it seems to have blossomed. The infant is on its mother’s lap as an angel stands beside them. Next to them, there is a drooping flower, which perhaps might symbolize another birth waiting to happen; in other words, it represents innocence being born every day. However, it might also represent the corruption the child will go through with age and experience. Hence, every innocent child will at some point be exposed to corruption with experience.
In contrast, Infant Sorrow’s visual provides us with a completely different spectacle of childbirth. Here, the environment looks darker and tighter with curtains surrounding the baby and its mother (fig. 2). We sense discomfort and gloom with their body gesturing. The infant looks like it’s crying out for help, while the mother is reaching out to her child, but with difficulty. Tension builds up in this depiction. The child’s rejection of the mother’s embrace suggests that the child is afraid. This reflects the struggle it is going through, as it tries to battle corruption or evil forces. Strangely enough, in both depictions there is no representation of a father figure. The mother seems to occupy the dominant role in a child’s life and this is true to some extent. A child normally bonds more with its mother, as the mother provides the needed nourishment and affection to her newborn. It is more necessary for a child to have a mother than a father. The absence of a father does not seem to be an issue in the previous illustration. Thus, since the bond between this child and its mother is ruptured then the entire family is broken.
All things considered, Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow work well in terms of exemplifying the scope of Blake’s collection. As they contradict each other, they act as mirror images of innocence and experience. They provide us with reflections of simple and complex, youth and age, and purity and corruption. With these poems we can look deeper into the human soul, in regards to the stages it goes through in life. We are born innocent and helpless into this world, while our souls remain pure. As we age and experience everything around us, we become preoccupied with worldly desires that include greed, lust, and gluttony to name a few, and thus our soul becomes tainted. Slowly, we wither away and die, leaving nothing but our reputations. As children we are the infant “Joy,” and by the time we are adults we become the infant “Sorrow.”
Moral Judgement in William Blake’s Poetry (the Chimney Sweeper, Holy Thursday, London)
William Blake is often known as a painter, poet, mystic and imaginative artist. His imaginative vision led him to reject all rigid moral abstractions and show a vision of a self-sufficient, satisfying way of life in which freedom and security are held in perfect balance. These orientations are very clearly perceived in his literary work, and especially in his seminal collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, wherein such considerations are explored. Each of the poems actively refuses to confirm some of its readers’ most basic moral expectations. This refusal constitutes a fundamental poetic questioning of some of the most deep-rooted of polite eighteenth-century assumptions. Blake’s ‘London Poems’ (‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘London’) in his Songs of Innocence and Experience convey an insight into how moral precepts had an active role in maintaining a disharmonious society by being abstract and far removed from concrete human experience with its resulting dehumanising influence.
In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence Blake attempts to show that humans’ best qualities such as mercy, pity, modesty and humility might be fundamentally challenged when applied to the experiences of other people. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ a young chimney-sweeper describes the dream of another sweeper, which offers an alternative to their miserable existence. When the poem appeared in 1789 the horrible conditions of the chimney-sweepers had elicited outrage from the general public, nearly causing a national scandal (Glen 95). However, the poem does not exhibit explicit protest or an appeal to the reader’s empathy to alleviate the circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. The opening stanza opens instead with the unmediated voice of the chimney-sweeper himself reciting the facts concerning his life with a calm and distanced maturity (Glen 96):
When my mother died I was very young,
And my Father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘’weep! ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep. (1-4)
The facts recounted here characteristically describe the life story of a chimney-sweeper in the late eighteenth-century. The chimney-sweeper seems either very juvenile or too impassive to adopt an attitude of defiance concerning his miserable lot. However, the poetic effect of the stanza is not one of credulous acceptance on the part of the child, but it is rather something more disturbing. The little boy explains his life as an inescapable logical progression in which one thing naturally follows on from the next: ‘When… And… So…’. Nevertheless, it is exactly the strangeness of this progression that is emphasised by the child’s flatness of speech which prevents any regular metrical pattern from being established. The consequence is that the child’s apparently uncritical acceptance of the circumstances he finds himself in is not corroborated by the form of the verse itself (Glen 96). The outrage of the circumstances is expressed not by the child himself, but by the poetic framing of his speech.
Furthermore, the uneasiness felt in the rhythm is strengthened by the forthright speech of the chimney-sweeper which directly implicates the reader. This frankness is evident in the last line of the first stanza: ‘So your chimneys I sweep’ wherein “the polite reader is unemphatically but inescapably implicated” (Heather 96). By indicating that the polite reader him or herself is not merely a neutral observer of the poor conditions of the chimney-sweeper, Blake prevents him or her the luxury of a facile indulgence in sentimental pity. In this manner, Blake forces the reader to relinquish his or her position as one who is able to genuinely express compassion because he or she is actually involved in the maintaince of the very conditions he or she is appalled by.
In the second stanza the orientation suddenly shifts from the chimney-sweeper’s rational summary of his own life to a transcendent vision of sympathy with another sweeper named Tom Dacre. This vision awakens in the reader a sentiment of incredulity because it appears unrealistic or rather otherworldly, but it also implicitly commends the reader to admire the unselfishness of the relationship between the young chimney-sweepers.
The chimney-sweeper’s celebration of the other child’s beauty – ‘his head / That curl’d like a lamb’s back’ – becomes an affirmation that their friendship cannot be damaged by external factors:
for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair. (7-8)
It is impossible to discern any judgment in the above lines. Rather than a condemnatory attitude, the chimney-sweeper displays an entirely unselfish open relationship with the child which seems to be connected to the vision of an idyllic world. Despite the harsh working conditions, the chimney-sweepers are able to transform the “debased pragmatism” of their masters, which is responsible for those selfsame conditions, into an affirmation of a relationship based on mutual empathy rather than utility (Glen 97). By portraying this transcendent vision in all its liveliness Blake attempts to show how the master’s stern morality undercuts meaningful human relationships rather than allowing them to thrive.
Furthermore, this lively vision contrasts sharply with the rational, commonsense frame of reference evoked by the final moral injunction which epitomises the master’s pragmatism:
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (24)
The child seems merely to be reiterating the official language of the society, which also justifies his exploitation; between the lines one hears the voice of a master telling a boy that if he works hard he will not be punished. The ‘all’ in this last line seems to convey a radical irony comparable to the ‘your’ of the fourth line. While the ‘your’ directly implicated the reader in the condition of the sweepers, the ‘all’ refers does this indirectly. For if ‘all’ did their duty, in the sense of loving their neighbours as themselves, there would indeed be no ‘harm’ such as that in which this child must live. In a society such as this, where not all do their ‘duty’, the chimney-sweepers (‘they’) must indeed fear harm, for the whole of society (‘all’) is corrupt (Glen 99).
Following the transcendent dream, this ‘moral’ seems disturbingly dull. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ would have forced the more alert reader to recognise that when his or her moral terms were really applied to actual social conditions as those of the chimney-sweepers these terms could seem disturbingly double-edged. For while the traditional moral values ensured a stable social order, they could at the same time also justify the appalling conditions of the chimney-sweepers present in that social order by stressing the importance of duty and submission. In this manner moral values are ambiguous because they can paradoxically be used to ensure order but also to maintain injustice.
It is further significant that the moral lesson seems to have no deliberate audience; this vagueness might indicate that nobody is exempt from guilt and that the society which Blake presents is hypocritical. The scathing criticism of moral precept in this poem suggests that for Blake the attempt to order human experience according to an abstract moral law was one of the fundamental problems of the society in which he lived.
Having discussed Blake’s criticism of abstract moral values in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ I will now briefly analyse how he attempts to arouse deep suspicions about moral precepts in ‘Holy Thursday’ in his Songs of Innocence. ‘Holy Thursday’ starts with an at once magnificent and touching scene of a charity-children’s annual procession to St Paul’s for a service of thanksgiving (Glen 121):
‘Upon a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
‘The children walking two & two in grey & blue & green (1-2)
The poem is however different than ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ with respect to the speaker himself being not altogether innocent. The scene is observed by the speaker with a certain awareness of its significance: the children are labelled as ‘innocent’ in contrast with the elders who exploit the young for their own benefit. However, unlike what the eighteenth-century reader might have expected, the speaker does not reveal a moralising attitude towards the children but rather revels in the wonderful, lively and colourful sight (Glen 121). The observer transforms the most disturbing elements of the situation such as the regimented marching of the children into a vision of beauty and harmony. He emphasises the exquisiteness of the children as the “flowers of London town / Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own”. Moreover, like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ this poem ends with a ‘moral’:
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door. (12)
In comparison with what has come before in the poem, this last line, with its abstract moral term ‘pity,’ falls flat. By stating this last moral precept in a context of a beautiful and harmonious vision characterised by ambiguity, Blake awakens the same uneasiness about such ‘moral precepts’ as he does in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. He seems to contrast deliberately the liveliness of an unmoralising vision with the distanced and potentially mystifying abstraction of the expected attempt to order experience according to a generalized moral code.
The last poem I will examine is ‘London’, one of the more memorable poems of Blake’s Songs of Experience. Herein Blake depicts the human degradation and exploitation of eighteenth-century London society mainly due to self-imposed moral constrictions. The “steady slowness and solemnity” with which the lonely wanderer relates the anguish of the people he encounters not only suggestively heightens the seriousness of the poem, but also indicates how heavily such scenes of misery have impacted his consciousness (Leader 196):
I wander thro’ each charter’d street.
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)
By the repetition of the key words ‘charter’d’ and ‘mark’ in this first stanza the ‘charter’d’ streets and river Thames and the ‘marked’ facial expressions are thus both seen as the results of the same coercive imposition of order of man-made constrictions which will become more apparent later in the poem (Thompson 176; Gillham 9). This categorization is similar to the political system of chartering that reduces human realities to abstract rights and obligations. Due to such political strategies that are disconnected from concrete human existence, the very attempt to interpret experience is undercut (Glen 211). These visual images are followed in the second stanza by the more general agonizing lament of “every Man / every Infants cry of fear” which suffering under the self-imposed restrictions of society (Gillham 10):
In every voice; in every ban.
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear (7-8)
The harsh monotony of ‘every’ in this second stanza takes the form of an eerie chant which gives expression to the repressiveness of an exploitative society. The almost neurotic rhythm complements the entrapment implicit in Blake’s terminology of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. This word has a twofold significance in that ‘manacles’ could be seen as handcuffs which can be used to bind the hands and ‘forg’d’ is reminiscent of the blacksmith’s shop as well as fraudulent fabrication. Blake attempts to reveal how humanity has built an extravagant prison by utilising our mind as “an iron law of our condition” (Gillham 10). The ‘manacles’ could be seen as a sort of mental handcuffs not only for the mind, but also created by the mind. It seems as if Blake intentionally gives no hint as to whose mind is responsible for this imprisonment since he exposes the fact that in the society he portrays nobody can be absolved of moral responsibility (Glen 213). Consequently, it is impossible to disengage oneself from moral judgement of this society without seeing oneself as being responsible for the conditions which make it possible in the first place.
Finally, while in the first two stanzas the social interconnections were obscured by the speaker’s generic depictions of them, the last stanzas provide very specific images in which the disharmonious human relations are dramatically portrayed (Thompson 187):
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls.
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls (9-12)
These few lines criticise the important organizations of Blake’s day, the Church and the State, by depicting horrific images of social and political oppression. While the Church propagated several strict moral precepts, it also condoned the social injustice that the innocent sweepers suffer. A similar expression of indignation is found in the image of the pitiful death of a young soldier having no other recourse but to fight for the monarchy. There is a similarity between these scenario’s in that “just as the Soldier’s sigh stains with blood the walls of the pernicious institution that conscripts him, so does the Sweeper’s voiced torment resound upon his oppressor, blackening it in kind” (Lambert 141-142). The essential mode of relationship within this city, between its institutions and its people, is thus one of dominance, oppression and moral hypocrisy.
In conclusion, the poems ‘Holy Thursday’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’ that have been briefly analyzed in this essay all disclose Blake’s profound suspicion of a readers’ confidence in moral judgement. This can be seen in that the self-reflexiveness of ‘London’ has its counterpart in the double-edged maxims of the ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. In these poems, Blake does not explicitly give voice to protest, but he implicates the reader directly, and refuses to allow him or her any uncontaminated moral perspective such as conventional ‘protest’ verse would assume. He offers a dramatisation of the conflict between actual social experience and ‘official’ justifying morality. Rather than merely expressing indignant social protest, the poems express something more immediately disquieting, namely a sense not only of the uncertainty of any moral judgment within the society that has been portrayed, but also of its active implication in that which it seeks to condemn. Blake seems to imply that such moralising by abstracting from the actuality of experience is often dehumanising as it sets up an artificial construct: an absolute moral law.
As a result, this moral law can all too easily be used to justify the status quo of an oppressive society and exploit the socially powerless. Paradoxically, Blake seems to be criticising the official moral absolutes of his contemporary society by implicitly utilising moral indictments himself. It thus seems that Blake is ultimately not criticising morality as such, but rather the misuse of abstract moral reasoning to justify and maintain a society burdened by self-restrictive mental handcuffs which imprison the lively concrete existence of its members to their social detriment.
Blake and Keat’s Approaches Compared
William Blake was known for tailoring his romantic poetry specifically for children, particularly in ‘Songs of Innocence’, where the themes of nature and religion were utilised to allow Blake to directly educate his intended younger audience about faith, the beauty of the natural world, and the injustice of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. It is certain that Blake’s poetry was intended to teach. However, Keats, who wrote the poem ‘The Human Seasons’ only two decades after Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, delivers far less of a ‘taught’ message and more of a general observation on the life of man, due to his more casual writing style, his younger and more innocent age, and his extremely short life span. These factors contribute to the possible interpretation that, as MacLeish states in ‘Ars Poetica’, “A poem should not mean, but be.” Although Keats does not mean to teach, readers may often be able to discover and learn from his poetry.
In ‘The Human Seasons’, Keats creates an extended metaphor for the progression of the four seasons as man’s life: youth in spring, adulthood in summer, old age in autumn and death in winter. The reader is able to learn from the final rhyming couplet of the poem, as Keats relates Winter to man’s death. The words “mortal nature” are easily interpreted as the inevitable death of nature in harsher winter months as trees shed their leaves and become bare, but can also be seen as the mortality of man, allowing the reader to learn that death is inescapable. This reading is particularly poignant to Keats’ contemporary readers, as his own early death due to tuberculosis emphasized this message, even without any explicit teaching. Somewhat similarly, Blake allows his readers to learn from his poetry in ‘Holy Thursday’. Blake describes a “land of poverty” where it is “eternal winter”. When related to the inevitable morbidity in Keats’ winter, the “eternal” nature of Blake’s winter becomes much darker and can be interpreted as a never-ending world of death, gaining even more horror when you add the context of Blake writing for children. The imagery of this hopeless land allows the reader to learn of the disadvantages imposed on children during the industrial revolution and the sometimes deadly struggles they endured. Likewise, in ‘Nurse’s Song’, the line “Spring and your day are wasted in play” continues the use of seasons as a metaphor for life, with the reader learning from “wasted”, as it suggests that one shouldn’t spend all of one’s youth being childish and should instead gain the maturity which will be important later in life; this is a direct message from Blake to his young readers.
Still, Keats’ ‘The Human Seasons’ gives an argument against the idea that poems are intended to teach. In the winter section of the poem, we see the importance of learning from poetry, rather than being taught. In the spring section of the poem, the subject “takes in all beauty”, as Keats aims to promote and provoke a sense of discovery in the reader, rather than leading the reader to an easy conclusion. Furthermore, in the summer section “Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought” allows the subject of the poem to learn from the mistakes of his “lusty” youth, as “honied cud” could be interpreted as the rose-tinted ideals of adolescence before entering into the harsh world of adulthood, and “lusty” has both excitable and sexual connotations. Keats’ expertise in extended metaphor make it clear that he prefers his readers to come to their own conclusions after reading the poem, combining elements of discovery and learning rather than being given the deeper meaning on a plate, in the manner of Blake’s more explicit writing. After all, Blake’s poetry offers more of a ‘teaching’ approach. The cynical ‘London’ from ‘Songs of Experience’ presents a more socially weathered Blake: due to his dissatisfaction with the corruption of the “blackening Church” and English politics, he describes the “mind-forged manacles” by which men are bound to the regime in London. Whilst “mind-forged” indicates that people are confined by their own interpretations, forces existing only in the mind, the use of “manacles” — very heavy, strong and physically imposing — creates a sense of this oppression in the real world, linking back to Blake’s preference for the explicit. He is unafraid to speak out on the corruption of society and does so in order to teach and educate his readers, who were often too uninformed to be literate in these issues. Yet Blake gives such issues a voice.
Overall, there is a distinct contrast between the two poets’ approaches on writing poetry specifically to teach their readers. Keats’ poetry observes and his readers passively learn, Blake’s poetry explores and his readers are actively taught.
The Story of a Chimneysweeper
The poem “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake is set around a dark background of child labor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, boys of four and five were sold because of their small physical size to work as chimney sweepers. In this poem, one of the characters by the name of Tom Dacre has a dream where an angel rescues the boys from coffins and brings them with him to heaven. The story is told by one of the young chimney sweepers whose name remains untold. To help his readers to understand this poem, and to add an even more dramatic effect, Blake writes the poem in first person. The reason behind the first person narration is actually simple. Blake wants to help his readers to feel as if they are the one telling the story. By doing this, the reader can envision what it was like to be the young chimneysweeper who is looking over at his fellow worker, Tom.
Within the first two lines of the poem, readers get a background of the events that will be portrayed in the poem. The narrator’s mother had passed away when he was very young. Stereotypically, in society, the mother has always been the more caring of the two parents. Had the narrator had a mother, the story may have turned out differently. In the second and third lines of the poem, Blake writes, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry ‘weep! weep! weep!” (Blake 2). The fact that the father had sold the young boy tells us that the boy comes from a poor family. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the father to sell the boy. Also, the boy is not old enough to voice his own opinion or even talk, meaning that his father already determined his fate. The boy was treated as property rather than as a human being. In the last line of the first stanza, Blake writes, “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” (Blake 4) Other than the title, this line is the first line where Blake tells us why the boy had been sold, and what the rest of the poem will be about. The fact that he includes that the boy will be sleeping in soot, really displays how poor the conditions are when being a chimneysweeper.
In the second stanza, the readers are introduced to a new character, named Tom Dacre. Tom is also a young boy, about the same age as the narrator, who also works as a chimneysweeper. The reader only gets one physical feature of Tom described to them: “There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried in his head, that curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved” (Blake 5). From this one can gather that as a young boy chimney sweeping, they get their head shaved. Since all the boys get their heads shaven, it is almost like giving them a uniform and taking away their identity. After this, the unnamed narrator offers Tom words of reassurance saying that the soot from the chimney couldn’t ruin what wasn’t there. This was important because as of this point in the poem, everything that had happened had a dark and depressing tone.
In the next stanza, Tom Dacre has a nightmare. At first, Tom was quietly sleeping in his bed, when suddenly he has a nightmare. The fact that Tom was quiet at first means that what the narrator said may have helped calm him down. The reader might also assume that Tom may have had anxiety when going to sleep thinking about his life as a chimneysweeper. The dream itself consisted of thousands of chimney sweepers being locked up in coffins of black. Blake decides to name off four of the chimney sweepers, however, all with names that are one syllable and have a maximum of four letters. One of the reasons that Blake may have done this is to continue to make this subject personal. Whenever anyone gives something a name, that object now holds a greater meaning to that person. In other words, now that there are four named children in Tom’s dream, Blake is able to make the dream seem even darker.
Blake changes the tone in the next line. “And by came an angel who had a bright key, and he opened the coffins and set them all free;” (Blake 13). There was a major contrast in this line from the last. Angels are usually seen wearing all white. This one, in particular, was carrying a bright key, which unlocked all of the dark coffins. Blake added this adjective to say that the children were now free from their slave-like jobs. “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, and wash in a river, and shine in the sun.” (Blake 15). Blake changes this nightmare over to a dream in this stanza. Now Tom Dacre is dreaming of what kids his age should be doing instead of cleaning out people’s chimneys. Blake also includes that Tom dreams how the boys will be washing in the river. He includes this because it is as if Tom feels that once he is free from sweeping, he will be clean. Secondly, Blake includes the boys shining in the sun, which symbolizes brightness and warmth. One can infer that working in a chimney would be the exact opposite of that.
The fifth stanza is still a continuation of the dream. “Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, they rise upon clouds and sport in the wind” (Blake 17). Being that the boys are naked symbolizes freedom. It shows that they are free of all of their tools and gear that are needed to chimney sweep. It was also crucial that the skin tone of the boys was white. White is the color of purity and is the opposite of the soot color inside the chimneys.
In the last part of the dream, the angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will end up having god as a father and never wanting joy. The angel is telling Tom what he needs to do in order to be like the other boys in his dream. This is important now Tom will follow all of the directions given to him by the people who run the chimney sweeping business. The angel tells Tom that he will end up with God as a father. A reader can assume that Tom’s father was probably the same as that of the narrator. When Tom eventually does go up to heaven with God, he will never want joy because he will have everything that he needs, unlike he did when he was with his real parents.
In the sixth and final stanza of the poem, the dream ends, and the readers can see a change in Tom Dacre’s outlook on life, where he used to be negative, and now he is positive. “And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark, and got without bags and our brushes to work. Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; so if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” (Blake 21). This poem is full of light, and dark contrasts throughout and this last stanza is no different. The first line is how Tom arose from his sleep where an angel was talking to him, into the cold dark morning to set out to work. It was crucial to include those adjectives because they brought back the reality that was chimney sweeping. There was also a contrast in the sense that he was dreaming of naked children running around, and now he has to awake and grab all of his gear to get to work. The children were free, and now he has physical locks on him with all of his gear. Even though the morning was cold, Tom seemed to be happy and warm. The reader can infer that this is because of what the angel had told Tom. He is doing all of his duties, so he need not fear harm.
Good and Bad in “The Little Black Boy”
William Blake’s collection of poems, Songs of Innocence, highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the trait of innocence. Many of the poems within the collection feature speakers who find comfort in religious teachings and experiences despite the lives of suffering and turmoil that they are forced to endure. One such poem, “The Little Black Boy,” features a young male speaker of African descent who learns about the system of racial classification from his mother. Many argue that the poem seems far removed from the rest of the Songs of Innocence due to its dealing with a mature subject—racism. Though “The Little Black Boy” wrestles with the heavy topic of racism, it earns its place in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence through its narrative structure and the speaker’s exhibition of traits that signify innocence—hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance.
The poem greatly utilizes its narrative structure to convey innocence. This fact is most evident through the poem’s speaker. No image conveys innocence more clearly than that of a young child who lacks knowledge and experience. He describes the matronly love shown to him by his mother stating, “And, sitting down before the heat of day, / She took me on her lap and kissed me” (Blake 6-7). This image shared by the speaker displays his young age through the close, nurturing relationship he shares with his mother. This relationship signals the speaker’s young age and continued dependence on his mother. He also recalls being “taught…underneath a tree” (Blake 5). The framing of a lesson taught by the child’s mother furthers the image of innocence through the child’s unquestioning faith in his mother’s knowledge. This image relates to other poems throughout the collection that portray a similar relationship between believers and the Christian God. Lastly the speaker’s ability to reach a concrete, although problematic, conclusion by the poem’s end points to a lack of experience. The speaker has yet to reach an age where he can conceptualize the possibility of uncertainty. Overall the poem’s narrative structure plays a major role in rationalizing the poem’s placement in this particular collection.
In addition to the poem’s narrative structure, the themes present throughout the text demonstrate the innocence that the poem portrays. For instance, the youthful speaker’s sense of hopefulness throughout the poem showcases his inexperience. In an effort to explain race and its cultural significance to her son and to provide him with a sense of peace while enduring the injustice that he will definitely face throughout his life as a racial other, his mother tells him of a God who “gives his light, and gives his heat away” so that the “flowers and trees and beasts and men receive / Comfort in morning joy in the noonday” (9-12). This explanation allows for the innocent young boy to feel a sense of comfort in knowing that someone cares for him while growing up in an environment that devalues racial minorities. Additionally, his mother explains that “we are put on earth a little space” (13). This statement allows the speaker to remain hopeful by allowing him to believe that his suffering on earth will be short lived and that he will have an eternal life in heaven without the hardships that he endures due to his race on earth. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to racial identity as a cloud (16). He resolves to learn “the heat to bear” in hopes that in the future “the cloud will vanish” (17-18). In other words, his innocence allows him to remain hopeful that someday he will able to live a life free from the constraints placed upon him due to his race. This sense of hopefulness provides the speaker with a sense of comfort and allows him to remain within the realm of innocence.
Along with the speaker’s hopefulness, his naivety further allows him to be seen as innocent. In the poem, the speaker reaches an understanding about his racial category and the influence it has on his life stating: “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” (15-16). These lines highlight the speaker’s naivety in regards to the racial system by allowing him to believe that it is a simple, insignificant fact of life. He fails to see the major impact that race plays in his life. Furthermore, the speaker makes plans for his afterlife: I’ll shade him [the English child] from the heat till he can bear, To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, And be like him and he will then love me. (25-28) The little boy’s plan to serve the English child exemplifies his naivety in regards to racial relations. The speaker plans to remain subservient and inferior to his white counterpart even in the space where he stands to gain his freedom from this relationship. Instead of desiring his own personal autonomy and freedom, he longs for the love and approval of the English child. This innocent naivety could prove to be dangerous for the little black boy by causing him to accept his plight as a racial other and minimizing his will to question the arbitrary oppression bestowed upon him due to his racial identity.
The speaker’s naivety towards the implications of his race directly relates to poem’s portrayal of the speaker’s innocence through his ignorance to the injustice of the racial categorization. One of the first illustrations of the child’s ignorance occurs as the second stanza begins with an image of the speaker’s mother teaching him beneath the shade of a tree (5). This image illustrates the fact that the speaker is still in the process of learning about life. He remains ignorant of the many harsh realities of life as a racial other due to the fact that he has not come of age and gained the experience necessary to understand these issues. By the poem’s end, the speaker makes plans involving the English child to “shade him from the heat till he can bear” and “stand and stroke his silver hair” (25, 27). Even in the place where he reaches his freedom he plans to remain in a subservient role. He remains ignorant to the injustice of his arbitrary position of servitude. As in the case of his naivety, his ignorance will possibly eliminate any agency to seek equality within his earthly life.
While many question the placement of “The Little Black Boy” within Songs of Innocence, the poem showcases many of the traits of innocence that stand out throughout the collection. Through its youthful speaker’s unquestioning acceptance of his mother’s teachings the poem narrates the speaker’s hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance in regards to his likely bleak future as a person of African descent in the sixteenth century Western world. Although his mother’s well-intentioned lesson eases his worries and provides him with an incentive to endure his life within an oppressive environment, it will not free him for the implications of his racial identity. Despite the fact that the poem’s main topic—racism—is part of the world of experience, its understanding and rationalization through the mind of a youthful speaker allows it to fit well within Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
Analyzing William Blake’s views of Life
William Blake presents two contrasting views of life in his Songs of Innocence and Experience: the innocent and idyllic world of childhood is set against the dark and ominous world of adulthood. Several of the poems in this collection can be read as pairs, each representing one end of the spectrum of either innocence or experience. The usefulness of looking at the pair poems is the observation of the same phenomena by opposing world views. This black and white view, however, is more complex than it seems. The world of innocence may seem naive and too trusting in its optimistic and positive manner; it seems to turn a blind eye to the evils of the world. At the same time, the world of experience or the “bad” world seems a little too cynical and in its own way does not present the complete reality of existence. However, together they form a balance between the light and dark forces of the world and present a picture of reality that acknowledges both forces. It is important to note that the poet himself does not concur wholly with either worldview, but is as objective as possible about each.
One pair of poems that can be so compared are The Tyger and The Lamb, representing experience and innocence respectively. In both poems, the poet wonders about the nature of the creator of each animal, however, the nature of the animal concerned as well as the tone of the poet creates the contrast between the two explorations of the Creator and creation itself. As Blake is distant from the voice of the poet in the poems themselves, even the nature of the ones who wonders helps to add to the contrast between the two poems. In The Lamb, for example, the tone is one of happy, innocent wonder and awe at the seemingly benevolent creator who has created the gentle lamb, as seen in the lines. As the poem progresses, the questions asked in joyous wonderment in the first verse are answered in serene faith in the second verse: here, the asker of the questions identifies himself – he is a child as “meek and mild” as the lamb itself, a symbol of childhood and innocence. Also, the benevolent creator is identified as a similar gentle spirit, as seen in these lines: “He is called by thy name, For He calls Himself a Lamb. He is meek, and He is mild; He became a little child. I a child, and thou a lamb, We are called by His name. Little Lamb, God bless thee!”
The Tyger, by contrast, has an unidentified observer who is also awestruck and amazed at the creator and the creation – the tiger itself – but the tone is entirely different. The awe is tinged with fear and a touch of horror: the benevolence of the creator is no longer a precedent that is taken for granted. Words related to death and terror are used throughout the poem: “fearful”, “dread”, “deadly”. The creator is no longer a meek or mild gentle child but a blacksmith who has forged something as immense and fearsome as the tiger. The speaker is anonymous, but when he asks the question: “Did He who made the Lamb make thee?”, one wonders if this is the same young child who has made a transition from his innocence and has turned into an experienced, cynical, darker adult. This supposition is enhanced by the fact that this question is preceded by these lines: “When the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears: / Did he smile his work to see?”
The unspoken terror in these words at the smile of the fearful creator juxtaposed with the crying of the heavenly stars enhances the sense of darker experience and real knowledge of darkness and its forces that the speaker seems to have undergone. However, the knowledge of evil is balanced by the fact that evil must be explored in order to truly understand, appreciate and cherish innocence, hence creating the balance that was striven for by Blake in the creation of these parallel texts.
It is also interesting to explore the symbolism that enhances the contrast between the two poems. The lamb is the ultimate symbol of childhood and innocence whereas the tiger represents adulthood and experience. The lamb is gentle, timid and pure whereas the tiger is powerful, intimidating and monstrous even in its magnificence. The spirit of curiosity is maintained in both poems although it changes form because of the polarity of their lenses. Ultimately they explore the same basic issues: related to God, the existence of good and evil, and the divine intervention that makes the forces of light and dark exist in the universe. Deeply connected to this is the human being’s relationship with the creator and the creation – which encompasses himself – and a self awareness about both views expressed in the contrasting poems. Reading the Tyger and the Lamb together creates a better understanding of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as a larger whole itself, and what Blake was attempting to achieve in writing it.
A Study of Blake’s “Introduction” to Innocence and Experience
William Blake’s collection of illuminated poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience depict, as the title page explains, “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” (Blake 1). Although Songs of Innocence, written in 1789, was crafted five years prior to Songs of Experience both collections read as stand alone works of engraving art and poetry; however, the second work was created to accompany the first. The companion poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience establish a distance between the dissimilar states of pure innocence and world-worn experience. Blake’s illuminated poems, “Introduction” to both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, feature a speaker whose inspirations, themes and tones highlight the dichotomy between the soul’s states of both innocence and experience. Blake’s use of trochaic tetrameter in his “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence produces a sing-song rhythm akin to children’s songs lending the poem a tone of childlike innocence. The Piper, Blake’s speaker, begins the poem “Piping down the valleys wild” (1), a pastoral scene revealing the speaker as one unified with the natural world. The “valleys wild” and “songs of pleasant glee” (1-2), are lawless and unbounded by social systems and structures, placing the piper within the state of innocence described by S. Foster Damon as “free, as it needs no laws. It is happy, since it is unsophisticated. It enjoys the most spontaneous communion with nature, readily perceiving the divine in all things” (31). From this standpoint of pastoral innocence the Piper receives inspiration. A laughing child on a cloud, an otherworldly symbol of innocent joy, asks the speaker to “Pipe a song about a Lamb” (5). The lamb represents innocence, but also the ‘Lamb of God,’ Jesus Christ. Blake’s speaker pipes “with merry chear” (6), and plays the song once again for the child who reacts to the speaker’s efforts with tears of joy (8). The tears elicited from the ethereal child at the Piper’s second recitation represent a reaction of untainted innocence to the song of Christ’s mercy. Implicit in the Piper’s song about the Lamb—the redemption of mankind through Christ—is the notion of original sin and the loss of innocence. The child’s joyful tears, in once sense, oppose the weeping in “Introduction” in Songs of Experience, but also forecast the mourning for innocence lost and experience gained. Serving as muse, the child on the cloud urges the speaker to “write / In a book that all may read” (13-14), the happy songs song on behalf of and from the standpoint of unsullied innocence. The “hollow reed” and “rural pen” (16-17), referenced by the Piper serve as pastoral symbols for the Blake’s engraving tool—the burin—used in crafting the plates from which Songs of Innocence and of Experience were first printed. Watercolors were used by Blake to paint his prints, thus the Piper “stain’d the water clear,” while transcribing his “happy songs / Every child may joy to hear” (18-20). The innocence presented by Blake in his vision of the child in unspoiled nature translates through the artist’s tools and onto the page, creating a group of poems that are written from the perspective of an innocent soul. “Introduction” in Songs of Experience establishes a much different tone. While “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence shows the Piper finding inspiration for his poems from an angelic child’s meek requests for a song, the “Introduction” in Songs of Experience begins with the speaker demanding, “Hear the voice of the Bard! / Who Present, Past & Future sees” (1-2). Unlike the state of innocence in which present joys remains a singular concern, the Bard sees past events, present reactions and possible futures. The Bard’s voice differs from the descriptive tones of the Piper and takes on an imperative quality signifying the desire to find meaning and create change within the chaos of experience. Instead of composing a song about a lamb, the Bard has actually “heard / The Holy Word / That walk’d among the ancient trees” (3-5), a direct reference to God seeking Adam and Eve after they have committed the original sin. Northrop Frye indicates that “the ‘Bard’ thus finds himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who derive their inspiration from Christ as Word of God” (60). Inspired by the word of God and “weeping in the evening dew” (11), the Bard’s lamenting over mankind’s fall contrasts with the child’s innocent cries of joy at the song about Christ. “Calling the lapsed Soul” (10), the Bard hopes to inspire all human souls to overcome their fallen state and wield the power of imagination allowing man to “controll / The starry pole, / And fallen, fallen light renew” (12-14). Where Blake celebrates his vision of innocence in Songs of Innocence’s “Introduction,” the Bard of experience mourns mankind’s first move away from innocence into the abyss of fragmentation that separates humanity from God and man from man. Inspired by the voice of God, the Bard calls to earth: Arise from out the dewy grass; Night is worn, And the morn Rises from the slumberous mass. (12-15) The “slumberous mass” referred to by the Bard constitutes both earth and mankind wrapped in the endless chaos of fragmentation and separation from God. The “Night” has lasted since the Old Testament God cursed mankind and made division of earth from God and will persist until the Bard’s orders for the souls of mankind rise from their material prisons with the dawning of a new post-apocalyptic millennial era—the “morn” (13-14). Frye concludes that the “‘fallen light,’ [. . .] is the alternating light and darkness of the world we know; the unfallen light would be the eternal light of the City of God”; thus, “the prophet sees in every dawn the image of a resurrection that will lift the world into another state of being altogether” (63). The Bard begs both the earth and man to rise from their fallen fragmented forms and gain, through the awakening of imagination, a higher state of tested innocence. The “lapsed soul” (6), that remains ensconced in the state of experience binds itself within the earthly material realm circumscribed by “the starry floor” and “watry shore” (18-19). These boundaries inhibit man’s ability to transcend the material realm of experience and reunite the fragmented segments of human experience with “the break of day” (20), ending the cycle of light and dark and beginning the new millennial era in which God and all men are once again joined together through love and understanding. Songs of Innocence and of Experience presents poems in the form of illuminated plates, adding an artistic depth to the texts themselves through contributions made by the decorations to the theme of the poems. “Introduction” in Songs of Innocence features text decorated on either side by images “derived from a mediaeval manuscript illustrating the Tree of Jesse” (Keynes 132-3), showing the genealogical descent of Christ from David, the son of Jesse. Blake’s song in the initial version of “Introduction” concerns Jesus, making the lineage of Christ a fitting backdrop for the poem. Songs of Experience presents the text of its “Introduction” above a reposing figure, most likely female, symbolizing both earth and the soul. Earth lies with her back to the reader and looks toward the right side of the text with an aura surrounding her head. The figure of earth operates as an inverse to Jesse who faces the audience and looks from right to left in The Tree of Jesse (Unknown). In the engraving as in the poem, earth appears as an opposite to the image of Jesse who represents the biological path to Christ and the salvation of mankind. Imagination, mankind’s only hope of redemption from material bonds, remains present in the glow emanating from earth’s head (Blake 24, 76). Blake’s two versions of “Introduction” written from the perspectives of innocence and experience function on much the same level as Milton’s companion poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Mirth and melancholy both present themselves throughout the experience of human life as experience inevitably grows from innocence. Blake’s two poems feature tones that reflect the condition of the speaker’s soul, innocence exhibiting laughter and tears of joy and experience demanding attention to its complaints. Thematically the poems diverge in focus: the first “Introduction” celebrates the natural ability to imagine and live unbounded in the pastoral simplicity of innocence versus the second “Introduction” that offers reproach for the material world of experience. While the world of innocence relies on love and joy in the present those in the experienced realm must suffer the chaos and separation from the human form divine—God. Although interpretation of Blake’s poetry remains a challenge, the portraits of innocence and experience given to readers of Blake’s two versions of “Introduction” display divergent characteristics of two conditions of the soul, opening the path for Blake to fully explore the dichotomy throughout Songs of Innocence and of Experience.Works CitedBlake, William. “Introduction.” Songs of Innocence. 1789. Introd. and Comment. Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. 23-4.—. “Introduction.” Songs of Experience. 1794. Introd. and Comment. Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. 75-6.Damon, S. Foster. “The Initial Eden.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. 30-5.Frye, Northrop. “Blake’s Introduction to Experience.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. New Jersey: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1969. 58-67.Unknown. The Tree of Jesse. 1240-1250. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles=2E 1 March 2005
Wordsworth and Blake: The Plight of Mankind
William Wordsworth and William Blake were both distraught by the plight of man in the early nineteenth century. Their separate but somewhat unified visions of man’s problems are displayed in their poems “Lines Written in Early Spring,” (lines 5-24) and “London,” respectively. They both make use of several poetic devices in very different manners to convey nearly the same meaning. Each poet uses the mood of his poem to show how deep in strife man truly is, though the tone of each poem vastly contrasts with the other. Both Blake and Wordsworth also link man to another entity, and each also use meter and rhyme scheme to show the same. Stylistically, the poems are extremely dissimilar, and the contents of each are tremendously unalike, but ultimately, they both point out the same issues with which man is dealing.Wordsworth’s “Lines” sets the tone immediately by setting the reader in a pleasant situation and using peaceful imagery. The reader is brought to a grove in which the writer is observing Nature; the birds “hopped and played” (13), which “seemed a thrill of pleasure” (16), and “The budding twigs spread out their fan/To catch the breezy air” (17). He works at illustrating the joy and serenity around him while only hinting at the much darker plight of man without spelling it out, without even coming close to breaking the tone he has so carefully constructed. In fact, because he purposely avoids saying exactly what it is that “man has made of man” (8), he allows the reader to imagine the entire quandary on his own, and in contrast to the peaceable surroundings at the grove, the reader is very likely to imagine the worst. Blake, on the other hand, uses harsh and tragic imagery to convey just how harsh and tragic the world was. While Wordsworth’s tactic was to use soft imagery to show how troubled man was, Blake utilizes severe imagery to show the same. He writes that the “hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls” (11), and makes use twice of infants crying (6,15). He uses words that press upon the reader images of being ruled, of being oppressed. The minds of the working class men are shackled, and the streets and the river themselves are “chartered,” or sanctioned by the ruling class. He juxtaposes the words ‘marriage’ and ‘hearse’ in the last line, as the final two words of the poem, to show that everything that once stood for life and happiness now means death and sadness. While Wordsworth subtly hints at the problems man has imposed upon himself, Blake forces them upon the reader so that the point cannot be missed.One of the most vivid images Blake brings into play is that of the “black’ning church” (10). It is crucial that one takes into account the meanings of this line. The word ‘black’ning’ functions as both transitive and intransitive. The church is both becoming more blackened and working as a blackening agent to the people, such as the chimney sweeper in the preceding line. The church, or those who run the church, are not doing their jobs in the world that Blake is depicting. The church is associated with the elitist ruling class, and the church itself is becoming filthy, covered with the soot of oppression while dishing it out, perpetuating the ruling class tyranny. Wordsworth also brings God into his poem and comments upon His role in the world he is describing. In “Lines,” man is tied to Nature, and Nature to God. Every element in Wordworth’s poem is enjoying the simple act of being. When he writes in the last stanza, “If this belief from heaven be sent/If such be Nature’s holy plan/Have I not reason to lament/What man has made of man?” (21), he is saying clearly that though we are intended to live as Nature lives, man is not doing so, hence his sadness. We are not following the plan. In both poems, God is being disobeyed, and it is in part this disobedience that is causing so much discord, though perhaps it is said more explicitly by Blake than Wordsworth.In writing about Nature enjoying the act of being, Wordsworth is doing more than just showing that we are not following God’s plan. He is also showing the link between man and Nature through personification. He writes that “…every flower/Enjoys the air it breathes” (11), and that the branches “…spread out their fan/To catch the breezy air”(17). Earlier, in saying that Nature is linked to “The human soul that through me ran” (6), he is later showing how there is a little human soul in every movement and action of Nature, such as in the acts of the flower enjoying breathing and the twigs finding pleasure in the breeze. He is writing about how things should be, and simply stating that they are not. Blake, on the other hand, writes bluntly about what is, and does not bother with how things should be. He does this by linking the working man to the institution of the elitist oppressing upper class. Blake strategically capitalizes only particular words in his poem. Every word he capitalizes is either a member of the rural class (“Infants” (6), “Chimney-sweepers” (9), “Harlot’s” (14))or a symbol for the overpowering aristocracy (“Thames” (2), “Church” (10), “Palace” (12)). He is showing subtly that man and the institution are in direct opposition to one another, and by capitalizing them, he is giving them both the power to dominate. Both poets link man with another entity in order to show a problem in the system.Blake and Wordsworth also use their language to help express the crisis of man. Blake uses complex wording to reflect the complexity of the problems. He is trying to depict a world in which the rapidly industrializing economy is corrupting and poisoning everything with which it comes into contact. He uses lines such as “mind-forged manacles” (8), which is a complicated and terrible thought conveyed in a mere two words, and “Every black’ning Church appalls” (10), which is also a complicated line, being that it can have more than one meaning. He urges the reader to stop and think about what he is saying, and not to take it lightly. His metaphors are stark and violent, and his lines move quickly and seem almost rushed. This parallels how he feels about man’s plight. It is difficult, violent, and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. Wordsworth, however, uses simple language to show that the problem we have is simple at its base. He uses very a very basic vocabulary to portray very basic imagery; in fact he uses only one word in the entire poem that is more than two syllables. The reader does not need more than this in order to see that a problem exists, particularly since Wordsworth wants the reader to envision the problem in his own way. More complex words might invite a more complex image, which the poet does not want. He merely wants to show that man is not in accordance with his roots, which is a simple idea that can be expressed in a simple manner. The roots themselves are simple, being that man should enjoy life for what it is, and not make anything else of mankind.The meter and rhyme scheme of both poems are also very simple, both being written in iambic pentameter nearly the entire way through, and each sharing an ABAB rhyme scheme. These alternate rhyming lines in “London” serve to perpetuate the monotony and repetitive predictability of the circle of suffering in the city. However, the meter in the poem is not consistent throughout, beginning with iambic pentameter and then veering towards less conventional trochaic pentameter at line 9, but returning to iambic pentameter for the final line. This is to assist in showing that everything is not as it should be; the world is in discord. Though Blake makes tremendous effort to show ‘how things are,’ he makes an effort here to show that this is not how they should be. Things just don’t make sense as they are. Wordsworth uses the same sort of strategy in “Lines” as does Blake. Each verse is written in iambic pentameter, with the same simple rhyme scheme as “London.” However, the final and fourth line of every stanza is written in iambic tetrameter, being a foot short of the rest of the verse. This leaves the reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied, feeling as is something is missing, that there should be something more. Wordsworth does this for the same reason that Blake does it; to subtly let the reader know that something really isn’t right. It leaves the reader with a sensation of discontent, perhaps even near frustration, and causes further thought upon the poem, which is what both poets had planned.It can be seen through these often subtle and sometimes blatant poetic devices that both Blake and Wordsworth are trying to convey to the reader that there is an underlying problem facing mankind. Though they go about it in contrasting ways, the means with which they portray their particular ideas are the same. Through imagery, tone, and meter, among other tactics, each shows in his own way that there is something very wrong with man in this particular time setting.
Satire and Expression in Blake’s Songs
Blake was undoubtedly a fierce critic of many aspects of 18th century society, and through his poetry, called on people to free themselves from the ‘mind-forged manacles’ which religious dominance and social conventions had placed upon them. His strong feelings of outrage at the complacency of the individual, as well as his railing against the authority of institutions like the monarchy and the church, make for some of Blake’s most interesting and compelling poetry. However, whilst satire forms a large element of many of Blake’s poems, it is by no means the full measure of his comment on society and human nature – whilst he uses irony where appropriate, the Songs are not primarily a satire but an expression of ‘two contrary states of the human soul’.In Songs of Innocence especially, Blake’s use of satire is subtle – he states in his Introduction that he has written his ‘happy songs, Every child may joy to hear’ and in this context, a blatantly satirical approach would have been inappropriate. Nevertheless, Blake attempts to tackle the racial injustices in the 18th century in ‘The Little Black Boy’ through satire. At the time of its writing, slavery had another 20 years before it would finally be outlawed, and therefore Blake’s abolitionist stance would have been very much in the minority. We can see the prevalent viewpoints in the first verse, in which the black boy himself bemoans the colour of his skin, saying’White as an angel is the English child;But I am black as if bereaved of light.’These two lines highlight very effectively the way in which black people were viewed in the 18th century; Blake’s use of language in ‘bereaved of light’ suggests that black people were Godless, in comparison with the white child, who is angelic merely because he is of English, and therefore Christian birth. Whilst, as a modern audience, we would immediately take this assumption as ironic, in the 18th century, poems extolling exactly this viewpoint were numerous, and a contemporary audience may well have merely accepted this boy’s reaction to his own skin colour as normal and acceptable, making the conclusion of the poem, in which these assumptions are firmly rejected, even more striking.Blake’s criticism of racial prejudices becomes more obvious when the mother figure, clearly portrayed positively when she ‘took [the boy] on her lap and kissd [him]’ corrects her son. She displays not only knowledge, but an appropriate reverence and appreciation of God, and her explanation of ‘these black bodies’ as being ‘a cloud’ which protects us until ‘our souls have learned the heat to bear’ makes an ironic contrast with their description in the first stanza. Further, the description of them as a ‘shady grove’ implies that they are more accomplished in bearing the heat of God’s love than their white, English counterparts. When the focus returns to the little black boy in the last verse, Blake’s satire comes to the fore, with the image of the black boy resolving to ‘stand and stroke [the English boy’s] silver hair’, showing true Christian compassion, and paralleling Christ in his position by God. There is certainly unmistakable irony in the fact that it is now the black boy who has the ability to give freedom, of a more powerful, spiritual kind, to the white child, and a striking contrast to the situation at the time. However, there may also be another edge of irony in the last verse. The last line, where the black boy says ‘I’ll be like him, and he will then love me,’ ends almost sadly – although there is hope, there is also the implication that at the moment, the white boy does not love him, and we are led to wonder whether this innocent assumption is too simplistic, and perhaps merely naivety on the part of the little black boy. This would tie in well with [tape guy] who described many of the Songs of Innocence as ‘an oblique commentary on a world that is terrible in it’s imperfections and cruelty’, and this poignant suggestion that the boy’s innocence may be misguided, and taken advantage of by the world of experience, emphasises this.The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence is another example of Blake giving a voice to those who were persecuted in 18th century society. Superficially, this poem would seem to be encouraging children to accept their lots in life – ‘little Tom Dacre’ submits to having his ‘head, that curled like a lamb’s back’ shaved, and consequently, was that night freed by an ‘angel’, telling him ‘if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father and never want joy’. This message, that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ does not seem out of place in a child’s poem, as this anthology claimed to be – the most popular books of children’s verse at that time were indeed ones with such religious overtones.However, if we are to read this poem only in this light, it would seem surprising that Blake encourages a view which was so synonymous with the church’s teachings. Therefore, it seems likely that there are in fact overtones of irony in this poem. The reference to the lamb clearly refers to the symbol of Christ, which is used throughout the Songs, and the image of the lamb being shaven suggests sacrifice – Blake perhaps makes the point here that these boys, like Christ, are being persecuted despite their goodness and innocence. Tom’s dream, whilst seemingly beautiful, also places restraints upon the boys – the voice of the angel is patronising, telling Tom to ‘be a good boy’ and accept his duty, and we are reminded of the figure of Urizen from Blake’s mythology – the ‘selfish father of men’ who ties humans to ‘duty’ and imposes rules and restrictions upon them. The effect of all this is to make us wonder at the sense of accepting this philosophy; the idea that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ seems naive, and the description of Tom as ‘happy and warm’ provides an ironic contrast with the ‘dark’ and ‘cold’ of the morning; suggesting he is completely oblivious to the reality of his situation. Here, Blake uses satire to criticise the idea of ‘unorganised innocence’ – effectively drawing our attention to the problems in ignoring the world of experience rather than working within the two contraries.The Church’s attitudes to poverty are also dealt with in the Songs of Innocence’s version of Holy Thursday. The basis for the title was the annual service in which children from the charity schools in London gave thanks to their benefactors. Again, Blake presents us with a poem which can be taken either as a simple innocent perspective, or an ironic attack on the religious establishment. Much of his language is deliberately ambiguous – the children are described as ‘multitudes of lambs’, and this emphasises both their innocence, and the implication that they are being sacrificed by the ‘grey headed beadles.’ Similarly, the last line, ‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door’ can be read in two ways; we are unsure of whether these angels are the beadles, in which case the poem is a warning to the children to be grateful for the charity they are being shown, or whether the angels are the children themselves – indeed, it is their song which ‘they raise to Heaven’. If this were so, then the tone of the poem is deeply satirical – he is implying that ‘the agd men,’ who he has placed ‘beneath’ the children perhaps not only physically but morally, should ‘cherish pity’ and be grateful for having the opportunity to help the children, and perhaps that they are unaware of the children’s ‘radiance’. The description of the beadles as ‘wise guardians of the poor’ also seems bitterly ironic; Blake was greatly opposed to the regimentation of children, and the rows of ‘children walking two and two in red and blue and green’ show both their oppression and their loss of individuality. Blake’s use of satire in this poem is particularly effective; it is not an explicitly satirical attack on the church, but a simple poem with a singsong rhythm and vivid imagery, which makes the overall effect much more poignant – the ambiguity challenges the reader’s perceptions of religion in a way which an outpouring of ironic commentary would not, and it is this which makes the poem particularly striking.Blake continues to question the Church’s attitudes towards children in The Little Vagabond. The child speaker is described as a ‘vagabond’ for his blasphemous views, yet as we read the poem, we are left with the distinct impression that there is a good deal of truth in his honest and innocently expressed ideas. There is a great deal of irony in the fact that the child feels it is the alehouse which is ‘healthy and pleasant and warm’, and gives him ‘a pleasant fire our souls to regale’, when this is clearly the effect religion should have. Similarly, his description of ‘modest dame Lurch’, who would seem a model of Christian virtue because she ‘is always at church’, is deeply satirical, as she and her ‘bandy children’ experience only suffering as a result, highlighting the hypocrisy Blake saw within the Church’s teachings. The satire reaches a head in the final verse, which is also the most controversial. Blake expresses the view that, were the Church more like the alehouse, God would be ‘like a father rejoicing to see His children as pleasant and happy as he,’ – a sharp contrast to the Church’s own condemnation of alehouses as places of sin. The final image, of God having ‘no more quarrel with the Devil’ and reconciling with him, is one which is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church, in that God and the Devil are viewed as polar opposites, impossible to reconcile, and yet the ‘vagabond’s idea that God will ‘kiss [the Devil] and give him both drink and apparel’ is clearly adopted from Christian teaching, and is more than a little reminiscent of the Prodigal Son. In this way, Blake successfully uses satire to set the Church’s teachings against those of Jesus, emphasising clearly his own views on the hypocrisy and the incongruity in religion in the 18th century.Blake also satirises the state of human relationships in his society. My Pretty Rose Tree attempts to challenge the conventional (and again, religious) attitudes to marriage, and in particular to commitment. The poem describes how ‘such a flower as May never bore’ was offered to the narrator, symbolising the temptation of another woman, and the language clearly suggests she was young, beautiful, and that this is an opportunity which might never come again – the reference to seasons does make us aware of the passing of time. Rejecting her in favour of his partner, ‘a pretty rose tree’, so that he can ‘tend her by day and by night’, he returns to find ‘my rose turned away with jealousy’ despite the fact that he had turned down the other woman. It is bitterly ironic that despite the narrator’s attempts to do what society dictates is best for his relationship, it emerges that ‘thorns were my only delight’ – it brings only suffering to both him and his partner. Here, Blake has used satire to criticise the marriage commitment – he implies through this poem that the narrator was mistaken when he ‘passed the sweet flower o’er’, and a monogamous commitment is no guarantee of trust between a couple, as the partners in this poem show. As a short, regularly structured poem with a strong rhythm, it does have a proverbial element, and it would seem that Blake is attempting to ‘teach a lesson’ to society. Although his idea is controversial to say the least, the picture of suspicion and misery in this poem make a compelling argument.As we can see, Blake used satire to convey his opinions and criticisms about religion, racial prejudice, human relationships and attitudes to children. In effect, it would seem that irony, therefore, plays an important part in his poetry. However, it would be inaccurate to view certainly the Songs of Innocence, and even the Songs of Experience, as merely satirical views of society. The purpose of ‘Innocence’ is to set up an ideal to which Blake hoped mankind could aspire; it was the result of numerous visions, and the book, whilst remaining an entertaining anthology of children’s verse, is also a very specific and vivid picture of Blake’s philosophy, and perhaps his utopia. This type of work, therefore, is not really appropriate for an extensive use of satire. Songs of Experience do, as we would expect, use irony more freely, as Blake is here attempting to set up a contrast between the world as it is, and the world as it should be, but even here its use is still limited. Poems such as ‘A Poison Tree’, whilst still drawing our attention to fundamental problems in human relationships, is not so much satirical as painfully recognisable. It is this which provides the main impetus for Blake’s work – foremost, Songs of Innocence and Experience are about showing what he considered the realities of the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’, and Blake’s selective use of satire certainly helps him to achieve this.