Songs of Innocence and of Experience: The Lamb and The Tiger
William Blake is a poet of the first English romantic generation and is considered a precursor of the typical themes of this movement on a European scale. Blake was born in 1757 into a middle-low class family (his father was a stocker seller) and at the age of ten he was sent to a drawing school to become an engraver. Ever since he was a child, Blake has combined his interest in drawing with the passion for the Bible, which will become the reference work for his creative activity, both in literary texts and in his drawings, paintings and engravings.
Blake’s work, despite appearances, is very complex, since all his texts lend themselves to stratified readings, which reveal highly stratified metaphorical and symbolic plans to interpretation. Blake’s vision of the world is in fact articulated and multifaceted, and feeds on a rich personal mythology. In the Songs of Innocence and in the later Songs of Experience the most evident element – from the two titles – is the contrast between two states of human existence : on the one hand the ‘innocence’, that is a world full of joy and happiness for the man and who has the features of a garden of Eden populated by symbolic images of Christ (such as lambs and children); on the other hand, the ‘experience’, which constitutes the counterpoint of this paradisiacal world, which is such only in appearance, until it comes into contact with the harsh reality of the world. This juxtaposition is the backbone of the two collections: the texts of the Songs of Innocence Blake do indeed correspond to the analogues of the Songs of Experience, which overturn the ideals in the light of the experience of Evil and daily injustice. These two existential conditions, however, are complementary: if in the Songs of Innocence Blake represents an ideal state not yet corrupted, on the other hand the poet himself knows that this reality is illusory, since the world of experience is marked by selfishness, cruelty and social injustices. Blake represents all this through the disquieting figure of the tiger, which is therefore complete that pure and incorrupt of the lamb in The Lamb.
The presence of the lamb in The Lamb presupposes the existence of the tiger, just as the tiger, in The Tiger, exists only as a counterpart to the lamb. The two poems have in fact a similar structure, based on the nagging rhetorical questions in which the poet asks himself who the creator of the animal is. The anaphoric effect is then supported, on the lexical level, by the repetition of ‘Tiger’ (at the beginning of the first and last verse, v. 1 and v. 21) and ‘Lamb’ (at the beginning and at the end of two stanzas, v. 1, v. 9, vv. 11-12, vv. 19-20). Blake then focuses his reader’s attention on the two animals and their evocative and symbolic power. The lamb is a clear biblical image and is a symbol of innocence and purity, but also of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of humanity from sin. But the image of the lamb is also strongly associated with that of the child in poetry: both have a ‘tender voice’ (v. 7) and are ‘meek and mild’ (v. 15). Here therefore Blake speaks yes of Christ but also refers to the human condition of innocence. The tiger, on the other hand, is a fearful and frightening creature. Unlike the lamb it does not belong to Christian symbolism, even if its characteristics – living in the ‘forests of the night’ (v. 2), the fear aroused by its ‘fearful symmetry’ (v. 4) and above all the an analogy between his eyes and fire (‘burnt the fire of thine eyes’, v. 6) – they bring it closer to a satanic creature, which therefore embodies the dark and demonic side of man. To the tiger, which is the symbol of suffering that derives from human experience, the unanswered questions of Blake are therefore connected, which questions without result on the nature and identity of this disturbing entity. The comparison between the Lamb of The Lamb and the tiger of the homonymous poem is explicit in v. 20 (‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’) When the poet wonders if the principle of Good and Evil could have had the same origin in God.
The two texts are thus an excellent example of Blake’s poetics and conception of reality, which believes that the world should be ‘read’ as a book composed by God ; in this sense, in every earthly presence a level of symbolic interpretation can be traced that helps to understand the reasons for human existence and the divine message. At the heart of Blake’s system of thought is the role of imagination. Blake, referring to the poetic composition, states in fact that only through imagination can man ‘see’ beyond physical reality. The importance of imagination is such that, for Blake, it is not a mental attitude, but is the state of existence of man himself.
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