Songs of Innocence and Experience were published together for the first time in 1794, although the order of the poetry in Songs of Experience remained inconsistent until 1815. Each of the book’s 46 poems is brief, some exceedingly brief. All are written in a seemingly straightforward style and employ the most common rhymed quatrain form. Blake is exceptional among important English poets before the twentieth century. He does not write in the more usual pentameter (five-foot line) used by writers from Shakespeare to Milton, Pope, and beyond. Instead,
Blake often used shorter lines in his songs, the tetrameter (four-foot line) as he discovered it in popular forms of the day (hymns, nursery rhymes, and the ballad), all of which had a significant effect on Blake.
Two “Contrary” States
The Songs of Innocence and Experience are about the two “contradictory” states of “innocence” and “experience,” and the two collections’ individual poems serve as exemplars of both states. The poems are intended to portray two contrasting perspectives on human life: the innocent perspective and the experience perspective. We look at things differently when we are innocent; we marvel at natural items, recognising in them a child’s simple perception of beauty. In the condition of experience, this vision is blurred by adult concerns and concerns; we begin to wonder if what we see is true, how evil could exist in God’s creation, and what causes human misery.
We could say that we begin to sense the impacts of alienation at this level of experience. This may imply a more profound perception of the world, but it also implies a more painful perception and experience of it. Is this a more “real” perspective than innocence or merely another stage through which we must transit in order to reach a higher truth?
Thus, innocence would be the condition that is fundamentally associated with childhood: a state in which we may look at the natural and human worlds without fear and feel secure in our place in them. Naturally, this is accompanied by an entire domain of biblical mythology, most notably the Garden of Eden, but there are considerable distinctions between the biblical Garden and Blakean innocence.
Perhaps the most glaring distinction is in regard to sexuality. After all, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for their acquisition of carna: knowledge, and throughout Christianity, there is a connection between sex and man’s fall. However, Blake’s worldview was quite different: the world of innocence is one of natural, unforced pleasure in sexuality, as well as in all other aspects of the body, and it’s worth noting that this significant shift in emphasis is one of Blake’s numerous prefiguration’s of Sigmund Freud’s much later discoveries, which first demonstrated the infant’s sexual interests in a systematic manner.
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Songs of Innocence
The poet is visited by a vision of a child on a cloud, who advises him first to play a melody, then sing, and then write down his lyrics. This poem “introduces” the Songs of Innocence by introducing us to a particular style of “innocent” writing, symbolised by the shepherd’s pipe in traditional eighteenth-century pastoral words. Blake is very much present in this poem as the narrator (the “T”); the child requests that he “pipe” melodies of “merry cheer,” and the poem itself, with its jaunty beat and simple rhymes, is an example of such a “song.”
Simultaneously, it anticipates the “lamb” as a sign of innocent delight and also as a religious image, owing to its link with Jesus, directing us toward the intricate religious arguments Blake will construct across both sets of Songs.
The narrator, invites us to create a connection between the lamb’s image as the most innocent of God’s animals and the image of his creator, the ‘Lamb of God.’
Although Blake urges us to focus on the image of the lamb, it appears that the poem’s ultimate goal is to “exploit” this image to pose concerns about all of creation. The insistent question is “who made thee,” and while this may appear to be a question best suited for small children, we should have no doubt that Blake intends it to address all of his contemporaries, particularly those sunk in the travails of war or industrial labour, that there remains a more innocent world that we can still see.
The Little Black Boy
A small black boy contemplates his place in the world and attempts to explain both God’s purposes and the distinctions between humans. This is one of Blake’s most explicitly political poems, having its origins in the anti-slavery arguments of his day. While the poem’s early sections may appear to imply that the black boy acts in accordance with his presumed subservience to white ideals, the conclusion brilliantly undermines this, implying that the black boy, too, has a place in the scheme of things and that the white boy may be unable to bear the presence of God without the protection offered by his black brother.
Given that this is one of the few Songs written in pentameter, one would conclude that its seriousness is reflected in this. Blake may have assigned the subject to it, or we may believe that it serves as a measure of the irony with which he undermines white pretensions. In any case, it is a profoundly moving poem, demonstrating the extent to which a black youngster may go to establish that he, too, is a recipient of God’s love; but the chain of reasoning. Up until the final stanza, Blake employs unflinching.
The Chimney Sweeper
A little chimney sweeps dreams of Paradise, enabling him to perform his duties the next day faithfully. W.H. Stevenson succinctly summarises the socioeconomic predicament that informs this poem, as well as its counterpart in Songs of Experience, in his 1989 version of The Complete Poems.
They were frequently “apprenticed” (i.e., sold) at the age of about seven; their masters brutally and unscrupulously used them, not clothed, fed, or washed; while sweeping, they were constantly at risk of suffocation or burning, in addition to scrotum cancer caused by the soot that was literally never washed from their bodies; they were encouraged to steal, and were frequently turned out in the streets by their masters to “cry the streets” on the chance of employment, or for mere begging…
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This is one of the most perplexing Songs of Innocence. The challenge arises in determining the identity of the ‘Angel’; Blake initially equated the angelic with kindness but gradually associated it with a type of hypocritical self-righteousness.
Songs of Experience
The introductory poem establishes the backdrop for Blake’s depiction of a fallen world in Songs of Experience. The “Holy Word” is not the voice of God; instead, it is the voice of a false creator who desires that man’s soul be happy with “The starry floor, The watery coast,” which are merely diversionary activities from the genuine life of imagination.
Obviously, the “Bard” is not the same as the “Piper” from the Songs of Innocence. He does not provide revelation but teaches a language of “control,” which is another way of saying “restraint and constraint.” According to Blake’s thought, each individual possesses an inner affinity; looking outward toward the stars serves only to divert attention away from the development of the internal human force and succumb to scientific fallacies. Thus, the language of control is inextricably related to the vocabulary of “weeping,” “worn,” and “slumberous,” according to which the soul is truly asleep while it is in a state of experience.
The Chimney Sweeper
The narrator inquiries about his parents’ whereabouts, attempting to explain why they abandoned him to his sorrow. Again, in contrast to the verse in Songs of Innocence, this poem depicts a kid sweep attempting to explain to a questioner—and no doubt to himself—how he came to be in such anguish and anguish. The scene’s impact is amplified by its setting in winter, among “snow,” emphasising the world of experience’s cold-heartedness.
This poem brutally exposes orthodox religion’s hypocrisy; the father and mother are praying while their infant is abandoned to the elements. It’s also a scathing examination of how we misunderstand children’s emotions: while the young sweep appears to be happy, in the sense that he’s making the best of a bad circumstance, his self-serving parents prefer to believe that they’ve done him “no harm.”
However, the poem, once again, raises more concerns than it resolves. For instance, the youngster appears to feel that his prior happiness was directly responsible for his abandonment, implying that such happiness must always be crushed in this “jealous” world. However, is his account of the events accurate, or is he too a victim of experience’s delusional perceptions? Whatever the answer, Blake’s tragic inverted trinity of “God and his Priest and King” will continue to serve as the overarching symbol for the theological and political oppression that characterises the world of experience.
The poet addresses the ‘Tyger,’ inquiring as to the divine reason for which it exists. Perhaps the most famous of Blake’s works, ‘The Tyger’ has been seen as a “contrary” to The Lamb at times. It poses a key dilemma regarding creation: how can we comprehend a God capable of producing both the innocence of the lamb and the ferocity of the tiger?
However, the issue is more complicated than that, as Blake is implying an analogy between heavenly creation and the human creation of the artist/poet who “tames” the tiger. There was little difference between Blake and Coleridge: the human creator’s activity is a manifestation of divine creativity. The artist must be courageous, willing to take risks to create images of utmost importance to humankind.
Which begs the question, how does the poetry fit with Songs of Experience? For by now, it should be clear that “experience” informs the poems in a variety of ways: in some, we are shown the “world of experience”; in others, we are confronted with a narrator speaking with an “experience voice”; and in still others, we find dialogues in which the principles of experience are more or less subtly undermined by competing voices that remind us of worlds beyond. Is any of these positions true for The Tyger, or do we need to find another solution?
The Garden of Love
In the midst of what was once a garden, a chapel! has been constructed; what was once a place of liberty and enjoyment has been transformed into a graveyard. Blake here reiterates the arguments against ‘priesthood’ that we have seen elsewhere in the Songs of Experience; these priests serve to stifle desire, they act on Urizen’s behalf to bring everything under their control, and in the process, they convert the innocent ‘Garden of Love’ into a ‘Chapel’ governed by laws and prohibitions that succeed in transforming Eden into a graveyard.
Again, we have the idea of the ‘green,’ the childish playground that is subject to law and order. Blake is depicting the constant transition from youthful freedom to the limited world of adulthood, and he is so tacitly calling for a society in which that sense of freedom can be maintained throughout adulthood. If this does not occur, the ‘flowers’ will wither and perhaps turn into ‘briars’; the openness of the ‘green’ will be replaced by the chapel’s ‘closed’ gates, a ‘holy place in Blake’s worst sense.
Numerous Songs can be interpreted as visions, and this is an excellent example. Blake makes no attempt to impart explicit teachings; rather, he presents us with two conflicting images and invites us to form conclusions using our own imagination. However, observe how the poem’s rhythms change in the final two lines (from trimeter to tetrameter), providing physical evidence of the priests’ heavy-handedness and ponderousness in enforcing the regulations.
The poet strolls through the streets of London, observing and hearing signs of pain and unhappiness. As we have seen, the world of innocence is typically a rural one, populated by joyful elderly shepherds and village greens. By contrast, the world of experience is made up of what Blake sees every day in London: a world of fragmentary sights and noises, of man’s isolation from his fellows, of “blights” and “plagues.”
It’s also worth noting that, though Blake shows us with a “fallen” London here, he also provides us with a “redeemed” London elsewhere in his poetry: no location or scenario is eternally bound to evil, but deliverance will always need a shift in viewpoint.
The style of this poem is surprisingly compact, even by Blake’s standards; observe how phrases like “mark” and “every” resonate throughout the poem, connecting it while also evoking the repeated character of city life. The depiction of London reads like a virtual collection of the qualities we connect with experience: “weakness” and “woe,” the “call of horror,” the church’s “blackening,” and the violent insistence on the otherwise concealed relationship between the prostitute and the horrific “marriage hearse.”
However, innocence cannot stay indefinitely undisturbed, but it is always possible to extend or reclaim it via love, poetry, or beauty. It is, however, inevitably threatened with extinction as we enter maturity and are confronted with cares, tasks, and responsibilities. However, this is a critical point for Blake—while this “progression”—which is also a fall from grace—is unavoidable, we make it far worse than it needs to be.
We exacerbate it through various forms of tyranny and harshness on the political level, the rule of moral law and a punishment-oriented ethic rather than a forgiveness-oriented ethic on the religious level, and greed, possessiveness, and jealousy on the personal and psychological level.
However, in Blake’s work—and this is why some of the Songs and the majority of his other work are so complex—these levels cannot be separated. We read of “mind-forg’d manacles” in the famous London expression; yet, the beauty of this phrase resides in its twofold meaning. On the one hand, we could argue that the “minds” that gorge these manacles are those of other people; when we observe the inhumanity of urban life, we see the imposition of one person’s will on another, or, to put it another way, we see the suppression of healthy individual life by an ideology based on work, power, and repression.
However, it is also true that the mind that imposes these constraints on us is, in a significant sense, our own. Again, to use more contemporary terminology, what Blake demonstrates is not simply the process of internalisation by which we absorb these forces and accept them without question, an acceptance that suffocates the vital development of the imagination within us.
Blake as a Romantic Poet
In some of these ways, it makes sense to regard Blake as a Romantic poet. The majority of the other key Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats—share Blake’s suspicion of the forces at work in current society, and they, too, advocate for reconsidering a more “innocent” state as part of the solution. Yet none of these other writers, with the potential exception of Wordsworth, describe everyday city life with quite the same amount of detail. This is partially because Blake was more familiar with everyday life and its demands than they were. He came from a lower social position than any of them and was under significantly more financial strain than any of them.
The ‘escape to the country’ was not financially impossible for him. Additionally, one may argue that he was the most politically extreme of them all, possibly with the exception of Shelley. Certainly, in comparison to Wordsworth and Coleridge, his two closest contemporaries, he maintained a more consistent commitment to revolutionary principles during those formative years when all three were profoundly influenced by the extraordinary events of the French Revolution of 1789, even if his later poetry became far more obscure than the Songs, for a variety of complicated reasons.