William Blake

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary

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Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a two-volume illustrated book of poetry published in 1789 and 1794 by the English poet and painter William Blake. For Blake, innocence and experience are the “two contrary states of the soul,” and differ greatly from the prevailing Christian idea that children are born into “original sin” but can later achieve “salvation” through the Church. Childhood is not sin, Blake suggests, but a kind of protected innocence not unlike the Paradise of Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, unlike in Milton, it is not pride or folly that causes a person to lose the paradise of innocence. Rather, innocence is lost by experiencing the social, ethical, and political corruption of institutions like the Church, the government, and the ruling class. Through experience, Blake suggests, innocence is replaced by fear and inhibition. The two volumes are widely considered some of Blake’s best and most influential works, setting the stage for the Romantic Era in European art.

Songs of Innocence contains nineteen poems, including an introduction in which Blake casts himself as a shepherd, writing words to the happy songs he plays on his pipe for the benefit of a child he meets on a cloud. In “The Shepherd,” Blake continues to exalt this gentle vocation, which requires little of the shepherd except to listen to the “innocent call” and “gentle reply” of lambs and ewes.

“The Echoing Green” is more melancholy than some of the other Innocence poems, because it is told from the perspective of the elderly watching children play. The next poem, “The Lamb,” is one of Blake’s most famous poems. It is also one of his most explicitly religious. Here, Blake characterizes the Almighty God as a gentle and meek creature, as pleasant as His softest creations, specifically the lamb.

In “The Little Black Boy,” a child of African descent compares his skin to that of a white boy. While their souls are equally white, the black boy believes that his skin color is a result of over-exposure to one of the most obvious signs of God’s love: The sun. In “The Blossom,” the speaker takes joy in the sight of a flower while also realizing that nature, in a strictly material sense, is impersonal. There may, however, be a higher form of spiritual nature full of active benevolence.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” the titular sweeper has a grim life but looks forward to the day that he is freed by an angel and delivered to a holy river that washes the soot from his body. A small boy is abandoned by his father, in “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found,” only to be delivered into the arms of his mother by God.

The speakers in “The Laughing Song” and “A Cradle Song,” find equal joy in the sounds of birds, ladies, and merriment as they do in the tender sound of a mother’s voice. In “The Divine Image,” the speaker echoes the characterization of God as a gentle lamb. However, in the following poem, “Holy Thursday,” the speaker describes the strangely militant manner in which poor children are marched into the Church to thank their worldly benefactors. Juxtaposed between these two poems is Blake’s devout belief in God and his skepticism toward the Church and its human emissaries.

Blake once again describes the difference between impersonal nature, in “Night,” wherein the predator attacks prey unthinkingly, and a higher form of nature wherein the lion and the lamb lay beside one another.

Following “Spring,” which combines imagery from many of the previous poems into one joyous celebration, is “Nurse’s Song,” in which a caretaker cannot suppress the playful spirit of her young charges. In “Infant Joy,” a mother asks her two-day-old baby what name it wishes to have. The infant replies “Joy” because that is all it knows.

The speaker dreams of a mother ant reunited with her children thanks to the presumably spiritual intervention of a glowworm and a beetle in “A Dream.”

The last Innocence poem, “On Another’s Sorrow,” is a sort of bridge to the Experience poems, depicting an otherwise joyous man who cannot help but feel the sorrow of others.

The speaker of the twenty-six poems found in the Experience volume is far different from the simple shepherd who narrates the Innocence poems. Here, Blake again adopts the persona of a singer, but this time it is an older, more experienced “Bard” intent on leading corrupted men out of the realm of the material and back into the realm of the spirit and the imagination.

Many of the Experience poems read as informal replies to various Innocence poems. For example, “The Tyger” is a direct response to “The Lamb” in which the speaker struggles to come to grips with the fact that the same God who created the gentle lamb also created the fearsome tiger. In the end, however, the speaker seems far more awestruck of the tiger “burning bright” than of the lamb. And even if the same God made both, the language suggests that while the lamb was merely “made,” the tiger was forged, dramatically, amid the terrible violence of hammers and hot metal.

Another striking juxtaposition comes from “Infant Sorrow,” the reply to the previous volume’s “Infant Joy.” Despite whatever joy the infant may feel in its mother’s arms, that joy is stripped away and replaced by sorrow the moment the baby is held by somebody else, like the father. In this poem, “experience” begins to eat away at “innocence” mere moments after birth.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience reflects the artistry of William Blake at the height of his powers, both as a poet and a painter.