In Songs of Innocence and Experience, how does the world of innocence change into the world of experience?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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What is so fascinating about this collection of poems is the way in which Blake presents us with two contrasting views on life and society through the two selections of songs. He makes clear this parallel view on life by often having one poem in the Songs of Innocence matched by a very similar poem in the Songs of Experience. This allows him to emphasise the way that he is drawing our attention towards two contrasting ways of looking at the same object. For example, if we analyse the two different versions of "The Chimney Sweeper," we can see how this operates.

Both poems depict the terrible kind of lives and situations that young boys who were chimney sweeps faced. However, in the first "innocent" version of the poem, what is crucial to spot is the way in which religion is used to justify their existence and to compel them to work hard and obedient. The dream that little Tom has shows how religion was (and is?) a force that is used to obligate people to be obedient and to accept their reality in the hope of gaining some future paradise. At the end of the poem, the speaker and Tom get up ready and eager to work at their terrible job with the final maxim of the poem running through their minds:

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

The other version of this poem offers no such hope or consolation. The state of innocence is changed into the state of experience through the stripping away of any such metanarratives that give the young chimney sweeps hope of anything good in the future. Whereas the first poem showed how religion was used to give (false) hope to the young chimney sweeps, in this poem, religion is shown to be the cause of misery. The young chimney sweep bemoans the fact that because he appears to be happy, his parents don't think they have done anything wrong by selling him into this profession and he bitterly mocks "God and his priest and king, / Who make up a heaven of our misery." The state of experience involves a much more cynical view of society and how it operates to perpetuate misery.


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