The poetry of William Blake, an artist, printer, prophet, and revolutionary, varies widely in style and substance, from youthful imitations of Spenser to lyrics of seemingly naive childish wonder to obscure and pretentious mysticism. Apart from his earliest productions, his work shows a powerful originality in form, images, and technique.
His juvenile work, written between the ages of twelve and twenty, was published in 1783 as POETICAL SKETCHES. The poems, which are slight and at times even crude, show a strong Elizabethan influence. Occasional flashes of lyrical brilliance are visible, however, such as this stanza from a song known to have been written before he was fourteen:
With sweet May dews my wings werewet,And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage;He caught me in his silken net,And shut me in his golden cage.
Although he remained poor and generally unknown throughout his life, Blake was well acquainted with a number of leading social and political radicals, and he belonged to a discussion group which included Henry Fuseli, Thomas Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and others. Through such stimulation he was able to develop his own radical views about Christianity, Swedenborgianism, and the American and French revolutions. His dual concern with mysticism and political radicalism about 1788-1789 marks his intellectual and artistic maturity. These two strains were immediately evident in Blake’s two major collections of lyrics, SONGS OF INNOCENCE (1789), and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (1794), printed together in 1794 as SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. All three volumes were illustrated by the author’s powerfully imaginative engravings, which contribute greatly to the reader’s appreciation of the text. By “innocence” and “experience” Blake meant two contrary, though not clearly defined, states of the human soul. The two groups of poems directly oppose their subject matter. We are given “Infant Joy” against “Infant Sorrow,” “The Blossom” against “The Sick Rose,” “The Lamb” against “The Tiger,” “The Divine Image” against “The Human Abstract,” and opposed treatments of “The Chimney Sweeper,” “A Little Boy Lost,” and others. The poems are remarkable for their simple grace and direct emotional expression. “Innocence” is something like happiness, a state of wonder and acceptance and endurance of life. The “innocent” chimney sweep, for example, although aware of his misery, retains his vision and faith:
There’s little Tom Dacre, who criedwhen his head,That curled like a lamb’s back, wasshaved: so I said“Hush Tom! never mind it, for whenyour head’s bareYou know that the soot cannot spoilyour white hair.”
In contrast, the chimney sweep of the opposed poem in SONGS OF EXPERIENCE understands the earth-bound social cause and the destructive aspects of life. His complaint is bitter:
And because I am happy and danceand sing,
(The entire section is 1450 words.)