Study Guide

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is the foundation of the work of one of the greatest English poets and artists. The two sets of poems reveal what William Blake calls “the two contrary states of the human soul.” The presentation of these states is deceptively simple, literally childlike in the “Innocence” poems. In both series, he offers clues to deeper meanings and suggests ways out of the apparent trap of selfhood, so that each reading provides greater insight and understanding, not only to the poems but also to human life.

The first poem in the “Innocence” series, “Introduction,” establishes the pastoral background of most of the poems. The speaker in the poem (not Blake) has been playing tunes on a pipe in a pleasant valley when he or she is stopped by a vision of a child on a cloud, perhaps an angel, who functions as an encouraging muse. The child asks the pipe player to pipe a song about a lamb, then asks that the song be repeated and weeps. The child asks the speaker to sing a song, then asks that the songs be written “In a book, that all may read.” The child disappears, and the speaker makes a pen from a reed, makes ink by staining water, and writes “happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.”

The last lines establish the apparent audience of Songs of Innocence: children. The poems in this series have a simple vocabulary and meter and can be read, and at least partly understood, by small children. This collection is not aimed exclusively at children, however. The child on the cloud tells the speaker to write so that “all may read”; it is the speaker who assumes that “every child may joy to hear” and restricts his or her audience to children. Perhaps “child” does not mean children but everyone, in the sense that all are children of God. Thus, in the first poem, the apparently simple vocabulary leads to complex interpretations.

“Introduction” also describes and wryly comments on Blake’s technique. At first, the speaker is playing music, an evanescent expression that only the speaker and the child on the cloud hear. The child asks the speaker to sing songs that can be recorded in a book, specifically a book written and decorated with natural colors. The child, who acts as inspiration, vanishes when the hard work of composing and painting the volumes begins. Also, music strikes the senses directly, but the use of words restricts the audience to those who know and can understand a particular language. Songs of Innocence, which appears to be addressed to innocent children, actually requires some sophistication to be read, much less understood.

The next two poems, “The Shepherd” and “The Ecchoing Green,” continue the pastoral atmosphere established by the first poem, but there is an ominous element at the end of the second poem. An old man has been watching the children at play, and they note that he and the other older people remember that they used to play like that in their youth. In the last line, the area is no longer “ecchoing” but “darkening.”

The light apparently returns again in “The Lamb,” which returns to the biblical idea of the good shepherd of “The Shepherd.” A child asks a lamb if the lamb knows who made it, then informs the lamb that “He is called by thy name/ For he calls himself a Lamb./ He is meek, & he is mild./ He became a little child.” The child is referring to Jesus, but does not explain why Jesus is called a lamb. Adults know that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb of God, who paid for the sins of humanity with death, like those of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.

The source of the description becomes clear in the next poem, in which “The Little Black Boy” cries that “White as an angel is the English child:/ But I am black, as if bereav’d of light.” Instead of telling the child that he should be proud of who he is, the boy’s mother tells him that this physical life is a trial and preparation for the next, spiritual, world. The little boy then imagines a life after death in which the white child will accept him.

A child’s acceptance of a cruel fate because society demands it is also present in “The Chimney Sweeper,” the first poem with an urban setting. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, small boys, with their heads shaven for streamlining, swept chimneys, their lungs filling with soot, doing a job that often led to an early death. In this poem, Tom Dacre, whose head “that curl’d like a lambs back” was shaved like an animal being prepared for slaughter, has a dream in which an angel frees the sweepers from their “coffins of black,” another suggestion that only death will bring freedom from life’s suffering. The speaker urges the other boys to continue with their work, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”

The idea that God will somehow take care of everyone is reinforced by “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found,” in which God miraculously appears to a fatherless boy, lost in a dark swamp, and returns him to his grieving mother. In “A Cradle Song,” “Nurse’s Song,” and “Infant Joy,” loving parents or servants watch over helpless babies and playing children. In “Holy Thursday,” a description of a religious ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral, even the orphans of London receive help from “wise guardians of the poor,” and the audience of the poem is urged to “cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”

The speaker in “Holy Thursday” is clearly an adult, since he or she has a more sophisticated vocabulary than the speakers in the other poems. The adult viewpoint also appears in “The Divine Image,” in which the speaker describes God and the virtues of “Mercy Pity Peace and Love” as dwelling in living human beings, all of whom are entitled to respect and love, no matter what their religion.

Songs of Experience reveals that this acceptance of society as it is and belief in a caring God is naïve. This series does not begin with joy in a pastoral landscape, as does Songs of Innocence, but instead the “Introduction” is spoken with “the voice of the Bard . . . Who Present, Past, & Future, sees” and who describes a fallen world with a “lapsed Soul . . . weeping in the evening dew.” In the next poem, “Earth’s Answer,” the earth itself asks to be released from the chains of jealousy and fear. “The Clod and the Pebble” presents two views of love, the clod finding the experience selfless and giving, the pebble stating that love is selfish and restricting.

These poems remind the reader that there is more than one way to view the same experience, a point further underscored by several other poems in Songs of Experience that are answers or companions to poems in Songs of Innocence, some even bearing the same name. In the “experience” version of “Holy Thursday,” the speaker is appalled by the presence of poverty in such a rich country as England. If people lived in a right relationship with each other and nature, the speaker suggests, hunger and poverty would not exist. In the second “Nurse’s Song,” the nurse urges the children to come in from their wasteful play, in which she finds no happiness. The “experience” version of “The Chimney Sweeper” makes clear how both a world of misery and the attitude of hopefulness presented in Songs of Innocence can exist side by side. A person asks a forlorn chimney sweeper where his parents are, and the child replies that they have gone to church “to praise God & his Priest & King,/ Who make up a heaven of our misery.” The society’s failings are supported and excused away by the institutions of religion and government, which manage to persuade many that all will somehow be all right, perhaps after death, the same point that is made in “London.”

The child in “London” has parents, but is more bitter than the orphan of the “innocence” “Chimney Sweeper,” because he is intelligent enough to recognize what is being done to him. His response, coupled with that of the accepting adult in the “innocence” version of “Holy Thursday,” show that the sour viewpoint of the “experience” poems is not a result of obtaining wisdom by growing older. Some children are able to see the larger truth; some adults never perceive it. Intelligence and circumstance cause the difference, not age.

The companion poem to “The Divine Image” is “A Divine Image,” which points out that cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secrecy are also human properties, and if people are created from God’s image, those qualities must belong to God also. In “Infant Sorrow,” the baby is unhappy to be born into a dangerous and sorrowful world, unlike the child of “Infant Joy.” The companion poem to “The Lamb” is the famous “The Tyger,” in which the speaker notes that the same God created the defenseless lamb and the fierce tiger, although he or she seems incredulous: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” In the “experience” poems, Blake presents the shock and dismay that arise from the contemplation of the theological problem of evil: If God created everything, God is ultimately responsible for everything, and if God is good, why does evil exist?

There are many answers to this question, including those given in the “innocence” poems, such as the little black boy’s mother’s contention that this life is a test and those who behave as God or the society directs (as in the “innocence” “Chimney Sweeper”) will receive rewards after death, but these answers are emotionally and spiritually unsatisfying for the speakers in the “experience” poems. Nature itself is tainted in such poems as “The Sick Rose,” in which the rose is destroyed by a worm—innocence and beauty give way to sin and corruption. In “Ah! Sun-flower” the flower is rooted to its spot and cannot go where repressed youths and virgins go for fulfillment in the next world. In “The Garden of Love,” a chapel dedicated to negative commandments, sin, and death has been placed in the middle of what once was a refreshing garden. Now it is clear why the child on the cloud in the “innocence” introduction had wept to hear the song piped a second time.

If “innocence” is a naïve viewpoint, Blake shows in the rest of his work that “experience” is also, being fixated on sin and corruption when there is a fuller, genuinely spiritual world at hand. In “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” the speaker urges the reader to “see the opening morn,/ Image of truth new born.”

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

William Blake himself used as a subtitle of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which he illustrated and printed in 1794), “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” Ever since, critics have debated the question of whether Blake intended to present the insoluble paradox of the human encounter with God or simply to cast into verse the contrasting experiences of the innocent and the experienced.

If one considers Blake’s own moving experience as a child that he attributed to his innocent awareness of God’s presence in the world and if, further, one realizes that the experiences of the very young are hardly worth a sympathetic rendering if they are nullified by the experiences of the older and the wiser, then one must take Blake as a visionary poet who knew God both as a child and as a man, wondering throughout at God’s power and his glory, while comforted throughout by God’s love.

Blake used his poetry to mark and define the discernible division between innocence and experience. The experience of the young and innocent is experience in the course of the movement toward evil and the struggle against evil, while the experience of the older, which includes the experience of guilt, is lightened by a kind of innocent wonder at God’s love and forgiveness. The illuminating fact that Blake switched poems back and forth between innocence and experience—himself confused or struck by the ambiguity of the human encounter with God in God’s world—reveals the conviction that whether a song is one of innocence or of experience, it is of the contrary states of the human soul.

For the most part, the Songs of Innocence are celebrations of the shepherd in his loving care of the lamb. One realizes through the child’s experience that relative to God’s care, all persons are lambs; relative to his knowledge, will, and power, all persons are innocent. The child’s celebration of God’s love is for all persons, both the innocent and the experienced; here, in the mouths of babes, are the truths experience has forgotten. Thus, in his first poem, “The Shepherd,” Blake writes that the Shepherd “shall follow his sheep all the day,” that “he hears the lambs [sic] innocent call,” and that “He is watchful while they are in peace.”

Human beings, however, are not simply lambs. In “The Ecchoing Green” (Blake’s spelling), the initial image is of the sun’s rising, the happy skies, the singing birds, the ringing bells, and the children’s sporting on the green. But under the oak the old folk sit and, although laughing at the children’s play, remember, surely with some regret, that “Such such were the joys,/ When we all girls and boys,/ In our youth time were seen,/ On the Ecchoing Green.” The children become weary, the sun descends, the sports have an end, and there is no more playing “On the darkening Green.” The human adventure, then, is from childhood to age, from innocence to experience, from light to darkness, from spontaneous joy to profound sorrow. This human passage, inevitable but both threatening and promising at once, is anticipated in the image of the children’s returning to the laps of their parents as the playing ends and the green darkens.

Another kind of cloud, here symbolic not of the course of nature but of the inevitability of confusion and suffering, is thrown over innocence in Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy.” The poem begins, “My mother bore me in the southern wild,/ and I am black, but O! my soul is white,/ White as an angel is the English child:/ But I am black as if bereav’d of light.” The child’s mother tells him that “we are put on earth a little space,/ That we may learn to bear the beams of love” and she promises him that “when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear/ The cloud will vanish . . .” and the child responds that when “I from black and he from white cloud free,” he and the English boy will play joyfully around the tent of God: “I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,/ to lean in joy upon our fathers knee./ and then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,/ and be like him and he will then love me.” Surely there is the experience of suffering in this poem, and there is also the affirmation of faith by which the clouds of human prejudice are dispelled. Innocence anticipates the shock of experience and the recovery through God’s love.

Again, injustice intrudes upon the innocent, as portrayed in “The Chimney Sweeper.” The young sweep reports that, after his mother died, his father sold him “while yet my tongue,/ Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep./ So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.” The poem tells of Tom Dacre, whose hair “curl’d like a lambs back” is shaved off so that soot cannot spoil it, dreaming of thousands of chimney sweeps locked in black coffins but liberated by “an Angel who had a bright key.” The boys run leaping and laughing across the green plain to wash in the river and “shine in the Sun.” They “rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind,” and the Angel promises Tom that if he were a good boy he would “have God for his father and never want joy.” The dream ends, and Tom rises in the dark to do his work, but he is happy and warmed by the faith that “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”

In “The Lamb” Blake expresses the mystery of creation as grasped by the simple faith of innocence. Here the light side of creation provides a background for the dark side later to be expressed in “The Tyger.” “Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee?” asks the child—and answers: “Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,/ Little Lamb I’ll tell thee;/ He is called by thy name,/ for he calls himself a Lamb. . . .” The poem concludes, “I a child and thou a lamb,/ We are called by his name./ Little Lamb God bless thee,/ Little Lamb God bless thee.” He who made the lamb, however, also made the tiger, and Blake’s “Tyger,” in the Songs of Experience, strikes one with the mysterious creative power of God. Experience is helpless in the effort to understand the awesome signs of God’s creative will. In the image of the tiger beauty and evil seem to be inextricably interrelated, but the incomprehensibility of divine creation suggests the wonder of paradoxical resolution through the dramatic workings-out of the limitless power that made the tiger possible.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,In the forests of the night;What immortal hand or eye,Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

So the poem begins, and it is evident from the beginning that the question is not the metaphysical one of who or what created the tiger; the essential question is why the tiger was created. Surely God created all and, hence, the tiger, but “Did he smile his work to see?/ Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Experience wants an explanation but must be content with the God-revealing mystery of the tiger’s fiery brain and heart.

There is something threatening, dark, and even evil in the image of the tiger. The tiger burns bright; the fire burns in the tiger’s eyes; the tiger was somehow wrought on an anvil: “What the hand, dare seize the fire?/ . . . What the hammer? what the chain,/ In what furnace was thy brain?/ What the anvil? what dread grasp,/ Dare its deadly terrors clasp?” At the creation of the tiger “the stars threw down their spears/ and water’d heaven with their tears. . . .”

Blake’s celebration of God’s power through the image of the tiger is perhaps also a celebration of the possibility of love’s triumph over evil. The very power that made the tiger also, and perhaps in the same act, made the lamb. The possibility of love is also the possibility of the violation of love; the power that makes evil awful is the same power that makes love awesome. The tiger is a natural beast, but Blake’s genius endows the tiger with the aura of the supernatural and with all the ambiguity of the human being so created as to be capable of either destructive or purifying fire.

When the tiger appears in “Night,” from Songs of Innocence, it appears in its natural condition, along with wolves, as howling for sheep as prey. The poem presents an image of protecting angels. As night comes, the angels visit and bless the birds and beasts and help them to sleep, but they do not stop the wolves and tigers from their prey. Despite the effort of the angels, the beasts may “rush dreadful,” but the promise of the poem is that the angels will receive each spirit and escort it to the new world of eternal love, a world in which the lion (also, in the natural world, a beast of prey) will lie down with the lamb and, under the influence of divine love, guard the fold. What is true of the lion, one may presume to be true of the tiger: The possibility of love is inherent even in the dreadful.

Just as paradoxical imagery is used in both the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience to present and resolve what has been called the problem of evil, so such imagery is used to present and resolve the problem of sexual love, an aspect of the problem of evil that stems from the power of human freedom. In the Songs of Innocence a deceptively simple poem, “The Blossom,” portrays sexual intercourse in a telling, although ambiguous, way: “Merry Merry Sparrow/ Under leaves so green/ A happy Blossom/ Sees you swift as arrow/ Seek your cradle narrow/ Near my Bosom.” The next stanza, which completes the poem, is addressed to “Pretty Pretty Robin,” and here the happy blossom “Hears you sobbing sobbing. . . .” Whether the “sobbing sobbing” is interpreted as a sadness evinced, a kind of joy, or an act, the element of something negative is introduced. When one moves to the Songs of Experience, whatever is or can be negative in sexual love is acknowledged and little of the positive remains, as in “The Sick Rose”:

O Rose thou art sick.The invisible worm,That flies in the nightIn the howling storm:Has found out thy bedOf crimson joy:And his dark secret loveDoes thy life destroy.

Throughout his poems Blake recognizes the positive, light, creative aspects of nature and of the human being—and also the negative, dark, and destructive aspects. The innocent respond to and delight in the brighter side; the experienced know, partly through self-knowledge, the darker—the possibility of negating the positive values made possible by the divine. This recognition, however, has its positive aspect: Through the knowledge of humanity’s misuse of power, freedom, and one another, there is also knowledge, through experience, of how consciously to return to the kind of world the innocent see but cannot realize.