Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)