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...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)
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Overview (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...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)