Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake
Songs of Innocence and of Experience William Blake
The following entry presents criticism of Blake's poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794). See also, William Blake Criticism.
Written in the deceptively simple style associated with children's verse, Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of short lyric poems accompanied by Blake's original illustrations. The two sections, written over an interval of at least four years, juxtapose “the two contrary states of the human soul,” as the combined text's subtitle states. “The Tyger,” an individual verse from Songs of Experience, is one of the most widely recognized poems in the English language.
Blake was born on November 28, 1757, in London, the second of five surviving children of James and Catherine Harmitage Blake. His father sold gloves, stockings, and haberdashery, maintaining the family in rather modest circumstances. Blake did not attend school as a young child but spent his time wandering freely throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, where he began experiencing the visions that would later inform his illustrations. His parents discouraged the child from relating his visions of angels in trees or God's face at the window, since, from their perspective, the boy was lying. They did, however, encourage Blake's artistic talent. At the age of ten he was enrolled in a drawing school operated by James Pars and four years later he began an apprenticeship with a master engraver. He briefly attended the Royal Academy after completing his apprenticeship, but soon began working full time as an engraver, producing illustrations for various books and periodicals. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who signed her name with an “X” on their marriage license. Under her husband's tutelage she learned to read and write, eventually assisting him in drafting. The couple had no children. In 1784 Blake went into the printing business with his younger brother Robert and a local engraver, but the business failed three years later, after Robert's death. Blake then turned to copperplate etching and perfected the technique that would allow him to produce both illustration and verse on a single page, as he did for the Songs. In 1790 Blake left the city he associated with disease, pollution, and a wide variety of social problems, in favor of Lambeth, a rural area across the Thames where he began composing the poems of the Experience section of his work. The Blakes lived there for more than ten years before returning to London. Throughout his lifetime Blake was plagued by financial problems and was often at the mercy of overbearing patrons. He was primarily known as an artist rather than as a poet, in part because his illuminated texts were self-published and reached a very limited readership. Widespread distribution of his work did not occur until after his death. Blake died on August 12, 1827, while working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.
The production of the version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience used in most modern editions took place over a period of thirty-five years, with Blake acting as his own publisher. According to most scholars, the first section of Blake's text, Songs of Innocence, was written and published in 1789. Blake later combined these poems with a second section entitled Songs of Experience. Blake called the combined edition, dated 1794, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul and created a new illustration for the title page. Four of the songs originally assigned to the Innocence section—“The Schoolboy,” “The Little Girl Lost,” “The Little Girl Found,” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard”—were moved to the Experience section in the combined version. In addition, there is a great deal of variation in the order in which the poems appear in the surviving copies of both the Innocence section and the combined sections. The final poem of the Experience sequence, “To Tirzah,” summarizes the entire work; it was added much later, possibly as many as twelve years after the appearance of the combined version.
The poems of the two sections deal with the opposition between the innocent, joyous perspective of the child and the more experienced, less spontaneous, perspective of the adult. Blake creates a dichotomy between wishes and desires on the one hand and duties and responsibilities on the other, always privileging the imaginative over the rational. Although children appear as the subject of individual songs in both sections of the work, their happiness or misery is determined by their relationships with the adults who maintain control over their lives, as in the contrasting poems “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence and “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience. The group of poems associated with experience is replete with images of restriction and constraint, occasionally self-imposed, but more commonly imposed by parents or authority figures on the lives of the young. Although the poems of the two sections are obviously meant to serve as contrasting states of the human condition, the individual poems, even those associated with innocence, themselves contain discontinuities, as though in anticipation of the much harsher view of life outlined in the second sequence. Suspicion and mistrust of authority figures—parental, religious, or political—and the power they wield is an important theme throughout the work.
The contrasts Blake set forth in the Songs are echoes of English society's approach to the social and political issues of his era—a time characterized, on the one hand, by increasing desire for personal, political, and economic freedom, and on the other, by anxiety regarding the potential consequences of that freedom for social institutions. Several of the poems directly address contemporary social problems, for example, “The Chimney-Sweeper” deals with child labor and “Holy Thursday” describes the grim lives of charity children. The most fully-realized social protest poem in the Songs is “London,” a critique of urban poverty and misery.
Critical controversy surrounds the categorization of Blake's poetry in the Romantic period. Harold S. Pagliaro suggests that Blake not only participated in the Romantic era's preoccupation with mortality, but actually went beyond most of his contemporaries in embracing vulnerability to death. According to Pagliaro, Blake considered the world “death-laden, filled with intimidating foes, deadly Tygers, hypocritical smiles, and constricting social and religious systems that reduce life.” The critic believes it was the aim of the Songs to meet the challenge presented by such a dismal world view. Some scholars, though, reject the notion that Blake was a Romantic poet at all, and instead situate his work within the tradition of an earlier literary period. Heather Glen contends that Blake's text is not, as is often claimed, an experimental work. “In presentation and subject-matter, Blake's Songs are closer to late eighteenth-century children's verse than to anything else in the period,” writes Glen. However, Blake's verses differ from the usual children's poetry, according to Glen, in their failure to provide a strong authorial voice conveying the message young readers should glean from the poems. Jon Mee, acknowledging the work's originality, also maintains that the songs are modeled on earlier literature, but insists that they “often work by mimicking familiar forms and arousing expectations which they go on to frustrate.” Martin Price contends that the association of the Innocence poems with verse for children has led some critics to dismiss them entirely or to treat them as ironic foreshadowings of the Experience poems, a position he rejects. He asserts that the poems of the first section are valuable in their own right and should first be examined in isolation from the second section. “Only when we grant Innocence its proper value does the full dialectical force of the two contrary states become clear,” claims Price. Many scholars, including Glen, nevertheless defend the contention that the poems of the Innocence sequence contain an element of irony that undercuts their pastoral quality. Harold Bloom, too, refers to Blake's use of “innocence” as an “equivocal term” and suggests that the songs in the first section exhibit an “ambiguity of tone.”
Controversy has also raged over the organization of the work and the relationship between the two sections. Many critics have studied the obvious dialectical pairings of individual poems, such as the contrasting versions of “Nurse's Song” or “The Chimney-Sweeper” in each section. Others see affinities between poems that do not have similar titles, such as the cluster “Laughing Song,” “The Little Black Boy” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard.” Attempts to establish a direct correspondence across the board between the two sections have proven fruitless, however. Donald A. Dike maintains that “Blake was too fine an artist to pair off in detail all the poems in the sequences; to get what he was after, it was enough to do this with a few.” K. E. Smith suggests that attempts to match up the individual songs are complicated by the fact that Blake himself changed the order of the poems several times, moving some from Innocence to Experience. Smith suggests that Blake was “constantly highlighting different paths through the innocent world,” rather than pointing to one final, ideal arrangement of the poems.
Glen has examined those pieces—such as “London”—that deal with social problems and notes that the self-consciousness of Blake's poetic voice sets him apart from his contemporaries. The poem's speaker, in relating the deplorable conditions associated with urban life, “does not assume a position of righteous indignation: from the very beginning he recognizes his own implication in that which he sees.” The result is not a moral attitude that exposes and protests against social problems, but rather a “profound uneasiness” on the part of both the poem's speaker and the reader. Mee also notes Blake's complex approach to social problems in the songs, contrasting “The Chimney Sweeper” with Mary Alcock's poem “The Chimney-Sweeper's Complaint.” As Mee sees it, Alcock's “reader is not called upon to consider his or her role in the system of child labour,” whereas “Blake's reader is directly implicated in what is happening.” Scholars agree that, although Blake participated in the contemporary discourse on social problems, his approach was original and far less consoling for the reader than that of other writers.
Poetical Sketches (poetry and drama) 1783
The Book of Thel 1789
Songs of Innocence 1789
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry, prose, and proverbs) 1790-1793?
The French Revolution 1790
America: A Prophecy 1793
Visions of the Daughters of Albion: The Eye Sees More Than the Heart Knows 1793
The Book of Urizen 1794
Europe: A Prophecy 1794
Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul 1794
The Book of Ahania 1795
The Book of Los 1795
The Song of Los 1795
The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love & Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man 1796-1807?
Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion 1804-20?
The Pickering Manuscript (poetry and proverbs) 1807?
The Poetical Works of William Blake, Lyrical and Miscellaneous (poetry and drama) 1874
The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical. 3 vols. (poetry and prose) 1893
The Complete Writings of William Blake...
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SOURCE: Dike, Donald A. “The Difficult Innocence: Blake's Songs and Pastoral.” ELH 28, no. 4 (December 1961): 353-75.
[In the following essay, Dike contends that although Blake writes in the pastoral tradition in Songs of Innocence, he does not portray an idyllic paradise that ignores social realities.]
Blake's Songs of Experience disclose the second, and more recognizable, of two contrary states of the soul to be one or another kind of bondage. The introductory poems identify the soul with Earth: a voluntaristic principle most vividly apprehended in the energies of springtime and the frank delights of love. But love, alas, is cramped and perverted from having to be a dark secrecy; the figurative time of the entire sequence is a long winter night. The soul or Earth is not merely “lapsed” but “prison'd,” because it is at odds with, subservient to, knowledge, which it should control.
To indicate this state of affairs, Blake makes use in the two opening poems—as later, in the prophetic books—of the revolution in astronomy, no longer the “new science,” perhaps, yet as inimical to him as it had been to many Jacobeans. The “starry pole” has slipped its moorings; the earth, a dead planet (“her light fled”), is no longer central to the scheme of things. Since perception and its object may be considered interchangeable (according to Blake, we...
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SOURCE: Price, Martin. “The Vision of Innocence.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Morton D. Paley, pp. 36-48. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1964, Price examines the poems of Songs of Innocence independently of the contrasting elements contained in Songs of Experience.]
William Blake's Songs of Innocence were engraved by 1789. Not until five years later were they incorporated into The Songs of Innocence and Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Partly because the Songs of Innocence have found their way into the nursery, partly because the Songs of Experience include some of Blake's most brilliant poems, there has been a tendency to discount the Songs of Innocence or to save them by reading them as highly ironic poems, each with its own built-in contraries. This produces strained readings and obscures the full import of Innocence as one of the “two contrary states.” We must first take the Songs of Innocence in their own right, and by doing so we can make better sense of the Songs of Experience.
What the contrary states mean is shown in two poems Blake enclosed in letters to his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, the first on 2 October 1800, the...
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SOURCE: Gillham, D. G. “Blake's Criticism of ‘Love.’” In Blake's Contrary States: The Songs of Innocence and of Experience as Dramatic Poems, pp. 148-90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
[In the following excerpt, Gillham discusses Blake's treatment of sexual love in the Songs as a way of demonstrating the common features of all modes of love.]
It is generally agreed that Blake wrote the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience at different periods: in 1789 and 1793, although the evidence that they were written at just this interval is by no means conclusive.1 Yet even if this interval in composition is accepted, it should be recognized that the two sets, which lend significance to one another, form an artistic whole, and it is as a whole that they must have been conceived. Each series has its own title-page, but in bringing the two series together under the comprehensive title and a third title-page Blake indicated that the work composed of the contraries was now gathered together. The design of the inclusive title-page is significant, for it emphasizes, at once, the grounds for uniting and for separating the Songs. Beneath the heading, Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, is a depiction of Adam and Eve immediately after the Fall. They have covered their nakedness with tendrils...
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SOURCE: Glen, Heather. “Blake's Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” In Interpreting Blake, edited by Michael Phillips, pp. 32-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Glen discusses Blake's treatment of social problems, particularly those involving moral and ethical issues, in the Songs.]
Songs of Innocence and of Experience are mostly concerned with what would usually be described as moral questions. Many of them—especially of Songs of Innocence—seem, at least superficially, to belong to the recognizable eighteenth-century genre of moral songs for children; and Songs of Experience contain several poems which look like poems of social protest. But a close reading of the poems suggests that Blake's attitude towards late eighteenth-century habits of moral judgement and instruction is by no means a simple one. Although the Songs display an awareness of many of the issues raised in contemporary ethical discussion, they reach beyond such discussion by questioning the very premises on which it is based.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience were initially addressed to an expanding middle-class reading public—those liberal middle classes who could be expected to pay five shillings for what was apparently an attractive example of a child's book of poems, who would take a...
(The entire section is 15019 words.)
SOURCE: Pagliaro, Harold C. “Blake's ‘Self-annihilation’: Aspects of Its Function in the Songs, with a Glance at Its History.” English 30, no. 137 (summer 1981): 117-46.
[In the following essay, Pagliaro discusses Blake's handling of the Romantic discourse on death at a time when religious and social certainties about mortality were dissolving.]
Viewed historically, the English Romantics were heirs to a state of mind that gave death a prominent place in individual consciousness, where it was not likely to be controlled by orthodox faith. For generations before them, various analysts—sceptics, devout theologians, scientists, and others—contributed to a weakening of those earlier social and religious structures that had explained death by placing it in a heavenly scheme of things, or had reduced its power to harass the imagination by providing order in daily life. By and large, the Romantics accepted this legacy of history, and made the vulnerability to death an important part of their poetry. Blake carried the vulnerability a step farther, calling for an additional reduction of our psychological defences. He believed only exposure to continual risk—‘Self-annihilation’—and our evaluation of that risk—‘Self-examination’—would free the visionary or eternal being in each of us. What history had begun—the dissolution of security against death...
(The entire section is 12805 words.)
SOURCE: Glen, Heather. “Poetic ‘Simplicity’: Blake's Songs and Eighteenth-Century Children's Verse.” In Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, pp. 8-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Glen traces the similarities between Blake's Songs and the verse appearing in the growing number of books intended for children in the eighteenth century.]
Those who are offended with any thing in this book would be offended with the innocence of a child & for the same reason, because it reproaches him with the errors of acquired folly.
(Blake, annotations to Lavater, K [G. L. Keynes (ed.), The Complete Writings of William Blake (Oxford, 1966)] 87)
In one sense, neither Songs of Innocence and of Experience nor Lyrical Ballads are ‘experimental’ collections at all. In their earlier writings, both Blake and Wordsworth had experimented widely with contemporary literary forms—ranging in the one case from the Ossianic prose of some of the Poetical Sketches to the sharp satire of An Island in the Moon, in the other from the meditative-descriptive verse of An Evening Walk to the Gothic melodrama of parts of The Borderers. Yet in Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Lyrical...
(The entire section is 11554 words.)
SOURCE: Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “The Language of Speakers in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Romanticism Past and Present 10, no. 2 (summer 1986): 5-24.
[In the following essay, Linkin analyzes the speech patterns of the narrators of the individual poems in Songs.]
Like the eighteenth-century grammarians who view discourse as a template of the human mind, Blake correlates syntactic structures with patterns of thinking.1 In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, individual patterns of speech—or idiolects—reveal how characters organize their thoughts.2 The many conjunctions marking the innocent chimney sweeper's speech or the inverted logic of the experienced sweeper's statements constitute linguistic habits that demonstrate cognitive differences: grammar reflects the perceptual limitations of speakers locked in partial views of reality. Even as he establishes these linguistic patterns for the voices in the lyrics, Blake disrupts them to prevent our easy acceptance of his characters' stated beliefs: verbal discrepancies produce an ironic tension that encourages readers to look beyond the idiolectical points of view for larger truths. Critics who have previously commented on the function of point of view and context in the Songs (notably Frye, Gleckner, Bloom, Adams, Gillham and, more recently, Wilkie)3 rarely comment on idiolectic...
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SOURCE: Pagliaro, Harold. “Into the Dangerous World.” In Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs, pp. 35-51. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Pagliaro examines images of order and confinement in the Songs, particularly in regard to the power and control parents and other authority figures exercise over children.]
If life has no ordering principle, it cannot be sustained, but if the ordering principle is made to fix things too rigidly, life may be contracted to the very limits of individual self.1 To generalize the matter in the terms of the first two chapters, one might say that the formation of a Selfhood is the fulfillment of the ordering principle without which life cannot be sustained. The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence manages to control dangerous forces very efficiently, at least for the short term, whereas Lilly and Thel, each for different reasons and in different ways, do not do so. But in sustaining life, the Chimney Sweeper confines it, whereas in losing life, Lilly and Thel identify the possibility of engaging and knowing it fully.
The first two of the Songs of Experience represent this spiritual paradox. For taken together, “Introduction” and “Earth's Answer” imply both the need to order worldly life and the reduction of life implicit in a confined ordering. But it is not...
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SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. Introduction to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 1-28. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
[In the following introduction, Bloom discusses Blake's exploration of the ambivalent nature of innocence.]
Of the traditional “kinds” of poetry, Blake had attempted pastoral and satire at the very start, in the Poetical Sketches, though the satire there is subtle and tentative. In Tiriel, satire and tragedy are first brought together in a single work by Blake. Songs of Innocence is Blake's closest approach to pure pastoral, but an even subtler form of satire seems to be inherent in these famous visions of a childhood world, as their genesis out of An Island in the Moon might suggest.
Pastoral as a literary form is generally associated with the antithetical relationship of Nature and Art, which on a social level becomes an opposition between country and town. Art and the urban world come together as an image of experiential Fall from Nature's Golden Age, a sad manhood following a glorious childhood. This pastoral association, which held from Theocritus and Virgil until the seventeenth century, has no relevance to Songs of Innocence.
Blake's shepherds are not types of the natural life as such, but rather ironically accepted figures, whose joys testify to the benevolent...
(The entire section is 11385 words.)
SOURCE: Hilton, Nelson. “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” In A Companion to Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu, pp. 103-12. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Hilton offers an overview of criticism of Blake's Songs.]
‘Read patiently take not up this Book in an idle hour the consideration of these things is the whole duty of man & the affairs of life & death trifles sports of time these considerations business of Eternity.’ Blake's annotations to a volume he studied in 1798 (see Blake, ed. Erdman, p. 611, cited hereafter as E) can serve today to characterize the attention deserved and significance offered by the most familiar work of England's ‘last great religious poet’ (Ackroyd, Blake, p. 18) and ‘greatest revolutionary artist’ (Eagleton, in Larrissy's William Blake, p. ix).
What we know as his Songs of Innocence and of Experience begins in the publication, over the space of 35 years, of 50 copies of Songs of Innocence and 28 of Songs of Experience, from which were constituted the two dozen actual sets of the combined Songs, variously ordered and with a joint title page. The work in its full form consists of 54 designs and poems which only in the last few copies follow the sequence adopted by almost every modern edition. These Blake etched in relief on...
(The entire section is 5502 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, K. E. “Our Immortal Day: Songs of Innocence I.” In An Analysis of William Blake's Early Writings and Designs to 1790 Including Songs of Innocence, pp. 153-83. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Smith suggests various connections among the individual poems of Songs of Innocence.]
And there the lions ruddy eyes, Shall flow with tears of gold: And pitying the tender cries, And walking round the fold: Saying: wrath by his meekness, And by his health, sickness, Is driven away, From our immortal day.
—‘Night’ (E [The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Ed. David V. Erdman, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988] 14)
This stanza from ‘Night’ reminds us precisely how far Blake has moved from the world of Barbauld's Hymns. There we were concerned with a kind of naturalistic claim for the innocence and goodness of the world of childhood, a claim which, for all its pastoral and Biblical overtones, depended on a prior claim to an empirically-verifiable truth: that is, that children are not the flawed, easily-tempted creatures of Watts's early Dissenting vision but the bearers of a simple and pure spirituality. Blake's vision here, by contrast, comes over not as affirming the empirically-observed laws of nature (as the culture of sensibility selectively interpreted them) but as...
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SOURCE: Mee, Jon. “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience.” In A Companion to Literature from Milton to Blake, edited by David Womersley, pp. 402-07. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Mee discusses the relationship between Blake's work and the poetry of his contemporaries.]
William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience certainly ranks among the most distinctive and individual collections of poetry in a century obsessed with originality and genius. It was not even published in a conventional way. Songs began life as an exercise in self-publishing, and never reached an audience in Blake's lifetime beyond those few collectors who bought copies printed by the author himself. Without mentioning Blake, the successful bookseller James Lackington noted in his 1792 Memoirs (224) that several authors had tried to sell their own works in order to by-pass the book trade. Blake went further than most and attempted to exploit the expanding market for illustrated books—to which he had contributed both as a designer and copy engraver—by combining his genius as a writer and artist into the form of an illuminated book. For all their originality, however, the songs often work by mimicking familiar forms and arousing expectations which they go on to frustrate. Playing on generic conventions only in order to leave the reader in an...
(The entire section is 2734 words.)
Drake, Constance M. “An Approach to Blake.” College English 29, no. 7 (April 1968): 541-47.
Offers suggestions for dealing with the difficulty of studying Blake's text in a classroom setting.
Fairchild, Jr., B. H. “Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Blakean Vision of George Lucas.” Literature/Film Quarterly 7 (1979): 112-19.
Suggests that there are important connections between Blake's Songs and Lucas's film American Graffiti.
George, Diana Hume. “Experience: The Family Romance.” In William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 73-84. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Examination of the repressive nature of the relationship between children and parental figures in the Experience section of Blake's Songs.
Heffernan, James A. W. “Text and Design in Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” In Imagination on a Long Rein, edited by Joachim Möller, pp. 94-109. Marburg, Germany: Jonas Verlag, 1988.
Contends that few critics adequately take into account the pictorial context of Blake's Songs.
Jackson, Wallace. “The Grounding of the Songs.” In Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Robert F....
(The entire section is 441 words.)