person standing with arms and legs outstretched surrounded by flowers, leaves, and little stars

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

Start Free Trial

How can the phrase "songs of innocence" be interpreted in multiple ways? Are adult limitations in understanding different from a child's limitations?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On one level, "Songs of Innocence" refers to an understanding about being in the world.  Blake sees children as embodying the condition of consciousness where there is a pure exploration of identity.  There is a complete immersion and sense of authenticity about the world and being in it.  In poems such as "Innocence" and "The Lamb," there is an exploration of identity that is predicated upon a sense of purity, a willingness to see the soul of the individual as capable of only goodness and sincerity.  When Blake suggests that "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul" are explored through innocence and experience, Blake recognizes that the title is reflective of more than one interpretation of being in the world.

On another level, the title can be seen as an expression of melancholic nostalgia.  Given the "experience" element that is revealed in poems like "The Sick Rose" and "The Tyger," Blake reveals that innocence is a time past.  When Blake associates innocence with childhood, he is able to do so because children possess a lack of awareness about their own innocent state.  In bringing out the "Experience" element in the poem, Blake illuminates an alternative interpretation to innocence.  Experience causes the individual to look back longingly at a condition that will never be visited again.  The viewing of innocence from the perspective of experience is a reverie for something that has passed, a mourning for a condition that is never to be experienced again. This interpretation brings out a nostalgic ache towards innocence, a time period of being that is gone forever when viewed through the frame of experience's reference.

It is through this that Blake is able to suggest that a child's limitations in understanding is different than an adult's.  In poems like "The Lamb," the limitations to a child's understanding is that knowledge lies beyond the grasp of the child:

Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice! 
For Blake, the limitations to a child's understanding is the lack of understanding and awareness of their condition in the world.  A child will never know "who made thee" and issues like life and its necessary conditions exist outside of the realm of a child's understanding.  For an adult, the limitations to understanding is the price of experience.  The condition of limitation in experience is the inability to transcend one's condition to a point where innocence can be embraced, as seen in "The Tyger:"
When the stars threw down their spears, 
And water'd heaven with their tears, 
Did He smile His work to see? 
Did He who made the lamb make thee? 
The limitation of experience is that it cannot recognize the condition of innocence in the world.  The proliferation of knowledge that has moved the individual to experience limits a movement back to innocence. Once consciousness is gained, it cannot be removed.  It cannot fathom that the same source that made "the lamb" also made "the tiger."  The limitation in innocence is a lack of understanding about the world.  The limitation in experience is too much of it.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial