In Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake expresses two contrasting views of nature and of the God who created it.
One of the most well-known poems from Songs of Innocence is “The Lamb,” which paints a blissful picture of the natural world.
Little lamb, who made thee?
Does thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
The soft, woolly lamb is gentle, and its creator is portrayed as a creative, nurturing being. He gave the lamb life, made it soft and comforting with its wool coat and “tender voice,” and provides wholesome food and drink for the animal.
In Songs of Experience, however, the speaker comes from a very different perspective. In “The Tiger,” we see a frightening creature. The first sentence questions what kind of creator could conceive of such an animal.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The speaker then spends the next four stanzas musing on how God created the tiger.
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
This is not the gentle creator of the lamb who gives his creation a soft coat and voice. This God gives life through violence. He twists “the sinews of thy heart” and causes it to beat with a “dread hand.” The speaker expresses his doubt that the same God created both when he asks, “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”
A similar disparity exists between the two versions of “Holy Thursday.” The poem from Songs of Innocence paints a picture of the children on their way to church using soothing, happy images of nature.
The children walking two and two, in red, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.
O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
By contrast, the children in Songs of Experience are the miserable victims of poverty and want.
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
Blake’s introduction to Songs of Innocence describes them as “happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.” But people do not remain children forever, and the speaker in Songs of Experience is the voice of a person who has seen and lived in the real world with all its dangers and despair.