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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake
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Please make comparisons between William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience with reference to the poems "The Lamb," "The Chimney Sweeper,"...

Please make comparisons between William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience with reference to the poems "The Lamb," "The Chimney Sweeper," "Nurse's Song," "A Dream," "The Tyger," and "London."

The Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience are two collections of poems by William Blake. In Blake's work, innocence is a state in which one's perceptions are not clouded by sin or corruption. In "Songs of Innocence," the poems describe situations and events from the author's childhood that he views as part of his own innocence. "Songs of Experience" describes adult perceptions that are tainted with sinful or corrupt thoughts.

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In The Songs of Innocence and Experience, the poems in each of the two halves tend to contrast and complement one another thematically. Blake will introduce a subject in one book then complicate it through the lens of maturity in the second.

As others have mentioned, "The Lamb" and...

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In The Songs of Innocence and Experience, the poems in each of the two halves tend to contrast and complement one another thematically. Blake will introduce a subject in one book then complicate it through the lens of maturity in the second.

As others have mentioned, "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" are typical examples. "The Lamb" presents creation as holy and good, the work of a loving, benevolent God. However, "The Tyger" introduces doubt and ambiguity: if a creature as violent and frightening as a tiger is just as much a part of nature as the gentle lamb, then what does this say about the nature of God? Can God be all-good and loving if violence and evil exist in the world?

The two poems entitled "The Chimney Sweeper" also display this trajectory. In The Songs of Innocence, the chimney sweeper is a young child who, though faced with horrible living conditions, dreams of freedom in heaven. He feels that as long as he does his earthly "duty," God will reward him in the next world. However, the follow-up poem of the same name is much more cynical, presenting an embittered chimney sweeper who, rather than taking solace in religion, cries out against the social injustice that his forced him into his miserable work:

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

Here, the reader is condemned as well, maybe even made to go back to the earlier poem and realize the irony of the speaker's optimism.

"The Nurse's Song" is another poem split into two parts, one in the first book and the other in the second. The two poems tell the same story from different perspectives: a nurse tries to get her charges to come inside before night falls, but the children convince her to let them play longer.

The Innocence version focuses on the children as they decline to heed their nurse's call to stop playing outside since night is near. The children are unaware of the danger of the night, and so the poem ends on an optimistic note as the nurse lets them play longer.

The Experience version is told from the perspective of the nurse. Instead of ending happily, the nurse's feelings are ominous. As an adult, she knows how dangerous outside can be when the sun sets. Thus the joyful scene of children at play is complicated by adult knowledge of the evils of the world.

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Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience is a collection which deliberately groups poems into two sets: one concerned with the innocence of childhood, a state of purity darkened by the evils of the industrial revolution; and one concerned with the experience of adulthood as lived under the grim conditions defined by the "dark, satanic mills."

The two poems most frequently compared are "The Lamb" and "The Tyger," for obvious reasons. Where the titular lamb represents Jesus, the tiger is a being of "fearful symmetry" which seems to have come from Satan. The lamb is defined by its lack of knowledge: the speaker asks it if it knows "who made thee," and then goes on to explain that the lamb is the work of Jesus. The tiger, by contrast, was made by an "immortal hand or eye" which the speaker does not name, the implication being that a creature so fearful may have equally been made by Satan as by God. Both of these are ostensibly nature poems, but symbols such as anvils and darkness connect them to the others in the collection.

Meanwhile, one can draw similar contrasts between "The Chimney Sweeper" and "London," which are more deeply concerned with city life during the Industrial Revolution. The children in The Chimney Sweeper do not understand why they are suffering as they are; the symbol of the lamb occurs here in the form of a child whose hair "curls" like the back of a lamb, and the children are blond and pale, symbolic of their innocence. They are blackened by their work, and can see no escape in it except through death, after which an Angel will save them. Meanwhile, for those living in the London of the "London" poem, the Chimney Sweepers and their situation "appalls." These adults are fully aware of the brutality of their situation, in which the sighs of the suffering run "in blood down Palace walls." Symbols of sin, such as "Harlots" and "plague," are a blight upon the city, and yet no means of escape can be seen, as, unlike the children in "The Chimney Sweeper," those with lived experience lack even hope.

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William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience contrasts the innocence of childhood with the corruption of adulthood. His message in this series of poems, which he also illustrated, is that people are born into innocence but are corrupted and sullied by the dirtiness of human experience. 

The poems "The Lamb," "The Chimney Sweeper," "The Nurse's Song," and "The Dream" are from Songs of Innocence. In "The Lamb," Blake writes about the innocence of the creature and asks the lamb if he knows who made him. He then compares the lamb to the innocence of Jesus: "For he calls himself a Lamb." The lamb, a baby sheep, is innocent and pure as Christ. In "The Chimney Sweeper," an innocent boy must go to work when his mother dies, and he becomes sullied and dirty in the process. The poem reads, "There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head/ That curled like a lamb's back." In other words, a little boy must have his head with its curly, lamb-like white hair shaved to go to work in the corrupting city. The chimney sweeper is literally and figuratively dirtied as he works. In "The Nurse's Song," a group of children play in a pastoral scene until they are called by their nurse, "And the hills are all cover’d with sheep." Again, the innocent sheep find a place in this poem as the ultimate symbol of innocence. Finally, in "A Dream," a child mourns over a lost ant, who uses a beetle to light his way home. The poem ends on a happy note because the ant can find his way home.

"The Tyger," from Songs of Experience, is the counterpart poem to "The Lamb." The narrator asks, "What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" In other words, the narrator wonders who created the tiger, just as he wondered who created the lamb. The lamb is the ultimate symbol of innocence, but the tiger is a ferocious, bestial creature, the opposite of the lamb. In "London," the narrator watches people going about their dirty jobs in the city and sees suffering everywhere. The narrator remarks "How the Chimney-sweepers cry/ Every black’ning Church appalls." In this poem, the chimney sweepers are no longer innocent and happy but dirty and distressed. For Blake, rural scenes are the places of innocence and childhood, while adults in the city are corrupted and dirtied from their time on earth. 

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