The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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Except for the first four lines, “Auguries of Innocence” (written in 1803 but unpublished until 1863) consists of a long series of couplets, each of which contains a proverb. Although William Blake may have intended to reorganize the couplets, the poem as he left it in manuscript has no clear order. For this reason, some editors of the poem have rearranged “Auguries of Innocence” by grouping the couplets according to theme.

“Auguries” means omens or divinations, and “Innocence,” according to the subtitle of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), is one of the two contrary states of the human soul. In Blake’s poetry, innocence is related to existence in Paradise (what Blake calls Beulah) and is associated with the joy and spontaneity of childhood. Thus the title of “Auguries of Innocence” suggests that the poem will present omens from an innocent perspective, in which “the Infants Faith,” not the cynic’s mockery, is valid.

“Auguries of Innocence” begins with four alternately rhymed lines questioning the absolute nature of space and time. According to these opening lines, one can “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” and Eternity can be contained “in an hour.” This quatrain asserts that something infinitesimal can expand into immensity, an idea that prepares the reader for the rest of the poem, in which small proverbs are used to comment on such immensities as heaven, hell, and “endless Night.”

At least some of these proverbs can be grouped roughly according to subject, but the poem as a whole is difficult to paraphrase. Most of the couplets in the first fifty lines of “Auguries of Innocence” mention animals, relating them to moral error, humans, heaven, hell, and the last judgment. As in the first four lines of the poem, there is a frequent movement from microcosm to macrocosm, from a caged robin to the rage of heaven, from a starving dog to “the ruin of the State.” Several proverbs claim that animal abusers will be punished—for example, a man who angers an ox will never be loved by a woman.

Moreover, “Auguries of Innocence” attacks some favorite targets of Blake: those who are corrupted by power or money, and doubters. The poet declares that the armed soldier strikes the sun with palsy, the laborer is worth more than the miser, and the “Infants faith” is far greater than the mocker’s doubt. “If the Sun and Moon should Doubt,” one proverb claims, “Theyd immediately Go out.” The last four lines of the poem contrast “those poor Souls who dwell in night” and perceive God as light to “those who Dwell in Realms of day” and know God in “Human Form.” Like many of the preceding couplets, these last lines serve to challenge the beliefs of the literal minded.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

The essential formlessness of “Auguries of Innocence” recalls Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (a section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790)—in both, Blake lists a series of provocative aphorisms that, collectively, represent a vision of reality. Thus “Auguries of Innocence” begins with the act of seeing “a World in a Grain of Sand” and ends with the assertion that God displays his human form to those who can correctly perceive Him. Even though the proverbs are haphazardly listed, they share a common vision. Moreover, each reading of the poem can be seen as a collaboration between Blake and the reader: Blake supplies the couplets, but it is up to the reader to see the connection between them, to learn to read them in a visionary way.

The model for a series of proverbs is the Bible, and in “Auguries of Innocence” Blake’s proverbs often predict the future in true biblical fashion. For example, the poem contains prophecies of moral turpitude leading to disaster, such as “The Harlots cry from Street to Street/ Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet.” It is the nature of proverbs to be cryptic and suggestive, and several of the couplets are, like the poem itself, riddles in need of explication. Other aphorisms, however, are visionary, and some simply call for kindness to all living things—in “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake strings contrasting proverbs together in a bewildering succession, perhaps suggesting the spontaneity and freedom from rules that characterize his vision of innocence. An advantage of these proverbs is that any one of them can be removed from the context of the rest of the poem and examined as a separate unit. Even readers who dislike the poem as a whole may find some proverb that interests them. Moreover, the use of the proverb gives the poem a biblical quality—these proverb-couplets seem appropriate as vehicles for the work’s moral and visionary judgments. Clearly, an aphorism such as “Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly/ For the Last Judgment draweth nigh” is strengthened by its biblical echo.

Many of Blake’s proverbs emphasize points by asserting startling cause-and-effect relationships. Thus the wounding of a skylark is said to stop cherubim from singing, and a gamecock prepared for combat frightens the rising sun. These hyperbolic declarations are clearly forceful—the message of many of the proverbs, that cruelty has consequences that reach far beyond the initial act, is powerfully made. Some readers will dismiss such wildly incongruous aphorisms as palpably absurd. How, some might ask, can the cry of a hunted hare tear a fiber from a brain? The poem has an aphorism for a reader who would make such an objection: “The Questioner who sits so sly/ Shall never know how to Reply.” One should also remember that these are auguries of innocence. From the perspective of experience, it may seem ludicrous to suggest that someone who would hurt a wren will never be loved, but from an innocent point of view, harming a small bird must necessarily meet with universal disgust. These aphorisms have more in common with an “Infants faith” than with the logic of experience.