The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Except for the first four lines, “Auguries of Innocence” (written in 1803 but unpublished until 1863) consists of a long series of couplets, each of which contains a proverb.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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 524 words.)