Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake

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What happens in Songs of Innocence and of Experience?

Songs of Innocence and Experience presents two radically different views of the world. In Songs of Innocence, Blake expresses a naive, childlike view of salvation. In Song of Experience, he lets that innocence go and adopts a more mature voice, taking note of the extreme poverty in London.

  • Most of the poems in Songs of Innocence are addressed to children. They present a very simplistic view of the world, in which the world is beautiful and Jesus died for our sins.

  • Songs of Experience sings a different tune. The speaker of the poem has been hardened by his experiences and has seen too much poverty and suffering in London to think about salvation.

  • Blake doesn't reconcile the two different viewpoints. Instead, he lets each one stand on its own merit, giving slight preference to Songs of Experience, which ends the collection and refutes many of the claims and sentiments of the first half.

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is the foundation of the work of one of the greatest English poets and artists. The two sets of poems reveal what William Blake calls “the two contrary states of the human soul.” The presentation of these states is deceptively simple, literally childlike in the “Innocence” poems. In both series, he offers clues to deeper meanings and suggests ways out of the apparent trap of selfhood, so that each reading provides greater insight and understanding, not only to the poems but also to human life.

The first poem in the “Innocence” series, “Introduction,” establishes the pastoral background of most of the poems. The speaker in the poem (not Blake) has been playing tunes on a pipe in a pleasant valley when he or she is stopped by a vision of a child on a cloud, perhaps an angel, who functions as an encouraging muse. The child asks the pipe player to pipe a song about a lamb, then asks that the song be repeated and weeps. The child asks the speaker to sing a song, then asks that the songs be written “In a book, that all may read.” The child disappears, and the speaker makes a pen from a reed, makes ink by staining water, and writes “happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.”

The last lines establish the apparent audience of Songs of Innocence: children. The poems in this series have a simple vocabulary and meter and can be read, and at least partly understood, by small children. This collection is not aimed exclusively at children, however. The child on the cloud tells the speaker to write so that “all may read”; it is the speaker who assumes that “every child may joy to hear” and restricts his or her audience to children. Perhaps “child” does not mean children but everyone, in the sense that all are children of God. Thus, in the first poem, the apparently simple vocabulary leads to complex interpretations.

“Introduction” also describes and wryly comments on Blake’s technique. At first, the speaker is playing music, an evanescent expression that only the speaker and the child on the cloud hear. The child asks the speaker to sing songs that can be recorded in a book, specifically a book written and decorated with natural colors. The child, who acts as inspiration, vanishes when the hard work of composing and painting the volumes begins. Also, music strikes the senses directly, but the use of words restricts the audience to those who know and can understand a particular language. Songs of Innocence, which appears to be addressed to innocent children, actually requires some sophistication to be read, much less understood.

The next two poems, “The Shepherd” and “The Ecchoing Green,” continue the pastoral atmosphere established by the first poem, but there is an ominous element at the end of the second poem. An old man has been watching the children at play, and they note that he and the other older people remember that they used to play like that in their youth. In the last line, the area is no longer “ecchoing” but “darkening.”

(The entire section is 1,828 words.)