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 light apparently returns again in “The Lamb,” which returns to the biblical idea of the good shepherd of “The Shepherd.” A child asks a lamb if the lamb knows who made it, then informs the lamb that “He is called by thy name/ For he calls himself a Lamb./ He is meek, & he is mild./ He became a little child.” The child is referring to Jesus, but does not explain why Jesus is called a lamb. Adults know that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb of God, who paid for the sins of humanity with death, like those of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.
The source of the description becomes clear in the next poem, in which “The Little Black Boy” cries that “White as an angel is the English child:/ But I am black, as if bereav’d of light.” Instead of telling the child that he should be proud of who he is, the boy’s mother tells him that this physical life is a trial and preparation for the next, spiritual, world. The little boy then imagines a life after death in which the white child will accept him.
A child’s acceptance of a cruel fate because society demands it is also present in “The Chimney Sweeper,” the first poem with an urban setting. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, small boys, with their heads shaven for streamlining, swept chimneys, their lungs filling with soot, doing a job that often led to an early death. In this poem, Tom Dacre, whose head “that curl’d like a lambs back” was shaved like an animal being prepared for slaughter, has a dream in which an angel frees the sweepers from their “coffins of black,” another suggestion that only death will bring freedom from life’s suffering. The speaker urges the other boys to continue with their work, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”
The idea that God will somehow take care of everyone is reinforced by “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found,” in which God miraculously appears to a fatherless boy, lost in a dark swamp, and returns him to his grieving mother. In “A Cradle Song,” “Nurse’s Song,” and “Infant Joy,” loving parents or servants watch over helpless babies and playing children. In “Holy Thursday,” a description of a religious ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral, even the orphans of London receive help from “wise guardians of the poor,” and the audience of the poem is urged to “cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
The speaker in “Holy Thursday” is clearly an adult, since he or she has a more sophisticated vocabulary than the speakers in the other poems. The adult viewpoint also appears in “The Divine Image,” in which the speaker describes God and the virtues of “Mercy Pity Peace and Love” as dwelling in living human beings, all of whom are entitled to respect and love, no matter what their religion.
Songs of Experience reveals that this acceptance of society as it is and belief in a caring God is naïve. This series does not begin with joy in a pastoral landscape, as does Songs of Innocence, but instead the “Introduction” is spoken with “the voice of the Bard . . . Who Present, Past, & Future, sees” and who describes a fallen world with a “lapsed Soul . . . weeping in the evening dew.” In the next poem, “Earth’s Answer,” the earth itself asks to be released from the chains of jealousy and fear. “The Clod and the Pebble” presents two views of love, the clod finding the experience selfless and giving, the pebble stating that love is selfish and restricting.
These poems remind the reader that there is more than one way to view the same experience, a point further underscored by several other poems in Songs of Experience that are answers or companions to poems in Songs of Innocence, some even bearing the same name. In the “experience” version of “Holy Thursday,” the speaker is appalled by the presence of poverty in such a rich country as England. If people lived in a right relationship with each other and nature, the speaker suggests, hunger and poverty would not exist. In the second “Nurse’s Song,” the nurse urges the children to come in from their wasteful play, in which she finds no happiness. The “experience” version of “The Chimney Sweeper” makes clear how both a world of misery and the attitude of hopefulness presented in Songs of Innocence can exist side by side. A person asks a forlorn chimney sweeper where his parents are, and the child replies that they have gone to church “to praise God & his Priest & King,/ Who make up a heaven of our misery.” The society’s failings are supported and excused away by the institutions of religion and government, which manage to persuade many that all will somehow be all right, perhaps after death, the same point that is made in “London.”
The child in “London” has parents, but is more bitter than the orphan of the “innocence” “Chimney Sweeper,” because he is intelligent enough to recognize what is being done to him. His response, coupled with that of the accepting adult in the “innocence” version of “Holy Thursday,” show that the sour viewpoint of the “experience” poems is not a result of obtaining wisdom by growing older. Some children are able to see the larger truth; some adults never perceive it. Intelligence and circumstance cause the difference, not age.
The companion poem to “The Divine Image” is “A Divine Image,” which points out that cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secrecy are also human properties, and if people are created from God’s image, those qualities must belong to God also. In “Infant Sorrow,” the baby is unhappy to be born into a dangerous and sorrowful world, unlike the child of “Infant Joy.” The companion poem to “The Lamb” is the famous “The Tyger,” in which the speaker notes that the same God created the defenseless lamb and the fierce tiger, although he or she seems incredulous: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” In the “experience” poems, Blake presents the shock and dismay that arise from the contemplation of the theological problem of evil: If God created everything, God is ultimately responsible for everything, and if God is good, why does evil exist?
There are many answers to this question, including those given in the “innocence” poems, such as the little black boy’s mother’s contention that this life is a test and those who behave as God or the society directs (as in the “innocence” “Chimney Sweeper”) will receive rewards after death, but these answers are emotionally and spiritually unsatisfying for the speakers in the “experience” poems. Nature itself is tainted in such poems as “The Sick Rose,” in which the rose is destroyed by a worm—innocence and beauty give way to sin and corruption. In “Ah! Sun-flower” the flower is rooted to its spot and cannot go where repressed youths and virgins go for fulfillment in the next world. In “The Garden of Love,” a chapel dedicated to negative commandments, sin, and death has been placed in the middle of what once was a refreshing garden. Now it is clear why the child on the cloud in the “innocence” introduction had wept to hear the song piped a second time.
If “innocence” is a naïve viewpoint, Blake shows in the rest of his work that “experience” is also, being fixated on sin and corruption when there is a fuller, genuinely spiritual world at hand. In “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” the speaker urges the reader to “see the opening morn,/ Image of truth new born.”