Songs of Innocence and of Experience Essay - Critical Essays

William Blake

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake


Songs of Innocence and of Experience William Blake

The following entry presents criticism of Blake's poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794). See also, William Blake Criticism.

Written in the deceptively simple style associated with children's verse, Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of short lyric poems accompanied by Blake's original illustrations. The two sections, written over an interval of at least four years, juxtapose “the two contrary states of the human soul,” as the combined text's subtitle states. “The Tyger,” an individual verse from Songs of Experience, is one of the most widely recognized poems in the English language.

Biographical Information

Blake was born on November 28, 1757, in London, the second of five surviving children of James and Catherine Harmitage Blake. His father sold gloves, stockings, and haberdashery, maintaining the family in rather modest circumstances. Blake did not attend school as a young child but spent his time wandering freely throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, where he began experiencing the visions that would later inform his illustrations. His parents discouraged the child from relating his visions of angels in trees or God's face at the window, since, from their perspective, the boy was lying. They did, however, encourage Blake's artistic talent. At the age of ten he was enrolled in a drawing school operated by James Pars and four years later he began an apprenticeship with a master engraver. He briefly attended the Royal Academy after completing his apprenticeship, but soon began working full time as an engraver, producing illustrations for various books and periodicals. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who signed her name with an “X” on their marriage license. Under her husband's tutelage she learned to read and write, eventually assisting him in drafting. The couple had no children. In 1784 Blake went into the printing business with his younger brother Robert and a local engraver, but the business failed three years later, after Robert's death. Blake then turned to copperplate etching and perfected the technique that would allow him to produce both illustration and verse on a single page, as he did for the Songs. In 1790 Blake left the city he associated with disease, pollution, and a wide variety of social problems, in favor of Lambeth, a rural area across the Thames where he began composing the poems of the Experience section of his work. The Blakes lived there for more than ten years before returning to London. Throughout his lifetime Blake was plagued by financial problems and was often at the mercy of overbearing patrons. He was primarily known as an artist rather than as a poet, in part because his illuminated texts were self-published and reached a very limited readership. Widespread distribution of his work did not occur until after his death. Blake died on August 12, 1827, while working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.

Textual History

The production of the version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience used in most modern editions took place over a period of thirty-five years, with Blake acting as his own publisher. According to most scholars, the first section of Blake's text, Songs of Innocence, was written and published in 1789. Blake later combined these poems with a second section entitled Songs of Experience. Blake called the combined edition, dated 1794, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul and created a new illustration for the title page. Four of the songs originally assigned to the Innocence section—“The Schoolboy,” “The Little Girl Lost,” “The Little Girl Found,” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard”—were moved to the Experience section in the combined version. In addition, there is a great deal of variation in the order in which the poems appear in the surviving copies of both the Innocence section and the combined sections. The final poem of the Experience sequence, “To Tirzah,” summarizes the entire work; it was added much later, possibly as many as twelve years after the appearance of the combined version.

Major Themes

The poems of the two sections deal with the opposition between the innocent, joyous perspective of the child and the more experienced, less spontaneous, perspective of the adult. Blake creates a dichotomy between wishes and desires on the one hand and duties and responsibilities on the other, always privileging the imaginative over the rational. Although children appear as the subject of individual songs in both sections of the work, their happiness or misery is determined by their relationships with the adults who maintain control over their lives, as in the contrasting poems “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence and “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience. The group of poems associated with experience is replete with images of restriction and constraint, occasionally self-imposed, but more commonly imposed by parents or authority figures on the lives of the young. Although the poems of the two sections are obviously meant to serve as contrasting states of the human condition, the individual poems, even those associated with innocence, themselves contain discontinuities, as though in anticipation of the much harsher view of life outlined in the second sequence. Suspicion and mistrust of authority figures—parental, religious, or political—and the power they wield is an important theme throughout the work.

The contrasts Blake set forth in the Songs are echoes of English society's approach to the social and political issues of his era—a time characterized, on the one hand, by increasing desire for personal, political, and economic freedom, and on the other, by anxiety regarding the potential consequences of that freedom for social institutions. Several of the poems directly address contemporary social problems, for example, “The Chimney-Sweeper” deals with child labor and “Holy Thursday” describes the grim lives of charity children. The most fully-realized social protest poem in the Songs is “London,” a critique of urban poverty and misery.

Critical Reception

Critical controversy surrounds the categorization of Blake's poetry in the Romantic period. Harold S. Pagliaro suggests that Blake not only participated in the Romantic era's preoccupation with mortality, but actually went beyond most of his contemporaries in embracing vulnerability to death. According to Pagliaro, Blake considered the world “death-laden, filled with intimidating foes, deadly Tygers, hypocritical smiles, and constricting social and religious systems that reduce life.” The critic believes it was the aim of the Songs to meet the challenge presented by such a dismal world view. Some scholars, though, reject the notion that Blake was a Romantic poet at all, and instead situate his work within the tradition of an earlier literary period. Heather Glen contends that Blake's text is not, as is often claimed, an experimental work. “In presentation and subject-matter, Blake's Songs are closer to late eighteenth-century children's verse than to anything else in the period,” writes Glen. However, Blake's verses differ from the usual children's poetry, according to Glen, in their failure to provide a strong authorial voice conveying the message young readers should glean from the poems. Jon Mee, acknowledging the work's originality, also maintains that the songs are modeled on earlier literature, but insists that they “often work by mimicking familiar forms and arousing expectations which they go on to frustrate.” Martin Price contends that the association of the Innocence poems with verse for children has led some critics to dismiss them entirely or to treat them as ironic foreshadowings of the Experience poems, a position he rejects. He asserts that the poems of the first section are valuable in their own right and should first be examined in isolation from the second section. “Only when we grant Innocence its proper value does the full dialectical force of the two contrary states become clear,” claims Price. Many scholars, including Glen, nevertheless defend the contention that the poems of the Innocence sequence contain an element of irony that undercuts their pastoral quality. Harold Bloom, too, refers to Blake's use of “innocence” as an “equivocal term” and suggests that the songs in the first section exhibit an “ambiguity of tone.”

Controversy has also raged over the organization of the work and the relationship between the two sections. Many critics have studied the obvious dialectical pairings of individual poems, such as the contrasting versions of “Nurse's Song” or “The Chimney-Sweeper” in each section. Others see affinities between poems that do not have similar titles, such as the cluster “Laughing Song,” “The Little Black Boy” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard.” Attempts to establish a direct correspondence across the board between the two sections have proven fruitless, however. Donald A. Dike maintains that “Blake was too fine an artist to pair off in detail all the poems in the sequences; to get what he was after, it was enough to do this with a few.” K. E. Smith suggests that attempts to match up the individual songs are complicated by the fact that Blake himself changed the order of the poems several times, moving some from Innocence to Experience. Smith suggests that Blake was “constantly highlighting different paths through the innocent world,” rather than pointing to one final, ideal arrangement of the poems.

Glen has examined those pieces—such as “London”—that deal with social problems and notes that the self-consciousness of Blake's poetic voice sets him apart from his contemporaries. The poem's speaker, in relating the deplorable conditions associated with urban life, “does not assume a position of righteous indignation: from the very beginning he recognizes his own implication in that which he sees.” The result is not a moral attitude that exposes and protests against social problems, but rather a “profound uneasiness” on the part of both the poem's speaker and the reader. Mee also notes Blake's complex approach to social problems in the songs, contrasting “The Chimney Sweeper” with Mary Alcock's poem “The Chimney-Sweeper's Complaint.” As Mee sees it, Alcock's “reader is not called upon to consider his or her role in the system of child labour,” whereas “Blake's reader is directly implicated in what is happening.” Scholars agree that, although Blake participated in the contemporary discourse on social problems, his approach was original and far less consoling for the reader than that of other writers.

Principal Works

Poetical Sketches (poetry and drama) 1783

The Book of Thel 1789

Songs of Innocence 1789

Tiriel 1789?

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry, prose, and proverbs) 1790-1793?

The French Revolution 1790

America: A Prophecy 1793

Visions of the Daughters of Albion: The Eye Sees More Than the Heart Knows 1793

The Book of Urizen 1794

Europe: A Prophecy 1794

Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul 1794


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Donald A. Dike (essay date December 1961)

SOURCE: Dike, Donald A. “The Difficult Innocence: Blake's Songs and Pastoral.” ELH 28, no. 4 (December 1961): 353-75.

[In the following essay, Dike contends that although Blake writes in the pastoral tradition in Songs of Innocence, he does not portray an idyllic paradise that ignores social realities.]

Blake's Songs of Experience disclose the second, and more recognizable, of two contrary states of the soul to be one or another kind of bondage. The introductory poems identify the soul with Earth: a voluntaristic principle most vividly apprehended in the energies of springtime and the frank delights of love. But love, alas, is cramped and...

(The entire section is 9303 words.)

Martin Price (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Price, Martin. “The Vision of Innocence.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Morton D. Paley, pp. 36-48. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1964, Price examines the poems of Songs of Innocence independently of the contrasting elements contained in Songs of Experience.]

William Blake's Songs of Innocence were engraved by 1789. Not until five years later were they incorporated into The Songs of Innocence and Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Partly because...

(The entire section is 4866 words.)

D. G. Gillham (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Gillham, D. G. “Blake's Criticism of ‘Love.’” In Blake's Contrary States: The Songs of Innocence and of Experience as Dramatic Poems, pp. 148-90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Gillham discusses Blake's treatment of sexual love in the Songs as a way of demonstrating the common features of all modes of love.]

It is generally agreed that Blake wrote the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience at different periods: in 1789 and 1793, although the evidence that they were written at just this interval is by no means conclusive.1 Yet even if this interval in composition is...

(The entire section is 13710 words.)

Heather Glen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Glen, Heather. “Blake's Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” In Interpreting Blake, edited by Michael Phillips, pp. 32-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Glen discusses Blake's treatment of social problems, particularly those involving moral and ethical issues, in the Songs.]

Songs of Innocence and of Experience are mostly concerned with what would usually be described as moral questions. Many of them—especially of Songs of Innocence—seem, at least superficially, to belong to the recognizable eighteenth-century genre of moral songs for children; and Songs...

(The entire section is 15019 words.)

Harold C. Pagliaro (essay date summer 1981)

SOURCE: Pagliaro, Harold C. “Blake's ‘Self-annihilation’: Aspects of Its Function in the Songs, with a Glance at Its History.” English 30, no. 137 (summer 1981): 117-46.

[In the following essay, Pagliaro discusses Blake's handling of the Romantic discourse on death at a time when religious and social certainties about mortality were dissolving.]


Viewed historically, the English Romantics were heirs to a state of mind that gave death a prominent place in individual consciousness, where it was not likely to be controlled by orthodox faith. For generations before them, various analysts—sceptics, devout theologians, scientists,...

(The entire section is 12805 words.)

Heather Glen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Glen, Heather. “Poetic ‘Simplicity’: Blake's Songs and Eighteenth-Century Children's Verse.” In Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, pp. 8-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Glen traces the similarities between Blake's Songs and the verse appearing in the growing number of books intended for children in the eighteenth century.]

Those who are offended with any thing in this book would be offended with the innocence of a child & for the same reason, because it reproaches him with the errors of acquired folly.


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Harriet Kramer Linkin (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “The Language of Speakers in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.Romanticism Past and Present 10, no. 2 (summer 1986): 5-24.

[In the following essay, Linkin analyzes the speech patterns of the narrators of the individual poems in Songs.]

Like the eighteenth-century grammarians who view discourse as a template of the human mind, Blake correlates syntactic structures with patterns of thinking.1 In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, individual patterns of speech—or idiolects—reveal how characters organize their thoughts.2 The many conjunctions marking the innocent chimney sweeper's speech or...

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Harold Pagliaro (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Pagliaro, Harold. “Into the Dangerous World.” In Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs, pp. 35-51. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Pagliaro examines images of order and confinement in the Songs, particularly in regard to the power and control parents and other authority figures exercise over children.]

If life has no ordering principle, it cannot be sustained, but if the ordering principle is made to fix things too rigidly, life may be contracted to the very limits of individual self.1 To generalize the matter in the terms of the first two chapters, one might say that the...

(The entire section is 9695 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. Introduction to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 1-28. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

[In the following introduction, Bloom discusses Blake's exploration of the ambivalent nature of innocence.]

Of the traditional “kinds” of poetry, Blake had attempted pastoral and satire at the very start, in the Poetical Sketches, though the satire there is subtle and tentative. In Tiriel, satire and tragedy are first brought together in a single work by Blake. Songs of Innocence is Blake's closest approach to pure pastoral, but an even subtler form of satire seems to be inherent in these...

(The entire section is 11385 words.)

Nelson Hilton (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Hilton, Nelson. “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” In A Companion to Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu, pp. 103-12. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Hilton offers an overview of criticism of Blake's Songs.]

‘Read patiently take not up this Book in an idle hour the consideration of these things is the whole duty of man & the affairs of life & death trifles sports of time these considerations business of Eternity.’ Blake's annotations to a volume he studied in 1798 (see Blake, ed. Erdman, p. 611, cited hereafter as E) can serve today to characterize the attention deserved and...

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K. E. Smith (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Smith, K. E. “Our Immortal Day: Songs of Innocence I.” In An Analysis of William Blake's Early Writings and Designs to 1790 Including Songs of Innocence, pp. 153-83. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Smith suggests various connections among the individual poems of Songs of Innocence.]

And there the lions ruddy eyes,
Shall flow with tears of gold:
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold:
Saying: wrath by his meekness,
And by his health, sickness,
Is driven away,
From our immortal day.

—‘Night’ (E [The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Ed. David V. Erdman,...

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Jon Mee (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Mee, Jon. “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience.” In A Companion to Literature from Milton to Blake, edited by David Womersley, pp. 402-07. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Mee discusses the relationship between Blake's work and the poetry of his contemporaries.]

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience certainly ranks among the most distinctive and individual collections of poetry in a century obsessed with originality and genius. It was not even published in a conventional way. Songs began life as an exercise in self-publishing, and never reached an audience in Blake's lifetime...

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Further Reading


Drake, Constance M. “An Approach to Blake.” College English 29, no. 7 (April 1968): 541-47.

Offers suggestions for dealing with the difficulty of studying Blake's text in a classroom setting.

Fairchild, Jr., B. H. “Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Blakean Vision of George Lucas.” Literature/Film Quarterly 7 (1979): 112-19.

Suggests that there are important connections between Blake's Songs and Lucas's film American Graffiti.

George, Diana Hume. “Experience: The Family Romance.” In William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by...

(The entire section is 441 words.)