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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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Donald A. Dike (essay date December 1961)

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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 perverted from having to be a dark secrecy; the figurative time of the entire sequence is a long winter night. The soul or Earth is not merely “lapsed” but “prison'd,” because it is at odds with, subservient to, knowledge, which it should control.

To indicate this state of affairs, Blake makes use in the two opening poems—as later, in the prophetic books—of the revolution in astronomy, no longer the “new science,” perhaps, yet as inimical to him as it had been to many Jacobeans. The “starry pole” has slipped its moorings; the earth, a dead planet (“her light fled”), is no longer central to the scheme of things. Since perception and its object may be considered interchangeable (according to Blake, we become what we behold, and conversely, what we are determines what we see), this is a way of saying that man has been victimized by one of his faculties, been dispossessed of his heritage by, roughly, reason or intellect. So much for “lapsed.” He has been “prison'd,” further because the same analytic faculty that robs Earth of its position and power limits its energies by legislating imperatives as alien to human desire as the Copernican heavens. Scientific knowledge and moral knowledge are alike in their motives and effects, and the star figure can accommodate both of them. In their false prestige, however, Blake finds proof of their own debasement; not Earth merely but, by the same token, light itself has fallen and is in need of renewal. Given too much authority, which is to say an independent authority, light achieves its dubious and corrupt successes in darkness, incapable of bringing in the day, sustained by and sustaining the long night of man's temporal history in the twin forms of an inhuman scientism and a knowledge of good and evil.

With the latter of these, of course, or rather with its demonstration, the poems are mainly concerned. The fall is calamitous not because it lets into the garden inducements to obvious evil but because it insists on the necessity of being good. Its most virulent product is the obsession with righteousness. For acting out the secret causes and crippling effects of this obsession, characters are needed less impersonally cosmic than those who introduce the sequence. Earth, consequently, disappears into her bound children and blighted flowers, while in the second poem, “starry” (“starry pole,” “starry floor”) is affixed, by way of transition, to a feeling, jealousy, and this combination, still pretty abstract, turns into “the selfish father of men,” who will grip and swaddle his newborn son (“Infant Sorrow”) and with “a loving look” condemn his daughter of sexual transgression (“A Little Girl Lost”). There are exceptions, most notably “The Tyger,” which gets behind good and evil in the way of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (“The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”), but for the most part the poems are dominated by this authoritarian figure of many masks, whose availability...

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for Freudian interpretation every modern reader has recognized. Even when he is not palpably on the job, binding down joy and calling the children in from play, he makes his voice heard: in the attempts, for example, of the clod and the pebble to generalize their several limitations into “one law for the lion and ox”; in the self-denial of the narrator of “My Pretty Rose-Tree” (a poem about marriage), whose technical fidelity earns him no very warm welcome at home. For the father, old Nobodaddy, is himself in the clutch of motives to be rationalized—jealously, envy, fear, etc.—and so, besides exemplifying the exterior powers, physical, moral, institutional, he can stand for their roots, which are (like the tree of knowledge that the gods of “The Human Abstract” cannot find throughout nature) within the human brain. The chains of, say, the chimney sweeper are externally imposed, and there isn't much he can do except suffer them or have compensatory dreams. But the poems work at connecting a deplorable political situation like his with the kind of self-repression that is portrayed in “The Angel,” where the “manacles” are clearly “mind-forg'd,” though no doubt socially conditioned. They work—not by logic but out of Blake's multiple vision—at erasing any hard and fast line between the outer and inner scenes of deprivation, between cause or motive and its public consequences. Godwin and the neat formulae of the philosophic radicals are being scrapped; the oppressor gets increasingly difficult to localize for expedient political treatment. Bondage, virtually universal, is no education for liberty, and an exchange of power does not diminish its offensiveness. This idea is dramatized quite early, before most of the prophetic books, which use it heavily, in a myth of recurrence. The 1793 version of “Infant Sorrow” and its companion piece, “In a Myrtle Shade,” have the son—educated by paternal rule to practice guile, then safely confined in marriage, its sacramental oaths recognized as curses—turning at last on the priestly father, slaying him, but only to take his place.

These remarks are meant chiefly to introduce some notions of Songs of Innocence and coincidentally of some of the intentions and difficulties of pastoral. I am backtracking as far as dates of composition are concerned but not, I think, otherwise; it is clear enough that the fall which intervenes between the two complementary groups of songs—that hypothetical moment when desire and obligation, want and must (or more likely, must not), are felt to be in opposition—is not supposed to occur in measurable time. The states of the soul co-exist; what chronology there is within the poems comes from Blake's appreciation of childhood and his horror at the adult world about him, emotions that enter powerfully into his myths of corruption. So, unaware of any restraint, the two-day old infant in “Infant Joy” is an archetype of anonymous and spontaneous delight. But his counterpart in “Infant Sorrow,” sulking on his mother's breast, is no older; like the rest of the material the sequences have in common, he has been differently imagined. If there are two states of the soul, then, they can be said to correspond to two ways of perceiving the soul. The symbolic times of the sequences, day and night, themselves afford contrasting optical facilities. A few years later in “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake emphasized the contrast and the involvement of optics, loosely construed, in any identification of reality. “God Appears & God is Light / To those poor Souls who dwell in Night, / But does a Human Form Display / To those who Dwell in Realms of day.” The distinction here, and in a good deal of pastoral, is not quite the usual one between appearance and reality. While the order of the statements, the commiserating “poor Souls,” and the connotations of night and day (to say nothing of the rest of the poem) all declare a preference for the second manifestation of God, the first gets from the equation of “Appears” and “is” (as compared with “Display”) at least as much, probably more, substantival force. The modifications of both statements (“To those” etc.) connect truth with mode of vision and mode of vision with moral condition, so that not one but two norms of reality must be allowed. Of these, the more cherished is also the more special. Its appropriate moral condition is located off the well-travelled track, in some status that is considered to be irregular, if not exceptional, and that can easily become a cult. Thus the minority who are able to dwell in one or another pastoral variant of the realms of day may owe their ability to age (the child; sometimes the very old), social and economic position (the clown; the poor: poor enough to manage resignation at being out of the money race), vocation (the shepherd; the artist), locale (country as opposed to city; island versus mainland), and so forth, including combinations of these. The other norm shifts, too, with the times. Whether its headquarters be court or city, a fashionable notion of maturity, a commercial middle class, or an eighteenth century rationalism with physics for exemplar (so that “Newton's Particles of light” are, in “Auguries” above, God to the night-dwellers), it has the authority of conventional expectation and social consent. Juxtaposition of the two norms opens the way to fantasy, in which the more special mode of insight, under pressure from its alternative (whether overtly introduced or represented by the reader-audience), is likely to express itself. The pressure is sometimes resisted, out of the feeling, at bottom political, that fantasy is too trivial a means for large purposes. Wordsworth hoped to avoid it by inverting the orders of reality: by trying to show the irregular experience to be normal and the conventional to be artificial. Fortified by an optimism that Blake criticized in talk with Crabb Robinson, he wanted to substitute poetry for a failed political revolution. The Michaels and leech-gatherers, with their tenuous air of being life-like, are, among other things a rebuke to snobbish cult-stereotypes, the cardboard shepherds of some eighteenth-century poetic play, which Wordsworth mistook for an entire tradition. But when pastoral is not a parlor game, it takes its fantasy very seriously, without apology; it has great respect for the truth of wishes. The privileged vision is perhaps impossible to maintain; dreams come to an end. But awakening does not show them up as nonsense. The uncouth swain goes about his business without reconsigning Lycidas exclusively to the Irish Sea. Alice, wondering with her kitten whether the other side of the looking glass was her dream or the Red King's, is helped out of her difficulty by a verse epilogue which suggests, rather glibly, that the whole of life is a dream. The Tempest says something like this but manages the ambiguity of double viewpoint more tactfully. As the world of historical time to which all strayed revellers must eventually return, Milan is importantly different from the enchanted island of art; yet to the contemplative mind—a mind impractical and politically inexpedient—history is itself a fading pageant, its truth symbolic and no more substantial than that of the masques and myths, the plays and the plays within plays.

The Innocence and Experience sequences are looking simultaneously in the same direction, so that taken together, as superimposed visions, they have the effect of a kind of transparent overlay. 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. The matched versions of “Nurse's Song,” for example, present two contrasting figures who are also one. Multiple vision insists upon the (as yet untranscended) whole paradoxical truth of feeling and motive and their ambivalent consequences: a truth closely relevant to the famous ambiguity of that other famous nurse, James' governess in The Turn of the Screw. These poems disclose not merely the alternatives of the human situation but contraries with reciprocal implication and mutual dependency. Coming second, Songs of Experience has obviously to be read by the light of and in reference to Songs of Innocence. What is perhaps less clear, or rather, less to be expected, is that the Songs of Innocence do not themselves describe an absolute state of being or fashion an autonomous truth, the sequestered illumination of some immaculate Eden. They take resistances continuously into account; they are consciously against something and trying to see their way through something, and what they are against, what they are trying to see through, is just the gross moral and perceptual reality (to be anatomized in the second sequence) that the reader brings with him to the poems and that Blake, too, has to admit. This is one reason why innocence can be shown first; its contrary, in the shape of assumptions however lumpish, is ready-made (whereas starting with poems of experience would exclude the counterpoint). If the drama of contrary states of the soul cannot long be thought about without bringing in some fictitious time-plan, then for reader and author alike, the beginning (later to be returned to, with fresh comprehension and new horror) is experience. Elsewhere and repeatedly Blake makes this plain. The doors of perception need to be cleansed; the ability to see through is not natural. Nature, hypostatized like the starry pole into an opaque power, too rigorously confirms the limitations of sensory knowledge to be a safe standard of innocence. While the myths sometimes suppose a pre-historical, preternatural existence when everything could be seen as infinite, Blake's real concern is less with recovery than with a hard kind of transformation: getting man to be different but also more himself; getting him to see his world differently yet in a way it always partly is.

Songs of Innocence attempt, against resistance, just such a transformation by vision. The resistance can be appreciated; angels at the elbow or no, it is not easy to see and present man in the aspect of his freedom, in the state contrary to bondage. In the introductory poem, even, and others, there is a faint elegiac strain, a clue not to nostalgia but to a sense that the truth of freedom cannot, for all its permanence, be long imagined. Night is always coming on; six of the poems risk its immediate presence, the problem being to divest it of threats or to surmount the threats; somehow keep the dream from turning into imminent nightmare. Rescue missions are successful. Maternal voices are heard to assuage and console; still their solicitude is uncomfortably premonitory. The celebrations of innocence are disturbed by an effect of precarious vulnerability which anticipates and leads toward the disasters of Songs of Experience. But just to this sort of qualification the poems owe much of their force and much of their interest. They are more than charming because Blake did not scant the difficulties of his material nor censor his failure altogether to see through them. The subjects of several of the poems seem almost to have been chosen for their recalcitrance, and the whole courageous sequence has an ambition for alchemy, the gist of which is the general intention of “The Little Black Boy”: to turn black into white.

Among the Songs there are only a few pure idylls: poems, that is, which describe bucolic scenes of desire freely gratified without intruding the feeling of a danger to be avoided. While children, anonymous or with token stock names, are important in these poems, the joy gets its reality from being impersonally collective. The idea is to see it as all-embracing, to get everybody and everything into the act and more than that: into a reciprocal relation with other persons and things. Nature is much more than a congenial backdrop; it enters into the spirit of the occasion with an enthusiasm indistinguishable from that of the humans. “Laughing Song” has the whole woodland convulsed with the children's mirth. In “The Ecchoing Green,” whose title makes the point, the sun gladdens the skies by rising; bells greet the spring and encourage the birds to sing louder. The interplay goes on among the people, connecting them. The children's “sports shall be seen” by old John and the other elders,1 who are needed to “laugh at our play” and who are in turn refreshed by it (“laugh away care”): reminded of their own childhood with a happy lack of envy that surprises the expectations of experience. “Infant Joy” arranges another such collaboration, between the infant and the admiring adult who together complete the feeling and one another. As Thel, written in the same year, admonishes, nothing exists merely for itself. Sympathy unifies the creation, and the song of innocence at its gayest is rendered by an immense chorus.

The choral demonstration, however, has got to be spontaneous, the free realization of all wishes, and this is asking a good deal of human possibilities. Blake's vision of freedom is difficult because it not only is consistent with but requires an idea of society; it has nothing to do with alienation, very little to do with the usual opinion of individuality and with its romantic cult. The chorus is a structure of interdependent roles freely played. Most frequently it is seen as a family, but the movement, through analogy, from domestic intimacy to the relations between man and God and, in passing, to political relations is very rapid, often a matter of immediate implication. All three are in “The Shepherd,” whose most familiar of all pastoral situations is saved from banality by Blake's finding in it the exemplary shape of his idea. Shepherd and sheep compose a family community in which the shepherd is father (conveniently, no rams are mentioned), God, and an ideal equivalent to authority in the state. The first stanza is about his happiness. “Strays” (“From the morn to the evening he strays”) strikes the right note of caprice to clear his vocation of assigned obligation, to wed desire with the responsibility described in the next line: “He shall follow the sheep all the day.” His “sweet lot” (fate? destiny?—the language keeps raising the problems to be solved) is doubly sweet because chosen. The second stanza begins by joining his “praise” (like the admiration of the adult in “Infant Joy”) to its occasion, the loving intercourse of ewe and lamb, mother and child, and ends by summing up the interdependency. “He is watchful while they are in peace, / For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.” He watches over their peace, to preserve it, and they are at peace because he watches.

The noticeable thing about this figure is the degree in which his role is limited. With complete acquiescence, it is true, he nonetheless follows the sheep, an arrangement that is accurate enough and conventional in poetry but one which rules out the other traditional idea of the pastor as leader of his flock. Having only to watch over the flock, wherever it wants to go, doesn't carry with it substantial authority, so that the shepherd in all his modes—father, magistrate, priest, and God—appears here exclusively as a guardian. The nurse in “Nurse's Song,” despite her gentle suggestion that it is time for the children to stop playing and come home, restricts herself to the same role. She is with respect to the children like James' governess during the springtime days at Bly: “… in a world of their invention—they had no occasion to draw upon mine.” Just as the governess eventually insists upon and realizes her world, so the nurse asserts, in the second group of songs, a point of view which translates everything—the landscape, the young voices, the play—into the data of experience. Time once arrested or dissolved at will becomes time grinding away; in each case it is treated as a function of state of mind or feeling. The first nurse gratifies amazingly a root childhood wish for concession to its pleasures. So indulged, the pleasures can postpone the twilight, relax natural, as well as household, law.

The shepherd and the nurse are only two of the guardians who occur importantly in most of the poems, watching like the narrator himself over their charges. Their presence attests that while the lambs and children need freedom, they need it with the crucial qualification that it be safe. Unrestrained desire is cherished, but the unrestrained desire even of innocents is seen—with a begrudged, perhaps (for it certainly complicates matters), but fine practicality—to have its dangers: to be not entirely reliable or self-sufficient, to need help. Blake lacks the absolute confidence succinct in that prototype of all idylls, the rhyme of Little Bo-Peep: he does not trust the sheep to find their way home alone. Nor do they quite trust themselves (“For they know when their Shepherd is nigh”). A fear precisely of getting lost, of being too free, inheres in the state of innocence, a threat to its serenity and survival. Merely intimated in poems like “The Shepherd,” the fear is openly acknowledged in three of the songs, where by contrasting means it is resolved without being minimized or dismissed. Thus “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” admit with remarkable dramatic economy the inevitable division between father and son. The sense, rendered with the effect of terror of a recurring childhood nightmare, that the guardianship of the earthly father is at best transient has to be transcended by the vision of a permanent surrogate, God, whose sole function is protective: to return the lost child to his mother. In the darkness, moreover, a “wand'ring light” (see the ending to “Auguries of Innocence”) is some help yet will not finally suffice for guide. God needs a human shape: to be “like his father in white.” This comparison, especially the whiteness of the garb (as opposed to the black robes in Songs of Experience), seems to exculpate the vanished earthly father; the opening lines of the first poem (“Father! father! where are you going? / O do not walk so fast”) suggest his death, one possible meaning of the dark night to be seen through, but itself perhaps a vehicle of still other meanings.

The other poem, “A Dream,” does not inquire into causes, taking the fear and its objectification for granted. It is frank about its method. The dreamer makes it clear that he merely fancies himself to be lying on the grass at night, his eye and ear adjusted to the diminutive life about him. Actually, he is safely in bed, but this opposed reality is itself modified out of conventionality: the bed is safe because angelically guarded. What happens gives the impression of being a kind of test. A near-disaster is imagined, a mother emmet separated from her children, in order that through dream vision it may be averted. Putting the dreamer's concern into the terms not even of an animal but of an insect world makes for pastoral simplication of the anxious occasion, but more important, it extends incredibly—as do the fly, caterpillar, and worm elsewhere in Blake—the usual limits of sympathy. Such terms rule out the resolution of the little boy poems; this miniature night cannot contain a humanized God. Instead, rescue is brought off by cooperation, a choral effort similar to the praise in the idylls. For their reconciliation, the creatures lost, the mother emmet and her nearly orphaned children, require the human dreamer, whose dropped tear establishes the motivating feeling of compassion, the glowworm watchman of the night, and the beetle whose hum leads to home. These discovered guardians, by virtue of their number (there are four, counting the dreamer's angel; more if mother and father emmet are included) and their modest division of labor, exhibit the world as intrinsically friendly and harmonious. Everyone is incomplete and needs help; everyone has more value than he needs for himself (a kind of surplus value that goes into the community fund). Fears are allayed here not by supernatural visitation but by an imagination of benign and efficient (but unregimented) collective life.

It is not difficult to find in these poems, and of course elsewhere in Blake, an anticipation of the conflict of attitudes that occupied the following century and a half. An increasingly programmatic concern for moral, political, and economic freedom, most particularly for the authority of the individual to exercise his own wishes and so prove his identity, carries with it an opposed apprehension of estrangement and its perils: estrangement from family, from society, perhaps from tradition or from some or another framework of sanctions. Blake has been claimed sufficiently often and with considerable justice for the revolutionary nineteenth century party of the will, hailed as a charter member, a pioneer in its various iconoclasms. On the other hand, his word “lost” turns up with a good deal of its original meaning in so conservative a writer as Conrad. When the latter has Marlow, in “Heart of Darkness,” persuade Kurtz out of the jungle with the threat, “You will be lost … utterly lost,” he is warning his quasi-Promethean culture hero of the self-destruction inherent in alienation and autonomy.

The idea of the lost child undergoes some modification in Songs of Experience. Two of the longer poems, “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found,” are unique among the narratives of that sequence in having, in a curious way, a happy ending. For seven year-old Lyca, being lost is not so bad. Separated from her parents, alone in a desert, she retreats, through sleep, to a dream-fantasy world of wonderfully ornamental, primitivistically rendered lions and tigers (childhood terrors inverted into better guardians that have been known before), which sport around the girl, shed tears for her, and pityingly bear her—divested of the binding clothes of experience—to the womb-safety of their caves. She is found not by being returned home to her parents2 but by their abandoning their world and, after initiatory ordeal, entering hers; they follow her “vision” to their daughter and live happily ever after in the sanctuary of isolation. Comparison of these poems with “Night” in Songs of Innocence makes it evident that the sanctuary can be understood as an after-life, the “new worlds to inherit” of the earlier piece; the girl and her parents are reconciled in an immortality which fulfills all fundamental (that is, infant) wishes. The irony of their earned security (No longer do they “fear the wolvish howl / Nor the lion's growl”) comes close to being desperate, since the inference to be drawn is that the only way to cope successfully with the experienced world is to get out of it.

Two other poems, occurring near the end of the Experience sequence, “A Little Boy Lost” and “A Little Girl Lost,” afford no such way out, even through death. In each, a child's innocent assumption of freedom incurs his punishment by outraged authority, the self-righteous priestly father. The little boy is sacrificed in the name of “holy Mystery” for being reasonable (somewhat in the style of Godwin); the maiden is charged with sin for loving. These children are afflicted not by the absence of parents but by their insistent omnipresence, so that to be lost in their way—the main way of the Experience poems—is to be both possessed and denied, the self violated and its desires suppressed by the outer world's proscriptive authority. But there is almost certainly another meaning to the titles which taken with the first gives the situation in its entirety. In the official view of priest and father, a view that can be entertained only with a grim kind of irony (“And all admir'd the Priestly care”), the children are judged to be already lost in the sense of depraved, or they are sheep that, too free, have gone dangerously far astray and need to be brought home by whatever disciplinary means are necessary. This view picks up the earlier meaning of “lost” and pushes it to its moral or puritanic limit. Confronted by such extremes, and the latter so fanatically severe, the reader easily joins Blake on the side of the children, concurring in his indignation. But the issue is a real one, and Blake identified it with precision. The two meanings of “lost” cannot be kept neatly separated; more often than not they converge to make discrimination and appraisal a stubborn difficulty.

Just this difficulty the Songs of Innocence anxiously foresee and try to circumvent. Once invited into the pastoral landscape, the guardian, however well-disposed (for his motives are usually good), is a possible cause of repression. There is a risky double-edge to the idea of guarding, and even when this function is discreetly performed, it is likely to meet some resistance. The protectiveness of Milton's Adam is resented by Eve, though very properly he restricts himself to verbal warning, an appeal to reason (for which enlightened forbearance she subsequently blames him). Miranda, too, is restive under the more palpable restraints of Prospero, who justifies his deceptive strategy (wearing the harsh mask of the father of realistic—or tragic—expectation) by giving the children their freedom once their love is proved safe. Such tension develops into conflict as responsibility becomes programmatic: the more, that is, the guardian has ideas for his sheep along with the power to enforce them as rules, the more he becomes an impervative. The condition of innocence is consequently endangered by opposed, interdependent fears: of being lost through too much freedom; of being lost through subjugation by authority, which may be internal (the “mind-forg'd manacles”) as well as external, political. These fears and the always imminent conflict between desire and obligation are inherent in, virtually indigenous to, the pastoral situation. They are obviously central to Paradise Lost and Comus; they occur in Lycidas in the antagonism to be mediated between the free pagan way of poetry and the demanding Christian way of religious duty. When their difficulty is felt to be implacable, when the division in man cannot be seen through, as Lycidas sees through it, then the bucolic landscape is likely to darken and its sprites change to goblins. Robert Frost may shrug off his surrender of avocation to the needs of mud-time tramps, his responsibility to society amusingly invoked by its driftwood, but in The Turn of the Screw, the impossibility of reconciling the conflicting interests turns day-dream into nightmare and the education of children into a ghost story. Miles and Flora want, with mounting desperation, their measure of freedom, which is in part the freedom to grow up. The governess is fearful lest they be, like Peter Quint, “too free”: corrupted, even damned, which is to say possessed by demons (Blake's priest in “A Little Boy Lost” calls his small victim a “fiend”). Her idea is that if the sheep can be kept at home, forever “enclosed and protected” in the fold, then they will never get lost; she can imagine for their later life only “a romantic, a really royal extension of the garden and the park,” an extension, that is, of sheltered infancy. The conflict is between extremes; it is the recurring one and it has no solution. Because her role gives her power, the governess wins a kind of victory but as with Blake's priest only at the cost of a sacrifice. Yet she is doing her duty; her job as guardian is precisely to see the evil endangering her wards which others, like Mrs. Grose, who also cannot read, are incapable of seeing. James is not in this story taking sides nor inviting a choice, and the long running battle between critics who hold for the governess and critics who hold for the children must, consequently and inevitably, end in a stalemate. The battle seems based on two contrasting misconceptions of point of view. One is that because the governess tells the story, hers is the only possible or valid view of the situation (the preliminaries to her narrative are one warning against this notion). The other is that because what the governess sees is conditioned—by repressed sexual feelings, by a desire for justification, etc.—it can therefore be dismissed as hallucination. But this is to miss just that connection between object of perception and means of perception, between vision and moral condition, of which James was as aware as Blake: the connection which makes possible the pastoral juxtaposition of two points of view and two norms of reality. The governess is sunk just far enough in experience, soiled by it if one likes but not too soiled, to give its partial truth with authority and with credit to itself. There remains the truth of the children, which James prudently leaves to be inferred. Watching the adults and the children, their truths and their motives, hopelessly engage should be quite enough for the reader, however inclined he is to assert his preference. The story gets the enduring conflict dramatized and asks for the understanding of an agile, bi-partisan sympathy.

What the Songs of Innocence are endeavoring to forestall is what comes to pass in Songs of Experience: the virtually inevitable development of the necessary guardian, moral or political, into the “selfish father of men,” or the rough awakening to his “really” being this all along. One precautionary measure is to divide the responsibility, as in “A Dream,” where everybody contributes to the rescue but no one controls it. Even when collective effort is not so obviously cooperative as Blake imagines it here, the distribution of authority, a structure of checks and balances, can help to save the private self. Thus another threatened child, James' Maisie, certainly knows the burden of having many parents, but their sheer contentious multiplicity keeps her from being exclusively possessed, affording a small, private corner for the self to grow in. And abstracted from the everyday world and its laws, in the fancy pastoral accommodation of The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp is able to pick his own way just because his schoolmasters, who severally wish to lead him, are so numerous and ideologically so at odds. But Blake's “Angel-guarded” dream of an insect democracy is unqualified by ironic variation or realistic compromise, and it cannot, out of honesty, be long sustained. In his family groups there has to be a father, a creator, and what to do about him, how to fit him safely in, how to justify him (God's ways to man) is a persisting problem. Rather openly, the poems exhibit a preference for the mother, certainly much more confidence in her. She broods over the sleeping child in “A Cradle Song,” trying to prolong its doomed serenity with the magic of incantation. To her the little boy lost is restored, the father having disappeared, and her return to her children is the wish fulfilled by “A Dream.” The feeling conveyed is close to the one children often have: that father is a remote, and perhaps vaguely alien presence, somewhere about, of course, and no doubt important in the mysterious auxillary way of protection and support, but an outsider to the essential relation, the intimate maternal one, and furthermore, best kept an outsider. This feeling copes with a possible difficulty by unconsciously de-emphasizing it; one way of getting along with a father is not to think about him very often.

Between father and child, the mother is a kind of protective baffle that soothes or explains anxieties away. In “The Little Black Boy,” her vindication of God's ways, of inequalities in the creation, doesn't fully clear up the question of why a white cloud (skin) won't do for everyone, but the interesting thing is that the reassurance extended turns on a frank acknowledgement of the dangers of the paternal love. About this love there is nothing easy or comfortable; one must learn how to endure it, in the meantime protecting oneself from it, as from too much exposure to the sun. When the educational ordeal is completed, when the children “can bear / To lean in joy upon our father's knee,” then will occur the reconciliation really hoped for, but this is not what might be expected, intimacy with the father, but intimacy between the human children, black boy and white boy, stigmatic differences having vanished. The poem puts the best possible face on God's love, by making the child, or mankind, inadequate to receive it and by intimating that what is difficult to bear in it, the too much heat, is an excess of joy, but the great effectiveness, the moving pathos, of the whole effort is due in part to its failing quite to come off. The consolation of the mother and the cheerful hope of the little boy are not convincingly a cure or solution, though they do create a happy state of mind. Nor is the idea behind them, of a formidably exacting love very congenial to Blake, and even as touched on here it is a little too close for complete comfort to the fierce loves in the prophetic books that bind down or destroy.

In this poem the father or God can finally be approached with impunity, but he nonetheless seems aloof from his human creatures (like the shepherd with respect to his sheep), outside the warm circle of their discovered friendship. He is still rather awesomely different from them and as such, at least potentially opposed. Four of the poems try another tack with him: to reduce or get rid of disturbing differences so that the relation can be close and entirely harmonious. To this end, “The Lamb,” “A Cradle Song,” and “On Another's Sorrow” bring in the idea of his incarnation and rejoice in it. Largely stripped of legislative and judicial authority, the maker is imagined, as child, as lamb, as man of sorrows, simply to share the human experience, the delights and griefs, and to complete it with his sympathy, which somehow makes everything seem right. Similarly, “The Divine Image” finds God in the human virtues (pity, peace, and love) that either have nothing to do with authority or else, like mercy, show it at its most indulgent. The four poems indirectly rebuke traditional paternalism and justify God, but not all his ways, for some of which the incarnation idea is more consoling than explanatory. Such ways do not trouble the surface of “The Lamb,” where, thanks to the special garden point of view of the child (and the implied converse view of all men as children or lambs of God), a risky question about the creation becomes the means to rejoicing, and the tiger's turn to bear witness is postponed. But as Blake later shows in “The Human Abstract” (Songs of Experience), two of the virtues praised by “The Divine Image,” mercy and pity, can give off an odor of political reaction, since these virtues, and God along with them, are predicated on a kind of status quo of human distress, twice cited as the occasion of prayer.

The feeling the other two poems are after is clearly reassurance, but they don't achieve it without granting its difficulty. The mother in “A Cradle Song” is tearfully apprehensive about the sort of world her child will wake up to. She is trying to soothe the infant dream into lasting, or something more than this, conveyed by one of the words she keeps coming back to, the ambiguous verb “beguiles.”3 A mother's smiles beguile the night; smiles beguile the infant's moans (intimations of coming sorrow?); infant smiles, finally identified with God's, “Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.” There is more than a hint of trickery in this, as of a spell cast. The magic is certainly white, but its invocation suggests that the matter to be charmed (night, the premonitory moans, heaven and earth) is obstinate. In Songs of Experience guile has become one of the major horrors, and a later version of “A Cradle Song” (the Rossetti and Pickering Manuscripts, First Series) turns the whole idea of the first one, including childish innocence, upside down. The sleeping babe smiles in anticipation of the morning; into its heart creep “cunning wiles”; they and the infant smiles “Heaven & earth of peace beguiles” (my italics, the “of” contrasting with “to” in the original poem). In this context of a reverse enchantment, “beguiles” is not a pleasant word.

“On Another's Sorrow” opens with a series of questions which are ultimately resolved by a vision of absolute sympathy. The questions demand such a vision; they ask of man and God a total response to suffering, ask urgently as if all faith were being gambled on the right answer. To the possibility that sympathy might be wanting: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” And the refrain is later repeated. There is no missing the strain in this. The right answer takes and expresses a strenuous effort of the will because it is made in the face of awareness that the wrong one is so easy and—the “real” world of most people confirming it—so virtually inevitable. This poem is the last in the Innocence sequence. Answer “yes” instead of “no” to its questions, and the realms of day dissolve into the dark city of Experience.

Behind the various ways of dealing with God, with the father or any type of pastor, is a distrust of power amounting to dread. Letting power in puts the whole scheme in jeopardy. It brings with it constraint, however mild (and not likely to stay mild long), and shows obligation to be different from desire. In the state of innocence and in its point of view, freedom, freedom of the will, is, by a curious paradox, for all practical purposes helpless, and the succour it consequently needs and receives has got, still more paradoxically, to be nearly helpless too. It is doubtless possible to imagine with Milton and others an omnipotence capable of withholding the effect of control from its creation, but Blake, whose quarrel with Milton's deity is sufficiently notorious, was not attracted by such cold comfort. More in the fashion of the archangels posted around the Garden, only able to give warning, his shepherds are on the scene, watching over but not leading; his Christ, incarnate in child and man of sorrow, is always accessible for the relief of commiseration (“Wept for me, for thee, for all”) but not for the relief conceivably within the compass of more dynamic or political measures. The most ingenuous statement of this limitation is in the poem called “Night.” Here the speaker, witnessing the end of day, elegiacally says farewell to the “green fields and happy groves,” but he hopefully imagines that the threat of night is lessened by guardian angels who “pour blessing and joy” on each “sleeping bosom.” They are there to keep all the lambs and birds, in their “thoughtless” nests, from harm, which means primarily from an awareness of harm: keep them asleep, turned from the darkness, dreaming the night away instead of fearfully waking to its reality. As for the nocturnal terrors, wolves and tigers howling “for prey,” with them the angels can engage only to the extent of a kind of passive resistance. With pity and with tears they try to drive not the beasts but “their thirst away,” to “beguile” away, that is, their rapacity: infect them with compassion and get them, so to speak, to change their minds. More than this they cannot do; when the unpersuaded animals “rush dreadful,” they are as powerless to resist as are the various guardians of Lycidas to prevent his drowning. Instead, they receive the victims into an “immortal day” where the mighty lion, cleansed of wrath, not only can lie down with the lamb but himself becomes guardian of the fold (which now, apparently, has nothing to guard against).

The wolves and tigers are dreadful enough, but like the animals in fairy tale, and the trolls and witches, they are expedient transformations of the myriad shabby banalities of childhood misery. Generalizing these into concentrated and picturesque images, heightening the habitual anxieties into surprising terror, getting the tangled obliquities of experience openly and straightforwardly to declare their hostility—such ways of choosing the enemy, or at least improving him, help to make the unmanageable manageable; they enable a second transformation (the conversion of the lion) and lead to a happy ending. Most of the innocence poems see through their difficulty by discovering it in some comparably special shape or circumstance: the insect world of the lost emmet, the rural seclusion of the mother and child poems. Or else distress may be acknowledged and consoled but left undefined, a vague part of the human condition. The last two poems to be looked at here are, however, distinctly unlike the others in that they confront specific and commonplace social situations, situations that would have to be taken for “real” in any ordinary or conventional judgment. What they do with them is another matter, but the occasion of the doing and its context are in each case undisguisedly historical. Vacation over, the children of “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday” are denied the joys of the echoing green and the security of the nursery; they are viewed in the squalor of the city, among circumstances wholly unfavorable, one would think, to a redemptive vision. For these poems Blake seems to have wanted, certainly hit upon, material as obdurate as could be found, and the obduracy makes itself felt.

“The Chimney Sweeper” opens on a continuing darkness, an uninterrupted night: “So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.” Orphaned of his mother, that recurrently saving presence, and so defenseless against the callous selfishness of the predictably untrustworthy father, the sweeper has been apprenticed (“sold”) into the commercial bondage of child labor. For him and his fellows, their heads shaved, shorn lambs, there is only the grim comfort of knowing that what they do not have (the white hair like wool, which in “The Lamb” is called “clothing of delight”) cannot be spoiled by soot, the black element in which they live. They have this strange comfort, and because of the state of mind it induces (“And so he was quiet”)—not exactly resignation, but the receptive peace left by a knowledge of total deprivation—they are able to have their vision. One of the striking things about the poem is the vision's plausibility, the ease with which it fits into or develops out of the context of experience. The two opposed kinds of knowledge are, of course, embraced and unified by language and rhythm, the purposeful naivete, but they are otherwise related, and closely, by the way in which they interact. Tom's vision is an answer to wishes; his “sight” is admittedly a dream-fantasy which, sufficiently explicable, cannot merely be explained away, for the reason that wishing is one necessary means to the apprehension of reality (in naturalistic writing, of course, as opposed to pastoral, such fantasy would be just compensatory). The dream begins in experience, with a graphic interpretation of the sweepers' plight: they are “lock'd up in coffins of black.” The image redefines the sooty chimneys as death-traps, intensifies their horror (drawing on the fear of being buried alive), and above all shows the boys' bound life to be a type of death. But the very extremity of this view, like the desolate comfort that motivates the dream, is a dialectical opportunity. A locked coffin can be unlocked; seeing the sweepers dead opens the way to seeing them reborn. Hence appears the angel with his key to liberty as unqualified as the earlier bondage. It takes only a few lines to turn the state of experience inside out. City dissolves into country, darkness into light and color. Cleansed of the soot, naked of the binding clothes, the children are revealed in their essential radiance, their white innocence. The burden of work (its leaden compulsion concentrated into the ugly monosyllable “bags”) is left behind, and they are free to “sport” on the clouds and in the wind. If death, to go back to the dream's first image, can be so imagined, then it is surely a consummation to be wished.

The children playing among the elements are a vision of desire gratified. Elaboration would be useless, perhaps impossible; unable to go further, the dream has to recoil. “And the Angel told Tom if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father, & never want joy.” It is impossible to guess how conscious Blake was of the thud in these lines. A new father to replace the old unloving one (and the rough taskmasters) is doubtless desirable, but he doesn't as in “The Little Boy Found,” freely appear in time present. He is a possibility of the future; the tenses evince an awakening to the sense that all the splendid gaiety is transient, has not been the real immortality but just a dream, disintegrating now and beginning to be conscious of itself and of time. The future fatherhood of God, moreover, is conditional, more so even than in “The Little Black Boy.” “If he'd be a good boy”: the promise of joy conceals a threat that chills it. In the dawning world of experience, innocence must put on the moral virtues; the angel who took the children out of that world piously leads them back.

“And so Tom awoke”—as who would not, his spontaneous pleasure thus dampened; the connective “And so” (as in the earlier “And so he was quiet”) is emphatically causal. And awoke, of course, to darkness and cold, to the grimy bags and brushes. Fortified by the memory of his dream against the hostilities of life, Tom can stay happy and warm; he has a truth in whose light the ubiquitous soot seems relatively unreal and so can be endured. But formulate the truth, package its comfort into a precept, and the result, since the dream is over, will bear the authentic stamp of experience, have the voice of its priestly wisdom. “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” The irony of this conclusion is almost brutal. Discreetly irrelevant to the most significant content of the dream, the moral drawn from it cautions that obedience is the safest policy. It equates the expectations of the provisionally promised God-father with the interests of the sweeps' masters and complacently re-inters the children in their chimneys.

“Holy Thursday” is a still more difficult experiment with the resources of vision, the most daring in the entire sequence. Instead of alternating the two kinds of reality, moving from darkness to light then back, this poem looks for light in darkness: attempts a way of seeing intense, penetrating enough to discover in a compulsory routine of experience the shape of its obscured intention and lost beauty. It wills the routine to realize its possible meaning in ideal performance. Acted upon by the imagination, the matter of sensory observation is not so much transformed as it is, detail by detail, transfigured. Thus the grubby children from the workhouse, submerged in the knowledge of being unwanted, have “innocent faces clean.” Instead of being herded to church to fret through a service that cannot satisfy their more immediate hunger, they flow into St. Paul's like “Thames' waters,” accompanied by beadles, but beadles cleared of familiar connotation, their conversion into benign magicians effected with metonymic economy by turning the dreaded rods into “wands as white as snow” (such as Blake himself is waving). The countryside invades the city. Variously and gaily attired in “red & blue & green,” rather than with institutional uniformity, the children are flowers, and the hum that fills the cathedral (indulgent beadles!) is the hum of “multitudes of lambs.” The radiance is “all their own,” genuine not pulpit cant; in spontaneous chorus they raise their “innocent hands” and reach heaven with the “mighty wind” of their song. Meanwhile, beneath them sit their custodians, “the aged men, wise guardians of the poor”: devoted shepherds of a flock that is generalized from the children (drawing upon the emotion they have created) to embrace all of society's impoverished wards.

But having seen the ritual observance of Ascension Day thus brightly, the visionary turns abruptly to the reader with a concluding and surprising admonition. “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.” Incredible, one thinks at first. How does this counsel apply? What need have these exulting children for pity? Then gropingly, with the effect of a disenchantment, comes the recognition that they are no longer being seen as exultant or as innocent. The vision cannot be indefinitely sustained; it closes on the word “poor,” which like Keats' “forlorn” is enough to reawaken the sense of social fact, return us to the truth of the outer eye. The beadles do carry rods and use them, and the children hunger for more solid sustenance than a church service can provide. They are to be pitied, they deserve pity, but not just because they are miserable. The response to them that Blake wants has nothing to do with condescension or with snobbish sentimentality; it has a great deal to do with admiration and praise. Over but not forgotten, the vision reproves the hardened heart and invokes compassion by its demonstration that the children are not only wretched but also humanly excellent: however degraded, still angelic presences who cannot be rebuffed with impunity. Even in the last line, they get rather the best of it. “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door”: this is not a plea but a hard warning. You can be pitiless, it says, but only at a cost to yourself. There is one kind of power, to oppress or ignore the poor, to drive them “from your door.” And there is another, retributive power, more considerable, more punishing than the first: the power of curse, the moral effect of his action on him who denies his fellows in need, but so much the more damagingly, denies himself.

While pity is not consciously thought about before the last line, where its mention gives the reader an intentional shock, something like it has, in a quiet way, been felt all along. The emotion the poem gives throughout its parts is not a simple one; in the joyous awe there is a latent pathos, less strong than in “The Little Black Boy” but very important. Transfiguring social reality has not “beguiled” away all sense of it, nor has it been intended to. Each bright particular recalls, however dimly, its gray counterpart. Dispensing with linear progression, Blake wants an awareness of what is normally to be seen at the same time that he is making it so differently, so contrastingly visible: making of it an illumination. The poem demonstrates and requires double perception, one kind dominant throughout the first eleven lines, the other in the last line. The alternatives to such perception (later four-fold with Blake) are “Single vision & Newton's sleep!”: a submission to the finality of the material or historical fact; or on the other hand, a psychopathic confidence in the absolute efficacy of wishes. For Blake neither of these would do; innocence and experience inhere in one another, and neither can be denied. The main inclination, the cheerful bias and fervent wish, of Songs of Innocence is transparent, but the inclination is recurrently checked, brought up short, obliged, one might say, to give unfavorable testimony. There is nothing merely playful about the fantasy here. These poems are another and convincing reminder that pastoral, as a way of relating the human realities. can be toughly honest.


  1. The reader, too, is involved; “shall be seen” has the force of an imperative addressed to him.

  2. As in “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” (Songs of Innocence). the movement and general idea of which these parallel poems reverse.

  3. It occurs three times and each time with no respect for the number of its subject, but this preference for sound, or exact rhyme, over syntactical sense; the poem's very restricted vocabulary; the pattern of repetition with small variation; the consequent and deliberate monotony—all help out the cradle song hypnotic purpose.

Martin Price (essay date 1964)

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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 Songs of Innocence have found their way into the nursery, partly because the Songs of Experience include some of Blake's most brilliant poems, there has been a tendency to discount the Songs of Innocence or to save them by reading them as highly ironic poems, each with its own built-in contraries. This produces strained readings and obscures the full import of Innocence as one of the “two contrary states.” We must first take the Songs of Innocence in their own right, and by doing so we can make better sense of the Songs of Experience.

What the contrary states mean is shown in two poems Blake enclosed in letters to his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, the first on 2 October 1800, the second two years later, on 22 November 1802.1 In the first the themes of Innocence are restated in the language of vision. Blake achieves an ecstatic transcendence on the shore at Felpham and looks down upon his mortal Shadow and his wife's. His eyes “Like a Sea without shore / Continue Expanding, / The Heavens commanding.” All Heaven becomes one man, Jesus, who purges away “All my mire & my clay” (as in “The Little Black Boy” or “The Chimney Sweeper”) and enfolds Blake in his bosom, saying:

          This is My Fold,
O thou Ram horn'd with gold,
Who awakest from Sleep
On the Sides of the Deep.

The lion and the wolf, whose “roarings resound,” the “loud Sea & deep gulf”—all of them threatening—now become, for Jesus, “guards of My Fold.”

And the voice faded mild.
I remain'd as a Child;
All I ever had known
Before me bright Shone.

This draws together visionary perception and childlike innocence, and makes visionary transcendence a discovery of the protected world of the divine sheepfold, where seeming evil is absorbed into a pastoral version of Order.

In the second of these poems we encounter the trials of Experience. Blake is torn with conflicting obligations; “the duties of life each other cross.”

Must Flaxman look upon me as wild,
And all my friends be with doubts beguil'd?

Blake resolves the conflict by defying the sun and looking through its earthly form:

Another Sun feeds our life's streams,
We are not warmed with thy beams …
My Mind is not with thy light array'd,
Thy terrors shall not make me afraid.

The defiance makes all the natural world shrink and grieve, but Blake moves forward with triumph into the world of vision:

                              The Sun was hot
With the bows of my Mind & the Arrows of Thought—
My bowstring fierce with Ardour breathes,
My arrows glow in their golden sheaves.

“Now,” he concludes, “I a fourfold vision see … Tis fourfold in my supreme delight.” He has wrested vision from grief, and won through to a trust in his powers (pp. 816-18).

The Songs of Innocence cultivate a tone of naïvety, but we must recognize that what is spontaneously discovered by the child has in fact been earned by the poet's visionary powers. It is not easy to achieve Innocence, and one does not reach it by a simple process of subtraction. While the Songs of Innocence insist upon the naïve vision, they show, in their own way, as much calculation as the more radical of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth's subjects are children, displaced persons or wanderers; humble people who live in dwellings all but indistinguishable from nature; morally displaced persons such as criminals and idiots—those rejected or oppressed by society; poets as social misfits and dreamers; and, most generally, people who have not entered and for some reason have fallen out of the social pattern. Wordsworth's treatment of them is a bold assertion of the dignity of their elementary feelings. Coleridge speaks of the “daring humbleness” of Wordsworth's language and versification, and we know that their challenge was felt and resisted by early critics. Blake's Songs of Innocence are more traditional in their literary and religious associations and more remote from such stubborn commonplaces of life as swelling ankles, idiot sons, and the love of property. But, like Wordsworth's poems, and, in fact, like most pastorals, they create a vision that risks one-sidedness. Such a vision teeters on the verge of calling to mind all it excludes, and Blake has given us what Innocence excludes in the Songs of Experience. But pastoral can teeter without falling into overt irony, and its assertion is all the more defiant for that poise.

The defiance is the poet's. The innocents themselves remain indifferent to all that crowds in upon us. This indifference is not ignorance, any more than it is in Wordsworth's “We Are Seven,” where the child insists that her dead brother and sister are still in the midst of their family. The childlike trust becomes a metaphor for the more strenuous faith and defiance of doubt that all may achieve.

The landscape of Innocence is a fostering, humanized landscape. It echoes human songs and laughter; it accepts and sympathizes with every feeling. The “Laughing Song” is one of the simplest of the Songs, but Wordsworth found it worth copying into his commonplace book in 1804. It closes with the invitation to participate:

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread,
Come live & be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of “Ha, Ha, He.”

The language is somewhat archaic (“painted birds”), the form reminiscent of Elizabethan lyrics, and the poem closes tellingly with the call to “sing the sweet chorus.” The harmony of shepherds (the song first appears written in a copy of Poetical Sketches as Sung … by a Young Shepherd) and maids, of man and nature, is caught in the very meaningless exultation of the “Ha, Ha, He.” If one calls it witless exultation, one has only underlined the point: this is the least self-conscious of sounds, the pure merry note. So it is with “Spring.” Animal sounds, “infant noise,” and the sounding flute are all part of one song; and child and lamb play together with no sense of difference. Music is only one manifestation of the reciprocal warmth that marks all relationships (every creature is related to every other); the nurse is trustful and indulgent, old John on the echoing green participates in the laughter of the children at play. There is neither jealousy nor restriction; darkness brings safe repose and satiation. The “happy Blossom” welcomes both the merry sparrow and the sobbing robin, rejoicing in its power to accept or comfort each alike.

In “The Lamb,” the harmony grows out of a deeper union:

I a child, & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.

Each creature is a member one of another because of their common membership in God's love and the body of His creation. This participation in one life is nicely stated in “The Shepherd,” where the freedom of the shepherd (“From the morn to the evening he strays”) is consonant with his watchfulness, for he is himself a sheep watched over by his Shepherd with generous love. The condition of peace is security without restraint. The participation is extended in “The Divine Image” to “every man of every clime,” for every man—“heathen, turk, or jew”—is “Man, his child and care.”

In “Night” all these themes come together. The moon sits in “heaven's high bower” like the happy blossom. The darkening fields are left by sleeping lambs to the “feet of angels bright.” As in Paradise Lost,

Millions of spiritual Creatures walk the Earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep
               … oft in bands
While they keep watch, a nightly rounding walk
With Heav'nly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number join'd, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to Heaven.

(IV, 677-78, 684-88)

Blake's world of Innocence is not, however, Paradise. The angels cannot always control wolves and tigers, or deny them victims; but the victims are received, “New worlds to inherit.”

And there the lion's 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.
And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep;
Or think on him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee and weep.
For, wash'd in life's river,
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold
As I guard o'er the fold.”


The regeneration of the lion, so that he can now “remain always in Paradise,” is a perhaps unconscious but eloquent reply to Mandeville's comment on Milton. … As the angels pitied the howling wolves and tigers, the lion can now pity the tender cries of the sheep. It is a splendid assertion of the power of meekness, as the gold of the lion's “bright mane” becomes an aureole.

But pastoral celebration does not contain all that Blake wishes to say. “The School Boy,” while it seems spoken in trust of parents' understanding, is a lament against restriction. It is one of the poems that await the coming into existence of the Songs of Experience, where, five years later, it was placed. Other poems are less clear cases. “Holy Thursday” presents the Ascension Day “anniversary” of the charity school children. The “grey-headed beadles” who lead the children into St. Paul's are mentioned first, and they may seem like threatening figures with their “wands white as snow.” But the children flow like a river, they are like flowers, they have a “radiance all their own, they raise their choral voice “like a mighty wind” or “like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heavens among.” And, as is usual in these poems, the closing lines have gained meaning from the whole poem. Now the formidable beadles take their place below the angelic children:

Beneath them sat the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

The last line seems pat and inadequate to those who are on the watch for irony; yet it converts the aged men to the counterparts of Abraham and Lot, who entertained angels at their door and were shown favor.

In “The Little Black Boy” the pain of being born with a different face is genuine and acute. Blake enters imaginatively into the condition of the boy and his mother. She supplies a consoling vision that makes the suffering temporary and even a source of pride. By showing her boy that the body is a “cloud” that absorbs the beams of God's love and vanishes after a short term of trial, she turns upside down the standards of the world around him. This can save his sense of worth. His body is better adapted than the white boy's to bearing God's love (God is here conceived much as in Milton, where He dwells in “unapproached light” which the angels can bear to behold only when they veil their eyes with their wings). And all bodies are the instruments by which we are trained to live in the spirit.

The poem ends with a reversal like the one that sets the ominous beadles below the angelic children of “Holy Thursday.” The little black boy sees himself with the English child in heaven:

I'll shade him from the heat, till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

One can see pathos, surely, in the fundamental desire to “be like him”—the lack of any image of oneself that can give repose or self-respect. Yet there is also a strain of mature understanding or even pity in the recognition that the white boy can bear less love and can give less love—that he needs to wait for the black boy to be like him before he can recognize their oneness in a common father. We may deplore the comparative quietism of this, but we must recognize a faith that permits the boy to live with the inevitable without surrendering to it.

“The Chimney Sweeper” descends farther into suffering, and the plight of the sweeps is as grim as can be conceived. What the poem is saying, nevertheless, is that the naïve faith we see in Tom's dream is the means of survival. In a “Song by an Old Shepherd” Blake had written:

Blow, boisterous wind, stern winter frown,
Innocence is a winter's gown;
So clad, we'll abide life's pelting storm
That makes our limbs quake, if our hearts be warm.


The chimney sweep, Tom, dreams that thousands of sweepers are “lock'd up in coffins of black,” when

… by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.

The Angel is like those in “Night” who receive the wolves' victims, “New worlds to inherit.” Here the new world is the miserable child's vision of a heaven—green plains, a river to wash in, sunlight, play, a father. The old world is still there when Tom awakens, but Tom and his companions have a “winter's gown”:

Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

The last line stings with irony as we think of the duties left unperformed by the boys' elders, and it has pathos if we take it to imply that Tom expects virtue to be rewarded in the world. But it is also a daring assertion of naïve faith, the faith that will inevitably be rewarded in its own terms, with an assurance of spirit that can transcend its worldly conditions. This naïve faith has both the precariousness and the strength of a pastoral vision: it seems too fragile to survive suffering, yet it somehow does survive, more vivid and intense than the world it transcends.

I have spoken of these assertions as metaphors for adult existence, and we can see their counterpart in Blake's letters:

… now I have lamented over the dead horse let me laugh & be merry with my friends till Christmas, for as Man liveth not by bread alone, I shall live altho' I should want bread—nothing is necessary to me but to do my Duty & to rejoice in the exceeding joy that is always poured on my Spirit.

(To William Hayley, 7 October 1803)

… as none on Earth can give me Mental Distress, & I know that all Distress inflicted by Heaven is a Mercy, a Fig for all corporeal! Such Distress is My mock & scorn.

(To Thos. Butts, 11 September 1801)

In “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” we come to the borderland between Innocence and Experience. Blake moved these poems from one group to the other, and this convertibility helps us understand the relationship of “contrary states.” In the two border poems, the seeming forces of evil prove to be as gentle and fostering as parents—perhaps through the influence of the sleeping maid, whose innocence creates a precinct of “hallow'd ground.” The lion's “ruby tears” flow with pity for her unprotectedness: her weakness and her trust disarm the beasts of prey. In the second poem the lion reveals an angel within, and his cave becomes a palace; the parents who brave the wilds for the sake of their lost child are rewarded with a new freedom and security:

To this day they dwell
In a lonely dell;
Nor fear the wolvish howl
Nor the lions' growl.

They live in a world where evil has no power, however it may seem to threaten others.

If we stress the faith that is strong enough to transcend the power of the world, these poems clearly fall into the pattern of Innocence. If, on the other hand, we stress the adversity to be overcome and the courage with which it is faced, they move toward Experience, although they remain the most triumphant of the Song of Experience. Seven-year-old Lyca wanders into the “desart wild” and is lost. Significantly, she is concerned not for herself but for her parents' grief. She confidently summons the moon to guard her and goes to sleep. The beasts of the wild play around her body, licking her and weeping with pity, until at last they accept her as one of themselves, loose her dress, and carry her to their caves. In “The Little Girl Found” we see that Lyca's parents do indeed grieve and search for her (as parents in Innocence do). After seven days of anxiety and distress, the mother can go no farther and is carried in her husband's arms. They too encounter a lion, which seems to stalk them. But suddenly he licks their hands and becomes a “Spirit arm'd in gold” (like the lion in “Night”). He leads them to his palace where Lyca lies sleeping among “tygers wild.”

The strength of Experience comes of its ability to sustain or recover the faith of Innocence. The state of Experience is one of suffering, but we have already seen much of that in Innocence. More significant is the attitude taken toward suffering: those who are frustrated and corrupted by it, surrender; those who seek their freedom and keep their vision alive, rebel. In some poems only the condition of suffering is given: these contribute to that composite image, the contrary of the pastoral vision of Innocence, of a world to be met with either despair or defiance. In “A Little Girl Lost,” Ona is terrified by the father whose “loving look” is the face of the punitive moralist, professing (sincerely enough) anxiety for his straying child, but scarcely concealing the self-pity of the rigid lawmaker. In “A Little Boy Lost” the Cordelia-like protestations of the boy lead to his torture and murder by the priests.

In other poems the surrender is clear. In “The Angel” and “My Pretty Rose Tree,” life is rejected for the sake of chastity or possessiveness; and the result is armed fear or resentment. The “Nurse's Song” is the expression of anxiety and envy; the repressive nurse is projecting doubts of her own self into the lives of the children. In “The Sick Rose,” the secrecy of love becomes disease. The “crimson joy” suggests the rose's complicity both in passion and in secrecy; disguise destroys from within. We see this more clearly in “The Lilly,” where the modest rose and the humble sheep protect themselves with a thorn and a threatening horn; whereas the lily's open delight in love makes her whiteness incapable of stain, as is the case with Oothoon later in the Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

The central distinction between honest wrath and stifled or corrupted energy is given in the opening poems of the Songs of Experience. “Introduction” announces the visionary Bard

Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!


“Controll” here still carries the sense of “contradict” or “disprove.” The Holy Word is the Poetic Genius within man summoning the dawn of revived life. “Earth's Answer” comes out of “grey despair”; Earth's locks are as gray as those of the virgin who resists love in “The Angel.” She can see only the God she has created for herself:

Prison'd on wat'ry shore,
Starry Jealousy does keep my den:
Cold and hoar,
Weeping o'er,
I hear the Father of the ancient men.
Selfish father of men!
Cruel, jealous, selfish fear!
Can delight,
Chain'd in night,
The virgins of youth and morning bear?


Are we to take Earth's words as a just condemnation of the Holy Word, or is Earth's despair the counterpart of the resentment of Adam and Eve in their fallen state, before they recover the power to love and recognize that their Judge is also their Redeemer? The latter seems the more plausible.

“The Tyger” is the best known of Blake's songs and the most frequently and elaborately interpreted. The phrase “fearful symmetry”—whatever its possible symbolic suggestions—is clearly the initial puzzle: the “symmetry” implies an ordering hand or intelligence, the “fearful” throws doubt on the benevolence of the Creator. The “forests of the night” are the darkness out of which the tiger looms, brilliant in contrast; they also embody the doubt or confusion that surrounds the origins of the tiger. In the case of “The Lamb,” the Creator “calls himself a Lamb. / He is meek, & he is mild; / He became a little child.” In “The Tyger” the Creator again is like what he creates, and the form that must be supplied him now is the Promethean smith working violently at his forge. The last alteration we have of this much altered poem insists upon the likeness of Creator and created: “What dread hand Form'd thy dread feet?” The tiger is an image of the Creator; its “deadly terrors” must be His.

The most puzzling stanza of the poem is the next-to-last:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The first two lines are the crux of the poem. Are the tears the rage of the defeated, or the tears of mercy as in a later Notebook poem, “Morning”?

To find the Western path
Right thro' the Gates of Wrath
I urge my way;
Sweet Mercy leads me on:
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day.
The war of swords & spears
Melted by dewy tears
Exhales on high;
The sun is freed from fears
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky.


Here we come through wrath to mercy, through night to dawn. This progression appears again in Jerusalem, where Los, the imaginative power, considers his task as visionary poet. Los is seeking to make error visible so that it may be thrown off, and his satiric task requires him to adopt the “forms of cruelty.”

                              I took the sighs & tears & bitter groans,
I lifted them into my Furnaces to form the spiritual sword
That lays open the hidden heart. I drew forth the pang
Of sorrow red hot: I work'd it on my resolute anvil …
I labour day and night. I behold the soft affections
Condense beneath my hammer into forms of cruelty,
But still I labour in hope; tho' still my tears flow down:
That he who will not defend Truth may be compell'd to defend
A Lie: that he may be snared and caught and snared and taken:
That Enthusiasm and Life may not cease. …

(9:17-20, 26-31)

The “spiritual sword / That lays open the hidden heart” is a counterpart of the tiger we see in the Songs of Experience. The wrath serves the ultimate end of redemption and becomes one with mercy. If the God of apparent wrath is also the God of forgiveness, the tiger's form is only superficially “fearful.” In the words of Pope:

Nor God alone in the still calm we find,
He mounts the storm, and walks upon the wind.

(Essay on Man, II, 109-10)

“The Tyger” dramatizes the terrors of the shocked doubter, but it moves with assurance—in the stanza I have quoted—to an assertion of faith (faith in the oneness of God, in the goodness of wrath, in the holiness of prophetic rage). When the last stanza repeats the first, but for the alteration of “could” to “dare” the question has been answered. The inconceivable of the first stanza has become the majestic certainty of the last: the daring of the Creator—whether God or man—is the cleansing wrath of the tiger.

The honest wrath that is celebrated in “The Tyger” is the open and healthy response to suffering. In contrast, as we have seen, is the tortured brooding of the bound infant who sulks upon his mother's breast, or the viciousness that comes of “unacted desires” in “A Poison Tree.” In “London” this pattern of externally imposed suppression (the swaddling bands of the infant, the binding with briars by priests in black gowns) or internal self-imposed repression (the armed fears of the virgin, the secret love of the rose) becomes a general condition whose meaning is evident only to the visionary poet. He alone sees and hears what others take for granted.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

The power to penetrate the conventional sounds—whether street cries, oaths, infants' wails—makes the self-imposed tortures of man not simply audible but visible. The cry of the soot-covered chimney sweeper appalls—blackens as much as shocks, convicts as much as arouses—“every black'ning Church” (blackening with the guilt of its indifference far more than with soot). So too the “hapless Soldier's sigh” brands the palace he has been suffering to defend with the guilt of causing his pain; and—sound made visible—“Runs in blood down Palace walls.”

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The visible stain has become a virulent infection, and its power is caught in the terrible poetic condensation that sees the marriage coach as already a hearse. The existence of the youthful harlot (another conventional street sound, as she curses in the night) is more than a source of physical infection; it is a symptom of the moral disease evident only to the visionary poet. Except for his, there is no open rebellion in this London, no deeply felt outrage. Each cry or sigh or curse arises from a single individual's grief. Only the poet hears what is in each cry or sees how it looks and acts—in short, what it means. The gap between the suffering and the awareness is part of the terror of the London Blake presents; it is made all the sharper if we contrast the isolated suffering of these cries with the echoing responsiveness on the village green of Innocence.

Only when we grant Innocence its proper value does the full dialectical force of the two contrary states become clear. We can see the potential suffering that surrounds the world of Innocence and the potential triumph that Experience permits. Blake is less concerned with exposing injustice than with finding a vital response to it. The evil he presents is in each case the denial of life, whether imposed from without by society or made within by the individual. The good he espouses is the life-giving vision, whether serenely enjoyed or indignantly defended. Clearly serene transcendence of evil is seldom possible although, as we have seen, Blake rejoices in such moments. And Innocence, like Experience, has its false aspect as well as its true.

In the manuscript of The Four Zoas Blake made this note: “Unorganiz'd Innocence: An Impossibility. Innocence dwells with Wisdom, but never with Ignorance” (380). Wisdom need not imply self-consciousness or acquaintance with evil, any more than it does for Adam in Milton's Paradise. But in the years that intervened between the first engraving of the Songs of Innocence in 1789 and their yoking to the new Songs of Experience in 1793, Blake explored the varieties of false Innocence, which is a denial of life rather than a confident assertion of its goodness.


  1. Quotations are cited from Geoffrey Keynes' edition of the Complete Writings of William Blake, London, 1957. They are identified by line number; by plate and line number for longer engraved poems; by page number for prose; by date for letters. Of the works on Blake, I am indebted chiefly to M. O. Percival, William Blake's Circle of Destiny, New York, 1938; Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Princeton, 1947; Stanley Gardner, Infinity on the Anvil, Oxford, 1954; Robert F. Gleckner, The Piper & the Bard, Detroit, 1959; Peter Fisher, The Valley of Vision, Toronto, 1961; and to Harold Bloom, for discussion and criticism, and for his writing on Blake, now summed up in Blake's Apocalypse, New York, 1963, which he allowed me to read in manuscript.

A Note on References

Unless otherwise indicated, the page numbers for Blake's works used in the selections in this volume refer to The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London and New York, 1957), or to the revised edition of that text published in the Oxford Standard Authors series (1966) and paginated identically.

D. G. Gillham (essay date 1966)

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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 accepted, it should be recognized that the two sets, which lend significance to one another, form an artistic whole, and it is as a whole that they must have been conceived. Each series has its own title-page, but in bringing the two series together under the comprehensive title and a third title-page Blake indicated that the work composed of the contraries was now gathered together. The design of the inclusive title-page is significant, for it emphasizes, at once, the grounds for uniting and for separating the Songs. Beneath the heading, Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, is a depiction of Adam and Eve immediately after the Fall. They have covered their nakedness with tendrils of the grape-vine, and are bowed towards the ground in attitudes of despair. Adam and Eve are the same individuals before and after the Fall and Blake's illustration serves to relate the contrary states, which both act in the same person. But Adam and Eve have altogether different lives before and after the Fall so, in emphasizing the Fall itself, the illustration serves to stress the fact that the two states are set quite apart from one another. There is no overlap or confusion between Innocence and Experience.

Even the task of the poet must differ in writing songs for the two states, and Blake defines the poet's function differently in the first poem of each book. In the Songs of Innocence he appears as a piper who tells how he came to set down his songs:


Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry chear.
‘Piper, pipe that song again;’
So I piped: he wept to hear.
‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
‘Sing thy songs of happy chear:’
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.
‘Piper, sit thee down and write
‘In a book that all may read.’
So he vanish'd from my sight,
And I pluck'd a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

The bard who introduces the Songs of Experience takes on the duty of instructing an erring mankind, like a prophet of the Old Testament. The piper of the introductory song in Innocence has no duty. He makes music, sings and writes because he feels inclined to, he enjoys the music for its own sake and he takes an additional pleasure in the delight it gives the child. As the child is described by the piper it is a very vivid and positive presence, and yet a very insubstantial one. It appears on a cloud, and it vanishes abruptly, leaving the piper to his more solitary task. Wordsworth saw H. C. as a

… faery voyager! that dost float
In such clear water, that thy boat
May rather seem
To brood on air than on an earthly stream …(2)

We are meant to see the child as a strange being with whom Wordsworth does not wish to meddle. When he clutches at H. C. with mental fingers he destroys his pleasure. The piper does not have to contend with a clumsy, grasping self, has no impulse to pull the child from its cloud and put it on earth where it should be, and has so much enjoyment in the child because he takes it exactly as it comes. When the child leaves, the piper turns his attention without regret to writing down how much he liked being with it.

Blake etched two plates showing the piper, and placed them immediately before the title-pages of Innocence and Experience. In the first engraving the piper holds his pipe at his side and gazes upward at the child who has interrupted his ‘songs of pleasant glee’. Young trees grow on either side of the piper, and in the background a flock of sheep is grazing. The child half reclines on a cloud and half floats in the air, its arms outspread as it addresses the piper. The significance of this picture, and so of the imagery in the poem, is brought out by a comparison with the companion plate in the Songs of Experience. Here the piper has no instrument and he carries the child (who now has the wings of a cherub) on his head. The piper's arms are raised so that he may hold the child's hands to support it as it sits. Both these illustrations contain the same elements: childhood and rustic simplicity together in a ‘valley wild’, entertaining one another. In the first illustration, however, the piper and child are shown as simultaneously meeting and parting. Each has been arrested momentarily by the attraction of the other, and their movements in their separate spheres (valley and cloud) are half checked, and half being carried forward. They gaze full into each other's face, although the gaze is a passing one. In the second illustration the pair are placed in a closer and more lasting relationship but have lost contact with each other. Placed as they are, with the child on the head of the piper, neither can see the other, the child is a burden on the piper, who cannot even use his arms and, as the child has wings, the piper is a hindrance to its freedom.

In his Notebook, Blake wrote a poem which says very much the same thing as his etchings of piper and child:

He who bends to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.(3)

The poem states the paradox that it is only the man relaxed enough to be careless of his gains who can give his attention and so obtain from any situation of delight the benefits that are offered. Any attempt to snatch at what may be got or to give the joy a lasting form perverts the experience. The innocent piper can allow others their own freedom and life. He appreciates the child but has no desire to seize it. He passes with gusto from one activity to another, and in each phase ‘kisses the joy as it flies’.

In the course of the game played by the piper and child, the former is gleefully ordered about, being told, first, to pipe his song, then to sing it, and lastly to write it down. With the last injunction, the child disappears. It has played the game out now, and abandons it. We are left at the end of the poem with the piper writing his happy songs ‘Every child may joy to hear’, and on the way to assuming this task he has stepped across the gap between music and speech as though it did not exist. As we first encounter the piper he is quite alone and he is making music, making sounds that are wordless but certainly not mindless. Whatever beauty the sounds may have is the result of organization and a sense of harmony within the piper. He uses his pipe, we can say, for self-expression, but by that we do not mean that he explains himself or makes precise statements of what goes on within. By the end of the poem the piper is using words instead, but the tenor of the ‘Introduction’ is to place these verbal songs on the same footing as the wordless ones. They are the same songs because, although their medium is a different one, they express the same piper, and they do not express only the sense that the piper has put consciously into them. They have a richer content than mere statement, and do not tell us only about the lamb.

The experienced person stands in the relationship of onlooker even in regard to himself. If he knows anything about himself he does so by finding the words that describe the self he sees. The piper, on the other hand, is uttered by his song, he does not stand back from himself, and he does not have to be consciously aware of a movement within himself for that movement to have its expression. Thus his songs, when he writes them down, though we may expect them to make statements, please us because the statements reveal the life of the being who makes them. The piper we leave at the end of the poem using his rural pen, made from a reed, is doing basically the same thing as he was when he played his pipe. Innocent poetry uses words, the ‘Introduction’ implies, in such a way as to carry meaning into the poem from the whole being of the singer, not merely to make deliberate reference. A similar view is put by D. W. Harding when discussing poetry in general:

When we speak or write, experience in some way merges with, and emerges in the form of, patterns of language. But in some minds the language processes reflect not only the main experience, in statements that could be more or less paraphrased, but also much subtler features of the preverbal experience, and features of which the writer may have no awareness except through the overtones of what he finds himself writing. Even then he may well fail to notice what he has said.4

The expression of these ‘subtler features’ of experience, Harding suggests, is characteristic of poetry, where they manifest themselves as ‘complexity’ (not ‘confusion’) and are indicative of the mind working in a higher, not lower, way. Blake, too, sees that a piper who writes his songs from the fullness of his heart, not from the mind alone, is not a limited person. On the contrary, the piper displays intelligence in a most important sense of the word.5

It is a remarkable feat on Blake's part, in writing the innocent ‘Introduction’, to comprehend, by an intellectual stretch, the spontaneous depths of poetry. It is a stretch for Blake because, although he insists in all his writings on the importance of inspiration, no poet shows a more careful control of his utterances. He is a poet of the intellect, but of an intellect so good that he can put the intellect in perspective and come forward as an advocate of the unpremeditated. The Songs of Innocence present beings who do not precisely define or fully verbalize what they are aware of, but though this is true of the piper, Blake himself has clear and definite ideas.

The piper's songs are simply a form of self-expression, but this manner of composition is possible only for the innocent. In Experience, the poet has lost the gift of spontaneity, and poetry has a different end. In the ‘Introduction’ to Songs of Experience the singer has a precise purpose to fulfil and, far from being immersed in the moment, stands clearly viewing ‘Present, Past, & Future’:


Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
‘O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.
Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day.’


Earth rais'd up her head
From the darkness dread & drear.
Her light fled,
Stony dread!
And her locks cover'd with grey despair.
‘Prison'd on wat'ry shore,
Starry Jealousy does keep my den:
Cold and hoar,
Weeping o'er,
I hear the Father of the ancient men.
Selfish father of men!
Cruel, jealous, selfish fear!
Can delight,
Chain'd in night,
The virgins of youth and morning bear?
Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower
Sow by night,
Or the plowman in darkness plow?
Break this heavy chain
That does freeze my bones around.
Selfish! vain!
Eternal bane!
That free Love with bondage bound.’

In the ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Innocence we listened to a dialogue between the piper and the child, but in these two poems Earth does not understand what the bard says, no communication takes place, and the introductory poem is replaced by two related monologues. The bard announces himself as prophet and messenger. He commands attention imperiously in the first line of the poem and presents his credentials in the remainder of the stanza. In the second half of the poem he announces his message, starting off with the flourish of:

‘O Earth, O Earth, return!’

Then he breaks into the appealing mode of the last stanza:

‘Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?’

The tone of the poem in general is a mixture of these elements, being official and important in the first and third stanzas and more pathetic and compassionate in the second and fourth. The Bard speaks as the representative of a greater power, but breaks into an urgency which indicates that the message from that power is felt as a message of his own.

Appreciation of this complex tone helps to solve the ambiguities in the poem which have been the cause of much comment.6 Who is it that calls the ‘lapsed Soul’ and weeps in the evening dew? It seems to be the Word, but Blake's own punctuation (never very helpful) might indicate that it is the bard. Also, it has been pointed out, God walked in the garden in the cool of the day (when Adam and his wife hid themselves among the trees) not to weep but in order to curse the creation, so it must be the bard who weeps. Further, who is it that might control ‘the starry pole’ and renew fallen light—Word, bard or lapsed soul?

These ambiguities cease to be confusing when we remember that, in the Songs, Blake is interested in the psychology of religion but not in the least concerned with theological verities or with the correctness of religious mythology. In the ‘Introduction’ Blake is not interested in God, whoever He (in an absolute sense) may be, but is most interested in the God that the bard can utter. This is made clear by the way in which the bard alternates between the tone of the nuncio and that of a man pleading on his own behalf. The bard speaks God's word, but only by speaking as himself in pity of Earth. What is the alternative? The alternative, as in ‘A Little Boy Lost’, is to speak as the priest does who makes pronouncements on behalf of a mysterious being beyond himself and succeeds only in placing himself upon the altar, for his mysterious God is a superstitious fiction. The bard's speaking, unlike the priest's, is not an arrogant seizing of power. The God he speaks for is known by the virtues of man, the Divine virtues which yearn towards another.

In the first stanza the warrant to speak is presented. The bard sees ‘Present, Past, & Future’, not because of any mysterious omniscience but because his ears have heard

The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees.

The bard has glimpsed Innocence as a state of perfection in the garden, but also as the perfection of God (and of man) in Christ or the Holy Word. His ears do not hear the terrible being who put temptation in man's way and then cursed him for disobedience. Instead he hears a God who weeps over man's departure. Fallen man, such is his mind, hears the word of God as the curse of a frustrated tyrant, and in the next poem Earth makes answer to that being, for when the bard makes his announcement, the Earth hears her God speak, not his.

What the bard hears is the voice of the Holy Word, of Christ,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

This is the Lord God of Genesis, but He is heard as Jesus in the Garden who asked His disciples to watch with Him. Christ might control the earth and raise man up, but not in the way of being omnipotent or, indeed, of having any power whatever except that of eliciting a response to love.7 Man's mind exhibits the contraries and in calling on God he calls on Him in contrary forms although, just as Experience is a departure and a lapse, Nobodaddy is a debased and externalized notion of God that succeeds the collapse of the Divine Image. It is not surprising that men know diverse Gods, seeing that they conceive even their simpler notions in more than one way. The idea of control, for instance, in the stanza just quoted may involve either participation with, or imposition upon. The bard, talking for the Saviour, justifies the ambiguity of the last three lines of the stanza (who controls?) for he indicates that it is both Word and Soul who are in control, and are renewed when they are together. Being together in mutual participation is to control and be controlled. But control may also imply isolation of will and the eliciting of obedience, control by the Deity alone. It is that meaning of the word ‘control’ that Earth hears—and very rightly turns away from in loathing.

Whatever the bard says is inevitably misinterpreted by Earth. In the last two stanzas the call to return may be taken as inviting Earth's reunion with Nobodaddy through a renunciation of the ‘starry floor’ and the ‘wat'ry shore’ (by which we may understand the firmament amidst the waters and so the creation we know). Earth, and so her creature man, has an idea of life in the body as a degradation and this conforms to her idea of God as the being who curses man and curses the earth with him. The Earth supposes that the bard is calling upon her to return to the Creator by leaving the ‘slumberous mass’ of creation and by rising to better things. He seems to say that what is of the earth (the body, the passions) must be purged away for the transformed creation (the spiritual body8) to be fit for its transcendental life when a new day breaks in a celestial sphere. If we listen to what the bard is saying instead of to what (so Earth supposes) he should be saying we can hear that he calls Earth to life, not death. True, Earth is asleep or dead in life but that is because she has miscreated it, just as she has miscreated God. The bard is not concerned with any after-life, just as he is not concerned with any mysterious God, and the day he speaks of is one that breaks on earth, not away from it. The bard, in short, is not concerned with the transcendental aspects of religion, and the new day he announces suffuses the present darkness:

‘Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.’

This is not the end of time, but a rejuvenation within it. The Earth is told to ‘Arise from out the dewy grass’, but this is no suggestion that she leave the flesh. Rather, she is to awaken to the flesh, to realize it for what it is. What is of the earth is a gift:

‘The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day.’

This firmament, the lines imply, is a gift and, most important, it is beautiful. The lines convey the idea of a place that is splendid and precious, just as the earlier reference to ‘dewy grass’ is not merely a symbol interchangeable with ‘physical body’ but carries the association of something growing, vigorous and refreshed. The last two stanzas convey the bard's feeling for Earth as something wonderful and very dear which can become more splendid, not by changing into something different or as a result of anything being added to her, but by the onset of light which will show the beauty which is hers by right.

Commentators on the ‘Introduction’ remark on its difficulty, but overlook the tone which supplies the solution to the difficulty. The bard does not speak on behalf of some absolute being, calling from beyond time. He must speak on his own behalf if he is to say anything worth paying attention to. Also, his appeal to Earth is not that she should leave her present state for a dimly conceived immaterial heaven, but turn towards a knowledge of her own beauty, and a realization of joy. Again, the bard must call to her on his own behalf, as a lover would, to be saying anything worthwhile. Earth may come to a knowledge of her beauty through feeling the desire of the bard. Bard and Earth may ‘control’ each other in the sense of the word that we have discussed, that of mutual participation.

There are hints of sexual desire in the imagery of the last two stanzas. These are brought out in ‘Earth's Answer’, and in anticipation of this the ‘Introduction’ is illustrated by a representation of Earth as a naked woman who lies on one side and turned away. The couch or bed on which she reclines is set among clouds and stars, the ‘wat'ry shore’ and ‘starry floor’. The illuminations to the text of ‘Earth's Answer’, on the other hand, refer back to the ‘Introduction’. They illustrate the Fall which the bard wants undone. Amongst the foliage which extends between the lines is a tendril of the grape-vine, and at the foot of the page a serpent writhes along the ground.

In her fallen state, in the isolation of Experience, Earth cannot speak in the role of God as the bard does. To do so would be blasphemous because she can only conceive of God in a superstitious way as a supernatural being who controls the universe. The religions of Experience, even Christianity, are inclined to degenerate into notions of control, prohibition and power. Christianity, however, allows its followers both experienced and innocent religious modes, for while it takes its inspiration from a God of love it also sees Him as the jealous tyrant of the Old Testament. The bard speaks for the former God, ‘weeping in the evening dew’, but Earth replies to the ‘Father of the ancient men’. She hears nothing of the regret of the Word or of the possible beauty of ‘wat'ry shore’ and ‘starry floor’. She knows only of a vale of tears where the stars are not beauties of the firmament, but, in their endless circling, signs of the law of the universe. The God she hears, if He weeps, does so in frustration. He is so powerful that He could force man to be happy and virtuous just by willing it. He could control all the motions of earth and renew all who fell from His dominion, both in the case of men who are cast out of the Garden and of those angels who were cast down and ‘delivered into chains of darkness’.9 It is probably an inevitable outcome of the creation of God in fallen man's image that such a creature as this should be the result. God must be the epitome of power, must be all-knowing and capable of complete control. But if He were to exercise this power, if He were rigidly to ‘control the starry pole’, there would be no sense of power. The tyrant always wants to be loved for himself, and this means that his creatures must appear to submit voluntarily to him. The result, in the Old Testament, is a God who is continually giving His creatures too much latitude, and continually punishing them for not using their freedom as He wishes them to.

The ‘Father of the ancient men’ is a God imposed on the Earth by man, and, like experienced man, He wants impossible things. He is a solitary, selfish and wilful creature who is incapable of love but insists that Earth love Him. Like experienced man He secretly loathes the self-gratification which goes under the name of love and so has come to regard all kinds of physical loving as shameful and guilty. The prison into which Earth is cast is one of being degraded by this sense of shame. Instead of being able to contemplate her naked beauty in the light, as the bard hopes she will be able to, the Earth (the body, the passions) is slighted by being approached only guiltily in the secrecy of darkness:

‘Does the sower
Sow by night
Or the plowman in darkness plow?’

She is enchained in the humiliation of prudish laws and customs which imply that the flesh is indecent and ugly. Life is poisoned and constricted by the effect of prohibitions and distortions imposed on its energies.

In the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Earth's Answer’ God's call is received in different ways. In the first poem the call itself comes from the being who hears it, he hears because he loves the Earth to whom he must deliver it, and he delivers it half prophetically, half as the plea of a lover. In the second poem the call is heard as a demand for love, and the Earth answers half in defiance and half in pleading for the freedom which might make love possible—for ‘free Love with bondage bound’ is an absurdity.

As in all the contrasts he makes in the Songs Blake shows great delicacy in his use of language. The Word whom we hear ‘weeping in the evening dew’ is disconsolate at his loss, and the sense of loss is heightened by the repetition in the last line of the stanza: ‘And fallen, fallen light renew!’ There is a brooding over the event, which is so final. Also, there is the implication that the fall goes on, the breach ever widened. Like the ‘Word’, ‘Starry Jealousy’ also weeps:

‘Cold and hoar,
Weeping o'er,
I hear the Father of the ancient men.’

The weeping is now the result of a much more selfish emotion. The use of the word ‘o'er’ gives the impression of a grief being nursed. The word ‘Father’, which may carry associations of care and responsibility, here refers only to the severe patriarch. With him is associated a mother Earth who is blind, grey and barren, tyrannized over by the Father, and alternating between pity for herself and abuse of the tyrant.

The two contrary states of the soul are presented in ‘Introduction’ and ‘Answer’, and so there are two values to the things depicted. Earth is a desirable young woman and a shrewish and disappointed old one. God is the Man of Sorrows and He is Jehovah. Sexual attraction and meeting is delightful (the budding and blossoming of Spring) and it is a furtive and cruel self-satisfaction (a chaining down in darkness). Blake presents the theme of love between Creator and creation in terms of sexual love, and can do so most convincingly because at both these levels love is a term that means contrary things. Both sorts are powerless to bind anyone against their will, but the selfish variety insists on outward submission and so comes to know love as ugly. The love of the Word, on the other hand, knows the beauty of its partner without any thought of making demands, and love itself is beautiful.

The theme of sexual love is never very far below the surface in the Songs, probably because Blake, engaged in discussing crucial differences, could use the aspect of life where they were most apparent to keep clear his view of an extraordinarily difficult subject. There is such a resemblance in appearance between Innocence and Experience that we describe the states by means of the same words. ‘Mercy’, ‘pity’, ‘peace’ and ‘love’ are the virtues of both states. In ‘A Little Girl Lost’ both the youth and the ‘father white’ show their ‘care’ or love for Ona. The innocent sweeper and the parents of the experienced sweeper refer themselves to the same ‘God’, or suppose they do. Both nurses utter the same words when calling their charges to ‘come home’. Our lives are shot through and through with such resemblances, so close that we are often puzzled to know the exact spirit in which anything is done. In Innocence and Experience, Blake insists, apparent resemblances may hide a world of difference in underlying spirit. We are most sensitive to these differences in the persons who are most close to us, our associates and then our friends. The relationship in which we are most sensitive of all, and the relationship in which we have the best chance of achieving an innocent perfection is, perhaps, the sexual one. Sympathy, unaffected admiration, self-forgetfulness and delight are the characteristics of sexual love or it is not love at all, and these are the qualities of Innocence. Blake helps steady himself in his description of Innocence by keeping in mind the perfection of sexual love, so that sexual overtones appear in songs in the most unlikely places. It is not always necessary to recognize these overtones, which appear irrelevant in some poems (in ‘Night’ and ‘On Another's Sorrow’ for instance). Often, however, the recognition adds significance to the poem.

Blake does not confine his sexual references to the background of his poems, but also meets the topic directly. However, he keeps to the convention (announced in the innocent ‘Introduction’) that his poems are such that ‘every child may joy to hear’. He takes up a suggestion made by Salzmann that infants be told all about sex, but uses a tact in the telling altogether beyond that worthy man. Blake's sexual poems are ambiguous to such a degree that one may find in them only what one brings to them. He goes into considerable detail in presenting the sexual act and the sexual parts, as in ‘The Blossom’ and ‘The Sick Rose’, but the reader must provide the detail from his or her own experience.10


Merry, Merry Sparrow!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Sees you swift as arrow
Seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.
Pretty, Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing
Pretty, Pretty Robin,
Near my Bosom.


O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

‘The Blossom’ is a Song of Innocence, and the attitude taken towards sexual intercourse (the subject of the poem) is profoundly different to that found in the experienced ‘Sick Rose’. There is no hidden suffering here, for the blossom sees her companion with pleasure in the first stanza, even with pride at his jaunty confidence and the sureness with which he finds his destination. In the second stanza, the blossom, still happy, feels tender towards a bird who has changed. The ‘sobbing’ is not necessarily in grief, but in fullness of emotion. Nevertheless the word helps convey the idea of tenderness felt by the blossom.

Sexual intimacy is a theme particularly well suited to Blake's purpose in establishing a gulf between Innocence and Experience. The event is either very wonderful or most distressing. The knowledge it brings is of sublimity or disappointment, with no intermediate condition. The sublimity, moreover, results only from mutual enjoyment, and Innocence is always a condition of absorbed participation. Disappointment is a consequence of loneliness even when, as in unsuccessful sexual encounters, the loneliness is felt in the presence of another. ‘The Blossom’ does not bring out the sublime in sexual experience as successfully as other Songs of Innocence we shall examine. The blossom, herself, despite her tenderness, is rather disengaged, and tends to be aware of the male sexual organ almost as a sort of pet. The poem is delicate, but the attitude described is rather casual (even though purity makes it so) when compared with that seen in such a poem as ‘Cradle Song’.11

‘The Sick Rose’ is meant, perhaps, as a satirical depiction of an unhealthy attitude to sexual love, unhealthy by comparison with the attitude in ‘The Blossom’. If this is the intention, the poem fails to achieve its end and succeeds, instead, in conveying a complexity and depth of appreciation superior to that found in the innocent poem. Elsewhere in the Songs of Experience sex is approached in a negative manner, and one suspects that the positive force of ‘The Sick Rose’ asserts itself in spite of Blake. We are told of the worm12 that he

… flies in the night,
In the howling storm …

He is relentless and without pity, is secret and passionate, but not furtive or mean. He is said to destroy, but the destruction involves a ‘dark secret love’ which takes some of its character from the compassionate concern of the poet. This is felt in the opening line: ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’ which is an involuntary cry in which concern, intimacy and admiration are all felt. In the second stanza both the Rose (the bed ‘Of crimson joy’) and the ‘dark secret love’ are erotic and, in the context, even fierce, but they are also rich and wonderful. ‘The Sick Rose’ suggests the deep and intricate emotions that the sexual act involves despite the secrecy and the possessive taboos with which Experience surrounds the passion.

The illustration to ‘The Blossom’ is a very striking one. The leaves of a flame-like plant lie collapsed on the ground at the foot of the plate. A similar plant erects itself along one side of the plate and bends over the top. Among the upper leaves is a circle of finely drawn figures. In the centre a winged mother bends over a child in her lap. Other children (as cherubs or cupids) are variously engaged. One of them reads a book, two fly to embrace each other, two are embracing, and one (without wings) flies towards the mother. Wicksteed suggests that the leaves have a phallic significance, and that the winged figures trace the ‘current of creation’: birth, self-delight, attraction, embracing and generation.13 The illustration to ‘The Sick Rose’ depicts the rose as having carried its stem down so that the bloom rests on the ground and the stem encircles the text. A small female figure bursts from the heart of the bloom as a worm enters it. Among the rose stems is a caterpillar, also two drooping human figures in attitudes of despair.

A poem did lie to hand that might have been included in the Songs of Experience in place of ‘The Sick Rose’—one that, viewed superficially, might have fitted better with the general air of disillusion, sometimes disgust, found there. The symbolism of the poem is obvious, the emotions are crude, and the poem is thin, especially when one compares it with ‘The Sick Rose’. Blake chose not to engrave it, and it is found only in manuscript:14

I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in,
And many weeping stood without,
Weeping, mourning, worshipping.
I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door,
And he forc'd & forc'd & forc'd,
Down the golden hinges tore.
And along the pavement sweet,
Set with pearls & rubies bright,
All his slimy length he drew,
Till upon the altar white
Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine.
So I turn'd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine.

This poem has a more obvious ‘message’ than ‘The Sick Rose’, as it refers to the religious and social prohibitions placed on sexual experience and then deals with the unfortunate consequence that when the prohibitions are broken (as they inevitably will be), the sanctuary is defiled. The implication is that it might have been better to have allowed unrestricted worship to those who ‘stood without’. If the chapel had been standing open it could not have been entered in guilt.

The poem, which is composed of a wealth of references to Apuleius's ‘Cupid and Psyche’, deals with the complex emotions of sexual experience in too facile a way and Blake did not bother to use it. There is another poem, never printed, which deals more directly with sexual intercourse and which handles the theme most beautifully. Blake made a fair copy of this poem in the Pickering Manuscript15 in about 1803, but its date of composition is not known:


The Maiden caught me in the Wild,
Where I was dancing merrily;
She put me into her Cabinet
And Lock'd me up with a golden Key.
This Cabinet is form'd of Gold
And Pearl & Crystal shining bright,
And within it opens into a World
And a little lovely Moony Night.
Another England there I saw,
Another London with its Tower,
Another Thames & other Hills,
And another pleasant Surrey Bower,
Another Maiden like herself,
Translucent, lovely, shining clear,
Threefold each in the other clos'd—
O, what a pleasant trembling fear!
O, what a smile! a threefold Smile
Fill'd me, that like a flame I burn'd;
I bent to Kiss the lovely Maid,
And found a Threefold Kiss return'd.
I strove to sieze the inmost Form
With ardor fierce & hands of flame,
But burst the Crystal Cabinet,
And like a Weeping Babe became—
A weeping Babe upon the wild,
And Weeping Woman pale reclin'd,
And in the outward air again
I fill'd with woes the passing Wind.

The first five stanzas of the poem deal with the promise of sexual intercourse.16 The cabinet contains a world within the world so that the experience is at once a departure from reality and a heightening of reality. Imprisonment by the maiden is a setting free in ‘another England’. A new realm is gained, which is a renewal of the realm one already knows. The suggestion of an intensified reality is amplified in several ways. The cabinet is an artificial construction but it contains the whole natural world in miniature. It is made of materials that transmit the light and reflect it, dazzling the sense of place. The joy experienced is a sensual one and from the self, but is known only because joy is given and so is that of another. Things become threefold, are intensified, yet less substantial. Like a flame, the lover consumes and is continuously renewed. The last two stanzas describe the culmination of the experience in orgasm. The identification of the self with another may go so far, but in striving to ‘sieze the inmost Form’ all is lost. The transport into the innermost world throws the lovers back on their own selves, emotionally spent.

‘The Blossom’ and ‘The Sick Rose’ do not quite fit into their respective series. The former poem tends to slight its subject, while the latter shows a depth and complexity of awareness unusual in the experienced songs. Blake is able to keep the intention seen in the Songs more clearly in mind in a series of Songs of Experience which deal, not with the sexual act, but with attitudes taken towards the social and religious aspects of sex. ‘The Rose Tree’, for instance, deals with marriage, and the apt choice of that tree as symbol of the state shows some humour. The tree is decidedly an inhabitant of the cultivated garden, is respectably instituted, and it can be relied on to produce flowers regularly, but it has sharp thorns as well:


A flower was offer'd to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said ‘I've a Pretty Rose-tree,’
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.
Then I went to my pretty Rose-tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my Rose turn'd away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.

The qualities of this little poem, and of several others we shall go on to examine, are not nearly often enough recognized in Blake. We have seen him in a vein of austere humour. Here the humour is witty, ironical and combined with subtlety of insight. We are not always as aware of our motives as (being experienced and self-controlled creatures) we like to imagine we are. We do not disclose our more disreputable motives to ourselves and prefer to live (as the experienced nurse says) ‘in disguise’. This does not always deceive other people though. Usually they are aware of the falsity, even though they may not exactly know what the disguise conceals. The rose tree knows that the speaker of the poem has been false to her, even though his conduct has been irreproachable. Blake allows his persona to be just frank enough for us to detect where his self-deception lies. In passing over the sweet flower for the reason that he ‘has a Pretty Rose-tree’ the speaker gives such a smug reason that his wife, one perceives, would have grounds for jealousy, even if she had no knowledge of the other woman. She would sense that the interest her husband showed in her was a proprietary one. He is not really capable of being attracted to anyone, and so the likelihood of his being impelled to love his wife is as remote as his being impelled into the arms of a mistress. In returning to his wife he is presented with her thorns—a well-merited snub.

‘The Rose Tree’ is a carefully controlled poem showing great delicacy of psychological insight. It may be compared with such poems as ‘The Sick Rose’, on the one hand, where there is less deliberate control, but which open up complex vistas in the soul, and, on the other hand, with poems which show too much control, tend to moralize (though the moralizing is on behalf of the devil's party) and which lack subtlety. The moralizing poems never leave the Notebook, and Blake did not print such poems as ‘O Lapwing …’, ‘Soft Snow’, ‘To My Mirtle’17 and other poems which work on an ideological level. Many show wit and many are sharply barbed, but they lack the human dimension.

There is a notable exception, a poem comparable to ‘The Rose Tree’ in depth of insight, which was not printed. It can be seen why Blake did not include the first version of the poem in the Songs, although he was interested enough to make a second try at writing it. It is the first attempt which is of greater interest. It reads:

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she doth depart.
Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly:
He took her with a sigh.(18)

It is possible that the speaker in this poem considers himself rather ill-used, the woman as ungrateful and, it turns out, a loose thing he is well rid of. There seems to be reproach in the ‘I told my love, I told my love’ of the second stanza. As in ‘The Rose Tree’, however, the speaker is allowed to be frank enough for us to see why any reproach to be made belongs to himself. He (unintentionally perhaps) gives himself away in saying:

For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.

The telling of love, unless it has already told itself so well that the utterance is unnecessary, is the forcing of an egocentric emotion on to the attention of another. Love is reciprocal, a shared emotion that seems to move from without, or else it is not love at all. So the speaker has not declared a passion already ‘in the air’ but has exposed a greed. If he had sensed that the woman shared the emotion, was moved by the silent wind, he might be agitated in the telling, but not with ‘ghastly fears’, and there could be no fears on her part. A one-sided declaration such as has been made by the speaker might be acceptable to a woman who was silly and vain enough to be flattered by it, but the reaction is more likely to be alarm and disgust. The traveller who takes her so casually might not have ‘serious intentions’ but at least he is tactful enough to keep silent.

Blake did not use this poem, perhaps because the first stanza shows too much wistful insight to be an utterance of the aggrieved person of the second and third stanzas. He deleted stanza one. But without the first stanza the point of the poem is rather obscure. Blake took up the poem again in ‘I asked a thief …’,19 which describes how the speaker is rebuffed when he makes ‘immoral’ suggestions, but has the chagrin of seeing the success of an angel whose suggestions are conveyed in winks and smiles. By now the original intention of the first version has been lost, and the poem has become a jibe at conventional morality instead of an exploration of experienced self-deception. It does not become one of the Songs.

The trend in the Songs of Experience that we have been examining (that of using the poems to expose motives and impulses normally concealed, even from the self) may be noticed in one or two of the Poetical Sketches, written more than ten years before the publication of the Songs. In ‘How sweet I roam'd from field to field …’20 the affection of the ‘Prince of Love’ is questioned:

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.

This ‘love’ is unhealthily possessive, but though the victim complains, it is by no means certain that she dislikes her ‘golden cage’.

In the poem that immediately follows, Blake's irony is very delicate:


My silks and fine array,
          My smiles and languish'd air,
By love are driv'n away;
          And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.
His face is fair as heav'n,
          When springing buds unfold;
O why to him was't giv'n,
          Whose heart is wintry cold?
His breast is love's all worship'd tomb,
Where all love's pilgrims come.
Bring me an axe and spade,
          Bring me a winding sheet;
When I my grave have made,
          Let winds and tempests beat:
Then down I'll lie, as cold as clay.
True love doth pass away!

One sympathizes with the girl, particularly as (so the middle stanza implies) lovers usually encounter an object that cannot return the love. Her own young man has a heart that is ‘wintry cold’, and he is the epitome of what all lovers come to worship. This coldness does not seem encountered by chance, though. Pilgrims are intent on finding a tomb, and they could not worship there if the saint were not dead and cold. Perhaps the girl (unknowingly) invites a lover who is unresponsive. This is not unlikely, seeing that she was rather affected about her love-affair in the first place:

My silks and fine array,
          My smiles and languish'd air,
By love are driv'n away …

After being rebuffed she must alter the role she plays, but perhaps that is no great matter as long as there is still an attitude to strike. The posture taken in the last two lines of the poem is not the same as that of the first two lines, but it is a similar one, and both are ‘intersting’.

The irony in these two poems from the Poetical Sketches is very gentle and smiling. By the time he comes to write the Songs of Experience Blake is less tolerant of self-deception, as we have seen. Poems like ‘The Human Abstract’ are denunciatory, and ‘The Rose Tree’, although it is less vehement, is damning. ‘The Lilly’ is similar in tone to ‘The Rose Tree’. Blake makes no denunciation, but forces a verdict on the evidence he presents.


The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble Sheep a threat'ning horn;
While the Lilly white shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn, nor a threat, stain her beauty bright.

The ‘modest Rose’ and ‘humble Sheep’ seem to expect an attack prematurely. As they cannot defend themselves, one wonders if the defensive motion might not be designed to invite harm or, at the least, to reassure themselves that harm is intended. Rose and sheep display their emblems of fear while the lily appears unafraid, though not because she is immune from attack. Where rose and sheep ask for the delights of ‘Love’ by showing their readiness to repel it, the lily invites it by appearing ignorant of what is intended. She is far from being innocent in ‘Love’ but she knows (or senses) that it is enticing to appear to be so, and assumes the appearance of a ‘white’, unknowing virginity. Plainly, ‘Love’ is regarded as something fascinating but indecent by all the creatures in the poem and they all show that they have nothing to do with indecencies. All three are insincere, but the lily shows a refinement of insincerity, for she pretends to know nothing of the passion, while the rose and sheep vulgarly insist on it. Small wonder, then, that the lily is more successful in attracting lovers.

Similar disguises to those in ‘The Lilly’ are seen at work in ‘The Angel’ where the maiden Queen hides, first behind a mask of ‘witless woe’, and later behind her ‘fears’:


I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen,
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne'er beguil'd!
And I wept both night and day,
And he wip'd my tears away,
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart's delight.
So he took his wings and fled;
Then the morn blush'd rosy red;
I dried my tears, & arm'd my fears
With ten thousand shields and spears.
Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm'd, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.

The illustration shows us the maiden queen and the angel represented as Psyche and Cupid. The maiden reclines in a position of woe, holding Cupid off with a strange gesture that at once keeps him at arm's length and caresses his cheek. Unlike the lily, the maiden uses her disguise of ‘innocence’, not to attract lovers, but to keep her young man in order, knowing that ‘witless woe was ne'er beguil'd’. She is in love with him but hides her heart's delight, with the result that he leaves. She then changes her tactics. Wishing to encourage, not repel any advance, she puts on a false front of being alarmed by him when he returns. Alas! it is too late, for she is now past caring for anyone else, and so the fears she assumes in order to play the coquette are now translated into real fears.

‘The Angel’ does not show, as a poem, the self-sufficiency of ‘My Pretty Rose Tree’ or ‘Never seek to tell thy love …’. The ironic humour lies in the way the situation changes, and in order to interpret the change the reader is obliged to do some reading between the lines, using his knowledge of other poems such as ‘The Lilly’. Blake seems to have anticipated that the poem would be something of a conundrum when he wrote the first line, and the reader cannot be sure that he has answered the conundrum right. For instance, what significance does the title have in this especial context? It is ironical, of course, that such fears as the maiden experiences should be aroused by a male so honourable and gentle as ‘angel’ implies he is. But there remains some obscurity.

The maiden queen of ‘The Angel’ cannot give way to her heart's delight, she is confused about the state of her own feelings, and she hides her desire until it is no longer desire of a healthy kind. Her life is poisoned by the repression of an emotion just as in ‘A Poison Tree’ hidden feelings act to the detriment of the speaker.


I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water'd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil'd the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.

It is not only the ‘foe’ who is poisoned here. The speaker's life is soured by the results of his caution, by the suspicions and anxieties of being at secret enmity and the strain of keeping up a friendly appearance which is known by both parties to be a sham. The ‘foe’ is aware of the dislike felt towards him, returns it in like manner and the mean contest begins in which the aim is to humble an enemy by getting him to show his spite first. He then has only himself to blame for the consequences, dramatically described (and depicted in the illustration) as death because that is the secret wish these ‘friends’ have for each other.

The enmity is established in the course of the poem, although the first stanza designates the foe. A foe is a person whom one cannot trust with one's feelings, and if one can trust oneself to utter one's feelings to no man, one can expect to make nothing but enemies. The distrust at the outset is a self-distrust, though the consequences are borne also by others. The original title of the poem given in the Notebook21 was ‘Christian Forbearance’ because the cowardice described in the song is usually excused under that name. The poem does not describe the dissembling hypocrite, but a man who is self-deceived, who persuades himself that he is doing the right thing, though he soon finds that he is forced to play the hypocrite deliberately in order to hide his growing wrath.

In most of the poems we have been examining in this chapter there can be seen an intention to illuminate some dark corner of the mind, to show up some confusion or dishonesty in motives. ‘The Garden of Love’ appears, at first sight, to be more straightforward—an indictment of the ‘system’ and not an exposure of hypocrisy or deception in the individual.


I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

The speaker describes the change brought about in the enjoyment of love by the effect of religious notions. What had been a region of pleasure and beauty has become a chapel and graveyard, a place of prohibitions, of mourning, of stifled desires. Love has been made sinful, and so a reminder of mortality instead of an expression of vigour. At a first reading, the intention of the poet seems to be to convey this rather superficial accusation.

If the poem speaks primarily of sexual love (as ‘sweet flowers’ seems to imply) then the speaker has, himself, exchanged a happy experience for an unhappy one. We must take him in one of two ways, then. Either he has allowed his experience of love to become tainted by a sense of guilt as the result of a religious conversion, or else he has become sexually disenchanted and, wishing to find the fault anywhere except in himself, blames the effect on religious prohibitions. In short, the speaker is a fool or a hypocrite, and whatever truth there may be in the social indictment he makes is spoiled by the distorted use made of it. The point is that we are not dealing with any corruption of Innocence, but a change within Experience. The ‘Garden of Love’ is, here, a realm of the mind, and if it is despoiled, the only person who can effect the damage is the individual concerned. If the speaker once enjoyed love which has now become degraded by religious and social pressures, it is he who has given way to the pressures, valuing the love too slightly to retain it. What is probable is that the ‘Garden’ which the speaker laments is not a garden of love at all, but a garden of self-indulgence. There is something to be ashamed of in selfish gratification, and the half-obscured feelings of guilt involved are likely to attract second-rate religious notions. Perhaps this is just as well. The joys known to the speaker are bound with briars because it is necessary that, being distorted joys, they should be controlled. The priests who keep control base their morality on unhealthy repugnancies, but these are necessary checks to unhealthy impulses. Innocence needs no restrictions, but Experience can only control itself by writing ‘Thou shalt not’ over the door.

‘The Garden of Love’ is similar to ‘London’. Both poems are written in the first person and both contain indictments of society in the Godwinian vein: it is his institutions that make man miserable. But there are important differences between the two poems in respect of their scope and complexity and of the degree of Blake's ironic detachment from the speaker. To take the latter point first: ‘The Garden of Love’ simply presents us with a Godwinian idea, and leaves us to make what we like of the argument. There is no indication in the poem that we are not listening to Blake talking in his own voice in an ‘off’ moment. In ‘London’, as we know, Blake's voice is to be heard counterpointing the theme of the wanderer, but in ‘The Garden of Love’ one listens for the ironical counterpoint in vain. ‘London’ is richer, also, in the complexity of its argument. The wanderer is in a miserable condition, but he knows that the situation is made more intolerable by the fact that he is forced to ‘forge’ it himself. He sees, also, that every aspect of his life is infected by the same malady. In ‘The Garden of Love’, the speaker petulantly assumes that the restriction is applied from without and makes no attempt to see the restriction as an aspect of a larger situation. His intelligence is limited, even within the bounds imposed by Experience—which cannot be said of the wanderer.

In ‘The Blossom’, which is an innocent song, sexual love is taken in a very matter-of-fact way, and it is only in the Songs of Experience that furtive motives, shame, and fear make the experience of sex into a painful or disappointing one. Blake's treatment of sex has parallels in his treatment of birth, the underlying theme of two poems on infancy, one innocent and the other experienced:


‘I have no name:
I am but two days old.’
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!


My mother groan'd! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swadling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.

Both these poems are spoken in the first person, but like the two ‘Nurse's Song’s, the one is a monologue, and broods over the speaker's inward vision of an event, while the other is a dialogue (the speaker provides both parts) in which delight is found in relationship with another person. In keeping with the habit of mind of the speaker, each poem seizes on one extreme emotion of the infant's limited range. The experienced poem prefers to dwell on sorrow, so the speaker, who describes his own birth, commences by talking of the groans he could not have been aware of, and goes on to talk of terror and resentment he cannot possibly remember. In the innocent poem the mother appears to have forgotten her pains of two days ago in the enjoyment of her child.

All events require interpretation, but in ‘Infant Sorrow’ interpretation threatens to thrust the event entirely aside. The speaker is not describing his own infancy, of course, but what can normally be observed: the convulsed movements of the baby, the expression on the face of a sucking child, but he is disposed to see these only as a protest against a hostile world. It must be added, however, that despite the speaker's pessimism the poem contains a recognition of the energy displayed by the child. The babe's advent is vigorously described as a leap into the world and even after being pent up in cloud and swaddling bands its subdued force is still apparent. There is an admiration here which is absent in, say, the experienced ‘Nurse's Song’, and it is possible that Blake allowed his theme to carry him beyond the grudging enthusiasms of Experience.

In the innocent poem, the mother is no less inclined to read the mind of her infant, and she goes so far as to put words into its mouth, making up the child's realization that it lacks a name, and then pretending that it gives itself a name which is a projection of the mother's pleasure:

‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’

This is an interpretation of a different sort to the experienced one, for it is governed by an emotion springing from the occasion of being with the child. The interpretation is grounded on a real experience. The interpretation in ‘Infant Sorrow’, on the other hand, is grounded on a habit of mind, a dogmatic view of life, and so is all fantasy.

The illustration to ‘Infant Joy’ shows a mother sitting with a babe on her lap. She is attended by a fairy, and they are placed in the half-open cup of a flower, similar to an anemone. Wicksteed is probably right in giving the flower sexual significance. Blake symbolically traces the baby to its origin, but whether we associate the flower with the uterus or with the gooseberry bush, whether we know how babies are made22 or suppose that the fairies bring them, makes no difference to an appreciation of the poem. Its subject is the present enjoyment of the baby itself, and the symbols may be taken as the reader pleases. The illustration to ‘Infant Sorrow’ prosaically shows a mother about to pick up a struggling infant. In the background is the mother's curtain-hung bed.

Blake's finest achievement in presenting the difference between loves of the innocent and experienced sort is found in two poems both entitled ‘A Cradle Song’, although the experienced version is found only in the Notebook23 and never became one of the Songs.


Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head;
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams.
Sweet sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep, Angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child.
Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight;
Sweet smiles, Mother's smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.
Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes.
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.
Sleep, sleep, happy child,
All creation slept and smil'd;
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee thy mother weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe, once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,
Smiles on thee, on me, on all;
Who became an infant small.
Infant smiles are his own smiles;
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.


Sleep, Sleep, beauty bright
Dreaming o'er the joys of night
Sleep, Sleep: in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit & weep.
Sweet Babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace
Secret joys & secret smiles
Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek & o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart does rest.
O, the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep.
When thy little heart does wake,
Then the dreadful lightnings break.
From thy cheek & from thy eye
O'er the youthful harvests nigh
Infant wiles & infant smiles
Heaven & Earth of peace beguiles.

In these two poems, as in other pairs, Blake uses identical words in order to mean very different things. ‘Sweet’, ‘soft’, ‘peace’, ‘weep’, ‘beguile’ have very different implications in the two contexts, and this is particularly noticeable in the case of the last line of the poems, identical except for a preposition. As the result of a trifling change ‘beguile’ alters its meaning from ‘wins over’ to ‘defrauds’. This similarity in vocabulary but difference in signification reflects the larger picture: two mothers bend admiringly over their baby but they experience very different feelings and see different things, however similar their maternal activities may appear. The difference between the mothers is emphasized in the finest details of the poems. The experienced mother, who supposes that she knows all about the mind of her baby, though she merely projects herself on to it, calls it a ‘beauty’ (line 1), using an absolute term. The innocent mother, who makes no suppositions about her baby's soul, confining her statements to what she sees and feels, uses the word ‘lovely’, acknowledging the personal nature of the impression.

The opening words of the poems establish an immediate distinction between the mothers. The experienced one says:

Sleep, Sleep, beauty bright
Dreaming o'er the joys of night …

The words are almost a command, given as though the child can decide to remain asleep. The innocent mother also talks of dreams but, in doing so, makes no assertion about the mind of her child, for the dreams, like the expressions that haunt its face, hover over the infant, leaving it to rest undisturbed:

Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head …

The lines are spoken as a blessing by a mother who is quite content to accept the baby in its strangeness without ‘bending’ it to her notions. Even when she refers to the infant as ‘happy child’ (line 17) she is not referring to its state of mind but to the appreciation she feels; to the good fortune of its being.

The innocent mother talks of sleep as an ‘Angel mild’ (stanza 2). It is a benign influence hovering over the infant, like the shade-forming dreams, and, like them, is not the outcome of an exertion of will. The dreams wished for, in keeping with the nature of the sleep, are of places of calm influence. As she watches her babe the mother sees it smile (stanza 3) or hears it sigh and moan (stanza 4) in its sleep. These manifestations too, hover over the child rather than emanate from it. This is partly because, as the mother sympathetically responds to these utterances of the child they become movements in her own soul as she bends over the baby, also because the mother never wishes to go further than these outward manifestations. She participates so very sensitively in the movements she watches for, but the baby's soul is beyond her, and she shows no inclination to reach it. She knows nothing of the child's emotions and says nothing about them, being happy merely to watch the changes on the child's countenance.

There is something unpleasant in the experienced mother's feeling of the ‘soft limbs’ of the baby, for she does so in order to satisfy her sensuality. The child, ‘softly’ desirous, knows in its turn how to encourage the caresses it enjoys. Like a self-composed adult it is armed with ‘wiles’, and knows that it must please in order to be pleased. The mother comes very close to describing her babe as though its desires were sexual ones. The ‘joys of night’ are not specified, but like the ‘secret joys’, they sound indecently erotic, and in referring to the ‘youthful harvests nigh’, the mother seems to indicate later sexual experiences, to which the present self-gratifications of the babe are preliminary. Even sleep is spoken of as though it were a storing up of selfish energy which, like ‘dreadful lightnings’, breaks out destructively. The individual does not live in the warmth of contact with others, but coldly communes with himself, spending his animal heat in callous, impersonal bursts. The smiles of the infant in the experienced song do not hover between mother and child, but steal out of the baby. They are the appearance of the ‘cunning wiles’ that ‘creep’ in the baby's ‘little heart’ and come furtively out, like lizards while the sun is shining. The mother centres the baby's world in itself, and assumes that it relates everything to its gratifications, just as she centres her world on herself. Joy is what can be got, is secret and sensuous, while sorrow is the frustration of such pleasures.

In the innocent poem emotions are not neatly definable. Some movement goes on in the baby which gives rise to ‘sweet moans, sweeter smiles’ (line 15), but both ‘moans’ and ‘smiles’ are sweet, for they manifest a whole and complex process. They are not indicative of a being who is built up of categories of emotion, but a living person. The mother smiles and sighs in sympathy, also she weeps over the child (line 20). The infant Christ of the last three stanzas both weeps and smiles. We cannot label the emotions that underly the weeping and smiling of mother and Christ, just as we cannot in the case of the baby. Such emotions involve a complete being and their texture is too complex and unique for easy generalities to be possible.24

The innocent poem cannot see man as the self-enclosed individual whose energies are released, like a flash of lightning into his world. On the contrary, men are quickened by their association with others, and the poem presents us with a complex of connexions. In the last four stanzas the mother associates her infant with the infant Christ:

Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace.

She refers to the Old Testament creation of man in God's image, but there is a more direct reference to Christ, whose purpose in becoming man was to awaken man to the divine in himself. It is only if he can respond to God there, in the virtues of delight which make him reach out beyond himself, that man can know God. An examination of the heavens returns only the blank stare of Nobodaddy.

As the child looks at its mother it, too, senses God, not because it carries any memory of a previous existence, like Wordsworth's child in Intimations of Immortality, but because it sees the face of its mother who loves it:

Thou his image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee …

In addition to ‘seeing’ God in the face of the child, the mother ‘sees’ its father at the time of procreation, and the child, when it sees its mother, also ‘sees’ its father's face on that occasion, because love is manifest now, as it was then:

… Thy maker lay and wept for me,
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,
Smiles on thee, on me, on all;
Who became an infant small.

The peace of the last line of the poem is that of ‘The Divine Image’, a mode of love. It is manifested in the relationship between the mother and child and is also the peace that accompanies and succeeds the sexual act. Unlike the categorical joys of the experienced song, this peace is complete, and always unique. It is referred to in the last three stanzas as a complex of weeping and of smiles, not because there is any rush of vague feeling, but because the emotion defies description or classification.

We noticed in ‘The Divine Image’ that men were unknown to one another and bound to respect each other's privacy. But also they were seen to yearn to each other. In the innocent ‘Cradle Song’ the mother accords the infant its privacy (unlike her experienced sister), yet Blake shows us poetically that they come together so that, though there can be no merging of individuals, their delights become one. In the first two stanzas dreams and sleep are not seen as activities of the baby, but as influences that hover over it. In the third stanza the smiles that appear on the face of the infant are seen in this way in the first two lines, but it becomes less clear as we pass to the second two that the smiles referred to were not those of the mother:

Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight;
Sweet smiles, Mother's smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

The child smiles in its sleep and the mother responds, but it is not always possible to say who is responsible, for it is as if, in the bond between mother and baby, smiling were a condition that hovered between them. We are reminded of the sympathy envisaged in ‘On Another's Sorrow’, so close that a common emotion was shared by separate persons:

Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd?

Christ, in that poem, sits ‘Wiping all our tears away’, but it is not at all certain whose face He wipes them from.

In the fourth stanza, the coming together of the manifestations of mother and child is even more marked:

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes.
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Does the mother hope that the child, in uttering its sighs will not awaken itself, or does she hope that the sounds she makes in response will not disturb it? Does she wish her sighs to beguile away those of the child or does she state that the child's sounds beguile her to peace? All these possibilities are implied, for in her care and responsiveness the mother has ceased to distinguish carefully between the sounds and gestures expressed by the child and her own sympathetic responses.

In the last four stanzas the child, Christ, the father and the mother are interchangeable in many places. The tears and smiles of one person become those of another, and the stanzas may be read in various ways. Although Blake is not stating the impossible: that these individuals are each other, he does mean to convey that there is a closer bond than similarity. All manifest the virtues of ‘The Divine Image’ and when they are together they transcend a mode of being in which we lurk within ourselves. The sympathetic bond does not destroy individuality (there is no merging), but in sympathy, in love, both individuals are moved by the same ‘silent wind’ from without. In the poem this shared influence is seen in the sleep, dreams, smiles, tears that hover between the mother and her child, between the mother and the father, between the divine images when they are divine. The manifestations belong to both persons, but are forced by neither, and without the other they would be impossible. There is no lightning flash of will here, but an energy that springs from intimacy.

The word ‘love’ may be used to refer to forms of self-gratification. The love of the experienced mother is of this sort, and the sexual loves that she predicts for her child are of the same variety. She emphasizes the secrecy and greed of our pleasures and the tensed and wilful nature of our energies. In passing to the innocent song we find human possibilities viewed in an altogether different way. As in the experienced poem, the love of a mother is described and this is related to sexual love but there is no hint of a selfish gratification here. There is something more, even, than shared pleasure. There is delight—an emotion that can only result from contribution to the delight of another, and the sexual dimension in the poem can refer us most successfully to this aspect. Blake introduces the sexual mode, not because he confuses it with other modes of love, but because, in referring to it, he can exemplify, in an understandable way, what, ideally, all modes of love have in common. In the sexual act the self is thrust into the background of the experience, and though the participants will eventually be thrown back into the ‘outward air’, self is subordinate to a being together, and, for a while, takes its significance from that conjunction. The experience is creative of the individuals that go to make it up, and not a forced creation of the will of each.

In the innocent ‘Cradle Song’ the mother is not isolated. She is an individual with her own secrets, and she realizes that her baby (which she does not suppose she can pry into) has its private and inexplicable inner self. But, in the moment of sympathy, these privacies have become secondary to a uniting experience, just as in coitus the union overcomes, for a while, the persons involved.


  1. See the Appendix for a fuller discussion of this matter.

  2. See p. 117.

  3. Notebook, pp. 99, 105. Given in Complete Writings (1957), pp. 179, 184. Blake illustrates Oothoon kissing a joy as it flies in the Visions of the Daughters of Albion, plate iii.

  4. ‘The Hinterland of Thought’ in Metaphor and Symbol, Colston Papers, xii, ed. Knights and Cottle (1960), p. 16; reprinted in D. W. Harding, Experience into Words (1963), p. 187.

  5. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of poetry see: L. C. Knights, ‘Poetry as Discovery’, Reality and Creative Vision in German Lyric Poetry, Colston Papers, xv, ed. A. Closs (1963).

  6. See: A. E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933), pp. 41-2; Stanley Gardner, Infinity on the Anvil, pp. 118-19; René Wellek, Scrutiny, v (1937), 377; F. R. Leavis, Revaluation (1936), pp. 140-2; and The Common Pursuit (1958), p. 216; R. F. Gleckner, The Piper and the Bard, pp. 232-7.

  7. Blake's religious ideas are very much in advance of his time, but are confirmed by the best thought now current. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, says: ‘This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.’ (‘Letter of July 16th 1944’, Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953, p. 122.)

  8. Cf. ‘To Tirzah’, analysed on pp. 232 ff.

  9. 2 Pet. ii. 4.

  10. In the second part of the Botanic Garden (issued in its complete form in 1791), a work for which Blake engraved a number of plates, Erasmus Darwin describes the sexual parts of flowers allegorically in terms of human beings. An anther overtopped by six stamens might be a queen guarded by six tall warriors, and so on. Here a harmless topic is harmlessly represented, and it must have afforded Blake some amusement to reverse this order so as harmlessly to represent the unmentionable.

  11. Discussed on pp. 182 ff.

  12. For a discussion of the sources from which Blake probably derived his images in this poem and other experienced ‘love poems’ see Kathleen Raine, ‘Blake's Debt to Antiquity’, Sewanee Review, lxxi (1963), 380 ff.

  13. Blake's Innocence and Experience, pp. 124 n., 125 ff.

  14. Notebook, p. 115. Complete Writings (1957), p. 163.

  15. Complete Writings (1957), p. 429.

  16. For a different interpretation of the poem see Kathleen Raine, ‘Blake's Debt to Antiquity’, Sewanee Review, lxxi (1963), 400.

  17. In the Notebook. See Complete Writings (1957), pp. 168, 176.

  18. The version given here is Sampson's reconstruction of what Blake first wrote down, and is taken from his Poetical Works of William Blake (1913), p. 109. It is worth noting, however, that Blake's version, like all the poems in the Notebook, is without punctuation (see Keynes's facsimile edition). We may, therefore, take line 7 (‘Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears’) as descriptive of the speaker, of the woman he addresses, or of both of them.

  19. Notebook, p. 114.

  20. Complete Writings (1957), p. 6.

  21. P. 114. Complete Writings (1957), p. 165.

  22. Compare ‘A fairy leaped upon my knee …’, Complete Writings (1957), p. 188.

  23. P. 114. Complete Writings (1957), p. 164.

  24. This is true of the type of self-expression seen as belonging to the piper (pp. 149 ff.). His words, like his music, carry the weight of his whole being. Compare also the weeping with joy in other Songs of Innocence.

Heather Glen (essay date 1978)

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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 of Experience contain several poems which look like poems of social protest. But a close reading of the poems suggests that Blake's attitude towards late eighteenth-century habits of moral judgement and instruction is by no means a simple one. Although the Songs display an awareness of many of the issues raised in contemporary ethical discussion, they reach beyond such discussion by questioning the very premises on which it is based.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience were initially addressed to an expanding middle-class reading public—those liberal middle classes who could be expected to pay five shillings for what was apparently an attractive example of a child's book of poems, who would take a humanitarian interest in such subjects as the plight of the chimney-sweeps or of the charity school children. Such readers did not by any means all share the same opinions, but they do seem to have shared certain very basic assumptions, assumptions natural to a dominant class which felt no really radical challenge to its attempts to impose its modes of thinking and feeling on others. To such readers, there was nothing problematic about moral judgement as such. The nature of the judgement, its fitness to the particular instance, might be debated and disagreed over; but morality itself was something universally applicable, and moral values, however difficult to grasp in real-life situations, could be rationally and unambiguously defined. The greatest eighteenth-century writers were of course not unthinking in their acceptance of these premises: both Hume and Johnson, for instance, expressed doubts as to whether the reason could ever completely control moral choice, or whether moral principles could ever be really adequately determined. But for both, moral virtue—whatever one understood it to be—remained an ideal to be striven towards, the refinement of moral judgement the best task of the rational man. Characteristically, it is Johnson who gives the clearest exposition of the nature of his contemporaries' assumptions. ‘He that thinks reasonably’, he wrote in the Preface to Shakespeare, ‘must think morally’: and while this is obviously a far from adequate summary of his own intimate and perceptive understanding of moral dilemmas, it is a fair indication of the belief that lay behind his whole life's work—as it lay behind the moral thinking of his age. Moral judgement was a necessary part of all experience: there was no area of life to which it did not properly extend.

Such an assumption is by no means a peculiar one; it is basic to many, perhaps most, people's thinking today. But it is one that was emphatically not shared by Blake: that seems, indeed, to have been directly challenged by him:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

(E [D. V. Erdman (ed.), The Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York, 1965)] 27/K [G. L. Keynes (ed.), The Complete Writings of William Blake (Oxford, 1966)] 217)

What is being expressed here is not merely an attack on a dehumanizing social order. Nor is it a distrust of the human ability to make the correct moral discriminations. It is nothing less than a distrust of moral thinking itself.

This was not just an abstract philosophical theory: it was based on and rooted in an intimate sense of the conditions of life in late eighteenth-century England as Blake saw them. And for this reason, perhaps the most revealing of his poems on ‘moral’ questions are those which deal with what are usually thought of as social problems: those of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience which deal with some of the injustices and abuses which preoccupied Blake's humanitarian contemporaries. There will be no room in this essay to discuss the Songs as a whole collection. But a consideration of some of these poems does, I think, throw a good deal of light on Blake's peculiar but quite coherent and intelligible distrust of what he called ‘Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil’ (E553/K615).

Thirty-five years after it was first published, Charles Lamb sent ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence as a contribution to a charitable volume designed to arouse sympathy for the lot of the chimney-sweeps, The Chimney-Sweeper's Friend and Climbing Boy's Album.1 It is an illuminating context for the poem. The first half of the volume contains reports of contemporary enquiries into the conditions under which boys were employed: the horrific nature of the evidence is curiously at odds with the matter-of-fact way in which it is reported (often by the chimney-sweeps themselves). The second half consists of ‘protest’ verse, of which the following, by William Lisle Bowles, is a fair example:

They sing of the poor sailor-boy who wanders o'er the deep,
But few are they who think upon the friendless little sweep!
In darkness to his dreary toil, thro' winter's frost and snows,
When the keen north is piping shrill, the shiv'ring urchin goes.
He has no father, and from grief his mother's eyes are dim,
And none besides, in all the world, awakes to pray for him:
For him no summer Sundays smile, no health is in the breeze;
His mind dark as his fate, his frame a prey to dire disease.

The sing-song sentimentality of this is very different from the prosaic, dulled acceptance of the sweeps' courtroom speeches.2 And interestingly, in Blake's poem, one catches echoes of both these tones: the unquestioning matter-of-factness of the sweeps, and the easy pathos of ‘protest’. Blake knows, intimately, the common kinds of response to the situation he presents, and he also seems to be sharply aware of the disjunction between them.

By 1789, when Blake's poem was issued, the plight of the London chimney-sweepers was already the subject of considerable humanitarian concern; was seen, indeed, by some, as a national scandal. Jonas Hanway's A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps, published in 1785 ‘to recommend to my fellow-subjects, particularly the inhabitants of these vast cities, the exercise of their humanity towards those who call the loudest for it,—Chimney Sweepers Climbing-Boys!’, prefigures not merely Blake's ironic play upon the chimney-sweeper's familiar street-cry, but also that sense of the sweep as the blackened exposer of the pretensions of a whole society which was to find poetic expression in ‘London’:

it is in vain to talk of the age being enlightened, while the chimnies are darkened by their narrowness, and their tops so covered with earthen pots.

(p. xviii)

no other nation employs boys in sweeping their chimnies; it being generally done by men climbers, or by brushwood tied to a cord.

(p. 31)

the national disgrace is manifest: it is an offence against God; and nature cries against us!

(p. 58)

Beside this, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence might at first seem more remarkable for what it does not say than for what it does. There is none of Hanway's explicit protest, and none of Bowles's confident sentimentality. Instead, the poem opens with the unmediated voice of the chimney-sweeper himself, telling about his life with unemotional sobriety. The facts that he details are the familiar facts of Hanway's account:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my Father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.


How the masters obtain these children, would be mysterious, were it not known that numbers of the least virtuous, or most necessitous among the labouring poor, part with their children at any rate … Orphans, who are in a vagabond state, or the illegitimate children of the poorest kind of people, are said to be sold; that is, their service for seven years is disposed of for twenty or thirty shillings; being a smaller price than the value of a terrier: but it is presumed that the children of poor parents, who cannot find bread for a numerous family, make up by much the greater part of the number of the climbing boys … If the boy is under a master who has constant, regular employment, as soon as his morning's work is done, he is generally sent to seek for further business, or, as they term it, to call the streets … We may figure to ourselves, the boy called from the bag of soot on which he slept, oftentimes walking a mile or two to his work.

(pp. 24-7)

And the unprotesting flatness of his speech is analogous to that of the court reports published in The Chimney-Sweeper's Friend more than thirty years later: here, as there, the sweep seems either too naïve or too apathetic to question what has happened to him. But the effect of Blake's stanza is not one of childish acceptance. If the little boy explains his life as an inescapable logical progression, one thing naturally following on from the next (‘When … And … So …’), the unnaturalness of that progression is emphasized by the way in which his awkwardly prosaic speaking voice prevents any regular metrical pattern being established—so that the matter-of-fact chain of cause and effect ending in ‘So your chimneys I sweep’ has none of the feeling of conclusiveness that, for instance, Bowles's more explicitly protesting lines do. This is a state of affairs that the child accepts, apparently uncritically, but the verse does not.

And the unease created by the rhythm is reinforced by the bald directness of the boy's own speech. The polite reader is unemphatically but inescapably implicated as the childish catalogue continues—‘So your chimneys I sweep’: he is allowed no easy indulgence in sentimental pity, for he is denied any position from which he might unhypocritically direct it. Nor is there any trace of Bowles's sweep's self-regarding pathos. If the child's naïve account of his own street cry—‘'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’—unconsciously suggests that other, less ‘innocent’ perspective of pity from which the lot of the sweeps might be seen, his unconsciousness is part of the point. He was sold, he tells us, ‘while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’; before he was capable of seeing himself as an object of compassion, before he would have been likely to question the inexorable progression outlined in the stanza. Unwittingly, he ‘calls for humanity’3 but it does not seem to occur to him to see himself as a pitiable object at all. Instead his interest turns very quickly away from himself, towards another equally unfortunate.

And as soon as it does so, the verse takes life: it leaps from the rational summary of the first stanza into the focus of present vision. The logical connections, which have seemed stilted and artificial, here hit the ear with a feeling of excited inevitability, as the child's colloquial speech rhythms fall naturally into metrical patterns:

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl'd like a lamb's back, was shav'd, so I said
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare
‘You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

And as in the first stanza the child's uncomplaining repetition of the cry that is the sign of his servitude releases a double meaning in the verse, so here his innocent acceptance of the terrible pragmatism that has debased them opens up a visionary perspective. His delighted feeling for the other child's beauty—‘his head / That curl'd like a lamb's back’—becomes, in a movement of unprotesting sympathy, an unconscious affirmation that in their sight it cannot be destroyed: on his lips, the rationalizations of the masters acquire an illogical, transcendent suggestiveness:

                                                                                ‘for when your head's bare
‘You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

There is no judgement here. Instead there is an utterly unself-regarding, unquestioning responsiveness to the world which is more positive even than trust, and which seems to be able to transform the most threatening circumstances.

The dramatic movement from the first to this second stanza is the pivot of the poem. The first—stilted, awkward, a distanced account of a whole life—shows the child trying to describe his experiences in the language of adult rationalism: the second—vivid, particular, quick-moving—registers a much more spontaneous, unselfconscious involvement in positive feeling for another. It is an entirely natural transition—the child abandoning his prosaic summary to focus on that which interests and excites him much more—but in presenting it Blake also evaluates it. The ‘childish’ mode of experience is felt, in the very movement of the verse, in the liveliness of its realization, to have a naturalness and a rightness that the adult mode does not. And as the poem goes on, the transforming power of that unjudging responsiveness becomes more and more apparent. Just as the first chimney-sweeper's quick intuitive sympathy creates its own natural logic, different from (and an unconscious ironic commentary upon) the self-seeking logic of rational utilitarianism which is responsible for their condition, so in little Tom Dacre's unself-pitying dream the harsh facts of their life become the components of a transcendent imaginative vision. The cramped chimneys in which the sweeps were immured and sometimes actually did suffocate are seen as ‘coffins of black’; by a similar emotional logic the sky which they could glimpse beyond them as they worked is the ultimate symbol of freedom—‘They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind’. Even the luminous vision of the boys leaping down to bathe in the river has its foundation in fact: as The Chimney-Sweeper's Friend reveals, in a reprinted report of evidence taken before a committee of the House of Lords: ‘We found that among the less respectable class of chimney-sweepers the boys were taken to the New River [for washing] on a Sunday morning, in the summer season’ (p. 175). To the pragmatic adult view, the river is a place to wash in: to the little sweep, it is a place of radiant meaning, like the river of life of the Apocalypse. To the committee, the sweeps are a generalized class of unfortunates: to this boy, as to his friend, they are particular people with familiar names. His dream is no escapist fantasy: what he sees is neither a denial of nor a vague generalization of the particular details of his life, but (as is the case in all dreams) a concentration on those which are emotionally significant, a distortion which is the expression of a profound response to them. The result is a dynamic vision of joyous energy which—as the more alert of Blake's eighteenth-century readers would have perceived with a shock—is created, paradoxically, out of those very elements in the world which would seem to threaten it most.

And it is a vision which contrasts sharply with the rational, common-sense frame of reference evoked by the final moral axiom:

So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

The child seems merely to be parrotting the precepts of the morality that he has been taught and which justifies his exploitation: behind this line one hears the voice of a master telling a boy that if he works hard he will not be whipped, or that the child's soul is safe if he fulfils the ‘duties’ appropriate to his station. His words are very close to those which a contemporary interlocutor from the polite classes might have hoped to hear: the sympathetic Hanway, for instance, writes:

As to the boys in question, very few of them are taught anything: but we may flatter ourselves that a period of more justice is at hand. Mr. Raikes, a gentleman of Gloucester, has lately established what are called Sunday Schools, that, instead of permitting children to loiter in idleness, ignorance, and vice, as young chimney-sweepers do with us, the poorest kind of children are collected and taught their duty …

(p. 9)

I have now before my eyes a particular object of the misery I have endeavoured to describe … The object in question, to judge from his discourse, has the full exercise of his reason, and all its glorious faculties; and affections not inferior to the common race of men. He is now twelve years of age, a cripple on crutches, hardly three feet seven inches in stature. … His hair felt like a hog's bristles, and his head like a warm cinder … He repeats the Lord's-prayer, and the Belief, seemingly acquired by the force of genius, or an instinctive power: he had also heard of such a thing as Commandments.

This boy, from a certain active spirit and goodness of heart, still performs his duty to his mistress; and though he cannot move on the surface of the earth without the assistance of crutches, and has aid from the parish, he climbs and sweeps a chimney.

(pp. 77-9)

But something of the contradiction in which this lands Hanway—and which is exposed by Blake—is suggested when one turns from such passages as these to those where he appeals to religion not merely as that which helps the oppressed to bear their situation, but as something equally binding on their masters: ‘Happy were it for the earth, if the inhabitants were all Christians: if they understood their duty as such, “loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and his neighbour as himself” and the precarious tenure of their present state, when “they fall they would find a stay” (p. xxvii). Seen in the light of this, the radical irony in the ‘all’ of Blake's final line becomes clear: an irony that is as much an unconscious indictment as the ‘your’ of the fourth line of the poem. The sweep may be innocent, but the target of the verse is not. For if all did their duty, in the sense of loving their neighbours as themselves, there would indeed be no ‘harm’ such as that in which this child must live. On his lips, the ‘moral’ he offers is an unconscious but scathing criticism of those who have taught it him. And it is also a veiled, innocently spoken threat, prefiguring the ‘blasting’ new-born infant's fear of ‘London’. In a society such as this, where all do not do their ‘duty’, ‘they’ (and the vagueness of the pronoun is significant) must indeed fear harm, for all are debased together.

This latter feeling is a very long way from the sentimental pathos of Bowles's lines, or from a simple humanitarian appeal. And it is reinforced when one considers that for the eighteenth-century reader the figure of the chimney-sweeper would have had other associations besides those of a pitiable object: associations which make Blake's choice of him as the subject of a poem such as this extraordinarily interesting. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, as Kathleen Raine has noted,4 bears a close resemblance to a passage from a Swedenborgian tract published in English translation in 1787, a passage which it is perhaps worth quoting in full:

There are also Spirits amongst those from the Earth Jupiter, whom they call Sweepers of Chimnies, because they appear in like Garments, and likewise with sooty faces … One of these Spirits came to me, and anxiously requested that I would intercede for him to be admitted into Heaven; he said, that he was not conscious of having done any Evil, only that he had reprimanded the Inhabitants of his Earth, and that after reprimanding he instructed them … I was informed that they are such at first, who are afterwards received amongst those who constitute the Province of the Seminal Vessels in the Grand Man or Heaven; for in these vessels the Semen is collected, and is encompassed with a Covering of suitable Matter, fit to preserve the prolific Principle of the Semen from being dissipated, but which may be put off in the Neck of the Uterus, thus what is reserved within may serve for Conception or the Impregnation of the Ovulum; hence also that the seminal Matter hath a strong Tendency and as it were a burning Desire to put itself off, and leave the Semen to accomplish it's end: Somewhat similar appeared likewise in this Spirit: He came again to me, in vile Raiment, and again said, that he had a burning Desire to be admitted into Heaven, and that now he perceived himself to be qualified for that Purpose; it was given me to tell him, that possibly that was a Token that he would shortly be admitted: at that Instant the Angel called to him to cast off his Raiment, which he did immediately with inconceivable Quickness from the Vehemence of his Desire; whereby was represented what is the Nature of their Desires, who are in the Province to which the seminal Vessels correspond. I was informed that such, when they are prepared for Heaven, are stripped of their own Garments, and are clothed with new shining Raiment, and become Angels. They are likened unto Caterpillars, which having passed through that vile State of their Existence, are changed into Nymphs and thus into Butterflies, in which last state they are gifted with new Cloathing, and also with Wings of various Colours, as blue, yellow, silver, or golden; at the same Time they have Liberty to fly in the open Air as in their Heaven, and to celebrate their Marriages, and to lay their Eggs, and thus to provide for the Propagation of their Kind …5

Miss Raine concentrates on the spiritual significance of the image: the way in which the desire of the sweep to be rid of his ‘vile Raiment’ is a metaphor for the soul's desire to cast off the body. And in his rendering of the little sweep's dream—at once realistic as a dream-transmutation of elements in his life, and suggestive of exactly this kind of spiritual transcendence—Blake is certainly evoking something of the same metaphoric resonance. Yet his poem—with its patent concern with actual, contemporary social reality and its problematic last line—is clearly not simply a metaphor for a spiritual experience. I think that it is worth considering the not-so-spiritual suggestions of Swedenborg's passage a little more closely. It certainly seems likely that Blake had read this passage,6 and the closeness of some of its imagery to his suggests that he was very familiar with it. But to all but a small group of his readers it would obviously have been unknown. Its interest, as far as this poem is concerned, lies less in any direct borrowings that Blake may have made from it than in what it suggests about the potency of the sweep as an image of ‘burning’ and subversive ‘Desire’. And such suggestions would have been very familiar to Blake's late eighteenth-century readers, whether or not they were Swedenborgians.

Humanitarian concern for the chimney-sweeps was in 1789 a phenomenon of fairly recent date: until about 1760, Dorothy George points out, ‘chimney-sweepers … had been regarded as villains ripening for the gallows rather than as objects of compassion’.7 Because of the seasonal nature of their work, they were often left to beg—or forced to turn to crime—during the summer; in the winter, they were sent to call the streets for trade, and because of this had much greater freedom (along with greater hardship) than most other apprentices.8 Hence their popular image was one of lawlessness and disorder (and, oddly, idleness): mill-owners objecting to Peel's 1802 act for the protection of apprentices in cotton-mills argued that such apprentices were ‘composed of the children of beggars, chimney-sweepers and others accustomed to live in total idleness and not infrequently addicted to stealing, swearing and other vices’.9 It was perhaps this image of unruliness that had made the sweeps constant symbols of subversion in the Wilkite riots of the 1760s and 1770s. John Brewer suggests some other possibilities:

It is difficult to see why chimney-sweeps were so important. Possibly they were regarded as ‘liminal’ people [i.e. outside the hierarchical structure of the society and representing the values of communitas, an egalitarian social order], occupying a twilight world of their own. Both their appearance and their activities would reinforce this view. Hanway certainly thought of them as a group that operated outside the usual mechanisms of social control, but he had his reasons for wanting to exaggerate their unruly and supposedly callous nature. For obvious reasons they were difficult to identify, and this seems to have been a genuine cause for concern on the part of the London magistracy (e.g. Old Bailey Proceedings, 1768, 360). Persons described as chimney sweeps may not have been sweeps at all, but simply those who dressed as sweeps, both for the purposes of disguise, and to emphasise the peculiarity of the situation.10

The feeling that the sweep was a marginal figure unsubservient to the laws of the society, combined with the obvious sexual symbolism of his trade of pushing his way up chimneys (pointed to by Swedenborg, but also acknowledged in popular folklore in England well into this century, in the custom of a chimney-sweep kissing a bride to bring good luck upon the marriage),11 made him a very potent image of subversive passion. It is an image which could not have failed to be present in the minds of readers to whom the Wilkes riots were a recent memory, and one which would have complicated any simple feelings of humanitarian concern for such a figure. An incident cited by Brewer is extremely suggestive:

on April Fool's day 1771, effigies of the Princess Dowager, Lord Bute, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the two Fox brothers were placed in two carts preceded by a hearse, and taken through the streets of London to the properly constituted execution place of all traitors, Tower Hill, where they were decapitated by a chimney-sweep who also doubled as the officiating minister; they were then ceremoniously burnt.12

This chimney-sweep is very different from Blake's innocent child. But the fact that such associations could cluster around such a figure, the closeness of Blake's images to Swedenborg's imagery of ‘burning Desire’, and the veiled warning of the poem's final line—‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’—make it difficult to see the ‘Innocent’ chimney-sweeper simply as a wronged victim, whose passive presence is intended to stir the conscience of the polite reader. His dream is too potent, too dynamic for that. He may be unconscious of it, but he hints at the possibility of an avenging energy at work within the society.

And in his innocence he also represents a human potential for an unjudging wholeness of vision, an unself-seeking love, that is unrealized by the social structure within which he must live. For in repeating the platitudes of the morality that allows and even justifies suffering such as his, he is not merely exposing the hypocrisy of those who would maintain the status quo. He is also giving expression to the radical implications of the Christianity which has been taught to him. For in another sense, he activates a real truth in the moral cliché he offers. He does do his duty, if duty is to be conceived of as the kind of spontaneous and quick-witted and understanding love he shows towards another frightened little boy: in a similar way, little Tom's dream focusses on the release of others. And even in conditions of the most unequivocal ‘harm’ they do seem to find no cause for fear, but a visionary life. For them, tenderly seen particulars—‘his head / That curl'd like a lamb's back’, ‘thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack’—take on an imaginative dimension that transcends that of ‘fact’, creating a world of warmth and happiness and mutual concern that is more vivid, and in poetic terms, more real, than the world of darkness and coldness and exploitation within which they must live. It is, indeed, exactly the opposite of the outlined ‘reality’ which surrounds it. But the mainspring of their vision is not escapist fantasy. It is an impulse of imaginative empathy that creates a shared transcendent reality:

‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare
‘You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

Their vision is a vision of possibility released by that impulse, a vision which is not a fantasy-alternative safely insulated from the real world in which they must live, but one which comments unanswerably on what their society accepts as reality, on its failure to actualize the values it purports to hold. In attesting that ‘If all do their duty, they need not fear harm’, Blake's sweep is exposing the essential radicalism of Christianity, a religion of love, not of obedience within an immutable status quo, of the spirit, not of the law, of equality, not of subordination.

And it is a vision which cannot be communicated in the debased moral language of this society. The eighteenth-century reader of such a poem would have expected to find it resolved by a summarizing moral. But the moral tag with which this child tries to sum up his story remains, as we have seen, disturbingly ambiguous: on one level, an unconsciously ironic echo of the ideology of subordination which seeks to keep him contented with his lot, on another, charged with a newly radical meaning. The reader is deliberately left uncertain as to which is the correct interpretation—and is forced into a disconcerting awareness of the emptiness of the generalizing, moralizing, aphoristic approach to experience. For the enigmatic abstraction of that echoed moral—‘a Moral like a sting in the tail’ (E267/K778)—contrasts tellingly with the little sweep's unjudging, unanalytic, plastic liveliness of vision. The difference between the child's innocence and the rationalizing, generalizing Experience whose words he parrots is not a difference between two moral attitudes towards the world, one good and the other bad, but a difference between two states of being, one within the universe of moral discourse and the other out of it. He is not outlining a superior morality: he is affirming a way of seeing which is not that of the moral law, which was alive before the moral law was constructed upon it, and which questions the pretensions of that law as well as apprehending a reality towards which it can only point. If the poem articulates a religious position, it is not, whether seriously or ironically, that of quiescent Methodism—‘the best available defence of the status quo13—but that of antinomianism.

Blake may or may not have been connected with actual antinomian sects in eighteenth-century London.14 He certainly seems to have been familiar with antinomian ideas—and in particular with those which held that the moral law is a mystifying block to understanding, the result of ‘the Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of Good & Evil when it leaves Paradise following the Serpent’,15 that the divine potential exists in every human being, and that heaven and hell are spiritual states rather than places beyond this world. The connection of such ideas with the kind of vision presented in this poem (as in many other of the Songs) is clear enough. Yet ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ is not a theological tract, nor does it expound even an unorthodox doctrine. It springs from and articulates a whole sense of a society, and its antinomian implications are of interest, less because they point towards Blake's possible connections with or more distant debts to such thinkers, than because of the way in which the poem itself illuminates the complex nature of antinomianism and its relevance to the society which Blake knew.

Blake is not simply exposing suffering and exploitation which had hitherto gone unremarked: as we have seen, others had protested at the condition of the chimney-sweeps, and even within the children's books of the period one finds little poems deploring their lot. By writing what would superficially have appeared to be such a poem, Blake was deliberately engaging with the polite morality of his day in one of its simplest forms, arousing expectations of clear-cut moral instruction in his readers. And ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ would have forced the more alert of such readers to recognize—not as an abstract idea, but as a difficulty felt in the very act of reading—that their own familiar moral terms, when really located within the social situations to which they were usually so confidently applied, could seem disturbingly double-edged. This is not a simple ‘protest poem’. It implicates the reader directly, and refuses to allow him any uncontaminated moral perspective (e.g. of pity, of clearly defined duty) such as conventional ‘protest’ verse would assume. And hence it offers not a theology, but a dramatization of that conflict between actual social experience and ‘official’ justifying morality of which the antinomian rejection of the moral law is a natural theological expression. The closing moral platitude by its very unsatisfactoriness exposes the way in which a morality abstracted from the social experience on which it is based can become a radically problematic thing. It is not just that its terms (such as the ‘duty’ of which Hanway writes) have become devalued, or that it can simply be dismissed as the hypocritical ideology of an exploiting class. It is not entirely meaningless: it can, as we have seen, be turned with devastating meaning on those who profess to hold it. In Blake's own words, ‘The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness, the Righteous to Righteousness.’16 But its meaning depends quite radically on the lips from which it is spoken, and its abstraction (the abstraction necessary to generalization) means that it is always less than—at best a mere pointer towards, at worst a mystifying block to—the reality of vision.

Blake's chimney-sweep (like the other innocent speakers of Songs of Innocence) testifies to a human potentia which transcends all the distortions and the devaluations which the social experience of his time has left embedded in the language of ordinary moral discourse: his dream is not a vague, unfocused private aspiration, but a vivid articulation of possibility, activated by an unjudging love, which leads naturally into a sense of how ‘all’ might be. Again and again, in different ways, the Songs of Innocence present such a vision: the finest poetic expression in our language of that sense of the divine within the human which was the inspiration of the seventeenth-century antinomians and which informed their social thinking—the ‘Divine Vision’ which Blake kept in time of trouble.17 But it was never for Blake an escapist vision. It was born out of and defined against a painfully intimate sense of all that threatened it most—not merely the suffering and exploitation manifest in late eighteenth-century English society, but the powerful patterns of thinking and feeling which determined and were determined by that society, and towards which contemporary consciousness was inevitably pulled. And to Blake, as the scathing implicit criticism of moral precept in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ suggests, the attempt to order experience according to an abstracted moral law was one of the cruxes of the social disaster he saw around him.

Why he felt this can be seen most clearly, perhaps, if one turns to two of the Songs which seem to have been designed as companion pieces, the two ‘Holy Thursday’s. The first, from Songs of Innocence (E13/K121-2), is in many ways very similar to ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. Like that poem, it deals with a typical object of eighteenth-century charitable concern: like that poem, it would have appeared to its first readers to be an exercise in the popular convention of the moral song, with an improving moral ‘tag’ at the end. And like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, it is a great deal less simple than it at first appears. There is the same curious intermingling of ‘vision’ and realism: the speaker, like the little sweep, registers a great deal about the actual circumstances he is describing,18 but seems equally unconcerned with complaining about them. His view of the children's procession is the reverse of escapist: like the little sweep's dream, it is composed of the ordinary, not-very-graceful elements of the scene before him. Indeed, here ‘reality’ is even more insistently present in the poetry, not merely in the obvious details of the beadles' ‘wands’ and the regimented seating arrangements, but in the continuous rhythm of marching feet—created by the length of the lines and the large number of short jostling syllables in each, and curiously at odds with the transcendental vision of ‘Thames waters’ flowing. The plate itself suggests that Blake meant to emphasize the difficult, hobbledehoy movement of the children. In design it is unlike any of the other plates, with its straight horizontal lines of children at top and bottom—children who move stiffly and awkwardly, not at all like the little sweeps in the plate for ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. And it is the only plate in Songs of Innocence which has curling lines and tendrils between every line, and in some places between the words, making the song deliberately difficult to read, and emphasizing its jerky difficult rhythm. There is nothing evasive or escapist about this poem: the vision it presents is rooted in an acute sensitivity to an actual, living situation—a sensitivity which informs and yet does not destroy the larger, more sweeping movement of natural process that is suggested by the imagery.

‘Holy Thursday’ is unlike ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in that the speaker is not himself exactly an innocent. He watches the scene with some consciousness of its implications; he labels the children as ‘innocent’, where innocence itself would be unselfconscious; he knows that there are other ‘multitudes’ (this is London in the 1780s) than ‘multitudes of lambs’. But he is not the kind of speaker that the reader accustomed to reading children's verse about the poor would have expected. He is not standing back and moralizing over what he sees: to him it is a marvellous spectacle with a life and colour that have nothing to do with moral judgement. His voice has something of the same unmoralizing, unpitying empathy as we catch in the chimney-sweep's picture of Tom Dacre and his dream: as that child is able excitedly to enter into the logic of another's vision, so this watcher registers the jog-trot rhythm of the children's procession with wondering sensitivity, and moves on an expansive echo of their own song:

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.

And although, like the little sweep's dream with its ‘coffins of black’ and its ‘clouds’ of freedom, his vision underlines the inner significance of the everyday—the beadles who carry their wands like snow, the children who sit above their guardians, the radiance which is ‘all their own’—it does not moralize it in a knowingly superior way, turning it to a self-congratulatory or protesting purpose. Instead, he makes out of the most disturbing elements of the situation (the visible hierarchy which is suggestively overturned in the seating arrangements, the regimented marching of the children) a quite a-moral vision of beauty and harmony, based in but not confined to a specific scene (as the tenses waver between past and present, to give an effect both of timelessness and particularity).

Like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘Holy Thursday’ ends with a ‘moral’: a ‘moral’ which is at once less clichéd than but just as equivocal in tone as that of the other poem:

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

One feels here an appeal to a shared tradition of charity, that has its roots in the experience of a more-than-natural dimension in life: the energy of that ‘angelic’ vision of the children still informs the line (cf. Hebrews xiii.2: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’). Yet there is the same sense of platitudinous flatness in comparison to what has gone before; and the same curious ambiguity of import—an ambiguity which, like that of the other poem, is focussed in the abstract moral term, ‘pity’. In one sense, it could be argued that in genuinely seeing the children as ‘angels’, the poem has defined a radical new meaning for the word (as the chimney-sweep has defined a radical new meaning for ‘duty’). And, as in the other poem, this radical new meaning carries with it an implied threat to the polite reader who falls short of it. But in another sense—and especially in the context of what was apparently a child's book—this conclusion is merely a parrotting of an expected platitude that falls far short of summing up what has been imaginatively realized. The charity children were favourite subjects for middle-class self-congratulation: what better example to the child of the ‘pity’ which his elders so patently practise?

That the song was taken thus—as a quite unambiguous appeal to clearly established polite standards—is indicated (as also, incidentally, is its fidelity to fact) by its inclusion in Priscilla Wakefield's children's guide-book, Perambulations in London, and its environs, published in 1809. A prominent philanthropist, and one of the earliest promoters of savings banks and friendly societies for the poor, Mrs Wakefield was a practising member of the Society of Friends, and came of a distinguished Quaker family (she was the aunt of Elizabeth Fry, and grand-daughter of the seventeenth-century author of The Apology for the Quakers, Robert Barclay). She might thus be taken as a fair example of a certain kind of not-quite-conventional humanitarian concern. But that even such as she did share the fundamental modes of thinking of their class, its habit of appeal to secure general moral standards, is suggested by the way in which she presents Blake's song:

My uncle was present at a most affecting solemnity at this church [St Paul's] last year, and he has promised us that we shall be indulged with the same sight the next summer vacation. About six thousand children, dressed in uniforms of different colours, are assembled here, on benches raised to a great height one above the other, circularly, round the dome. The order with which each school finds its own situation, and the union of so many voices, all raised at one moment to the praise of their great Creator, as they chaunt the hundredth psalm, on the entrance of the clergyman, caused the most delightful and affecting sensation my uncle ever remembered. The solemnity of the place, and the hope that so much innocence, under such protection, would be reared to virtue and happiness, must add greatly to the effect on the minds of the spectators.

This uncommon scene is so well described in the following lines by Mr. Blake, that I think you will forgive me for adding to the length of this letter, though drawn out so far on one subject. [She then quotes ‘Holy Thursday’ from Songs of Innocence.]19

This introduction, which takes no account of the ironies which twentieth-century critics have found in the final line, reveals a great deal about Blake's radical difference from his contemporaries. For to Blake, a moral term such as ‘pity’ is clearly problematic, in a way in which to Mrs Wakefield it is not. Where she speaks confidently of ‘virtue’, and of the ‘affecting sensation’ such a scene can give to the benevolent observer, Blake offers his curiously double-edged maxim:

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

And the effect of the implicit warning is to make the reader question what he sees as ‘pity’, in a way which Mrs Wakefield's book certainly does not prompt him to do. Indeed, nine years earlier, in her Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex: with suggestions for its Improvement (as its title suggests, a progressive book by late eighteenth-century standards), she had explicitly defended the kind of moral instruction which Blake's line seems to be evoking ironically:

The establishment of schools for the education of the infant poor, is an encouragement to matrimony, and one of the most certain means of promoting a reform in the manners of the lower classes, if they are regulated upon principles adapted to this design; the children, (girls only are here considered) should be instructed with plainness and simplicity in the doctrines of christianity, enforcing by remarks, within the reach of their capacity, the moral precepts it enjoins, and illustrating them by familiar examples, which come home to their own bosoms, and the circumstances of their lives … The books provided for the instruction and amusement of charity-schools, should be written for the purpose: short lessons of morality, or concerning the inferior obligations of civil life, in clear language, unembarrassed with difficult words, and rendered entertaining by the interest of simple narrative are best adapted to convey the knowledge required by the readers for whom they are designed.20

But in offering his ‘short lesson of morality’ in a context which emphasizes its inconclusiveness and ambiguity, Blake is awakening the same uneasiness about such ‘moral precepts’ as he does in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. He seems deliberately to be contrasting the substantiality and liveliness of an unmoralizing vision with the distanced (subjunctive) and potentially mystifying abstraction of the expected—in late eighteenth-century terms the quite natural—attempt to order experience according to a generalized moral code.

This suspicion of moral thinking extends not merely to that which seeks to justify the status quo, but to that which seeks to oppose it. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Blake's poetry, the one in which the foreignness of the antinomian vision strikes the modern reader most sharply. And it is one which becomes particularly evident in the second ‘Holy Thursday’ (E19-20/K211-12). This is a puzzling poem. In one way, as David Erdman points out,21 it clearly seems closer than its ‘Innocent’ counterpart to Blake's real attitude towards such events as the charity children's procession: in that sense, it is much less ‘roseate’ (Erdman's term) and more ‘realistic’. And yet in what sense is one to define ‘realistic’? The first poem, as we have seen, registers a very great deal about the particular details of the scene it depicts: in the second, we would scarcely know what the speaker was reacting to, did we not have the first ‘Holy Thursday’ for reference. His consciousness seems to be the subject of the poem.

The difference of this from the poetry of straightforward social concern is evident when one considers Crabbe's contemporary lines on a similar subject:

Theirs is the house that holds the parish-poor,
Whose walls of mud scarce bear the broken door;
There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play,
And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day;
There children dwell who know no parents' care;
Parents, who know no children's love, dwell there!
Here too the sick their final doom receive,
Here brought, amid the scenes of grief, to grieve,
Where the loud groans from some sad chamber flow,
Mix'd with the clamours of the crowd below;
Here, sorrowing, they each kindred sorrow scan,
And the cold charities of man to man:
Whose laws indeed for ruin'd age provide,
And strong compulsion plucks the scrap from pride;
But still that scrap is bought with many a sigh,
And pride embitters what it can't deny.

(The Village (1783) I. 228-49)

Crabbe tells the reader something about what his workhouse is like, but it is not in wealth of detail that the force of the poetry lies. Rather, it is in his generalizing capacity that the reader senses Crabbe's intimacy with the abuses he is describing. It is true that these sufferers are not individualized, nor is their workhouse a clearly depicted place, but the poetry would lose a good deal if they were. Crabbe is directing attention not towards a vivid realization of a particular scene, but to a much larger crescendo of human misery, whose surge into rage and sinking back into impotence is conveyed through generalization:

There children dwell who know no parents' care;
Parents, who know no children's love, dwell there!

The strong syntactic patterning mimes the working of a circular social process in which all these sufferers are hopelessly locked: and because of this we are interested less in the speaker and his local responses than in that of which he speaks.

Exactly the reverse is true of ‘Holy Thursday’. In a sense, it seems to spring from the same impulse: an angry response to social abuses which is transformed, by its very intensity, into a much more generalized protest. Yet the difference is startling:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

This has none of the powerful, indignant surge of Crabbe's couplets, none of his sure grasp of dynamically shifting relationships. Despite the indignant hiss with which it opens, it seems curiously lacking in confidence, its rhythms disjointed and hesitant. And as the poem goes on, it becomes clear that its speaker is a much more complex and changing creation than is Crabbe's enraged observer. We move from the bitter abruptness of the opening stanza to the plangent echoes of the second, from the dulled monotony of the third to the oddly uncertain stasis of the last. And what is being presented is less a deplorable situation than a psychological process.

Instead of focussing, as Crabbe does, on the perfectly valid reasons for his speaker's anger, Blake dramatizes his progression from the immediate, passionate response of the first stanza to a position of shocked withdrawal—a gradual rigidifying of stance which at length blocks out the possibility of any kind of fruitful interaction with the world which he confronts. From the very opening it is clear that this protesting speaker is not at all like the speaker of the first ‘Holy Thursday’. Here there is none of the ready movement of lively responsiveness which one finds in the earlier poem, none of the openness of vision that rejoices as much in ‘the grey-headed beadles’ with their ‘wands as white as snow’ as in the children dressed in ‘red and blue and green’. This is a judging mentality, which reduces things to their moral qualities, and robs them of their rich reality. The luminous country in which the little children flow along like a river has become merely ‘a rich and fruitful land’, the venerable and ambiguously awe-inspiring beadles are reduced to ‘cold and usurous hand’. And the warmly spontaneous sympathy of one little sweep for another—a sympathy which escapes such moral categorizings as ‘pity’—has been replaced by a consciously moralizing protest. This speaker is not noticing things which the other speaker ignored: he is seeing in quite a different way.

By the second stanza, his first reaction of horrified outrage has become a doubting unwillingness to see anything in the world which does not answer to that feeling:

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?

He hears a dim echo of that larger world of innocence, but his incredulous perception wavers into disbelief, and finally hardens into flat denial:

It is a land of poverty!

By the third stanza, he is deliberately building up for himself a world in which the worst is the case, a world exactly the opposite of that of the first ‘Holy Thursday’:

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak & bare,
And their ways are fill'd with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

This has none of the movement and energy of the ‘Innocent’ song: the active verbs have been replaced by a series of flat copulas, linking stereotyped ideas rather than expressing particular perceptions. There is certainly no sense here, as there is in the earlier poem, that this is a rendition of a real scene, the expression of a moment when the speaker saw what was before him with more than usual vividness and clarity. Yet in spite of its (in one sense) static quality, this stanza dramatizes another stage in its speaker's progression—his growing elaboration of and belief in a totally negative world. The final stanza takes the process to its logical conclusion:

For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

For this speaker, a more positive state than that which he confronts and towards which effort might be directed is almost unimaginable. It can be envisaged only in terms of negatives—as the inconceivable opposite of what is.

It is impossible not to feel that these last two stanzas—addressed to readers much more deeply familiar with the Bible than we are today—are meant to evoke and offer an ironic reversal of Revelation vii.16-17:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

Where Revelation images a transcendent state, not bound by the laws of the natural world, Blake's speaker, searching for a positive vision, can only offer the flattest gesture towards the order of nature. And where Revelation goes on to realize a magnificent vision of hope and comfort, Blake's speaker ends with a chilling, self-reflexive confession:

Nor poverty the mind appall.

For as well as indignation, the final line of this poem expresses a horrified self-awareness, as the speaker realizes the extent to which his own outrage has paralysed him. There is a submerged pun in ‘appall’, which takes up and recognizes the logic of that withdrawal from reality which the rest of the poem has dramatized. For the statement that hunger and poverty cannot exist in the real world is not just a pathetic fallacy: it is also a dim apprehension of that truth which is demonstrated in the first ‘Holy Thursday’. If this speaker could approach the world in a spirit of trusting, unjudging acceptance, if his mind were not ‘appalled’ by ‘poverty’ (and the suggestion is that it is its own poverty which casts a ‘pall’ over it, as much as the suffering to which he is responding), perhaps he would see a different world, a world at once more real and more beautiful, a world in which ‘cherishing pity’ would be at least potentially meaningful. But the moralizing, abstracting indignation within which he is locked cuts him off from any such reality.

Blake does not mock his speaker's dilemma. Indeed, one feels the force of his own direct anger—an anger which is registered again and again in his marginalia—in that first impassioned outburst. The protest is partly his own. Yet the poem is clearly not, as one of the best of Blake's critics has claimed, ‘a direct moral comment on the London world of his time, using … simple metres to give force and emphasis’:22 it is a subtle dramatization of the psychological process initiated by ‘direct moral comment’. As Blake would put it, ‘If you go on So, the result is So.’23 If the speaker's first angry protest is understandable, the colourless world to which his judgement leads seems like a hopeless withdrawal from any possibility of alleviating the situation. Blake pushes his ‘protest’ to its logical conclusion, and implicitly evaluates it at every stage. For him, such moral outrage, however justified it may seem, is not liberating, but ultimately a sterile, egocentric trap: its end is an immersion in subjective feeling which reduces reality to a series of self-produced abstractions, and cannot convincingly imagine any possibility other than what is.

What is it that makes this outrage—which to the modern reader may well seem a more right-minded reaction to the sight of the charity children than exclamations at their beauty—so disastrously limiting? Blake's fullest answer to this is in ‘London’ (E26-7/K216), one of the greatest of the Songs of Experience, and one which is often seen as a poem of ‘social protest’. It certainly does offer a powerful vision of what is wrong with the society it depicts. But it is significantly different from other protest poems of its time, not merely because of its richer imaginative sense of the interrelationships that make up that society, but also because of the self-reflexive consciousness that informs it.

Blake begins not with a confidently public voice, but as a lonely wanderer at a remove from and ‘marking’ the life about him. As in the second ‘Holy Thursday’, it is on his consciousness rather than on the evils he confronts that the opening stanza focusses: the distinction becomes clear when one compares Johnson's satiric portrait of London, published fifty years before:

Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead.(24)

Johnson's active verbs direct attention to the varied, distinctive life he sees before him. But there is little such life in the Blake: his speaker wanders apart and ‘marks’ the same message everywhere:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

He appeals to no obvious audience, for he cannot assume, as Johnson does, that there is a generalized yet familiar ‘you’ on whom he can rely to share his feelings. His sense of the city is a thin and obsessive one, and it is deliberately dramatized as thin and obsessive.

For if in the first two lines he registers the man-made constriction not only of the streets, but also of the flowing river, by the second half of the stanza he is recognizing something similar in his own activity:

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

The relentless categorizing which stamps the Thames as surely as it does the streets is like his own mode of relating to the world. The pattern of the stanza is one of harsh monotony bearing down upon the hopeful iambic rise of that opening ‘I wander’: by the final line, the trochaic substitution at the opening of the second has become an established trochaic rhythm. And in each line the strongest stress falls on the sound-linked delimiting words, ‘mark’ and ‘charter'd’, which cut short the possibilities for spontaneous action registered in ‘wander’, ‘flow’ and ‘meet’. The speaker's imaginatively bankrupt repetition of these words drives home the sense of a harsh, restrictive categorizing which seeks to contain all within its own mould. If he can see ‘marks’ in the faces around him, ‘marking’ is what he does.

David Erdman25 and Edward Thompson26 have both pointed to the way in which, by 1793, ‘charter'd’ had become a central word in political debate, as a result of Paine's ironic demystification of its old Whig meaning:

It is a perversion of terms to say, that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect, that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling these rights in the majority, leave the right by exclusion in the hands of a few … all charters have no other than an indirect negative operation. They do not give rights to A, but they make a difference in favour of A by taking away the right of B, and consequently are instruments of injustice.27

Blake's opposition of man-made ‘charters’ and flowing river suggests that he means his readers to take up this newly acquired ironic sense of the word. But the reader of 1793, however familiar with The Rights of Man, would also have been pressingly aware of its more positive resonances—resonances on which Wordsworth was to draw, four years later, in ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’:

                                                                      to the heart
Of each recalling his peculiar boons,
His charters and exemptions …


And in the same notebook in which ‘London’ was first drafted, we find Blake playing on the sound-link between ‘charter'd’ and ‘cheating’:

The cheating waves of charter'd streams.


It is a suggestive entry. For in using ‘charter'd’ in ‘London’, Blake is not simply emphasizing its new, reversed meaning: he is forcing his reader into a disconcerting sense of the ‘cheating’ nature of the word, its capacity to act as a mask for hypocrisy. Paine's demystification of the term is a magnificent piece of polemic. But Blake moves beyond polemic to a dramatization of what it is like to live within his ‘chartering’ society, and to try to apprehend the world through its categories. The speaker of ‘London’ repeats the word in a way which registers little sense of difference between the objects to which it is applied—the man-made streets, the freely flowing Thames. And his mode of seeing is exactly like the political system of chartering, which must distance and reduce to abstraction the human realities on which it operates. Within this society, where political strategies are at a remove from real human meanings, the very effort to make sense of experience is tainted. Language has ceased to be the vehicle for these meanings, and become disturbingly ambivalent and ‘cheating’. As Blake elsewhere said, ‘In Equivocal Worlds Up & Down are Equivocal’ (E668/K785).

And nobody within such a society is free simply to comment or protest: all are implicated. In the first stanza of ‘London’, Blake's speaker turns from a contemplation of the ‘charter'd’ streets and the ‘charter'd’ Thames (the only way in which he seems able to see them) to reflect on his own activity:

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

The abstracting division by which the ‘chartering’ society works is, he recognizes, equally a function of his own consciousness. And the sense of an inevitable and imprisoning relationship between the ‘facts’ he sees and the way in which he sees is reinforced by the use of ‘mark’ as both verb and object.

Edward Thompson, in pointing to the mingling of apocalyptic vision and acute social observation in this poem, has suggested some of the associations which the noun ‘mark’ would have had for those moving, like Blake, in the radical religious groups of eighteenth-century London—associations which throw the ‘buying and selling’ imagery of the poem into sharp relief.28 ‘And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that hath the mark of the beast’ (Revelation xiii. 16-17). I think it is worth exploring some of the other resonances which readers intimate with the Bible would have felt in the word. For in a passage of which Blake is curiously reminiscent, ‘marking’ is a strategy of judgement: ‘And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof’ (Ezekiel ix. 4). And this marker of those who sigh and cry in the city is, significantly, ‘a man clothed in linen, with a writer's inkhorn by his side’ (ix. 3). It is not merely the external rottenness of his society that Blake is concerned with, but the function of those within it who try to judge it.

He sees it as a deeply ambiguous function. In the Swedenborgian circles with which he was familiar, Revelation xiii. 16 was commonly glossed as referring symbolically to the beast's ‘prohibition against anyone's learning or teaching anything but what is acknowledged and received in the doctrine’.29 And the doctrine of the beast was the doctrine of salvation by faith alone; a withdrawal from any responsibility for alleviating suffering in the world. In other words, to ‘mark’ was to be locked within a mystifying ideology which served as an apologia for and preserver of the status quo.

Both these kinds of suggestion lie behind Blake's use of ‘mark’. On the one hand, the ‘marks’ that he sees are the external signs of a rotten society, the brands on the faces of the damned. On the other, the ‘marking’ that he does is the internal logic of that society, a paralysing mental strategy which cannot ‘learn or teach anything’ but the same proclamation of weakness and woe. If his speaker is a lonely wanderer, pointing to the evils he sees before him, he is more deeply and consciously implicated in the abstracting modes of his society than anyone else. One catches here also an echo of Lamentations (of which there are many other echoes in ‘London’): ‘For the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her. They have wandered as blind men in the streets, they have polluted themselves with blood, so that men could not touch their garments’ (Lamentations iv. 13-14). As the judge of his society, this speaker is not free of the taint he sees: he is polluted.

He wanders as a blind man in the streets. For in the second stanza, the nature of his relation to the world becomes steadily more apparent:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

The constant repetitions suggest the meagreness of his grasp on reality: in marked contrast to Johnson, with his vigorous feeling for the different noises of the city, he seems to have little sense of the multifariousness of the world before him. Like the speaker of the second ‘Holy Thursday’, he hears but one message in everything, and cannot hear anything clearly. And the regular metrical beat, from which the speaking rhythm scarcely varies, adds to the impression of trapped claustrophobia. It is an impression that is perhaps most strikingly rendered by the syntax: the long piling-up of one object after another, the active verb at the end overwhelmed by the inversion. This ‘I’ is not in control: he is dominated by what he hears. He is trapped within the world he is trying to judge.

And he recognizes the nature of his entrapment: the self-reflexiveness implicit in the first stanza is taken up and extended in the image of ‘mind-forg'd manacles’. ‘Manacles’ is suggestive both in its figurative and its literal sense: these are fetters, but fetters which very specifically bind the hands that might help one another (and one is reminded again of the paralysing doctrine of salvation by faith alone which the Swedenborgians saw as the mark of the beast). And ‘forg'd’ has both concrete associations of the blacksmith's shop, and its other meaning of fraudulent fabrication: these ‘manacles’ are both devastatingly real and cheatingly equivocal. Blake is not simply diagnosing the repressiveness of his society. True, the image can be seen partly in this way: as Erdman notes, there is a contemporary parallel for such a diagnosis in Imlay's praise of the Ohio for its freedom from the priestcraft which elsewhere ‘seems to have forged fetters for the human mind’.30 But on the opposite side of the political debate, and in one curious way closer to Blake (whose fetters are after all forged not for but by the mind) Edmund Burke had written in his 1791 Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, ‘Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.’31 Blake's ‘mind-forg'd’, whether an explicit echo or not, reads like an ironic commentary on both sides of the debate, on the very terms in which the debate has been conducted. The radical would trace the ills of society to the ‘objective’ manacles of repression, the Old Whig to the ‘subjective’ failings of human nature. But for Blake the dispute over which is to blame is meaningless, for both are inextricably fused. The mechanisms of repression which are audible and visible around him are intimately present in the ‘mind’ itself. And there is, significantly, no direction as to whose mind is meant—because Blake is pointing to a condition from which no member of this society, including his speaker, is exempt. He cannot, like Johnson, simply stand apart and judge its workings, for they are shared by and focussed in himself.

The two opening stanzas of ‘London’ explore the nature of the predicament which is recognized at the end of the second ‘Holy Thursday’: they dramatize a speaker whose mind is ‘appalled’ by ‘poverty’, and show how even in his efforts to protest at what he sees he is part of the ‘cheating’ abstraction from felt human values that has produced it. Yet his is a far more self-reflexive consciousness than that portrayed in the second ‘Holy Thursday’: he recognizes his own implication increasingly at every stage, and not just in a final moment of paralysed horror. And the recognition leads, in the third stanza, to a startling dramatic shift:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black‘ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

The marking ‘I’ of the opening has disappeared; the syntactic structure in which he is nominally in control is abandoned. And the result is that the social interconnections obscured by his abstracting consciousness become manifest. The generalizing sameness of ‘every … every … every’, the dimly realized cries and voices of the second stanza give way to sharply specific images; the regularity of the iambic beat changes to the heavy crushing physicality of the trochaic. No longer are we offered a succession of passive signs of generalized ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’: the separated marks and cries have become active forces within a mutually interdependent, mutually damning, network of relationships. And the reader is made suddenly, sharply aware that the essential strategy of this society is, when exposed, the same as that which has been manifested in the consciousness of the man who seeks to judge it. It is, very exactly, one of making—blackening, daubing with blood, blighting with plague. This is the speaker's mode of experience—isolated and at a remove from any positive human reciprocity, yet imprinting his own damning stamp on everything, like the abstracting legal process of chartering, like the sweep and soldier, outside of and marking the walls of church and palace, like the harlot cursing in the streets at midnight. There seems to be no other way for human beings to conceive of or relate to one another in this society; ‘protest’ is infected at its source.

Yet this poem is very different from the second ‘Holy Thursday’. And as I have suggested, the difference seems to lie, most crucially, in its speaker's relentless self-awareness. He does not assume a position of righteous indignation: from the very beginning he recognizes his own implication in that which he sees: ‘I … mark.’ It is a recognition which seems, as the poem progresses, to paralyse his judgement, for the realization that any attitude he can adopt towards his society is tainted makes it impossible for him to take up any attitude at all. He simply ‘hears’. Yet the effect of the two final stanzas is the reverse of quietism or passive acceptance, and their apocalyptic tone is very different from the thin, enclosed desperation of the opening. For as he ceases to assume the controlling perspective of judgement, the reader becomes aware not of his protesting voice, but of an unavoidable logic in the society that does not depend on him at all. We have moved from his opening ‘marking’, where the diversity before him was analytically abstracted to his own terms, to a much more immediate vision of society as human beings in relationship. It is an exploiting relationship, a distorting relationship, and felt more directly as such: the reversal of norms, which was obliquely recognized in his ironic use of ‘charter'd’, focusses finally in the concretely shocking image of ‘Marriage hearse’. And the dynamics of the society, no longer filtered through his distancing consciousness, have a power and a reality of which his own ‘marking’ can be but a thin echo. Its cries and sighs and curses are no longer simply things which strike his ear, but tangible signs of shame, and by the end, active forces for destruction. The ‘marking’ of the protester has given way to a sense of a certain retribution coming from forces far more potent and overwhelming than his own isolated consciousness; a retribution that, as the uncompromising present indicative tense asserts, cannot be distanced into some future, but is implicit in what is.32

The self-reflexiveness of ‘London’ has its counterpart in the double-edged maxims of the ‘Innocent’ ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’: all convey a radical uneasiness with the secure moral judgement which their readers would have expected. We are left not with protest, but with something less distancing and more immediately disconcerting—a sense not only of the instability of any moral judgement within the society that has been depicted, but of its active implication in that which it seeks to condemn. Such moralizing, Blake implies, dehumanizes by abstracting from and distancing the actuality of experience: it erects a law which, because abstracted, can all too easily be used to justify the powerful and mystify the powerless. And—as the diagnostic ‘I mark’ of ‘London’ suggests—it is something which man does, for which he is actively responsible.

One sees Blake approaching and worrying over this intuition in the notebook drafts of his most explicit poetic statement about moralizing, ‘The Human Abstract’. The first of these drafts (K164) contrasts the singing of an Angel:

‘Mercy, Pity, Peace
Is the world's release.’

with the curse of a Devil:

‘Mercy could be no more,
If there was nobody poor,
‘And pity no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.’

Morality, Blake argues, is enabled by the very unsatisfactoriness of the social system: the Devil is given the last word. And the poem proceeds to its sardonic conclusion:

Down pour'd the heavy rain
Over the new reap'd grain,
And Mercy & Pity & Peace descended
The Farmers were ruin'd & harvest was ended.

This is a satiric exposure of the kind of apologia for the status quo common enough in the eighteenth century, and exemplified in writers such as Soames Jenyns: the doctrine that all evil somehow tended towards and was an essential part of a general scheme of good. The implication of this view was that poverty and unhappiness were designed by God to call forth the desirable virtues of mercy and pity in those who were fortunate enough not to suffer them. But, as Blake scathingly suggests, the worm's-eye view of such ‘moral virtues’ is very different from the ‘official’ one. The very notion of an objective morality is ironically questioned.

But the notebook entries do not end there. Blake continues to worry over his moral terms, re-working and re-wording his ‘Devil's’ intuition:

And by distress increase
Mercy, Pity, Peace …
And Miseries' increase
Is Mercy, Pity, Peace …

Finally, several pages later, he works these speculations into ‘The human Image’ (K174). The opening stanza is, in fact, the Devil's curse, but Blake has crossed out the second line, and replaced it with a more active statement:

Pity could be no more,
If we did not make somebody poor.

(my italics)

The question at the root of his thinking has finally become clear. He is no longer simply stressing the double-edged nature of moral terms within an inegalitarian society, but he is pointing to their active role in creating and justifying and maintaining such a society. And it is no longer an external system of social interconnections that he is describing, but a process in which ‘we’—the polite reader and author of the Songs, in our humanitarian (even, in eighteenth-century terms, progressive) concern for ‘the poor’, the chimney-sweeps, the charity children, the little black boy—are crucially implicated. It is not just that the poem accuses its readers of being the beneficiaries of an exploiting social order—‘your chimneys I sweep’. Much more immediately, it suggests that their very modes of thought—even those which seem most praiseworthy—manifest the same abstracting, distancing strategies which have produced the social consequences that they seek to condemn. The counterproductive process operates within the mind, as well as within the society.

There is an obvious logical and psychological truth in what Blake says: unless we regard somebody as poor, then we cannot feel ‘pity’ for him; unless we regard somebody as less happy than ourselves, then we cannot feel ‘mercy’. The insight is one which is developed in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, which Blake annotated in 1790:

That every good has an opposite evil, and every truth an opposite falsity, may be known from this, that there is not anything that has not reference to its opposite, and that its quality and degree is known from its opposite, and degree; and this is the origin of all perception and sensation.33

Freud was to make a similar point, over a hundred years later:

Were it always light we should not distinguish between light and dark, and accordingly could not have either the conception of, nor the word for, light … It is clear that everything on this planet is relative and has independent existence only in so far as it is distinguished in its relation to and from other things … Since every conception is thus the twin of its opposite, how could it be thought of at first, how could it be communicated to others who tried to think it, except by being measured against its opposite?34

But for Blake, the problem is not merely a metaphysical or a psychological one: it is informed with a dialectical consciousness of its social determinants and dynamics. And it is on the latter that he focusses. For Swedenborg, the interdependence of good and evil is an unquestionable fact of philosophy; for Freud, it is a necessary condition of conscious thought. But for Blake, it is something which man does, for which he is responsible. And the implication of his stanza (as in ‘London’, a positive implication, which seems to be released by the unsparing self-reflexiveness of ‘we … make somebody poor’) is that he has freedom to do otherwise, to create an almost unimaginably different world, in which the other-belittling mystification of ‘moral virtue’ would be impossible:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor.

Such a world is not, of course, created in ‘The Human Abstract’. Blake traces the counterproductive process of moral reasoning to its logical conclusion, showing how the self-created, abstracted moral law can take on a pseudo-life of its own, and turn against man and enslave him; and presenting the same double-layered vision of the interpenetration of dehumanizing mental and social strategies as is implicit in the second ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘London’. Even the second couplet has retreated from the direct self-accusation of the first:

And mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.

And as the poem proceeds, an uncontrollable social and subjective drama is unfolded, a drama in which moral terms are reified and the ambiguities which the Songs of Innocence revealed in them are made active and manifest. ‘Moral Virtues’, Blake later wrote, in his catalogue to ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’, ‘do not exist; they are allegories and dissimulations’ (E553/K614). But the process of ‘allegory and dissimulation’ to which the creation of an abstracted moral law gives rise is a frighteningly real one, and has its own uncontrollable and contorted logic—a logic which works both in the society35 and the mind. And it leads inevitably to the monstrous reification of that Tree which ‘grows in the Human Brain’, the ‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ against which Blake fulminated all his life:

Shooting out against the Light
Fibres of a deadly night,
Reasoning upon its own dark Fiction,
In doubt which is Self Contradiction?
Humility is only doubt,
And does the Sun & Moon blot out,
Rooting over with thorns & stems
The buried Soul & all its Gems.
‘Am I not Lucifer the Great,
And you my daughters in Great State,
The fruit of my Mysterious Tree
Of Good & Evil & Misery’(36)

‘The Everlasting Gospel’, from which this comes, is Blake's fullest poetic presentation of the antinomian theology which seems to have lain behind his thinking. But that theology—with its vision of a coming Apocalypse, its attack on the moral law, and its valuing of the divine potentia within the human—informs all of his writing, and can be seen in the Songs to be the coherent expression of a sophisticated sense of the interior and exterior workings of his society: of what is wrong with them, and of how they might be transcended. One traces it in them in many ways—in the vision of an unmoralized, unhierarchical, reciprocity and harmony presented in such Songs of Innocence as ‘Nurse's Song’ and ‘The Shepherd’ (both Songs whose central figures would be expected to represent guidance and instruction); in the ironic stress in others of them on the double-edged ambiguity of moral precepts which their readers would never have thought to question; in the more subtle, less apocalyptic sense of a moral frame which will not quite fit conveyed by the echoes and half-rhymes of ‘The Divine Image’:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.


But one traces it above all in the self-reflexiveness which will not allow Blake to assume a position of superiority to or separateness from the dynamics of the society of which he is a member—

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor.

—and which leads, in Songs of Experience, to a profound uneasiness with any moral attitude (even a protesting one) which speakers within this society can adopt. It is an uneasiness which gives way, in ‘London’ to an apocalyptic sense of a quite different kind of judgement: not the tainted dehumanizing judgement of moral abstraction, but the surrealistically concrete vengeance implicit in the exploiting mechanisms of society itself. ‘The tygers of wrath’, said Blake, ‘are wiser than the horses of instruction’. And it is surely significant that the only one of the Songs of Experience to present a speaker who does not constrict what he beholds to his own limiting terms is one in which he is not confidently judging what he sees, or fitting it into some abstract pre-established pattern; but one composed entirely of a series of halting questions, in which he half-fearfully contemplates energies which his own consciousness cannot contain, which challenge any standards of judgement he can bring to them:

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?



  1. The Chimney-Sweeper's Friend and Climbing Boy's Album, ed. James Montgomery (London, 1824).

  2. ‘I think it was injudicious to mix stories avowedly colour'd by fiction with the sad true statements from the parliamentary records, etc. …’, wrote Lamb to Bernard Barton, on 15 May 1824.

  3. Jonas Hanway, A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps (1785), p. ix: ‘The ruling motive to my writing these pages, was to recommend to my fellow subjects … the exercise of their humanity towards those who call the loudest for it,—Chimney Sweepers Climbing-Boys!’

  4. Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition (2 vols., London, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 25-6.

  5. E. Swedenborg, Concerning the Earths in our Solar System (London, 1787), section 79. I am grateful to Edward Thompson for pointing out the relevance of this passage.

  6. In his annotations to Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, written about 1790, Blake alludes to section 73 of this work (E591/K939). Noted by David Erdman, Blake: Prophet against Empire, revised edn (N.Y., 1969), p. 132.

  7. M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 242.

  8. Ibid., pp. 239-42.

  9. Ibid., p. 252.

  10. John Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge, 1976), p. 308. For a discussion of ‘liminality’ see Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process (London, 1969).

  11. Enid Porter, The Folklore of East Anglia (London, 1974), p. 26, quotes a case in Suffolk as late as 1969.

  12. Brewer, Party Ideology, p. 184.

  13. Nick Shrimpton, ‘Hell's Hymnbook: Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and their models’, in R. T. Davies and B. G. Beatty (eds), Literature of the Romantic Period 1750-1850 (Liverpool, 1976), p. 33.

  14. cf. A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel (London, 1958).

  15. ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’, E553/K614.

  16. Jerusalem 27, ‘To the Jews’, E169/K649.

  17. Jerusalem 95.20, E252/K742.

  18. cf. the report of the ‘Anniversary Meeting of the Charity Children at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’ in Mrs Trimmer's Family Magazine for June 1788:

    At half past ten o'clock yesterday morning the doors were opened, and before eleven the church was crowded with as respectable an audience as St. Paul's ever witnessed …

    The children, to the amount of ten thousand, were seated on a circular scaffolding erected from the organ round the dome of the church, and the children rising and singing the hundredth psalm, with great judgement, had a most solemn effect.

    The service was listened to with much more attention than could be expected from so numerous an audience; the singing and chaunting parts being most delightfully warbled by the gentlemen of the choir, the children joining in the Gloria Patria and the Hallelujah.

    The sermon, which was excellent, and very apposite, was preached by the Bishop of Norwich.

  19. Priscilla Wakefield, Perambulations in London, and its Environs … in Letters. Designed for Young Persons (London, 1809), pp. 181-2. ‘Holy Thursday’ ends the letter, much as it silences its original hearers in An Island in the Moon (E453/K59). This early publication of ‘Holy Thursday’ has apparently not been noted by Blake scholars. The punctuation Mrs Wakefield inserts is (with one or two minor deviations) the same as that of the only earlier reprinting of the song, in Benjamin Heath Malkin's A Father's Memoirs of His Child (London, 1806), pp. 31-2. Blake's plate has only one mark of punctuation (in the last line), which Mrs Wakefield alters in the same way as Malkin. This suggests that his volume, rather than Blake's own, was the source from which she took the song.

    It seems to me likely that Mrs Wakefield's volume, rather than an original copy of the Songs, is the source from which Jane and Ann Taylor took ‘Holy Thursday’ for inclusion in the third edition of their children's guide to London, City Scenes, or A Peep into London (1st edn 1809, 3rd edn 1818). This reprinting of the poem (though not Mrs Wakefield's) is noted in G. E. Bentley and Martin Nurmi (eds), A Blake Bibliography (Minneapolis, 1964).

  20. Priscilla Wakefield, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex: with suggestions for its Improvement (London, 1798), pp. 184-7. The comparatively progressive nature of Mrs Wakefield's view of education is suggested by a passage following this, which provides an interesting commentary on Blake's ‘wands as white as snow’:

    The cane and the rod are banished, by the refinement of modern manners, from female seminaries of a superior order, it is earnestly wished, that they were likewise excluded from all others, as the use of them serves rather to indulge the angry passions of the teacher, than to produce reformation in the scholar; for where reason & kind treatment are ineffectual, blows are never likely to prevail. Severity hardens the heart and depresses a meritorious emulation.

    (p. 190)

  21. Erdman, Prophet against Empire, p. 122.

  22. D. W. Harding, Experience into Words (Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 36.

  23. Annotations to Watson, E607/K392.

  24. ‘London’ (1738), vol. ii, pp. 13-18.

  25. Erdman, Prophet against Empire, pp. 276-7.

  26. cf. chapter 2 above.

  27. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (Harmondsworth, 1969), pp. 242-3.

  28. cf. chapter 2 above. Thompson points out that this passage refers to ‘marks’ of salvation, but I cannot accept his argument that this destroys its relevance. Blake is, as Thompson says, depicting a universal process, in which all are equally involved: and therefore he seems to me to be deliberately evoking the resonance of Biblical passages such as this in order to question their judging separation of damned from saved. ‘Marking’ is of the same order as ‘chartering’.

  29. E. Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained, section 840.

  30. Erdman, Prophet against Empire, p. 277n.

  31. Edmund Burke, Writings and Speeches (London, Beaconsfield edn, n.d.), vol. iv, pp. 51-2.

  32. For a fuller discussion of this poem, see my article, ‘The Poet in Society: Blake and Wordsworth on London’, in Literature and History, 3 (March 1976), and Stan Smith's reply to it, 4 (Autumn 1976).

  33. E. Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 2nd edn (London 1784), section 541.

  34. Quoted from Karl Abel by Freud, in ‘The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words, a Review of a Pamphlet by Karl Abel, Uber den Gegensinn der Urwarte, 1884’ (1910), Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, trans. Joan Riviere (Randon, 1925), vol. iv, p. 187.

  35. Erdman, Prophet against Empire, pp. 271-2.

  36. E512/K753 and K759.

Harold C. Pagliaro (essay date summer 1981)

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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, and others—contributed to a weakening of those earlier social and religious structures that had explained death by placing it in a heavenly scheme of things, or had reduced its power to harass the imagination by providing order in daily life. By and large, the Romantics accepted this legacy of history, and made the vulnerability to death an important part of their poetry. Blake carried the vulnerability a step farther, calling for an additional reduction of our psychological defences. He believed only exposure to continual risk—‘Self-annihilation’—and our evaluation of that risk—‘Self-examination’—would free the visionary or eternal being in each of us. What history had begun—the dissolution of security against death represented by the weakening of certain religious and social structures—Blake continued.

Later, I shall say a few words about this dissolution. But my chief purpose here is to identify Blake's own sense that the world is death-laden, filled with intimidating foes, deadly Tygers, hypocritical smiles, and constricting social and religious systems that reduce life; and then to show how he dealt with the problem such a world represents to the imagination, chiefly in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Speaking ‘psychologically’ rather than ‘philosophically,’ I would suggest that those who face this problem may choose between two broad alternatives. They may change the significance of death, by redefining it so that it becomes more or less possible to accept.1 So, for example, death and its agents may be manageable to the mind that thinks of dying as part of the journey to another world (the Christian solution); or the vision of a threatening, barren world may be displaced by the aesthetically founded perception that God indeed informs the natural world (a solution provided by the Cambridge Platonists and their followers); or death's hold on the imagination may be thought of as a result of the loss of innocence, to be overcome by a renovation of one's past knowledge of earthly glory (Wordsworth's solution). Other less direct ways of handling the problem include the acceptance or apparent acceptance of death as the absolute end of life, with the presumably calming result that such ‘good’ as there may be is understood to be limited to the here and now (Hume's solution),2 or death's hold may be displaced by various ‘philosophies,’ usually based on social, political, or technologically supported schemes, which imply that the world of men may be transformed into some kind of heaven, or at least that it may be vastly improved. (Tom Paine's Common Sense, Coleridge's Pantisocracy, and the efficient work of the Royal Humane Society3 fall into this category.)

Alternatively, one may head into, recognize, and ‘appropriate’ the frightening evidences of death, with the result that one's old outlook (one's very self, emotionally speaking) ‘dies’ to make way for a new one, which incorporates a knowledge of the hostile and destructive energies that earlier had seemed external and inimical to one's being (Blake's solution). This visionary perishing of one's old view of things is frightening and painful to endure, because it involves the destruction of ideas, opinions, and feelings that taken together amount to what one is. But to survive the change is to be free of the primary need to respond to occasions ‘defensively’ with its accompanying tendency to rationalize one's predicament. In the new condition, one ceases to be ‘defined’ by death and its proxies.

Obviously the two classes of alternative I have identified need not be mutually exclusive. But even though Wordsworth and Blake, for example, know more than a little about each other's way of addressing the problem represented by mortality's grip on the imagination, the one sought fundamentally to recover the renovating and unifying past, whereas the other gave his primary energy to building a new Jerusalem by showing us over and over again how one may experience the self-annihilation that alone copes with the visionary constraint represented by death and its company.

Though Blake's psychological treatment of ‘Self-examination’ and ‘Self-annihilation’ is finally straightforward, it has not shown itself to be immediately apparent, especially in the Songs. But if one reads the Songs with two ideas in mind, much becomes clear, as I shall try to show in some detail. For the moment, it will be useful to anticipate these ideas in isolation. First, Blake very often talks about both the natural and the human world in terms of death and its hold on the imagination. Second, Blake may be said to prefer characters who come to understand that death fills the world, in many shapes (as social evil, as foe, as Tyger), and who are sensitive and brave enough to see these evidences of mortality for what they are and to suffer and survive the emotional consequences to themselves of such disturbing recognitions.

David Erdman points out in his preface to the Blake Concordance that ‘death’ is among Blake's most frequent words.4 The poet almost never uses the term to refer just to physical death, but either to the world of our fallen perception, where ‘… weak visions of Time and Space, [are] fix'd into furrows of death’5 or to the painful death of one's personal self in imagination, which marks fallen man's return to eternity—‘[My purpose] is to teach men to despise death and go on / In fearless majesty annihilating self.’6

The first of these metaphors almost always represents an important aspect of the spiritual condition of Blake's characters (or worlds) yet to be saved. Thel, for example, sees the entire creation in terms of transient life, or death—all of it is ‘her grave plot’ in one sense. The just man of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, following a ‘… perilous path, / … kept his course along the vale of death.’ The chimney sweeper in Songs of Experience has been ‘… clothed in the clothes of death.’ And the speaker of ‘The Fly’ implies that ‘… the want / Of thought is death’; the world of the Sun-Flower includes a dead Youth and Virgin, who ‘… arise from their graves, and aspire / Where my Sun-flower wishes to go’; the Garden of Love is ‘… filled with graves / and tombstones where flowers should be’; in ‘London,’ connubiality is mutilated in the image ‘Marriage hearse’; the Ancient Bard of Innocence knows that ‘… many have fallen … / … stumbl[ing] all night over bones of the dead.’

It would be hard to overemphasize the seriousness and intensity of Blake's concern—directly expressed in ‘To Tirzah’—that all of us have been ‘moulded’ by the Mother of our ‘Mortal part,’ so that our ‘Nostrils Eyes and Ears’ are bound—limited as a function of mortality's requirements for survival. It is this mortal aspect of our earthly predicament that Thel identifies in her vision of the grave. Blake's poetry argues as if we are all controlled unconsciously by such a view of things, unless we can somehow discover our confinement of vision and accept the conscious threat of death such recognition includes. The fact that ‘… Mercy changed Death into Sleep’ is the emblem of humanity's need to rationalize its predicament. The road back from such ‘necessary’ self-deception is difficult, to say the least. Imagine that Thel had accommodated herself to her own vision of the grave by rationalizing its deadly qualities into something more benign—had learned to live in that context and had become what she had learned. What would it take for her to change? If she had indeed accommodated herself to such an ‘orientation,’ to change would have been to die, emotionally speaking. Such is the Self-annihilation Blake calls for. It is a process that finally liberates a fresh and essential self from the preconceptions that seem to guarantee safety by guaranteeing that we will continue to see and therefore to know and therefore to be what we have ‘always’ been. But the process is complicated, to say the least.

It is generally acknowledged that very few of the Songs of Innocence present characters unaffected by physical and emotional dangers in the natural world.7 The child in the Introduction and in ‘The Lamb’ are among the few persons in these poems to feel an unqualified sense of union with the world around them. They are in the blessed state in which people and forces outside them seem ‘continuous’ with (not inimical to) themselves, as Robert F. Gleckner, John Holloway, David V. Erdman, and others have in different ways shown.8 On a cloud, the child of the Introduction expresses a series of unself-conscious commands that are obeyed, the result being the Piper's songs that are to unite all children in joy. And the child-speaker of ‘The Lamb’ is seen to be ‘identical’ with the lamb and with Christ—‘I a child and thou a lamb, / We are called by [Christ's] name. …’ It is worth observing that in these poems, when a wish is immediately fulfilled, the wisher feels the continuity of events outside him with himself; what is inside his mind is given shape in his environment, which for the occasion, at least, appears absolutely congenial. Similarly, when one observes others with whom one feels identical, the world of persons besides oneself appears entirely congenial.

Understood from the children's point of view, and not from Blake's, Innocence is a condition of unself-conscious identification with the world and the people outside one. Such unself-consciousness might be defined negatively as a failure on the part of the child to perceive inimical elements in his world. He has seen nothing that requires him to protect the organism that is himself, and consequently he has no sense of himself as a separate entity. Quite the contrary, he feels or thinks in terms of his continuity with persons, objects, and events around him.

What about the other Songs of Innocence? Do they not, as various critics observe, register a world of sorrow and disillusion? The answer depends on whose point of view one takes. The reader may see in them a world of sorrow. Obviously the Chimney Sweeper and the Little Black Boy are both children driven very hard by a cruel society. Or Blake the man may be thought of as using irony in order to express his sense of destructive usage. The last line of ‘The Little Black Boy’ and the last of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ both undercut the palliating vision earlier presented by the child of the poem. ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ may of course be read as Blake's ironic way of rendering the comfort of Tom Dacre's dream illusory. ‘And be like him and he will then love me’ may be Blake's ironic way of rendering the comfort of the Black mother's lesson illusory; if the Black Boy wants more to be loved by the white than to accept as valuable his mother's view of him (and all Blacks) as especially benefited by experience, what good is her lesson, after all?

But for the moment consider these Songs of Innocence from the point of view of the children who experience their action rather than from the point of view of the reader or of Blake. It is the children, finally, who dwell in Innocence or leave that condition, and not we or Blake; it is their point of view, in and out of Innocence, that provides the means of understanding that state of mind.

Let us assume both children to be consistent in their attitude from first to last. The reader then would have to conclude that ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ was literally intended by the speaker. And it would follow that he had been taken in by Tom Dacre's dream. That is, one would understand that he accepts the rationalization the dream amounts to, masking as it does the deadly social present of the chimney sweepers, with a promise of heavenly protection.

Read with the same expectations for consistency, the Little Black Boy's ‘And be like him and he will then love me’ underscores a similar presentation of social evil and the speaker's psychological escape from that evil. What is most important about the last line of ‘The Little Black Boy’ is that it permits the reader to see the mind of the child working at two levels, quite self-deceivingly. At one level the boy accepts his mother's lesson, but at another it turns out he makes it something different from what it claims to be—the promise of a future state in which his spiritual superiority will enable him to help the English boy. Instead he finds in it a reason for believing he can become enough like the white boy for the white boy to love him. In effect, the Black Boy has both accepted his mother's lesson and repudiated it, since he uses it, inappropriately, to cope with the problem it was intended to transcend.

If the children of other Songs of Innocence are similarly moved to rationalize their early recognitions of danger to themselves, their first apprehensions of mortality, then it may be appropriate to redefine Innocence so that it includes, in addition to the child's sense of unself-conscious identification with the world and the people outside him, his unself-conscious will to prolong that sense in the face of evidence that might be expected to displace it. It is precisely the clarity of such evidence that has encouraged readers to see the disillusion in Songs of Innocence or to see Blake's irony working to undercut the children's improbable willingness to maintain their faith. But that clarity of evidence ought not to obscure the fact that these children know not what they do. Read with the child's point of view in mind, the poems reveal two crucial facts about the departure from Innocence—first, it is a departure reluctantly undertaken, and second the forces in the world that initiate that departure seem to precipitate unconscious mental operations, essentially self-deceiving or defensive in nature.

All of the other Songs of Innocence do not as explicitly support the thesis I have proposed as do the few poems I have considered. But the remaining songs do fall readily into one of the two categories I have identified. That is, they present children (or other beings) who feel unself-consciously united with the world, or children who unself-consciously prolong that feeling in the face of adverse evidence.9Songs of Experience, on the other hand, invariably present characters who themselves address or who are made to address the forces of death in the world outside them. Self-conscious of danger, or somehow urged or otherwise moved to become conscious of it, they confront their trouble or they feel the pain of it. If they try to rationalize or otherwise repress difficulties, as in different ways Ona and the Sick Rose seem to do, they are brought up short by editorial indictment or in a confrontation with another character, so that unlike the Little Black Boy or the Chimney Sweeper, no comfort is available to them.

‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ as I have so far treated them imply a transition between the one and the other, during which the reluctance to acknowledge threats to life in Innocence (The Chimney Sweeper's rationalization, for example) gives way to the willingness to admit that something is very wrong, and perhaps to indict and correct the trouble. In fact the Songs may be thought of as representing a continuous psychological process, an inevitable movement from the state of Innocence, in which one enjoys an unself-conscious unity with one's surroundings, to an encounter with evidence that threatens life, such evidence being for a time displaced by rationalization, but later, intruded into the conscious mind. At this point, the mind may be thought of as in Experience by virtue of its inability to rationalize the threatening evidence or, a distinctly different matter, by virtue of its willingness to accept it. Where the mind can no longer rationalize the evidence and yet cannot cope with the problem it represents, the evidence is likely to register as fear, pain, or awe. Where the mind receives the evidence with knowledge enough to give it ‘meaning,’ the evidence becomes a problem that is understood to need solution or a problem for which a solution is sought and, sometimes, found.

One ought probably to avoid expecting the ‘mind’ of the foregoing model to reveal itself throughout the poems as a single human psychology, or as consistently intelligent or consistently sensitive. Lyca seems to be healthy, whereas the Sick Rose is not; the speaker of ‘The Fly’ is a metaphysician who makes and breaks analogies, whereas Ona seems hardly to know the most obvious implications of her actions; the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is struck deep by an aspect of creation, whereas the Sunflower is weary of time. Individual though they are, these characters help to illuminate the psychological process that is the movement from Innocence through Experience, control of which is ultimately required by Blake's Self-annihilation, his remedy for death in the world. The alternative to such emotional ‘dying’ into new life is to survive behind a wall of self-delusion, narrowly defined by the very threats to life one refuses (unconsciously) to acknowledge and cope with.


Most of Blake's readers would agree, I think, that his characters (and the readers themselves) are in various ways urged to alter their vision of things. But it is not usual to think of the Songs of Experience as primarily concerned with characters in the actual process of moving ‘through’ their vulnerability to death and consequently of changing their way of seeing and the nature of their being. A close look at ‘The Lilly,’ ‘A Poison Tree,’ and ‘The Tyger’ may help to illustrate this claim and to indicate, in outline, certain crucial elements of the undertaking. The readings I offer will probably less affect the general sense for the range of Blake's ideas and interests than for the depth, prominence, and particularity of his concern that individual salvation depends upon Self-examination—as we see and understand, so shall we be—because the essential and undistorting divine being inside us can be liberated in no other way, except accidentally and momentarily. I do not even say Blake was entirely aware that these and other Songs record the gradual emergence into the speaker's consciousness of a new truth about himself—‘The Little Girl Lost,’ ‘The Little Girl Found,’ ‘Nurse's Song,’ ‘The Fly,’ ‘London,’ ‘A Little Girl Lost,’ and ‘To Tirzah,’ for example. I suggest that in producing these poems, Blake gradually became aware of the very process of growing consciousness they represent, a result he made excellent use of in Milton and Jerusalem especially, his great attempts at joining heaven and earth by means of Self-annihilation. But the Songs best reveal the development of that process.

Blake respects the mind's complexity by characterizing its operations rather than by praising or censuring the deeds those operations beget. His poetry generally avoids stating or implying that particular isolated actions or credos are to be preferred to others. To understand his real preference, one must somehow get to the sponsoring psychology of his poems. ‘The Lilly,’ which has seemed to many of Blake's readers to be praised for openness in love (as indeed it is) is more fundamentally identified as the ideal of a being with the capacity for continuing to be its essential self in an inimical world that finally destroys it. In a limited way, it is the emblem of a being that seems to require no Self-annihilation, and yet it is held up to us less as a model to be imitated—it is missing a crucial dimension, in fact—than as an ideal obverse of the generality of mankind, who bargain away their true beings and their openness of vision by modifying themselves self-protectively and self-deceptively.

The apparent simplicity of ‘The Lilly’ is in part the result of its brevity.

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble Sheep a threat'ning horn;
While the Lilly white shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn, nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Yet that very brevity helps to accentuate the meaning beyond the nominal one I have identified as usual—that the Lilly is praised for openness in love.10 As I have said, that other meaning praises not openness in love so much as the unviolated expression of one's own essential nature. What is wrong with the rose and with the sheep is that they include a contradiction of themselves, viewed from one vantage point at least. The rose's beauty attracts, and, inconsistently, its thorn deters. The lamb's humility promises peace, whereas its horn threatens. But the Lilly's nature is not violated by any such contradiction—‘Nor a thorn, nor a threat stain her beauty bright.’

This shift in critical emphasis from love to essentiality may seem slight, for it does not, after all, supplant the usual reading of the poem. It simply claims that the poem treats a more fundamental matter—the Lilly's consistency of presence and behaviour—under which new heading the old reading about openness in love may be sustained, with modifications. Before considering ramifications of the reading I have proposed, I should perhaps offer another word or two about the reading itself. The view that sees openness in love as the governing principle of the poem seems to draw on two facts. First, all three forms of life—rose, sheep, lily—are attractive, apparently welcoming love. Then, it turns out, only one of the three—the Lilly—is what it seems to be, a welcoming lover. But all three are not potential lovers in the same sense, surely. The Rose as symbolic representative of love stands for something far different from the love represented by symbolic Sheep and symbolic Lilly. It is not reasonable, therefore, in one sense, at least, to compare them in the matter of love, as if that were the common ground. But it is reasonable to compare them in the matter of consistency of presence and behaviour, for they do share that ground.

Viewed from the ‘inside’ as minds, Rose and Sheep seem to have a problem the nature of which is indicated by their unremitting defensive postures, the thorn and the horn being ever-present. Viewed from the ‘outside’ as social beings, Rose and Sheep seem to deny their essential qualities by making themselves available only with a qualification, threatening thorn and horn. It is only the Lilly who is non-defensive and available as its essential self. One may say with Damon, Bloom, and others that it is open to love, as Rose and Sheep are not, but it is chiefly the absence of anomalous self-defense that makes the Lilly essentially itself and essentially available to others. The operative word in the last line of the poem is ‘stain,’ I believe. ‘Nor a thorn, nor a threat stain her beauty bright.’ The Lilly is not unstained in the sense that it is without sin, but in the sense that it is without psychological alloy.

On the face of it the Lilly seems to be an Innocent—not the rationalizing Little Black Boy kind, but one enjoying the blessed state in which people and forces outside it seem continuous with itself, a state in which it sees no inimical elements in the world. If the reader of the poem concentrates on the Lilly exclusively, such a reading is appropriate. But the thrust of the poem moves one to a comparison of the three—Rose, Sheep, Lilly—a conclusion which the history of critical response to the piece no less than the logic of its structure bears out. Given the stress on comparison, and the spare, unelaborated characterizations, the Lilly is less a loving Innocent, like the Little Lamb, on whose felicity and blessedness the reader is encouraged to dwell, than it is an example of psychological consistency.

But Blake's interest in the Lilly extends to another important matter. It is that its unself-regarded consistency leaves it not only ‘unstained,’ but also vulnerable. In manuscript drafts of the poem, Blake includes a lion, a priest, and a soldier, along with the Lilly, sheep, and rose. The lion, like the Lilly, seems steadfast in being its essential self—‘And the lion [shall] increase freedom and peace’—whereas priest and soldier are represented as behaving inconsistently with reference to their nominal definitions—‘The priest loves war and the soldier peace.’11 Sheep, rose, priest, and soldier in a way contradict their essential identities, lion and Lilly do not.

But there is almost certainly an important difference between the lion and the Lilly. It is that the lion, in the draft version, can apparently maintain its own identity in an inimical world, not only without adverse consequences to itself, but with general benefit—‘… the lion [shall] increase freedom and peace.’ The Lilly, however, though it maintains its identity consistently, suffers a crucifixion ‘… with the head downward’ in the illustration, as Erdman points out.12 The flower, a day lily shown in the right hand margin of the plate, fades at day's end, it seems. Blake's omission of the successfully consistent lion from the final version of the poem and his inclusion of the consistent but unfortunate Lilly imply his decision to stress an important aspect of the process of Self-annihilation, rather than to give us the example of a being without need for the process, the lion. If his primary aim had been only to approve the maintenance of one's essential self, he might have preferred the lion to the Lilly in the final version, or he might have included both, without distinguishing between them. As it is, he seems to be saying that the unstained or essentially consistent being of the Lilly, though spiritually preferable to the defensive—self-repudiating—posture of sheep and rose (priest and soldier), is nevertheless faced with certain dangers. And it is the vulnerable Lilly he chooses to dwell on, not the naturally invulnerable lion, who may be understood to enjoy already those very qualities he ‘increases’—freedom and peace.

The Chimney Sweeper, the Black Boy, the Rose, and the Sheep all distort their true identities—the first two by rationalizing destructive elements in the world around them and the second two by representing the posture of self-defence in their very anatomies. And the uncontaminated Lilly—whose proto-type in Matthew 6 takes ‘no thought for its life’—though it maintains itself bravely in a world that threatens it, fails to survive there. It seems to be insufficiently acquainted with the forces of death. What it needs is not more self-defence, but a greater understanding of the world's hostility, and the development of its own resiliency of response to it. The just man of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, another God-associated vulnerable with the sensitivity and constancy of purpose to satisfy Blake's high standards, has a similar need. Seen from one point of view, the comic Devils of The Marriage teach him, and us, the lesson he needs to learn. The lesson is also available in one of the Songs of Experience.

‘A Poison Tree’ may appear at first reading to be a poem about the destructive consequences of repressed feeling. Not telling one's wrath may seem to be like nursing unacted desires, which breeds pestilence. Indeed, much more in the poem seems to support this reading. Fears and deceitful wiles in the mind of the speaker maintain the life of inhibited wrath, which thereafter bears a deadly apple. The evil garden in which the fruit grows—it later attracts the somehow internalized foe—seems to have a vitality of poison beyond the speaker's control. But whereas one would expect the speaker to suffer as a result of its terrible flourishing, it is the foe who eats the apple and dies. And it is with uncomplicated joy that the speaker witnesses his dead foe: ‘In the morning glad I see; / My foe outstretched beneath the tree.’ It does not seem reasonable that in Blake's world repressed feeling should culminate in the pleasure of glad relief.

An even more obvious point may help the attempt to sort out these details. The speaker, from the beginning of the poem, has a remarkable grasp of the incidents that make up the psychic event he talks about. Indeed, the symmetry of his presentation suggests the obvious benefit of hindsight: ‘I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end. / I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow.’ He speaks not of what is, but of what has been and in the process of doing so, he selects events from the past to secure the clarity that results from comparing friend and foe as objects of anger. Even more clearly indicative of experience past is the completeness of the process represented by the growth and fruition of the tree of wrath, and the consequent death of the foe, not to mention the joyous deliverance of the speaker himself.

The speaker's command of the details of his experience, along with the details themselves, suggest his gradual resolution of a psychic difficulty in proportion as understanding and control of the trouble increase. Though he is beyond fear as he speaks the poem, the speaker, when he left his wrath unspoken, was afraid; on the other hand, the speaker who sees his foe out-stretched beneath the tree is mischievously happy, very like a gleeful devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the first condition, he receives the energy of assault; in the second, he directs it towards his foe. The speaker's comic tone itself may be regarded as a function of the experience completed and recapitulated—a triumph recalled—rather than the ‘language’ of the events as they originally emerged. Though the means by which the change in attitude and capacity is achieved are not absolutely clear, enough of the process is apparent to make substantial conjecture possible.

First, the watering of suppressed wrath and the sunning of it with smiles and deceitful wiles imply a consciousness of the problem, not out and out repression. The speaker seems both to have concealed his anger and to have nourished it, and though he is at this early point without the means of coping with his foe, the very fact that he can later recapitulate the process argues his increasing knowledge of it. That which grows as a result of suppression and nourishment is an interior garden world, imagined by the speaker to be attractive to the foe as sinner: ‘And into my garden stole. / When the night had veild the pole.’

The speaker has become the creator and proprietor of a perverted Eden, into which the foe will be seduced and a poison apple made available to him. This growing sense of power to control events—however imaginary—may be part of his recognition of himself as deceitful and wily, as D. G. Gillham seems to suggest.13 In a way, the clear and growing shape of energy that has been neither expressed externally on the one hand, nor suppressed on the other, makes of the speaker a minor Satan, comic in his manipulative control of things, but by no means trivial. What he might have rationalized in Innocence eventually flourishes in Experience, and it gives him a devilish strength. One result is his ability to murder; another is his stomach for accepting the murder as a pleasing triumph: ‘In the morning glad I see / My foe outstretched beneath the tree.’

Despite what I have suggested about the internalized foe and the garden's interior flourishing, there is a special sense in which the speaker's growing power is paralleled by its increasing application to exterior events. One might say that it is the nature of a recently acquired awareness that it looks outward. But the reader of ‘A Poison Tree’ has more than that to go on. The entire tone of the poem suggests the speaker's pleasure and amusement in recounting an experience that might have ended badly but turned out well. As he informs the world that it used to include among its inhabitants a foe who frightened the speaker back into himself, whereas now that foe is dead, he displays a confidence that he can cope with external events. It is ‘in the morning,’ the start of a new day, in a foe-empty world, that he concludes the action of his interior adventure, which has brought him to the threshold of outward things. At this point there exists for him a continuity of inside and outside the mind, the chief indication that he has come to understand and make use of the threat of repression. Without this understanding, his unexpressed anger would have cut him off from the world outside, to some extent, at least. With it, the inhibiting foe of the real world is redefined, and so are the world and the speaker's relation to it.

Then too there is the growth of the apple itself to chart the course of the speaker's process of response to the foe from frightened inhibition to murderous expression. The apple grows, the tree that bears it having been cared for by the speaker. The fruit is the culmination of the speaker's partially self-guided interior process, represented in horticultural terms; it is the ultimate, gradually appearing symbol of the diabolized Garden of Eden in which the speaker, an emerging Satanic principle of sorts, having been imposed upon, comes to impose his will upon the imposer, in the process of which his energy is directed outwardly. It may be going too far to say that because the apple represents the clarified form of the movement from inhibition to expression, because it somehow accounts for the removal of the external inhibitor by the inhibited, it may be understood to stand for the power of newborn consciousness applied to the external world. And yet it seems reasonable to entertain such a view. One cannot be absolutely certain that the speaker will be able to cope with the literal foe should they meet again, but the chances that he can do so seem to be first rate.

The speaker, first inhibited, then diabolic-expressive, bears an important relationship to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In The Marriage, written during the same period that saw the production of Songs of Experience, Blake urges all just men to do what is done by the speaker of ‘A Poison Tree.’ It is precisely the just man's history—consider the devils to be an extension of him—that he has been imposed upon and that shortly thereafter he is shown how to overturn the imposition by calling upon the energetic forces within himself that derive from a new way of seeing things. Incidentally, the ‘history’ includes the perception that ‘A dead body revenges not injuries.’ Of course both the speaker of ‘A Poison Tree’ and the just man, even in their diabolized forms, are less potential murderers than they are persons grown aware that a state of war characterizes much human intercourse, so that the man who sets limits on the actions he will contemplate in human encounters runs the risk of crippling his spirit. The license to imagine all things, including the murder of one's enemy, is the devil's primary right in The Marriage. On the other hand, his opinions include the view that ‘The most sublime act is to set another before you.’

Several elements in Blake's illustration of ‘A Poison Tree’ extend and reinforce the reading I have offered. Chief among them is a portion of the tree David Erdman identifies as ‘… a hand [just above the fourth stanza] that seems to grasp the trunk above it as by the leg of an elongated human torso.’14 I think the element may be seen more readily as the head of a rather happy looking serpent, from whose mouth is issuing a giant forked tongue, part of which underlines and brackets the poem's title and part of which extends the entire length of the poem to become continuous with the ‘y’ of ‘My’ in the last line. It is as if the Serpent of the Garden of Eden has been presented in a benign and useful aspect, sponsored by the special occasion of the speaker's triumph over repression and self-deception. The speaker has not murdered so much as he has discovered himself capable of murder in his heart, an exhilarating revelation, it turns out.

His garden, his tree of the knowledge of good and evil, his serpent, his deceitful behaviour, his dead foe, his promise of a new day, his completed poetic statement—all these are functions of the speaker's pictorially ‘unending’ and extensively possessive ‘My.’ But he is neither proprietary nor murderous, finally, though the world of his new imagining includes the possibility for both. He is in the condition of knowing that he can move beyond a Lilly's passivity in the face of emotional danger. In a limited sense, he has overseen the marriage of heaven and hell within himself. Still, he has seen only partway into the death-filled world—consider Thel's anticipation of it by comparison—and his assimilation (his changed being) is only proportionate to his depth of vision. Though no character in the Songs completes a Self-examination, some experience a much deeper vision than he does.

In ‘The Tyger,’ the speaker begins fired by his perception of the incredibly powerful forces that were ‘framed’ to create the deadly Tyger, and he ends having borne and moved beyond the chief intensity of his vision of the fearful creature. In the beginning, he struggles to comprehend what he has just recognized. By the end of the poem, he has somehow assimilated a new truth about being and creation, such that Tyger, Creator, Lamb, and the speaker himself are no longer the starkly discrete entities they seemed to be when the speaker first recognized the bright-burning Tyger. One might say that ‘The Tyger’ records the speaker's newfound sense that he is as deadly as the Tyger, as daring as the Creator, and as tender as the lamb. And yet the recognition leaves the speaker in a state of heartened fatigue rather than in one of poised enlightenment. Neither he nor the reader knows exactly what promise there may be in the new-won knowledge. But it includes his awareness that discrete inimical and discrete mysterious entities need not be simply external to his own being.

The poem is framed by nearly identical stanzas; they differ by one word only. In the place of ‘could’ in stanza one, ‘dare’ occurs in stanza five.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Whatever else the fact of the frame may signify, the meaning of ‘could’ in the frame's opening element includes doubt, uncertainty, the need for explanation, unresolved possibility; and the following three stanzas fulfill the expectation implicit in such meaning.

The second condition of the spirit—the one that results from assimilating or at least getting beyond the whole syndrome represented by ‘deadly terrors’—is hard to get at critically for two general reasons. Obvious verbal clues are not readily available; and the chief pictorial clue—the Tyger without ferocity (‘a tame cat,’ as Keynes puts it)15—though it seems to represent an ‘obverse’ of ‘deadly terrors,’ includes no obvious hints about the transition from the one condition to the other. Nor are there, quite aside from possible transitional elements, clear signs as to the nature of the relationship between Tyger of ‘deadly terrors’ and Tyger as apparently tame cat.

In coping with the need to explain the movement from one condition to the other, scholars have treated the poem as an exploration of good and evil,16 an affirmation of the Tyger's ultimate divinity,17 an unresolved expression of incredulity and doubt,18 support for the view that the forest and the night are not perdurable,19 and an ironic statement in support of the conclusion that ‘… immortal energy … hammered into merely mortal form …’ must inevitably result in ‘… a parody of eternal vitality’—the ‘shabby’ cat.20

Critics have identified various important questions, answers to which have provided the basis of speculation about the poem's ultimate meaning. The significance of the frame, with the slight variations in wording (and punctuation) already noted, is the substance of one of these questions. The meaning behind the query, ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ is another. Further questions concern the nature of the Tyger's Creator and of the speaker's relationship to Him; the meaning of the first two lines of the fifth stanza—‘When the stars threw down …’; how and why the Tyger was created; when it was created, particularly with reference to possible apocalypse; and finally who the poem's speaker may be and what relationship he bears to the pictorial artist of its setting.

In a full and provocative reading of ‘The Tyger,’ John E. Grant says, ‘… the [poem] is not a vehicle for positive thinking, but a study in perplexity and metaphysical rebelliousness. …’21 Having declared the ‘identification of the speaker in the poem to be the most crucial problem for interpretation because unless we understand his character we are unable to understand what he sees and says,’ he goes on to suggest that the speaker is not Blake, but rather ‘… an average but also imaginative man who is almost overwhelmed by the mysterious prodigy he sees as a Tyger.’22

In an extended discussion, Grant argues that the Tyger's origins are associated with ‘… the deep furnace of hell,’ and though ultimately redeemable, the Tyger of the poem itself is a creature of the fallen world of death and generation. It is from this position that Grant offers the view that the action of the poem is located in the centre of the Christian idea of history, not at the edge of apocalyptic deliverance. Accordingly, interpretations that accept ‘the defeat of the stars’ in Blake's fifth stanza as the prelude to redemption are set aside as inappropriate. Though Grant goes on to accept Wicksteed's conclusion that ‘The Tyger’ represents the view that if the Lamb is a creature of God's making, so is the Tyger, in the special sense that ‘… in making the Lamb God had made the Tyger—in making the Tyger, had made the Lamb,’23 he disagrees with Wicksteed's conclusion that for Blake the Incarnation makes possible their reconciliation in the here and now.

In different ways, both are correct. If one assumes that the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is an average imaginative man, one hears the poem as the statement of a person less capable than Blake. And one may then agree that what the speaker says, Blake may, as pictorial artist, ironically repudiate. So the nominally benign Tyger of the engraving may be Blake's way of informing his reader and viewer that the speaker has been unnecessarily awed by the idea of the Tyger, a creature who however energetic in his eternal condition, has been ‘… hammered into merely mortal form …, a parody of eternal vitality.’ ‘The Little Black Boy’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ are after all poems that employ such a terminal about-face. But just as there is consistency of viewpoint from first to last in these poems—the ironic possibilities notwithstanding—so is there consistency in ‘The Tyger.’

It is in a way misleading to think of ‘The Tyger’s' speaker as average and imaginative, given the extraordinary sensitivity he displays in the six stanzas of the poem, both as ‘cognitive-perceiver’ and as verbalizer. His awe is real and deep, and it is tellingly expressed—non-dismissible. In fact, there is nothing much average about him. His questioning reveals his intense interest in an unclarified element of the covenant between God and man, the unclarified element raising this question—how can it be (though it is a fact) that the creation as creation includes both the lamb who loves and dies, and the Tyger who kills and eats his fellow mortals? How can it be that the Creator of this world ordained hostility and death as the means of sustaining physical life, at the same time that he ordained love? As Grant himself points out, this very question ‘… continued to concern Blake throughout his life.’24 Surely the speaker of the poem is Blake—at least he is a person of Blakean sensibility—and no lesser being.

The first four stanzas of the poem register the depth of the speaker's recognition of the Tyger's ‘deadly terrors,’ and they also register his incredulity that these terrors have been incorporated into a living form of the creation. The very quality of the recognition argues a capacity for seeing things ‘as they are’—a fact that seems to promise the transformation of new perceptions into new understandings. But how? He begins to cope with his incredulity by trying to account for the Tyger's creation. He seeks meaning not in his own isolated perception of the Tyger, but in the context of the animal's genesis, which is his own. What hand or eye—‘acting’ hand or ‘imaginative’ eye—could have done the job? Both of the speaker's responses—the recognition that the Tyger exists and his accounting for its origins—are related elements of a single operation. The speaker makes no effort to repudiate the terrible deadliness of the Tyger, nor to explain it in the handy terms of proverbial or of domestic truth, like the Chimney Sweeper or The Black Boy's Mother. He quite accepts the idea of the beast as terrible. On the other hand, he seems to believe that the fact of its terrible being can somehow be accounted for, in terms that identify the Tyger's Creator.

In his deep recognition of the Tyger's ‘deadly terrors,’ the speaker approximates the work of the Tyger's Creator, simply by seeing it ‘as it is’; the Tyger depends on the speaker for his being just as ‘The Suns Light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that beholds it’25 for its being. In the approximation, he accepts the responsibility for the creation—not in the sense of having generated that creation in the first place but in the sense of accepting the obligation to cope with it. In Blake's world, to see clearly is to accept responsibility for what one sees. Such seeing is the Artist's creation of the world he lives in, though there exists an independent physical world as well.

This painful accommodation seems not to be entirely conscious in the speaker, who is in important ways uncertain of what is happening to him, but it is no less systematic and effective for that. The route of his apparently subliminal understanding moves him past his perturbed recognition of the Tyger and towards the condition in which he reevaluates four representative identities in the human experience. Shocked into the deepest imaginable recognition of the deadly Tyger, he also appraises its Creator, as I have said, and through the Creator, the lamb—and necessarily himself as well, in whom these other three beings inhere, in the special sense I have identified. During this process of organized awe, the question ‘Can one imagine who made the Tyger?’ yields to the question ‘Did the same Creator make both lamb and Tyger?’. And then both questions—neither answered explicitly—give way to the attitude one might have were the answers to both questions an assimilated yes. It is not the answers as answers that are important, but the condition that makes possible their being asked in the first place and the continuation of the speaker's openness to the possibility that the answers are almost certainly yes.

Wicksteed seems to me right in associating the first two lines of stanza five both with ‘Reason and War’ and with ‘… the entrance of the Deity into earth's watery vale. …’26 Though not often in agreement about the precise meaning of ‘… the stars threw down their spears, / And water'd heaven with their tears,’ most critics take seriously the possibility that the lines refer both to the rigidity and constraint that Blake typically associates with stars and to a ‘… breaking down of these barriers separating man from his own humanity. …’27 Whether the deliverance is specifically Christian, as Wicksteed supposes, is less important than the fact that some kind of deliverance is identified immediately after the reference to the presumably constraining stars. In treating the two lines, Grant first concentrates on their significance with reference to the Creator. Then he turns his attention to the speaker and makes two very important points. He suggests the speaker ‘… may never be able to decide …’28 the relationship between the first and second pairs of lines in stanza 5, and he stresses that such deliverance as may be referred to by the speaker ‘… must be an event in the future, or at best the present. …’29 Grant's conclusion about the text is that ‘… both the Lamb and the Tyger will have their parts in [the] apocalypse, but their natures cannot be harmonized until after Armageddon during the Millenium.’30

But in fact the harmony need not be exactly apocalyptic—it need not be mankind's, only the speaker's. And it does indeed take place in the present. In a strict critical sense, it is the speaker who is responsible for the fifth stanza. It is he whose mind ‘requires’ and states the lines in their peculiar sequence. It is he who says ‘… the stars threw down their spears / And water'd heaven with their tears,’ using the past tense—‘water'd’—to refer to heaven's mercy, insofar as it is available to individual men. The crucial question is not whether the deliverance referred to here is universal, as Grant apparently supposes, or whether it is formally Christian, as Wicksteed believes, but under what circumstances it has become available to the speaker.

Clearly for him the fixed-star state of things has passed. In perceiving the Tyger as he has, he is compelled to define Tyger, Creator, lamb, and himself anew, in such a way as to integrate them into a new scheme of things. If he is in any sense compelled to wonder whether the Creator of the Tyger is also the creator of the lamb—‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’—then one must conclude there was a time when he believed, however unconsciously, that the answer was no. One must also conclude that he is at least on the verge of acknowledging to consciousness that lamb and Tyger and speaker are parts of a single system, however different they may be from each other. And in understanding this special unity of the Creator's devising, the speaker ‘accepts’ the creation which is both deadly and loving, and he also recognizes that he himself is in a way the Tyger no less than he is the lamb. The speaker has passed from ‘deadly terror’ to a new knowledge of the system of things of which he is a part, and to a new knowledge of himself as well.

In the final stanza, ‘dare’ for ‘could’ is the first gloss on this new condition, and the apparently benign Tyger of the illustration is a second. ‘Could’ in the context implies the speaker's willingness to search for the capacity to create the Tyger. ‘Dare’ implies the knowledge that a Creator is available, the remaining question having to do with the ‘willingness’ to create it and what such willingness represents. The Creator ‘could’ create the Tyger, a clear ‘possibility’ it turns out. ‘Dare’ he do so then becomes the speaker's question. But of course he has in fact dared already, or the Tyger could not be. The movement from ‘could’ to ‘dare’ represents no shift in objective fact, only a changed perception of the speaker. Having wondered ‘could?’ he has come to imagine ‘dare.’ He has ‘acknowledged’ the fact that the Tyger's fearful symmetry has been framed. And in some sense he himself has framed it within the limits of the poem, whose final stanza returns to the central issue, with ‘dare’ representing something close to the fait accompli, in which he has participated. The mystery of the Tyger's creation has not been dispelled, but it has been looked at, it has provoked a profound shock of recognition, and it has been incorporated by the speaker into a new sense of himself. At least some of his innocent self has ‘died’ into new life, and he may now be able to cope with the deadly state of things he has dared to see.

The illustration in which the poem is set extends its verbal implications by various means. Several of the picture's elements are important in this regard. First, the Tyger is not fierce, but neither is he a cat essentially; he is a cat with human features—mouth, shape of head and particularly eyes. Second, his stripes and those of the tree are almost indistinguishable, in some versions, especially where the two merge. And finally, it is the tree—somehow joined with or possibly sprung from the Tyger—that dominates the world of the poem, though it seems to do so with less than maximum potential force, as Erdman suggests.31 Grant believes ‘This Tree of Death epitomizes the fallen or ‘vegetable’ world …,’32 and he also associates the tree, in Blake's perception, with the ‘Biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’33

Obviously the Tyger first recognized by the speaker of the poem is very different from the Tyger depicted in the illustration. It seems reasonable to try to explain the difference between the two by assuming a development in meaning from the first to the second. Having written the poem, Blake provided for it a pictorial setting appropriate to its ‘ultimate’ meaning. If the salient elements of the illustration are indeed a Tyger with crucially human features, a merger of the human Tyger with the tree of death and of the knowledge of good and evil, and the dominance of the world of the poem by the tree in a somewhat attenuated form of itself, then important correlations between text and picture are apparent.

Most important is the fact that the poem's tentative softening of the starkness of discrete and sometimes adversative entities is brought to partial resolution in the illustration. In ‘The Lamb,’ speaker, child, lamb, and Saviour are identical—‘I a child and thou a lamb / We are called by his name.’ In ‘The Tyger,’ speaker, Tyger, Creator, and lamb are in the first instance supposed to be very different. But the perceptual progress of the speaker, as it is indicated by his questions about the Tyger's Creator and the lamb's—and by other locutions—implies the inaccuracy of this initial view. The speaker of ‘The Tyger,’ who begins by seeing the Tyger (evil and deadliness) in this insulated way, recognizes in the course of his perception that he, with the rest of the creation, is himself the Tyger, in some sense at least. He who made the lamb made the Tyger, and he made man as well, who is both lamb and Tyger, and more. In this perception of created things, it is appropriate that the human Tyger should not look terrifying; and that the tree of death and knowledge should be associated (merged) with Tyger and speaker-man, who is responsible for the ‘creation’ of the Tyger and for the knowledge represented by the tree. All these ‘meanings’ have been assimilated by the speaker, who is well into a profound Self-examination and Self-annihilation, the only true way back to God in Blake's universe.

The discrete forces earlier perceived have not been so assimilated, however, that the speaker has returned to Eden. Lamb and Tyger do not lie down together. Quite the contrary, what he has achieved is a new consciousness of his condition—his ‘fallen’ condition—which includes his knowing that the world is overhung by the branches of the threatening tree associated with the loss of innocence and death. The illustration represents the fact that in the face of this recognition, the distance between himself and the Tyger who engendered the terrible vision in the first place is greatly closed (they look ‘alike’). And both seem less than significant beneath that tree, though they give it life (the tree seems to grow out of them) and though the speaker has shown he has the visionary capacity to move beyond its limiting implications. Paradoxically increased and diminished by his experience, the speaker is for the moment in the condition of rest and hope. The deadly tree's leafless (weakened) condition, the eagle of genius above, and the promising pink sky beyond are among the signs of his potential deliverance. But his changing definition of himself is the chief sign, arresting to his hope though it must be for the moment.


Blake was not alone in his sense that the world was death-threatening and therefore emotionally inhibiting, nor was he alone in looking for a solution to the problem. As various studies by J. Huizinga, Basil Willey, Don Cameron Allen, T. S. R. Boase, Morse Peckham, Meyer Abrams, A. Alvarez, Norman T. Burns, and Philippe Ariès have in different ways helped to show, Protestant man (by no means every Protestant) had assumed the right to ask all questions whatsoever, with the result that his intensely speculative turn of mind had separated his own individual world of being from various structures of traditional ‘meaning,’ which earlier had provided ‘orientation,’ to use Peckham's useful term.34 Ptolemy's astronomy, the idea of a catholic church, the principle of absolute monarchy were all reduced in their power to give assurance that large patterns of things unify the world and unite us all.

Though many signs of this movement into emotional independence and isolation and risk are apparent, perhaps the most fundamental is the very extensively expressed idea (I can document it only fleetingly here) that death, which until late medieval times had been widely accepted as a step in the process from here to eternity, came to be regarded as a terminus ad quem. Though earlier, death had sometimes been depicted in grim terms—the Bayeux tapestry, for example, shows Harold at Hastings, pierced mortally through the eye, then eviscerated and dismembered—it was shown in the midst of activity, so that vitality, however cruel, dominated the scene.35 But the realistic portraiture of late medieval times reveals an intense preoccupation with physical death itself. It records details of static pathos, like the mourning of the dead person's husband, wife, or daughter. Or it represents the corpse in a state of advanced decay, or as stripped bones, or in its embalmed state, the embalmer's rude stitches visible from groin to ribs. Or the body is represented in two forms—one plump and tranquil on an upper bier, and the other, rotten, on a lower.36 These commemorative works do not imply the denial of an afterlife, but they concentrate on the life departed, not the life to come. Instead of forward-looking anxiety concerning a future Heaven or Hell, they fix on the death-filled here and now.37

By 1450, processions of the living and the dead, usually corpses or skeletons impartially escorting persons from all walks of life to inevitable death, were depicted in cemeteries and on the walls of churches, bridges, cloisters, and monasteries in Northern Europe. Despite the Church's reluctant sponsorship of these paintings, the Danse Macabre had a life of its own which did not yield to the orthodox context that had received it. The Holbein cuts illustrate this point eloquently by representing the experience of dying as a crucial terminus. It is Death, not Christ, who prevails in the last of the series.38

During the religious controversies of the seventeenth century, dozens of English publications supported the view that man and his soul are both perishable. As one blunt author says, ‘… whole man … is a Compound wholly mortal … and [the idea of] … the present going of the Soule into Heaven or Hell is a meer Fiction. …’39 Don Cameron Allen, in Doubt's Boundless-Sea, explores the vast subject of religious skepticism in the period and the re-affirmations of orthodoxy it stimulated, and he concludes that for many men and women of the age ‘… the prospect was undoubtedly frightening, because the sea [of doubt] that roared without the wall roared more violently in their minds.’40 I cannot detail here the many evidences of uncertainty about an afterlife in the seventeenth century. They are far too numerous and far too varied to make brief representation possible. With Richard Overton, from whose Man's Mortallitie (1643) I have already quoted, Hobbes was certainly prominent among the authors who raised doubts about life after death, simply in that he regarded man's perception to be mechanical in its operation and relativist in its observations and conclusions. With such limited endowments, man was in no position to infer a heavenly city.

There are also works of religious introspection, which reveal death to have been the center of a lifetime of concern. A dissenting minister, John Reynolds, in 1709 published an elaborate verse essay that asks extensively whether the world to which death delivers us is ‘… fill'd with Solid Glory, or with Solid Night.’41 Over twenty-five years later, in 1735, his memoirs make it clear that during his entire life no experience or vision promised glory; he was terrified of dying because he could not ‘… trust his [Heavenly Father's] Love at Death, [could not believe in] safety at Death.’42

The idea that death dominates and constrains human experience is also important in the work, often the life, of authors like Shakespeare, Donne, Burton, Browne, Milton, Hobbes, the Cambridge Platonists, Rochester, Swift, the Graveyard poets, the Gothic novelists, Sterne, Johnson, Hume, and dozens of others, not to mention Blake's near contemporaries, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. It was in this dense context of concern with death that Blake imagined Thel's vision of the world, a fact that makes it reasonable to believe he was not above the problem he assigns to her, though unlike her, he had the strength to endure what he had the capacity to see.43

It was also in this context that he developed the poetic vehicle for elaborating his Self-examination and Self-annihilation. Given the available solutions to the problem represented by a death-filled world, solutions I briefly identified below, it seems clear that Blake had the chance to adopt and modify any he found congenial. And in fact he felt a sympathy for several of these attempts at reaccommodating man to God, earth to eternity. For example, he, like Wordsworth, rediscovered his heart's capacity to leap with the rainbow and the lark. But the discrete visions of eternity provided by such aesthetic responses were not enough. The ‘deadly visions of Time and Space’ required an unremitting psychological address that had the ultimate aim of transforming one's whole being. So Blake repudiates the idea that a ‘natural’ correspondence exists between this world and eternity—Wordworth's claim and the claim of the Cambridge Platonists. ‘You shall not bring me down to believe such fitting and fitted,’ he says to Wordsworth; ‘I know better. …’44

Blake certainly found Paine's world-ameliorating republicanism to his liking, and Coleridge's communism (more properly, his anticipated communism, on the shores of the Susquehanna) was in keeping with Blake's ideal world. But in fact, he moved steadily in the direction of a psycho-spiritual means of renovating imagination imbued with the sense of a fallen world, so that selfless vision ‘… thro' [the eye] and not with it’ might be possible. Curiously enough, three of his antecedents, none of them known to him, it seems, had moved less deliberately than Blake in the same direction.

One of them, Hendrick Niclaes, expressed views about the nature of human perception in his Terra Pacis (1575?), which suggest that all moments of present time contain elements of past and future, so that eternity is available to us in this life (and only here), provided we learn to give up the worldly identity that ‘requires’ the idea of the present—‘Selfnes’ is the term Niclaes uses for this identity.45 The anonymous author of Death consider'd as a Door to a Life of Glory (c. 1690) makes the point that one may look ‘beyond’ his natural being only after the loss of that being—‘… we [are not] able to see the Glory of God, without the Ruin of the Organ by which we see.’46 And John Asgill offered the world An Argument Proving That … Man May Be Translated … Without Passing Through Death (1700), in which he claims that ‘… Death maintains its dominion over us by our fear of it. …’47 He then says ‘[When I have finished my business in this world], I … shall not go hence by returning to the Dust, … But I shall make my Exit by way of Translation, which I claim as a dignity belonging to that degree in the Science of Eternal Life, of which I profess myself a Graduat. …’48 He also says that ‘Every man possesses as much Eternal life as he knows; and he knows as much as he possesses, and no more.’49

Despite the obvious similarities between the views of these three of his predecessors and Blake's Self-examination and Self-annihilation, neither Niclaes, nor the anonymous author of Death a Door, nor Asgill provides the details of the psychological process by means of which one may give up ‘Selfnes’ or experience the ruin of the organ by which we see (the transformation of vision is possible as an act of imagination in Death a Door) or become proficient in the science of eternal life. It was Blake who first articulated the process, making it clear that the more keenly we see the signs of death in the fallen world, the more likely we are to throw up self-deluding defenses against death's presence, and the more deeply we will feel the emotional death (Self-annihilation) that marks the complex reversal of this defensive tendency (Self-examination).

Though Blake never tells us why Thel retreats from the fallen world, whereas the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ moves into it, he enlarges our understanding of the possibilities before us all, telling us at least implicitly how to make use of the ‘… Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find …’50 If in 1827, Blake died after singing for several days, accomplishing the great transition as easily as one might walk into another room, it is because he had made the journey so many times that in his imagination he had not much more appreciable mortal self left to die. This view of him gives special force to his telling us in the Inscription in the Autograph Album of William Upcott (1826) that he was ‘Born 28 Novr 1757 in London and has died several times since [.]’ Many others before him, in intensely personal ways, had experienced the world as fallen, and many had constructed elaborate systems for overcoming the confinements of mortality. But as far as I have been able to ascertain, no one who shared with him this heritage of death formulated anything like his psychology of redemption, which ‘understands’ the problem and elaborates its solution in terms that are sensitive and intelligent, unremittingly practical, and thorough.


  1. Seen from one point of view, any formulation that makes death somehow acceptable is an ‘immortality formula,’ according to Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, New York, 1973, p. 255.

  2. Hume answers the vital question with a remorseless ‘no afterlife,’ before moving on to enjoy the present one tolerably well as a genial pragmatist. See his Essays on Suicide, and the Immortality of the Soul, 1783. (Though the work was printed anonymously, it is widely attributed to Hume.) The Edinburgh edition of 1789 changes the title to one closer to the spirit of the piece—On the Mortality of the Soul.

  3. The Royal Humane Society was dedicated to restoring victims of asphyxia. Its members, well trained paramedicals, filled over forty chapters located in Great Britain, on the Continent, and in America during the 1780's and 1790's. They thought of themselves as ‘… vanquishing the Victor Death, and baffling his efforts in a variety of forms …,’ ‘… an act that seems … to approximate the divinity. …’ See the Reports of the Royal Humane Society for 1787, 1788, 1789, and 1790, Bodleian Library, Gough London 37, for a full account of the activities of these Guardians of Life, as they called themselves. See also The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, LX 686, 1109.

  4. A Concordance to the Writings of William Blake, Ithaca, 1967, I, ii.

  5. Jerusalem, 49: 22.

  6. Milton, 38: 40-41.

  7. Robert Gleckner, The Piper and the Bard, Detroit, 1959, for example, refers to ‘… Blake's insistence that the shadow of experience constantly impinges upon the sunlit area of innocence’ (p. 84). And E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, New Haven, 1964, says that Blake treats innocence as a blessed condition of trust ‘… amid natural bleakness’ (p. 31).

  8. David V. Erdman, The Illuminated Blake, Garden City, N.Y., 1974, for example, comments on one of the illustrations to ‘The Ecchoing Green’ by saying ‘… two unplucked bunches of grapes are larger than the two plucked, the very largest … being perhaps just out of reach. But all these reachings can be managed in the world of innocent imagination in which vines are this sufficient and accommodating …’ (p. 48). Gleckner, Piper and Bard, suggests a similar ease of connection between subject and object in Innocence: ‘… unhindered communion between the child's life and the lives of animals and the surrounding universe …’ (p. 45). John Holloway, Blake The Lyric Poetry, 1968, gives particular stress to this continuity of ‘inside’ with ‘outside’ by recording a series of identities in Innocence. In concluding his remarks on the ‘Introduction’ to Songs of Innocence, he says, ‘There is no need now to tot up all the identities which compose the poem. Its manifold of equations issue from, and communicate, a world of harmonious oneness’ (p. 62).

  9. Harold Bloom, Blake's Apocalypse, Ithaca: 1970, observes that ‘the repeated phrase, ‘A happy Blossom’ in the third line of each stanza [of ‘The Blossom’] is a clear mark of the inadvertence of the natural world to suffering, even when the grief ought to be its own’ (p. 40); the view accurately identifies the tendency to mask pain in the Songs.

  10. S. Foster Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, Gloucester, Mass., 1958; first published, 1924, p. 282, is in the vanguard of those who offer this interpretation.

  11. Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Garden City, New York, 1965, p. 718.

  12. Erdman, The Illuminated Blake, p. 85.

  13. D. G. Gillham, William Blake, 1973, makes the point in a passage that seems moralistic, when he says that the speaker ‘… is too exultant to realize how much damage he has done himself, though he is aware that the triumph is basely taken’ (p. 136).

  14. Erdman, Illuminated Blake, p. 91.

  15. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with an introduction and commentary by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, New York, 1976, commentary on plate 42, n.p.

  16. Damon, pp. 276-77.

  17. Martin K. Nurmi, ‘Blake's Revisions of The Tyger,PMLA, 71 (1956), 670.

  18. Alfred Kazin, ‘Introduction,’ The Portable Blake, New York, 1946, p. 43.

  19. Erdman, Illuminated Blake, p. 84.

  20. John E. Grant, ‘The Art and the Argument of The Tyger,’ in Discussions of William Blake, ed. Grant, Boston, 1961, p. 80.

  21. Grant, p. 64.

  22. Grant, p. 65.

  23. Joseph H. Wicksteed, Blake's Innocence and Experience, New York, 1928, p. 198.

  24. Grant, p. 75.

  25. ‘For the Sexes,’ Erdman, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, p. 257.

  26. Wicksteed, p. 198.

  27. Nurmi, p. 672.

  28. Grant, p. 73.

  29. Grant, p. 74.

  30. Grant, p. 75.

  31. Erdman, Illuminated Blake, p. 84.

  32. Grant, p. 79.

  33. Grant, p. 79.

  34. J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1924; Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, 1924; Don Cameron Allen, Doubt's Boundless Sea, Baltimore, 1964; T. S. R. Boase, Death in the Middle Ages, 1972; Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1962; Meyer Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism. Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, New York, 1971; A. Alvarez, The Savage God. A Study of Suicide, New York, 1970; Norman T. Burns, Christian Mortalism, Cambridge, Mass., 1972; Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum, Baltimore, 1974.

  35. E. A. Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest, 6 vols., 1867-1879, III (2nd ed., n.d.), 496-98. J. S. P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain, Berkeley, California, 1950, is unwilling to accept Geoffrey of Monmouth's grisly characterization of the deaths of warriors, including Harold's, as typical of treatments of such matters by Geoffrey's contemporaries or as other than the result of ‘outside’ influence; Tatlock explains: ‘Grim details of death on the battlefield, kicking in the death-struggle, coughing up blood from chest wounds may be from hearsay or reading in the Latin poets [Virgil particularly’] (p. 343).

  36. Boase, Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 97-103.

  37. Boase, p. 106.

  38. Francis Douce, Dance of Death, 1833, p. 262.

  39. Richard Overton, Man's Mortallitie, 1643, title page.

  40. Allen, Doubt's Boundless Sea, p. x.

  41. John Reynolds, Death's Vision Represented in a Philosophical, Sacred Poem, 1709, p. 2.

  42. [John Reynolds], Memoirs of the Life of the late Pious and Learned Mr. Reynolds … To which is Added His View of Death, 1735, p. 145.

  43. Blake's ‘vulnerability’ may be otherwise documented, as may his sympathy for the vulnerable. The poem ‘Mary’ in the Pickering Manuscript makes very much the same point as ‘The Lilly,’ as I interpret ‘Lilly's’ text and illustration. Mary is full of life, eager, open, and direct in her glad behavior, but the results are not happy. Instead of becoming ‘continuous with’ others, she is destroyed by the world. And Blake himself, when in a letter to Thomas Butts dated August 16, 1803, he recounts the details leading to the accusation of sedition against him made by John Scholfield, offers a very close variation on part of the Mary poem to characterize ‘… a just Picture of his present state …’:

    Oh Why was I born with a different face
    Why was I not born like the rest of my race
    When I look each one starts! When I speak I offend
    Then I'm silent and passive and lose every Friend
    .....I am either too low or too highly priz'd
    When Elate I am Envy'd, When Meek I'm despis'd
  44. Erdman, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, p. 656.

  45. Hendrick Niclaes, Terra Pacis, London? 1575? pp. 51 left-65 right, 68 right, 77 right, 81 left. Niclaes calls over and over again for the surrender to ‘Understanding’ through the irrevocable abolition of ‘Selfnes’—‘Despysing of Self-Wills Choosing. …,’ in order that one may enter forever ‘… God's Holy Nature …, the everlasting Beeing of the heavenly Trueth’ (p. 82 left).

  46. [Thomas Peirse?], Death consider'd as a Door to a Life of Glory, n.d., p. 11.

  47. John Asgill, An Argument Proving that according to the Covenant of Eternal Life … Man may be translated … without passing through Death, n.p., 1700, p. 59.

  48. Asgill, p. 95.

  49. Asgill, p. 87.

  50. Given the ultimately private self-exploration such a method calls for, it is inevitable that the redemption achieved in Milton, for example, is transferable only as an extended example to others, not as an immediately assimilable religious experience. The same is true of Jerusalem. Though the poem celebrates a general redemption, finally, no such outcome is a real possibility in the context of Blake's self-examination, which requires every individual person saved to endure the emotional death of the Selfhood or Mortal part. In Blake's redemptive universe, neither Milton nor Christ nor any being can spare us the need to defeat death by dying individually. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Princeton, 1947, and John Beer, Blake's Visionary Universe, Manchester, 1969, provide an interesting commentary on the problem represented by Jerusalem in that it seems to promise a universal redemption at the same time that Blake argues elaborately for individual self-annihilation as the only means to salvation. Frye says that Blake's mythology applies to all men, and he gets past the difficulty of explaining how one man's hard-won deliverance can be made available to a whole community in need of salvation by observing that as a result of a single man's spiritual triumph, ‘… a permanent eternal form will appear in time’ (p. 323); and Beer observes that ‘… one force only could redeem mankind: the indwelling light of imaginative power which would release … delight in creative power and a compassionate forgiveness’ (p. 296). Frye goes on to argue Blake's contribution to the historical moment of general redemption, and Beer urges Blake's plausibility by observing the poet's dwindling use of poetic utterance in the prophetic works. But both Frye's archetypal Christian Saviour promising a Last Judgment and Beer's Blake the emerging sensible idealist are reductive in a way. The fact remains that in Blake's world, whatever Jerusalem's Albion may do to be saved, we may do; whatever he must do to be saved, we must do.

Heather Glen (essay date 1983)

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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.

(Blake, annotations to Lavater, K [G. L. Keynes (ed.), The Complete Writings of William Blake (Oxford, 1966)] 87)

In one sense, neither Songs of Innocence and of Experience nor Lyrical Ballads are ‘experimental’ collections at all. In their earlier writings, both Blake and Wordsworth had experimented widely with contemporary literary forms—ranging in the one case from the Ossianic prose of some of the Poetical Sketches to the sharp satire of An Island in the Moon, in the other from the meditative-descriptive verse of An Evening Walk to the Gothic melodrama of parts of The Borderers. Yet in Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Lyrical Ballads each turned away from such experiments towards what had hitherto been a minor and not very ambitious genre. In presentation and subject-matter, Blake's Songs are closer to late eighteenth-century children's verse than to anything else in the period,1 while the poems in Lyrical Ballads most closely resemble those which were appearing in popular middle-class magazines. The two genres are very different, but there are some significant similarities between them.

Each was enjoying a boom at the end of the eighteenth century. The readers of the magazines had a seemingly limitless appetite for poetry:2 children's books were the most rapidly expanding branch of publishing.3 Each was addressed to a fast-growing polite middle-class reading public. And each bore a clear relation to a much less polite cultural tradition. Indeed, children's books had originally been produced by the Puritans in an attempt to counteract what they saw as the pernicious influence of popular chap-books. Throughout the history of eighteenth-century children's publishing one can trace the pressure of that competition: material from chap-books—especially nursery rhymes and riddles—is often to be found enlivening the more expensively produced little books of the polite publishing firms. In a similar way, popular ballads—usually conventionalized to suit contemporary taste—appear alongside modern imitations in the poetry pages of the magazines. Children's books and magazine verse were not, however, necessarily backward-looking in spirit: in fact, both were increasingly used for the expression of ‘progressive’ ideas. As J. H. Plumb suggests, the parent who bought books for his children was likely to be liberal in his views:

This gentle and more sensitive approach to children was but part of a wider change in social attitudes; a part of that belief that nature was inherently good, not evil, and what evil there was derived from man and his institutions; an attitude which was also reflected among a growing elite in a greater sensitivity towards women, slaves and animals.4

Late eighteenth-century children's books contain poems and stories on such subjects as the distresses of poverty, the evils of the slave trade and the need for kindness to animals: most seek to inculcate a mildly progressive humanitarianism. And magazine verse addressed to adult readers could be much more subversive. Sometimes it traced social evils to their causes in a way which provoked alarmed reaction from the Establishment: if the proportion of such poems was small, the fact that the Anti-Jacobin found it necessary to parody them so extensively suggests that it was significant. But despite their sometimes innovatory subject-matter, neither magazine verse nor children's poetry were exciting literary forms. Why did Blake and Wordsworth each choose to turn to them? Did they, in doing so, hope to regain some of the vitality of the popular chap-books and ballads? Or does their choice suggest a rather more sophisticated interest in the expectations of the polite readers to whom such books were addressed?

In 1789-90, when Songs of Innocence was engraved, the children's book trade was a flourishing one. John Newbery, the most prolific of eighteenth-century children's publishers, had produced over two hundred titles between 1745 and 1770—and thereby made a fortune.5 It was a trade which Blake seems to have known well.6 Not only do the Songs offer internal evidence of his familiarity with eighteenth-century verse for children: in the period between 1780 and 1791 the radical publisher Joseph Johnson commissioned him three times to engrave illustrations for children's books—books which in these years were beginning to be more and more attractively produced. It seems clear that Songs of Innocence, with its colourful designs and its introductory promise that ‘Every child may joy to hear’, was aimed at a known (and growing) market of parents from the polite classes.

I say parents rather than children, for the formally published children's books, priced at two shillings and sixpence or more, could hardly have been bought by children. Songs of Innocence itself cost five shillings.7 As Plumb points out: ‘Children do not buy books, adults do … So the new children's literature was designed to attract adults, to project an image of those virtues which parents wished to inculcate in their offspring, as well as to beguile the child.’8 And, as we know from the reminiscences of such readers as Holcroft and Coleridge, who were boys in the 1780s, the books children chose were the penny chap-books, with their sensational stories and doggerel rhymes and riddles, rather than refined collections of verse. But refined collections there were, in plenty. Some were simply reading-exercises, teaching spelling and pronunciation in words of one syllable; sometimes, as in this early (1712) example, by the careful use of half-rhyme:

Hear you a lark?
Tell me what clerk
          Can match her! He that beats
The next thorn bush,
May raise a thrush
          Would put down all our waits.(9)

Perhaps the childish monosyllables and half-rhymes of Blake's ‘Spring’ were originally intended to offer similar practice in reading and pronunciation:

          Little Lamb,
          Here I am;
          Come and lick
          My white neck;
          Let me pull
          Your soft Wool;
          Let me kiss
          Your soft face:
Merrily, Merrily, we welcome in the Year.

But a large amount of verse for children was more substantial in content. The earliest and most attractive of such collections was Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls, first published in 1686 and republished (after 1724 with the title Divine Emblems) until well into the Victorian period: a volume which illustrates very clearly that ambivalence of aim which was to inform books for children throughout the eighteenth century. Its effort to compete with the chap-books is apparent in its crude little wood-cuts; and there is a vivid colloquial life about much of the poetry—an imaginative effort to enter into the child's way of seeing the world—which must have been very attractive to young readers. The childish speaker in ‘Of the Child with the Bird on the Bush’, tries to tempt a bird into captivity:

Thou subject art to cold o' nights,
When darkness is thy covering;
By day thy danger's great by kites,
How canst thou then sit there and sing?
Thy food is scarce and scanty too,
‘Tis worms and trash which thou dost eat;
Thy present state I pity do,
Come, I'll provide thee better meat.
I'll feed thee with white bread and milk,
And sugar-plums, if thou them crave;
I'll cover thee with finest silk,
That from the cold I may thee save.(10)

But the bird remains hauntingly strange: inassimilable to the little everyday world of the child's promises. The same sense of wonder pervades the description, in another poem, of the mysterious self-absorption of the snail:

She makes no noise, but still seizeth on
          The Flow'r or Herb, appointed for her food
The which she quietly doth feed upon,
          While others range, and gare, but find no good.(11)

In both cases the imaginative effect is achieved by an exact, fascinated observation—that slight disalignment from conventional ways of seeing that is a characteristic of childish vision. But this is only half the story. For in both these poems—as in all the others in the volume—this strangeness and liveliness is contained by and subordinated to an adult moral frame. ‘Of the Child with the Bird on the Bush’ ends by comparing the bird to a wicked unbeliever who will not listen to Christ's pleadings: the snail becomes a figure of the seeker after Christ. In poem after poem there are similar, often tortuous analogies; sometimes tagged on at the end as a ‘moral’, sometimes incorporated into the body of the poem. The child who responded with wondering openness to Bunyan's curious images of familiar things would have found himself called upon to subjugate that wonder to the demands of a rigorous adult logic.

This conflict between the desire to appeal to the child's sensibility (and in some measure to recreate it in verse) and the need to instruct and direct can be traced in most of the poetry written for children in the eighteenth century. At best, such verse has an imaginative vitality not unlike that feeling for the strangeness of the everyday which one finds in the riddle collections of the chap-books:

When Frosts have whiten'd all the Woods,
Harden'd the Ground and stop'd the Floods,
How carelessly do Children slide,
And o'er the deepest Waters glide!
On broadest Ponds in Ranks they spread,
Where just before they durst not tread,
And with smooth Motion softly pass
Along the new delightful Glass.

(from ‘Upon Boys Sliding’ in Thomas Foxton, Moral Songs Composed for the Use of Children, 1728)

          It moves with Ease
          Just where I please,
How swift it bounds and flies!
          With one small Jerk
          I make it work,
And watch it with my Eyes.

(from ‘Miss Playing with her Ball’ in John Marchant, Puerilia, or Amusements for the Young, 1751)

But this vitality is always pressed into the service of a larger didactic purpose. This is true of Isaac Watts, the most popular and influential of such versifiers, whose Divine and Moral Songs were republished throughout the century: it is equally true of later, more educationally ‘progressive’, writers for children. If children's books can be said to reflect contemporary attitudes towards childhood and child-rearing, one must conclude that, however such attitudes changed and varied amongst the polite classes during the eighteenth century,12 some basic assumptions remained constant. Finally, there is little to choose between Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life and the much more conservative Mrs Trimmer's Fabulous Histories: both aim, uncompromisingly, to instruct. Even Mrs Barbauld, in some ways the most liberal of such writers, paid only lip-service to the child's own imaginative powers. She did suggest that a sense of God should be allowed to grow not by dogmatic teaching, but by an early association with ‘all that a child sees, all that affects his mind with wonder and delight’.13 But in her Hymns in Prose the only associations which she permits the child are those she herself points out:

Behold the Shepherd of the flock, he taketh care for his sheep, he leadeth them among clear brooks, he guideth them to fresh pasture; if the young lambs are weary, he carrieth them in his arms; if they wander, he bringeth them back.

But who is the shepherd's shepherd? who taketh care for him? who guideth him in the path he should go? and if he wander, who shall bring him back? God is the shepherd's shepherd. He is the Shepherd over all; he taketh care for all; the whole earth is his fold: we are all his flock; and every herb, and every green field, is the pasture which he hath prepared for us.

… God is our Shepherd, therefore we will follow him: God is our Father, therefore we will love him: God is our King, therefore we will obey him.

(Hymn iii, Hymns in Prose, 1794)

One might well find Watts' honest didacticism preferable to this relentless insistence. In 1802 Charles Lamb was to write angrily to Coleridge:

Mrs. Barbauld's stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newbery's hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for them. Mrs. B.'s and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. B.'s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a Horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a Horse, and such like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to Poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history?

Damn them!—I mean the cursed Barbauld Crew, those Blights and Blasts of all that is Human in man and child.14

Not many eighteenth-century parents can have felt as Lamb did: the ‘Barbauld Crew’ were enormously successful. But his remarks point to an aspect of such books that the present-day reader, finding a kind of period charm in them, might be tempted to under-estimate. As modern historians have argued, their mere existence points to a growing imaginative sympathy for childhood amongst the middle and upper classes, a growing effort to cater to the child's particular needs and interests, and even, occasionally, to see the world from his point of view. Yet they were written in conscious opposition to the more popular plebeian chap-books, with their unmoralized jokes and riddles and stories of giants and fairies, and their essential aim was authoritarian. The chap-books were hardly ‘folk art’: they were the much mediated and debased products of the polite literary culture, written for and not by the kinds of people who read them most eagerly.15 Yet—as their popularity with children suggests—they were infinitely closer to that continuing childish sub-culture of street-games and rhymes and riddles traced in the work of Iona and Peter Opie16 than the moral verses of Watts or even of Bunyan. In choosing the child's book as a medium Blake was choosing a genre in which real imaginative life (albeit of an ephemeral, sensationalistic kind) was consistently being subordinated to ‘instructive’ purposes. And he was addressing himself to readers whose expectations would have been formed by the ‘Barbauld Crew’ whom Lamb deplored. What would such readers have made of Songs of Innocence and of Experience?

At first sight Blake's volume would probably not have seemed surprising, though it would have been hard to find another so attractively produced,17 or one which contained so many different kinds of verses. But the subject-matter of most would have been quite familiar. Some could be read as children's hymns (‘The Lamb’, ‘The Divine Image’, ‘The Shepherd’). Some are more like the poems about childish experience such as Foxton and Watts had written, and the Lambs and the Taylors were to write (‘A Cradle Song’, ‘The Ecchoing Green’, ‘Laughing Song’, ‘The Schoolboy’). Some, like an increasing number of poems written for children in these years, deal with social problems (the two ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poems, the two ‘Holy Thursday’s, ‘The Little Black Boy’, ‘London’):18 others bear more resemblance to straightforward moral fables (‘The Clod & the Pebble’, ‘A Poison Tree’). There are verses about birds and animals, of which there was a whole sub-genre in the children's books of the late eighteenth century (‘The Tyger’, ‘The Blossom’, ‘The Fly’).19 And there are others which seem closer to the emblem verse which Bunyan had emulated, and of which Newbery had published a popular collection (‘Ah! Sunflower’, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Lilly’).20 Varied as the collection was, most of the poems in it would have seemed conventional enough in kind.

But as the reader looked more closely at them, he might well have been puzzled. For several of Blake's Songs seem to bear a clear relation to particular eighteenth-century children's verses:21 at a time when, although children's publishing was flourishing, the number of such verses was still comparatively small, this must have been much more obvious than it is today. And it is a relation not of confirmatory allusion, but of argument22 or parody.23 As John Holloway suggests:

the difference between what is in Blake and what is in his predecessor does not simply happen to be a mere incompleteness of resemblance, but looks like the product of choice—of considered and intended difference on Blake's part … he was writing what was a genuine and implicit retort to what came before him. His poems need to be seen as taking part in—or rather, as initiating—a debate.24

Yet why a ‘debate’ against such minor writers as Isaac Watts or Mrs Barbauld? Why did Blake choose to engage with this particular genre, rather than to experiment with those more sophisticated poetic forms in which, as Poetical Sketches show, he was proficient?

We might begin to answer this question by considering three examples. The first is a simple set of reading-exercises from William Ronksley's The Child's Week's-Work, published in 1712:

Honey licked on the Thorns
is too dearly bought.
He that is afraid of the Leaves
must not go into the Wood.
Tread on a Worm, and it will Turn.
You can have no more
Of a Cat than her skin.

The second is from Dr J. Trusler's Proverbs Exemplified and Illustrated by Pictures from Real Life, published in May 1790. Two extracts must suffice. One is part of a little tale written to illustrate the maxim, ‘Tread on a Worm, and it will turn’:

It is meant to teach us, that how trifling, how abject, how insignificant soever persons may appear to us, at the moment we tread upon them, a change of fortune, and a poignant recollection of injuries, may render their turning upon us serious indeed.

The other tells of a child who has watched his friend being stung by bees, and

has benefited from the experience of his companion, and has escaped the harm; knowing now that he cannot gather roses without thorns, or honey without the risk of being stung.

[Trusler's italics]

The third example is Blake's ‘The Lilly’, published in Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1793:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn:
The humble Sheep a threatning horn:
While the Lilly white, shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Three examples hardly offer a complete picture. Yet these three do point towards the way in which children's literature developed as a separate genre in eighteenth-century England, and begin to show how Blake engaged with the logic of that development.

Ronksley's little reading-book was printed before the rise of children's publishing. The exercises he gives are very close to the cryptic proverbs and riddles of the penny chap-books and almanacs, and it is still possible to catch some sense of the haunting suggestiveness they would have had for the child who might have owned no other book. These proverbs are not explained: they retain the puzzling ambiguity of the living situations which they describe. The child reading them (and the similarly enigmatic rhymes and riddles by which they are accompanied) would have been free to wonder about them, to mull them over in his mind. He was not called upon immediately to conventionalize them, to assimilate them to adult moral categories. Ronksley's proverbs are not very profound: it is easy enough for the adult reader to see that most of them have a perfectly clear ‘point’ of a not very sophisticated kind. But they allow a space for the childish imagination to work which was almost totally closed off in the polite children's books of the next fifty years, where lively open-endedness was steadily subordinated to moralizing purposes.

Trusler's book suggests something of what happened. It is a fairly typical example of late eighteenth-century polite children's literature: typical not so much in its blatant pragmatism (though this is not rare) as in the way in which it seeks to inculcate it. There were many writers for children with far more attractive opinions than Trusler's: by the end of the eighteenth century children's books were increasingly being used to depict and deplore the more shocking of contemporary social abuses, such as slavery and cruelty to animals. But if Trusler's attitudes are more complacent and reactionary than some, his mode of presenting them is representative.25 His aim is to conventionalize and rationalize more ambiguous modes of awareness, such as could be found in the traditional proverb, into straightforward, easily understandable lessons. It is an aim which shapes all the polite children's literature of this period, from Watts' Divine and Moral Songs with their didactic concluding verses to Mrs Barbauld's pseudo-Biblical emphases. Different authors may have had very different views of the child—the latter two certainly did—but their fundamental sense of what was required in writing for him was the same. All saw it as a process of simplification: simplification of moral dilemmas, of theological complexity, of social problems, into a plain, rationally intelligible form. Simplicity was their great claim to popularity. And simplicity of a kind they had—of the domineering kind which imposes its own reductive categories upon the baffling diversity of experience, which closes up teasing, suggestive ambiguity and calls for a passive acceptance by rather than a creative encounter with the reader. They did not rouse the child's capacities for wonder: they told him how to think.

Blake too was praised for his ‘simplicity’—though it seems to have resisted the understanding of Dr Trusler, to whom he wrote in 1799:

You say that I want somebody to elucidate my Ideas … But I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can elucidate My Visions, & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children … Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity.26

Certainly, ‘The Lilly’ seems much closer to childish speech than do Trusler's ratiocinations. But to the reader whose expectations had been formed by such books as his it would have presented some baffling difficulties. How was he supposed to read it? Which was ‘right’—the Rose and the Sheep, or the Lilly? Did the poem advocate the Lilly's pure, innocent confidence in contrast to the defensiveness of Sheep and Rose: or did it condemn her lack of ‘modesty’ and ‘humility’? Blake does not tell, and the drafts of the poem in his 1793 notebook show how he pondered, and worked to frustrate, the notion that there should be an unequivocal moral point. The ‘humble’ Sheep was originally a ‘coward’, the ‘modest’ Rose ‘envious’ or ‘lustful’. The substitutions suggest a doubt about the stability of any moral judgment, which is fundamentally opposed to Trusler's whole enterprise. And the reader—especially the reader alert to the ironies with which Blake often surrounds ‘approving’ moral terms—is left uncertain. Could the poem perhaps be an ironic exposure of the conditions for ‘modesty’ and ‘humility’ in this world? Or must one see them unironically, as terms of approbation? In its final version the poem remains enigmatic, offering no clue as to how it might be ‘elucidated’.

And thus it conveys something of that sense of wonder, of the inassimilability of life to lessons, that one finds still unconventionalized in Ronksley, and intermittently present even in the moralizing children's books of the eighteenth century. In its very refusal to point a moral it celebrates individuality and difference. The Rose is simply one kind of flower, the Lilly another: the opening couplet with its regular iambic rhythms is succeeded quite naturally by the anapaests of the close. As Blake was elsewhere to remark:

Variety does not necessarily suppose deformity, for a rose & a lilly are various & both beautiful.

(annotations to Lavater, K81)

I do not believe that Rafael taught Mich. Angelo, or that Mich. Angelo taught Rafael, any more than I believe that the Rose teaches the Lilly how to grow, or the Apple tree teaches the Pear tree how to bear Fruit. I do not believe the tales of Anecdote writers when they militate against Individual Character.

(annotations to Reynolds, K453)

But the poem's effect on the reader is more sophisticated than that of these straightforward assertions. Its traditionally ‘emblematic’ subject matter, its neatly conclusive rhyme-scheme, its very appearance in a book of verse for children, all court the expectations formed by fifty years of moral songs like Watts': that there will be an unambiguous moral lesson, that the way to read is not to wonder and ponder, but to grasp the point. And in frustrating those expectations, Blake is thrusting his readers' tendency towards simplistic moral categorizing before them as a problem—to be felt in the very process of reading, as the poem resists assimilation to the familiar mould. ‘The Lilly’ does not merely celebrate variety: it offers an implicit criticism of the modes of thinking and feeling exemplified by such as Dr Trusler, a criticism the more biting because it is not a rational argument, but a poetic questioning of the usually unformulated preconceptions which underlie such argument. Blake is using the form of the late eighteenth-century child's song not as a vehicle for ‘ideas’ counter to those which it usually expressed, but in order to expose and subvert that whole mode of making sense of the world which it characteristically embodied.

What is true of ‘The Lilly’ is true, in different ways, of all the Songs. They do seem in many instances to dissent from views expressed by the ‘Barbauld Crew’. Songs of Innocence is a collection of Songs of, not for, and in most of them there is a reversal of expected hierarchies—that the child should be guided by a wiser adult, that the shepherd should lead his sheep, the mother give her child its name. Many of the Songs of Experience seem to parody or to show the dark underside of virtues inculcated in contemporary children's books—restraint of anger in ‘A Poison Tree’, submissive obedience in ‘Infant Sorrow’. But this is merely one aspect of a deeper subversiveness. The contemporary reader might well have been disturbed by the view of life implied by the Songs; but more fundamentally—though perhaps less consciously—disturbing is the fact that there seems to be no obvious argument propounded in them at all. The disconcerting inconclusiveness of ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Lilly’ can be found in them all; and in the context of the children's books of the late eighteenth century it leaps into sharp relief. Where in such books a clear authorial voice imposes its view of that which is presented and directs the reader how to think, here there is no such voice and no direction. Even where—as in many of the Songs of Experience—there are distinct dramatized speakers, the authority of those speakers is, as we shall see, poetically undermined. Such moral conclusions as do appear (as in the Innocent ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’) seem to be hedged about with ironies: some of the most distressing of the situations presented (‘Ah! Sunflower’, ‘The Sick Rose’) are simply left to speak for themselves. At every point where the Songs seem about to fit the expected pattern, they awkwardly refuse.

And what they offer is not merely a subversion of a familiar mode of seeing the world: it is a subtly articulated alternative vision. This is true of a relatively unproblematic poem such as ‘The Shepherd’: it is equally true of those which deal with more ambiguous subject-matter, and seem more obviously to court comparison with what had come before. The two ‘Nurse's Songs’s, for instance, show an adult advising the children in her charge: a subject which images and epitomizes the aims of all eighteenth-century children's books. Yet in portraying that subject from two such opposing perspectives, Blake throws those aims into question, and counters them in an unexpected way.

The Song of Experience is in some ways the simpler of the two. As the reader would have expected, only one voice is heard: that of the adult, who warns the children of the transience and futility of life. But it is very different from the voice of an Isaac Watts or a Bunyan, not merely because it does not exhort to repentance and good works, but because it does not seem to be offered for the reader's unambiguous acceptance:


When the voices of children, are heard on the green
And whisprings are in the dale:
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise
Your spring & your day, are wasted in play
And your winter and night in disguise.

The first stanza reveals rather more about the speaker than might at first appear. Despite the fact that she is the children's nurse, she seems scarcely aware of them. Their ‘voices’ are ‘heard’ at a distance from and not even necessarily by her: the independent ‘whisperings’ of the following line are far more actively and insistently present to her. For all her desire to impose her views on others, she seems hardly in control of her own experience: things happen to her in a sinister way:

The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Her message to the children, in one way like the ‘message’ of so much contemporary verse for them, is thus, when it comes, informed with irony: how can this speaker adopt a tone of dogmatic certainty? In satirizing her pretensions to authority, the Song parodies that ‘instruction’ which was central to the children's books of the time. This Nurse is not unlike the terrible Mrs Mason of Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life, and the hovering figure on the plate is very similar to Blake's (surely mocking) engravings of that character.27 But the effect of the poem is not merely one of ridicule. For the Nurse is shown to be at the mercy of uncontrollable anxieties, which blot out the reality of those she addresses, and imprison her within a closed circle of egocentric ‘disguise’. The children's ‘voices’, remotely there in the opening line, do not enter the poem: the end is not ‘ecchoing’ confidence, but a forbidding confession of fear. Perhaps the coercive admonitions of the children's books are the products not of assurance, but of something like this.

If a contemporary reader might have found this Song disturbing, he would have found it even harder to know what to make of its Innocent counterpart. For here the children put their own point of view, in answer to that of their Nurse; and she ends not by advising, but by acquiescing. Unlike the Song of Experience, this has not even a parodied ‘message’: it seems merely an inconsequential account of a moment of happy play. And its difference from other eighteenth-century children's verse lies—like that of ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Lilly’—not simply in its refusal to offer such a ‘message’, but in the nature of the vision it does articulate:


When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise
Come come leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies
No no let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep
Besides in the sky, the little birds fly
And the hills are all covered with sheep
Well well go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh'd
And all the hills ecchoed.

The world depicted by this Nurse is a shared, human world. The definite articles—‘the green’ and ‘the hill’—introduce a known landscape, ‘on’ which ‘voices’ and ‘laughing’ are openly ‘heard’: there is none of the secrecy hinted at in ‘in the dale’. The mysterious ‘whisprings’ of the other poem had a menacingly independent existence; but here all activity is held within a frame of mutual awareness. This speaker registers far more of the scene before her than the Nurse of Experience. Yet the passive verbs and the absence of adjectives suggest that she has in some sense withdrawn from active involvement: the one thing she tells of herself is

My heart is at rest within my breast.

She is aware only of the children: for her—again, in striking contrast to the Nurse of Experience—‘everything else is still’.

The children are utterly different. Their world is not distanced, but immediate and animate. To them, the landscape and the living things within it are parts of a satisfying whole: activity—‘in the sky, the little birds fly’—is balanced by passivity—‘the hills are all coverd with sheep’. Against the Nurse's sense of the passing of time, their voices insist on present spontaneity—‘we cannot go to sleep’. Yet the dialogue between them is not one of disagreement: its nature and its consequence are embodied in the final word of the poem. Throughout their interchange, the words of one generation are ‘ecchoed’ even in difference by those of the other—‘Come come leave off play’, ‘No no let us play’, ‘Well well go & play’. ‘Ecchoed’, which can be used both of a passive and an active function of the subject, includes the vitality of the children and the quiescence of the Nurse in the same harmonious concord. They enter a world of life and movement as she withdraws from it: the poem moves from ‘come home’ to ‘go home’, from her static subjectivity—‘when … are’—to the perfect tense of a finished action in which she has no part—a change of tense which has a framing effect, encapsulating the action of the poem in a moment of satisfying completion. If it is the moment at which one generation gives way to another, it contains neither nostalgia nor envy, but serene, all-embracing content.

The design of the plate expresses the same feeling. The Nurse sits on the edge of a group of playing children. Unlike the anxiously intrusive Nurse in the Experience plate, she does not watch them: she is absorbed in a book. They, too, are absorbed in their own activity: a game which involves linking hands and passing under a ribbon held by the two at the end of the chain. The first are about to pass under, in a line which will exclude the Nurse as they go toward the setting sun. But at the moment that is illustrated their dance forms an incomplete circle which she closes in the visual scheme of the picture. Like the poem, the plate suggests that she has withdrawn from active living, into the stillness of contemplation, and that the children are moving into a world of which she will soon no longer be part. But at this point she and they compose a harmony: just as the passivity of the Nurse is verbally echoed by the activity of the children, so her seated figure visually balances and completes the circle begun by their dancing ones. And as the last word of the poem suggests both perfected reciprocity and a continuing process (for echoes give rise to other echoes), so the children's formation seems about to make a circle, but is actually a line which will never be joined. Both plate and poem delineate a constellation of feelings—focussed in this moment when the children, with her acquiescence, leave the Nurse's control—which could hardly be reduced to a didactic message: clearly yet economically the reader is given a sense of the acceptance of age and the excitement of youth, of the difference between the withdrawal of the one and the responsiveness of the other, and of how the two might nevertheless ‘eccho’ one another in a harmonious interplay which at once has the contentment of completion and the vigour of forward-moving life.

Blake's refusal to offer what his readers would have expected is not, then, simply a matter of ‘parody by omission’;28 these Songs present an ‘organized and minutely articulated’ (K576) vision of an unprecedented kind. But the implications of that refusal deserve further examination. And they can perhaps most easily be traced from a Song which must have seemed at first far less surprising than either of the ‘Nurse's Song’s. To Blake's biographer Gilchrist, ‘The Lamb’ was a ‘sweet hymn of tender infantine sentiment’: Allan Cunningham, in his earlier Life, praised it for its ‘religious tenderness of sentiment’.29 Certainly, at some points it clearly echoes a well-known eighteenth-century hymn for children, Charles Wesley's ‘Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’:

Lamb of God, I look to thee,
Thou shalt my example be;
Thou art gentle, meek, and mild,
Thou wast once a little child.
Fain I would be as thou art,
Give me thy obedient heart;
Thou art pitiful and kind,
Let me have thy loving mind.
Thou didst live to God alone,
Thou didst never seek thine own,
Thou thyself didst never please:
God was all thy happiness.
Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb,
In thy gracious hands I am;
Make me, Saviour, what thou art,
Live thyself within my heart.
I shall then show forth thy praise,
Serve thee all my happy days;
Then the world shall always see
Christ, the holy Child, in me.(30)

Yet the echoes in Blake's poem seem less those of agreement than of difference. Wesley does achieve something of the simplicity and clarity of childish speech.31 But quite apart from the ethic of self-repression which he preaches—‘Thou thyself didst never please’—there is something most unchildlike in the hymn's propositional structure. It proceeds by means of an adult logic, and its rhymed couplets emphasize rational distinction—between child and Lamb, between Christ on earth and God in heaven—rather than analogical likeness. And in this it contrasts strikingly with Blake:

          Little Lamb who made thee
          Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed,
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
          Little Lamb who made thee
          Dost thou know who made thee
          Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
          Little Lamb I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek, & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
          Little Lamb God bless thee,
          Little Lamb God bless thee.

Here, the unselfconscious repetitions and false and half rhymes are used to create an impression of childishness: the structure is that of a simple question and answer, with the same phrases rearranged and repeated. But the feeling is less one of incoherence than of a patterning very different from that of Wesley's linear development. Blake is not merely giving expression to a ‘delight’ in the world very different from Wesley's restrictiveness (‘God was all thy happiness’): he is questioning the preconceptions on which Wesley's whole argument is based.

Wesley demystifies the Incarnation by placing it within a rational moral framework: because Christ was once a child, children can the more easily follow his example. But for Blake's child there is no such framework. He seems to be half recalling the lessons taught by Wesley, with a childish inability to give them a logical structure. Yet his unsophisticated repetitions and transpositions harmonize in a way that Wesley's clipped couplets do not: and through that harmony we may trace an implicit questioning of the authoritative definitions of the other poem. His answer to the lamb is not a series of dogmatic assertions: rather, it innocently emphasizes the extraneousness of such assertions, their distance from the reality they purport to define. His opening questions—‘Little Lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee’—are not directly answered: rather, he speaks of a ‘calling’ which comes from elsewhere—‘He is called’, ‘he calls himself’, ‘We are called’. Where Wesley's poem claims to discriminate important truths, this articulates a perspective from which the very process of discrimination, or ‘calling’, seems alien and simplifying. The child's words are inverted (‘He is called by thy name’, ‘We are called by his name’) in a way which suggests that they cannot encompass that to which they point: the voice of the lamb, heard in the first stanza, is far more powerfully present. Yet the world that is outlined in this childish ‘teaching’ is a deeply reassuring one: one of protection and loving responsiveness, in which Wesley's hierarchies are subtly but surely dissolved. By the end of the poem, ‘I’, ‘he’ and ‘you’ are merged into ‘we’.

‘Infant Joy’, too, is concerned with ‘calling’: both with its difference from immediate existence and its capacity to create a satisfying world of echo and confirmation:

I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old.
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.

Here, as elsewhere in Songs of Innocence, repetition with slight variation suggests difference yet harmony between two speakers. The child simply is, aware only of present happiness: the adult looks beyond this moment of trustful security—‘Sweet joy befall thee’. Yet the poem portrays an experience very far from that progression from unreflexive ‘joy’ to sterile classification and fearful anxiety which Blake was to lament in Jerusalem Plate 22:

‘Why wilt thou number every little fibre of my Soul,
‘Spreading them out before the Sun like stalks of flax to dry?
‘The Infant Joy is beautiful, but its anatomy
‘Horrible, ghast & deadly! nought shalt thou find in it
‘But dark despire & everlasting brooding melancholy!’


In the Song of Innocence there is neither protest nor conflict: the adult speaker does not attempt to anatomize or control. ‘Naming’ begins with the child's own feeling of lack—‘I have no name’; definition is not imposed by another, for he (or she) names himself (or herself). And although the ‘name’ which he articulates and which the adult repeats and ‘calls’ him enables an echoing interplay between them, the poem begins and ends with an image of an otherness which escapes all ‘calling’:

Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.

The difference between these poems and a hymn such as Wesley's lies not merely in their absence of rational argument. They seem to be foregrounding and exploring the problematic nature of that process whereby men seek to categorize and label experience: a process which to a Wesley presents no problem at all. If, like ‘The Lilly’ and the two ‘Nurse's Song’s, they offer a challenge to the reader accustomed to authoritative ‘instruction’, here the radical nature of that challenge becomes clear. Blake is not simply attacking the assumption—particularly prominent in eighteenth-century children's books—that the reader must be the passive recipient of such ‘instruction’: he is also questioning the perhaps even deeper eighteenth-century assumption that all experience is (or ought to be) susceptible of rational definition and that the rational mind can arrive at truth by a logic which is not open to voices other than its own.

The distrust thus articulated in these poems may appear idiosyncratic: the product of a uniquely ‘peculiar honesty’.32 But others besides Blake—and particularly the London artisans and tradesmen among whom he spent much of his working life—were, in the late eighteenth century, also questioning controlling definitions of polite ‘common sense’. It was a questioning which took widespread and varying forms. In the wake of the French Revolution it found compelling political expression in the writings of Paine and his followers, with their insistence on the mystificatory function of much official ‘wisdom’: it was manifested in more bizarre, but perhaps not unconnected ways, in popular prophetic movements such as those centering on Richard Brothers and (later) Joanna Southcott.33 It can be found in the more theologically sophisticated writings of the antinomian sects (some at least of which had survived from the Civil War period) with whose thinking Blake seems to have been intimate.34 And it can also be traced in the doctrines of the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, whose great system of correspondences was premised upon the inadequacy of conventional perception and definition, and whose first General Conference Blake attended in 1789. ‘Names’, Swedenborg had declared, ‘are to them [angels] like dust, or like scales, which fall down when they enter into Heaven’.35 To the Swedenborgians, distrustful of all human discourse (‘I should wish first to observe, that we are not to expect, either in the writings of Baron Swedenborg or in any other human Writings, the real truth itself’),36 the world perceived by common sense and described in its language was merely a set of symbols pointing to a transcendent and finally indescribable spiritual reality.

Paine was a radical atheist, suspicious of all metaphor and allegory:37 the millenarian prophets saw ‘signs’ in everything: the Swedenborgians had codified such vision into a great system. To assimilate all to a common way of thinking is to blur differences that were of very real importance both to them and to Blake. But an indiscriminate attack on both radicals and sectarians, published in 1800 by W. H. Reid, points, in its hostile caricature, to the crucial similarity which made it entirely understandable for their adherents to fluctuate between them and for their opponents to conflate them:

One of the principal obstacles to your instruction, I find to be, that flattering notion of Mr. Paine, ‘that every man's mind is his own church.’

Some of you are ready to deify Mr. Paine for this discovery; but let me tell you, he was not the first that broached this deleterious nostrum; it was in the mouths and writings of almost all the sectarists that distracted this kingdom, between the reigns of Charles the First and Second. It is a principle, virtually acknowledged by the Quakers, and was very pointedly urged and insisted upon, by a person in the last century, known by the appellation of Cobler How; in a pamphlet entitled, ‘The sufficiency of the Spirit's Teaching’; and in plain sense, means very little more, than that every man loves to be led by his own whims and fancies, as soon as ever he becomes a Dissenter from the established order of the church. This explanation, I think, is well warranted by the conduct of those who have, from time to time, adopted the principle of self-sufficiency.

In fact, so far from answering the end proposed, either by Infidels or Sectarists, I have generally observed, that when this notion is reduced to practice, instead of being sufficient for the teaching of all, it has been the principal reason why none have been sufficiently taught! In cases of common life, men naturally ask the advice of others, but here, in a concern of the last importance, every man's knowledge is supposed sufficient for himself.38

Each of these groups in one way or another rejected the authority of the dominant culture. In the case of Paine (who quite clearly dissociated himself from the ‘Sectarists’, but whose followers seem to have been less sternly opposed to prophecy)39 this rejection took the form of an extended demystification of its pretensions: in the case of the Swedenborgians and the popular prophets, an articulation of alternative ‘readings’ of the world. The fact that Reid's attack on them is part of an attack on the growth of literacy suggests a shrewd grasp of the essential nature of their subversiveness. What he deplores in them is not so much straightforward political sedition as a sometimes articulate but sometimes unselfconscious impulse of ideological resistance, of refusal to accept the ‘received’ (or, as it might be seen, the imposed) wisdom of the polite, an insistence on the importance of quite other ‘voices’ than that official one. It was an impulse which received its most rational articulation in the writings of Paine, but a perhaps more imaginatively seductive expression in the visionary alternatives of the popular prophets and of the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, whose internal debates and disputes seem to have occupied Blake a great deal at the time when he was engraving Songs of Innocence.

To see Blake within this context is to see his apparent detachment from the polite literary culture of his day, his ironic relation even to the limited genre he chose for his Songs, not as the product of a peculiar individualism but as the coherent imaginative expression of a far from unparalleled and far from detached response to the society in which he lived. But it is also to see his real originality: the way in which he drew upon and followed through the imaginative logic of modes of thinking and feeling that were being expressed around him, in order to articulate his own distinctive vision. ‘The Lilly’, for instance, bears some relation to the writings both of radicals and ‘Sectarists’. Its enigmatic ambiguity is not unlike that of the millenarian prophecies popular in London in the 1790s—though in these such ambiguity was often merely a safe vagueness: ‘tho' the red rose will bloom fresh and ruddy, the lilly, pale and desponding, must soon droop’ (The Prophet of Prophets, or Wonderful Prophecies for 1791). The ironic sense of ‘modesty’ and ‘humility’ articulated in its first couplet seems (as a cancelled line in the notebook draft—‘The priest loves war & the soldier peace’—suggests) to spring from the same political radicalism as the ironic counter-definitions of those who followed in the wake of Paine:

Unenvied—the virtues of the king, the morality of the Lords, and the independence of the Commons; the humanity of the Bishops, the impartiality of the Judges, and the learning of the Clergy; the generosity of the Queen, the economy of the Prince of Wales, and the courage of the Duke of York! Honi soit qui mal y pense.40

And the poem's implicit questioning of any moralizing is framed in imagery reminiscent of the writings of Jacob Boehme (or Jacob Behmen), whose influence pervaded the antinomian sects. Throughout Boehme's works, the promised time of heaven upon earth is imaged as ‘the time of the Lily’41—a time which will succeed ‘the time of the Nettle’ and ‘the time of the Rose’, and which will bring an end to the stultifying rigidity of the Moral Law: ‘Therefore we have Need of the Lily, which grows through the Tables of Moses, (that were graven through), with its strong Smell, which reaches into the Paradise of God.’42 Like Boehme's Lily, which ends the rule of the Law by breaking through ‘the Tables of Moses’, Blake's ‘Lilly’ breaks through the rigid metrical and conceptual schema that his first couplet has set up and celebrates a life that escapes the categories of moral judgment:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn:
The humble Sheep, a threatning horn:
While the Lilly white, shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Yet the poem's effect is far more sophisticated than that of enigmatic prophecy or of ironic protest or even of Behmenist teaching. And it depends very centrally upon the fact that Blake is writing within a recognizable polite genre for readers with definite, if unarticulated, expectations: readers who would probably have ridiculed ‘Wonderful Prophecies’, been alarmed by Paine-ite radicalism, and dismissed Boehme's writings as remote mysticism. ‘The Lilly’ frustrates those expectations in a way which challenges some of the most deep-rooted of polite assumptions. And it does so by realizing the imaginative implications of modes of thinking very far from those of the polite: realizing them with a tight precision which reveals Blake's interest not so much in the detail of such thinking (trivialized or simplified or schematized as the particular manifestations with which he was familiar might be) as in its essential strategies.

Similarly, one can find a parallel between that concern with ‘calling’ central to ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘The Lamb’ and the Swedenborgian argument that ‘names are … like dust, or scales, which fall down when they enter into heaven’. But where Swedenborg offers doctrine, Blake questions univocal ‘naming’ by dramatizing the naive child's perspective, different from that of adult definition, and allowing that which had hitherto been inarticulate its own harmoniously chiming voice. And in doing so he presents a vision subtly subversive of that of ‘common sense’, a vision which Swedenborg, with his rational alternative definitions—‘From these things it may be evident that by “a lamb” is signified the good of innocence … This is especially evident from the fact that the Lord himself is called “the Lamb” and also that those are called “lambs” who love the Lord’ (Arcana Coelestia, 1013211)—could never realize.43 It is a vision which, once again, is closer to the writings of Boehme than to those of Blake's radical or sectarian contemporaries:

All whatever is spoken, written, or taught of God, without the Knowledge of the Signature is dumb and void of Understanding, for it proceeds only from an historical conjecture, from the Mouth of another, wherein the Spirit without Knowledge is dumb; but if the Spirit opens to him the Signature, then he understands the speech of another …

Nature has given to every Thing its Language according to its essence and Form, for out of the Essence the Language or Sound arises, and the Fiat of that Essence forms the Quality of the Essence in the Voice or Virtue which it sends forth, to the Animals in the Sound, and to the Essentials in Smell, Virtue, and Form.

Every Thing has its Mouth to Manifestation; and this is the language of Nature; whence every Thing speaks out of its Property, and continually manifests, declares, and sets forth itself for what is good or profitable.44

In rejecting ‘official wisdom’, Swedenborg had simply replaced it with a different, equally categorical ‘wisdom’, as Blake perceived and deplored.45 But Boehme here points toward the more radical potential of that rejection—a potential unrealized by the sectaries of the 1790s. He does not simply question received definitions: he affirms the integrity of that which is distorted or denied by the impulse to categorize and define, and advocates an openness toward ‘the speech of another’ which was to find imaginative expression in Blake's Songs.

For one after another the Songs of Innocence present points of view very different from the customary controlling one of polite adult rationalism. The child in the ‘Introduction’ tells the piper what to do; the children answer their nurse; the glow-worm, in ‘A Dream’, testifies to the irrelevance of human ‘pity’ in the self-sufficing other world of nature. And the unprivileged—the chimney sweeper, the black boy, the charity children—have their own distinctive voices: they are not the objects of sympathetic or protesting comment—of any comment at all. The Songs of Experience express a concomitant suspicion of that categorical mode of vision which reduces difference to its own mould. ‘The Lilly’ implies that absolute moral judgment has no meaning in face of the diversity of life: ‘The Human Abstract’, far more bitingly, exposes the coercion of otherness in which such judgment has its root. And the most confidently authoritative voices—like those of ‘nurses Song’, of ‘Holy Thursday’, of ‘Infant Sorrow’—are shown not merely to be closed to that upon which they would pronounce, but those least able to change that which they deplore.

If Boehme's argument points toward the vision which seems to inform the Songs, their language is not that of his theological and alchemical speculation: they do not versify Behmenist, and still less Swedenborgian, ideas. But a vision such as Blake's is not arrived at in isolation from the social and cultural pressures which shape other men. And his brief connection with the New Church offers a suggestive indication of the way in which that vision might be seen in relation to the experience and the reactions of his contemporaries: not as remote from but as grasping and following through (in a way unparalleled in his time, and perhaps since) the imaginative logic of positions which others around him were articulating in very different ways. The Swedenborgians elaborated their alternative ‘vision’ in a vast system which embodied the controlling rationalism they sought to reject: the radical impulse of refusal did not go deep enough. But Blake saw the significance of that refusal in terms of the social realities of late eighteenth-century England. In choosing to present his vision in the form of a book for children he was choosing to engage directly with the coercive strategies of its dominant culture—strategies which the child's book, with its rationalistic simplification of ambiguous subject-matter, its assumption that its readers should passively accept ‘instruction’, very clearly embodied. In writing for those accustomed to such books, he was addressing himself to an audience who had internalized those strategies, as an unquestioned ‘mental set’ of assumptions and expectations, which was called into play in the very act of reading. And by refusing to confirm those assumptions, by frustrating those expectations, he did not merely seek to bring them to their readers' awareness: he exposed their crippling and destructive implications. For in these Songs, far ‘simpler’ than Swedenborgian or antinomian doctrine, or Paine-ite political theory, he depicts the contradictions within a particular, known society which made a rejection of its ‘official wisdom’ attractive to so many diverse groups within it. And in Songs of Innocence, unlike any of his contemporaries, he offers an ‘organized and minutely articulated’ (K576) vision of a possibility to which that ‘wisdom’ was closed: a vision of that familiar world structured not in terms of dominance and control, but by an acknowledgment and creative realization of the very different needs and desires of which it was composed.


  1. Other links (with hymn and pastoral) are suggested by Martha England, in M. England and J. Sparrow, Hymns Unbidden: Donne, Herbert, Blake, Emily Dickinson and the Hymnographers (New York, 1966), p. 47.

  2. Which was also published in collections, superficially not unlike Lyrical Ballads. See John E. Jordan, Why the Lyrical Ballads? (California, 1976).

  3. J. H. Plumb, ‘The New World of Children in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 67 (May 1975). F. H. Darton, Children's Books in England (Cambridge, 1932) describes the rise of children's publishing. Zachary Leader, Reading Blake's Songs (London, 1981) gives a good account of such books and of the educational theories surrounding them.

  4. Plumb, ‘The New World of Children’, p. 70.

  5. For a fuller account of Newbery's publishing activities see Charles Welsh, A Bookseller of the Last Century (London, 1885) and S. Roscoe, John Newbery and his successors, 1740-1814 (Wormley, 1973).

  6. Leader, Reading Blake's Songs, pp. 1-4.

  7. This at a time when the average weekly wage for a labourer in the south of England was from ten shillings to twelve shillings per week, all of which went on food, fuel and other essentials. Elizabeth W. Gilboy, Wages in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, Mass., 1934) ch. 1, esp. pp. 58-9; and pp. 260-1.

  8. Plumb, ‘The New World of Children’, p. 81.

  9. William Ronksley, The Child's Week's-Work: or, a Little Book, so nicely suited to the Genius and Capacity of a little Child, both for Matter and Method, that it will infallibly Allure and Lead him on into a Way of Reading with all the Ease and Expedition that can be desired (London, 1712).

  10. John Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls (London, 1686), pp. 40-1.

  11. ‘The Snail’, in Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls, p. 63. ‘Gare’ is an obsolete verb meaning to look out, take care.

  12. For a discussion of this see Gordon Rattray Taylor, The Angel-Makers (London, 1958); I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, Children in English Society (2 vols., London, 1958).

  13. Mrs Barbauld, Hymns in Prose, 6th edn (London, 1794).

  14. Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb 1796-1820, ed. E. V. Lucas (London, 1912), pp. 260-1. For Coleridge's views on this subject and its importance, see his third autobiographical letter to Thomas Poole, written in 1797: ‘my father was fond of me, and used to take me on his knee, and hold long conversations with me. I remember, that at eight years old I walked with him one winter evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery—and he told me the names of the stars—and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world—and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had other worlds rolling round them—and when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round—. I heard him with a profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, and Genii etc. etc.—my mind had been habituated to the Vast—and I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions not by my sight—even at that age. Should children be permitted to read Romances, and Relations of Giants and Magicians, and Genii?—I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.—I know no other way of giving the mind a love of “the Great”, and “the Whole”.—Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro' the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess.—They contemplate nothing but parts—and all parts are necessarily little—and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things—It is true, that the mind may become credulous and prone to superstition by the former method—but are not the Experimentalists credulous even to madness in believing any absurdity, rather than believe the grandest truths, if they have not the testimony of their own senses in their favour?—I have known many who have been rationally educated, as it is styled. They were marked by a microscopic acuteness; but when they looked at great things, all became blank and saw nothing—and denied (very illogically) that any thing could be seen; and uniformly put the negation of a power for the possession of a power—and called the want of imagination Judgment, and the never being moved to Rapture Philosophy!—’ (Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (2 vols., Oxford, 1956), letter 210).

    For a similar modern view, see Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London, 1976).

  15. See Peter Burke, ‘Oblique Approaches to the History of Popular Culture’ in Approaches to Popular Culture, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby (London, 1976), pp. 73-4.

  16. Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford, 1959).

  17. On the illustration of early children's books, see Joyce Irene Whalley, Cobwebs to Catch Flies (London, 1974).

  18. See Leonard de Vries, Flowers of Delight (London, 1965), p. 274.

  19. For an account of such books, see Whalley, Cobwebs, ch. 1.

  20. John Huddlestone Wynne, Choice Emblems, Natural, Historical, Fabulous, Moral, and Divine. For the Improvement and Pastime of Youth (London, 1772). Later re-titled Riley's Emblems, it went into nine editions by 1799 (Roscoe, John Newbery, pp. 275-6).

  21. See V. de Sola Pinto, ‘Isaac Watts and William Blake’, Review of English Studies, 20 (1944); Alicia Ostriker, Vision and Verse in William Blake (Madison, Wis., 1965), pp. 210-14; John Holloway, Blake: the Lyric Poetry (London, 1968), pp. 30-54.

  22. Holloway, Blake: the Lyric Poetry

  23. David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, revised edition (Princeton, 1969), pp. 123-30; Nick Shrimpton, ‘Hell's Hymnbook: Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and their models’ in Literature of the Romantic Period 1750-1850, ed. R. T. Davies and B. G. Beatty (Liverpool, 1976).

  24. Holloway, Blake: the Lyric Poetry, pp. 40-1.

  25. See the review of Trusler's book published in the Analytical Review, vol. viii (1790), p. 103: ‘this volume, far from being calculated to fix moral and religious principles on a firm basis, appears, to us, to be a mass of vulgar prejudices and affected sentiments … we really think that the worldly maxims, which have been spun out in the volume before us, have a greater tendency to narrow than enlarge the understanding, to teach suspicion rather than inspire benevolence.’

    This hostile reviewer takes for granted that the aim of a child's book should be to ‘fix moral and religious principles on a firm basis’, ‘to enlarge the understanding’, ‘to inspire benevolence’—all aims which Blake was to find far from unproblematic.

  26. Letter to Dr Trusler, 23 August 1799 (K793).

  27. See Leader, Reading Blake's Songs, p. 184. She is shown, significantly, combing the boy's hair. Cf. Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia, par. 2125: ‘There were seen children who were combed by their mothers so cruelly that the blood ran all around, which represented that such is the education of infants at this day.’

  28. Nick Shrimpton, ‘Hell's Hymnbook’, pp. 23-6.

  29. Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, 2nd edn (London, 1880), vol. i, p. 73; Allan Cunningham, ‘William Blake’, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, revised 2nd edn, vol. ii (London, 1830), par. 55.

  30. ‘Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’ first appeared in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems, issued by John and Charles Wesley in 1742, and was subsequently published in the section ‘Hymns for the Youngest’ in Charles Wesley's Hymns for Children, 1763.

  31. For an excellent discussion of Charles Wesley's precision of language, see Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (London, 1952), ch. 5.

  32. The phrase, of course, is T. S. Eliot's, from his essay on Blake: ‘William Blake’, The Sacred Wood (London, 1920).

  33. See E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, 1968); Morton D. Paley, ‘William Blake, The Prince of the Hebrews, and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’, in William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. Morton D. Paley and Michael Phillips (Oxford, 1973); J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1830 (London, 1979), esp. ch. 4, which traces links between Brothers, the Swedenborgians and Paine-ite radicals.

  34. See A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel (London, 1958).

  35. Arcana Coelestia, par. 1876.

  36. Dialogues on the Nature, Design and Evidence of the Theological Writings of the Hon. Emmanuel Swedenborg with a Brief Account of Some of his Philosophical Works (London, printed for a Society of Gentlemen, 1788), p. 39.

  37. For example, Thomas Paine, Age of Reason (London, 1794), Part 1, p. 53: ‘the flights and metaphors of the Jewish poets, and phrases and expressions now rendered obscure by our not being acquainted with the local circumstances to which they applied at the time they were used, have been erected into prophecies, and made to bend to explanations at the will and whimsical conceits of sectaries, expounders and commentators. Every thing unintelligible was prophetical, and every thing insignificant was typical. A blunder would have served for a prophesy; and a dish-clout for a type.’

  38. William Hamilton Reid, The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies in this Metropolis (London, 1800; new impression, 1971, ed. Victor E. Neuberg), pp. 69-70.

  39. Harrison, The Second Coming, pp. 75-85.

  40. The Rights of Priests (1795?), p. 7. See ch. 3 for a fuller discussion of these publications.

  41. The Three Principles of the Divine Essence: The Works of Jacob Behmen, The Teutonic Theosopher, ed. George Ward and Thomas Langcake (London, 1764-81), vol. i: ‘Therefore let this be told you, ye Jews, Turks, and other Nations; you need not lack for any other, there is no other Time at hand, but the time of the Lily’ (ch. 25, par. 95). ‘The Lily will not be found in Strife or Wars, but in a friendly humble loving Spirit’ (ch. 27, par. 32).

    Cf. also Boehme's Of Regeneration (Bath edn, 1775), par. 166: ‘Therefore I say, that whatsoever fighteth and contendeth about the letter, is all Babel. The letters of the word proceed from, and stand all in, one root, which is the spirit of God; as the various flowers stand all in the earth and grow by one another. They fight not with each other about their differences of colour, smell, and taste, but suffer the earth, the sun, the rain, the wind, the heat and cold, to do with them as they please; and yet every one of them groweth in his own peculiar essence and property.’

  42. The Three Principles of the Divine Essence, ch. 17, par. 36.

  43. Children in the new Church, though they ‘signified innocence’, were still to be instructed rather than heard. See Robert Hindmarsh, Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church (London, 1861), p. 109: ‘The first object, to which the attention of the members present [at the Second General Conference of the New Church, 5-7 April 1790] was called, was the preparation of a Catechism for the instruction of Children, according to the principles of the New Church.’

  44. Signatura Rerum, The Works of Jacob Behmen, vol. iv, ch. 1, paras. 1, 14, 15.

  45. Cf. his parody of Swedenborgian wisdom in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Harriet Kramer Linkin (essay date summer 1986)

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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 the inverted logic of the experienced sweeper's statements constitute linguistic habits that demonstrate cognitive differences: grammar reflects the perceptual limitations of speakers locked in partial views of reality. Even as he establishes these linguistic patterns for the voices in the lyrics, Blake disrupts them to prevent our easy acceptance of his characters' stated beliefs: verbal discrepancies produce an ironic tension that encourages readers to look beyond the idiolectical points of view for larger truths. Critics who have previously commented on the function of point of view and context in the Songs (notably Frye, Gleckner, Bloom, Adams, Gillham and, more recently, Wilkie)3 rarely comment on idiolectic variation among Blake's speakers, concentrating instead on symbolic and metaphoric language. I propose to examine (1) the individual syntactic structures some of these speakers employ, (2) the manner in which grammatical deviations implicate limited perspectives, and (3) some larger classes of linguistic variations that differentiate disruptions in Innocence from those in Experience.4

Of the many techniques Blake uses to defamiliarize his speakers' assertions, two stand in direct opposition: voices in Innocence surprise us by parroting the more sophisticated grammatical rhythms of experienced speech,5 whereas voices in Experience deliberately omit bits of language or information readers anticipate hearing. Blake's linguistic strategies reinforce a kinetic view of these states: just as innocents gain knowledge in entering Experience and simultaneously lose a sense of unity in leaving Innocence, the language of Innocence expresses presence where the language of Experience signifies absence.6 When the chimney sweeper concludes his narration of Tom's dream with a neat moral tag, he utters sentiments we expect from an intrusive beadle of Experience: “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (l. 24). The new or echoing voice present in this final remark contradicts the dominant vision of Innocence by radically shifting the verbal pattern of the preceding twenty-three lines. In Experience voices often delete valuable portions of their commentary to avoid responsibility. The carefully indignant language of the speaker in “Holy Thursday” condenses the more immediate perceptions of his innocent counterpart to unhelpful abstractions; caught up in his own rhetoric, he ignores the specific situations that reduce babes to misery, and only expresses a generalized anger that removes the potential for action.7 In addition to self-conscious omissions and reductive abstractions, the language of Experience often displays reversed causality through inverted clauses: when the speaker of “The Human Abstract” asserts “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor” (ll. 1-2), his sentence construct mirrors his transposed thinking. Self-victimized speakers in Experience hide their complicity, verbally denying or contorting what they already understand; innocent speakers merely pipe back darker visions of Experience through their inherent lack of knowledge.

“The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence exemplifies Blake's technique of disrupting a speaker's habitual speech pattern by inserting words outside that speaker's grammatical range. Although the narrator's voice relays the words of three distinct figures—his own, Tom's, and the Angel's in Tom's dream8—Blake characterizes the narrating sweeper's speech through a surplus of conjunctions that connect primarily indicative, declarative statements. The linguistically circumscribed world of the narrator, who weeps when trying to advertise himself as a “sweep,” discloses the dimensions of one idiolect in Innocence when a second, conflicting voice intrudes at the end:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

(ll. 21-24)

Like many young children, the narrator systematically employs a great number of conjunctions: in addition to using “and” fifteen times within six stanzas, he also connects his clauses with “so,” “thought,” “for,” “if,” “when,” “then,” and “while.” The prevalence of conjunctions in the narrator's speech pattern suggests a way of creating at least minimal order among potentially disparate truths.9 Although the narrator's life is full of disjunctive moments—his mother's death, his father's desertion, his rising in the dark to work in coffin-like chimneys—his language offers a source of cohesion absent in his world. Tom's dream complements the narrator's comforting language pattern in suggesting a positive end to the sequence of events in a sweeper's life: shorn like lambs before slaughter, thrust into suffocating work spaces, the young boys succumb to death only to be liberated by one of God's angels.

The Angel's reported promise provides the first linguistic surprise in the poem; instead of more assertions bound by simple conjunctions, the Angel utters a compound-complex sentence in the subjunctive mode: “And the Angel told Tom if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father & never want joy” (ll. 19-20). By offering the promise of hope via Tom's dreaming imagination, the Angel's words set a linguistic precedent for the grammatical shift evident in the narrator's final remark: “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”10 Copying the verbal pattern of the Angel, who uses a conditional to elicit good behavior from the children, the narrator parrots the subjunctive mode to voice a beadle-like threat: dutiful work promotes the absence of abuse.11 While the narrator voices a grammatical structure a step beyond his usual conjunction-bound assertions, the new voice in this last line horrifies the reader by extending a photographic negative of the Angel's hopeful words: promises turn into threats.12 Blake emphasizes the change by generalizing pronoun reference in these final punitive words; unlike every other line in the poem, the last line obscures specific reference in using “all” as a primary subject. Of course the sweepers themselves have much harm to fear from the doing of their duty; ironically, the very Church intimating salvation through Tom's Angel sanctions the child labor ultimately culminating in “coffins of black.” The greatest harm lies in the children's internalization of their world's false logic. In parroting the limited views espoused by Urizenic authorities, they learn to accept the limitations of a fallen universe. Whether the narrator parrots the words of a beadle in Experience or actually stands on the edge of Experience himself, the voice of Experience blasts the framework of Innocence, manifesting itself in verbal cues that suggest a world beyond that acknowledged by the speaker.

When Blake gives the reader a version of “The Chimney Sweeper” in Experience, he not only reworks the sweeper's idiolect so that it reflects his new mental state, but also moves from the reported speech of Innocence (where the sweeper tells us what Tom and the angel say) to a real dialogue between two distinct figures: the sweeper and the nameless interrogator (sometimes identified as the Bard). Because the two speakers use common phrases (while the interrogator says “among the snow” and “notes of woe,” the sweeper says “among the winters snow” and “notes of woe” [ll. 1-2, 6-9]), Wilkie believes the interrogator actually reports—and retells—the sweeper's side of the dialogue (125).13 Perhaps the shared phrases indicate a more artful mode of parroting, confirming how the sweeper's speech mirrors the perspective of Experience: the increased sophistication of his sentences move beyond ordering events with simple conjunctions to describing actions in a relational system:14

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury.

(ll. 5-10)

Grammatically instituting causality, the sweeper implicates society for inverted logic in condoning chimney sweeping by helpless young boys. Essentially, the sweeper posits two analogous ideas: first, his innocent happiness qualifies him for a life of pain; and second, his ability to persevere in good nature justifies the first social condition. Despite his justifiable castigation of society, the sweeper himself participates in the mindset he decries: beginning his sentences with the subordinating conjunction “because,” he calls attention to his acceptance of the reasoning framework of Experience. Instead of using the innocent formulation “I am happy, and they think they have done me no injury” or the intermediate “They think they have done me no injury, because I am happy,” he leaps ahead to the tremendously sophisticated “Because I am happy, they think they have done me no injury.” Unlike the innocent sweeper, who unwittingly repeats the words of his oppressors, the experienced sweeper empowers a corrupt system by operating within its linguistic and logical confines.

The childish voices in Songs of Innocence also copy the logic of adult speakers. In “The Little Black Boy,” for example, the child not only echoes his mother's rationalization of racial discrimination, but also accepts her faulty reasoning to derive further misrepresentations. The mother's attempts to dispel her son's growing unease over racial differences fail when she describes her son's relationship to God in a confusing metaphor involving light and color.15 Her son absorbs the message and similarly confuses his identity with the presence and absence of light:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.

(ll. 1-8)

As in “The Chimney Sweeper” (Innocence), Blake systematically presents the speech of children as being characterized by compiled conjunctions. In “The Little Black Boy,” the mother also employs a conspicuous number, implicating both mother and son in using childish language to construct a willfully, wishfully alternative version of reality. Contradictory statements undermine their efforts at definition and understanding, however. Unlike her son, the mother does not suggest that the soul is white, but unwittingly implies such by comparing their black bodies to a shady grove interposed between the light of God and their souls. In calling her sun-burnt face (full of light) a cloud (lacking light), she defines skin as that object which traps light and prevents its passing through to their souls:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

(ll. 13-16)

Blake emphasizes her inaccuracy by altering the tight rhyme scheme to include an off-rhyme (love/grove) in this central stanza.

Because she does not define her blackness in terms of white skin but only her soul, the mother conveys a confusing if plausible image of grace. Her son adopts the metaphor only to translate it into an analogous relationship that reveals error: if a black skin prevents God's light from passing through to the soul, a white skin thereby fosters the direct passage of God's light. The little black boy's misguided understanding results in his opening statement: he is “black as if bereav'd of light”—although readers recognize that black skins handle the rays of the sun more easily than white skins—but his “soul is white.” He compounds this initial error at the end of the poem when he perceives color even in heaven. Despite his hopeful assertion “When I from black cloud and he from white cloud free, / And round the tent of God like lambs we joy” (ll. 23-24), the little black boy believes his still-present skin will protect the little white boy's easily-burned skin from God's heat: “Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee” (ll. 25-26). Although the cloud enabling humanity to bear the beams of love passes away when we enter heaven, the little black boy always perceives his blackness: for him it lies layers beneath the skin.

The illumination accompanying the poem reinforces Blake's irony by presenting the little white boy resting upon God's knee, while the little black boy (who still appears black in most of Blake's illustrations, though they are now “round the tent of God”) is “bereav'd of light” through the interposed body.16 Because the little black boy's imagination actively accepts his mother's logical inconsistencies, he dooms himself to an eternal reality of black and white. In some ways the poem demonstrates a breakdown between questions and answers: although the mother explains why she and her son have black skin, the little black boy really wants to know why skin color is a source of hatred. Like the innocent chimney sweeper, who automatically accepts a moral dictum beyond his own verbal acumen, the little black boy parrots his mother's reasoning to arrive at a scenario where the little white boy “will then love me” (l. 28).17

Blake expands the theme of discrimination presented in “The Little Black Boy” to apply to a larger population in “The Divine Image,” making the gradient of difference not color but the presence or absence of a Christian orientation to the world. Once again, verbal disruptions mark the confines of an idiolect in Innocence. The childish speaker in “The Divine Image,” presumably a Christian, carefully develops a logical set of equations to explain the presence of his God in all human beings; because we are made in the image of a God composed of “Mercy Pity Peace and Love,” human beings embody those same attributes:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

(ll. 9-12)

Although the child's logic works perfectly, Blake's careful semantic choices in the final stanza reveal a larger framework governing humanity's love for the human forms of “every clime”:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

(ll. 17-20)

By parroting the charged language others use in their derogatory identification of the alienated elements of an essentially monocultural Christian society—the named heathen, turk, and jew—the child unwittingly reveals how incorrect his statement of hope is.

Humanity loses its Christian spirit when confronted with perceived aliens. Though the child rightly asserts the moral imperative that “all must love the human form,” the world we inhabit effectively denies the presence of God in “heathen, turk or jew.” In using “must” instead of a less forceful modal (such as “do”), the child implicitly undermines the surety of his position. Like the speaker-subject of “The Little Black Boy,” this speaker asserts a false view of the world, unaware as yet that the words he mimes connote the jaded perspectives of Experience. Those three words shock the reader out of any complacent reading by jarring the otherwise gentle Christian rhetoric. Blake uses at least two of them elsewhere in a satiric verse that similarly antagonizes a certain kind of Christian: “The only Man that eer I knew / Who did not make me almost spew / Was Fuseli he was both Turk & Jew / And so dear Christian Friends how do you do” (Poetry and Prose[The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Newly revised edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982] 507). Blake's attack upon these “dear Christian Friends” (originally “sweet Christians”)18 lacks the subtlety of “The Divine Image,” but provides the reader with a standard of measurement in that the Swiss Fuseli was ordained a minister at twenty (and later left the church).19 In “The Divine Image,” readers rely on idiolectical variation to detect irony at work. Blake adds a clue in the final stanza by omitting one attribute of the divine tetralogy: “Peace” drops out of the litany when applied to the named human forms divine, sometimes slaughtered in a Church-sanctioned “just war.” He also neglects a final period in this otherwise heavily punctuated lyric, suggesting more open-endedness than the structure of the lyric supports. The verbal disruptions in these last lines pierce the lovely equation recited by the innocent narrator, directing the reader towards Experience.

Blake encodes many innocent voices with idiolects that fail to contain the disruptive knowledge of Experience; sometimes these idiolects go beyond the simpler conjunction-bound speech of childhood (or the faintly catechistical structure of “The Divine Image”) and model themselves on literary genres. In “Holy Thursday” an anonymous speaker describes the mandatory annual visit of charity children to St. Paul's in terms more suitable to a fable or Biblical narrative. Opening with the charged contraction “twas,” “Holy Thursday” borrows familiar fairy tale constructions like “wands as white as snow,” but hints at the shift to come with the more frightening language of arks and floods in “walking two & two”:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames water flow.

(ll. 1-4)

Midway through, the language of the poem assumes a more Biblical or prophetic intonation, invoking the hymnal voice the children raise:

The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.

(ll. 7-10)

In the concluding line Blake varies form a third time, disrupting the narrator's patterned speech by introducing a stern conditional: “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” (l. 12).20 Like the final line of “The Chimney Sweeper” (Innocence), this final conditional elicits an unexpected moral that finally transmutes competing literary forms into a fable. Just as this last line contains the only element of punctuation, a comma signalling a moment for thought,21 its linguistic modulation punctures our passive acceptance of the image before us: the beadles actually use their “wands as white as snow” to prod their impoverished students into a command performance expressing piety and gratitude.22 Presumed kindness on the part of the beadles—“aged men wise guardians of the poor” (l. 11)—evaporates in the face of the moral; they do not offer true hospitality (as Biblical prophets do their angels)23 but “drive” their charges before them in locked rows of “two & two.”

Just as the larger category of mythopoeic language governs the imagination of the speaker in “Holy Thursday,” the language and values of medieval chivalric tales color the speech and thought of the narrator in “A Dream.” Anachronisms like “methought,” “wilderd,” “wight,” and “hie” provide linguistic keys that unlock the narrator's benignant view of nature:

Once a dream did weave a shade,
O'er my Angel-guarded bed,
That an Emmet lost it's way
Where on grass methought I lay.
Troubled wilderd and forlorn
Dark benighted travel-worn,
Over many a tangled spray
All heart-broke I heard her say.
O my children! do they cry
Do they hear their father sigh.
Now they look abroad to see,
Now return and weep for me.

(ll. 1-12)

Guarded by angels, the narrator extends the shadow of his protective dream to a natural world that rarely demonstrates the benevolent co-existence he envisions:

I saw a glow-worm near:
Who replied. What wailing wight
Calls the watchman of the night.
I am set to light the ground,
While the beetle goes his round:
Follow now the beetles hum,
Little wanderer hie thee home.

(ll. 14-20)

Like the knights of old, ordered on quests by their kings, beetles perform an additional task in their rounds, guiding home emmets under the direction of all-seeing glow worms. Although experienced readers know that insects eat each other, despite the presence of angels (whose power is severely qualified in “Night,” where they receive the spirits of animals killed by wolves and tigers),24 the narrator models his view of reality on the chivalric code. In “A Dream” and “Holy Thursday,” shifting literary codes expose speakers' points of view.

Blake linguistically characterizes Innocence through inclusion, having speakers parrot voices of Experience or generic models to reveal the limitations of their perspectives. In Experience, exclusionary verbal tactics enable speakers to avoid responsibility; they seek absolution from their sins through omission. The speaker of “A Poison Tree” disrupts his own idiolect to exonerate his actions in relation to an enemy's death. He not only grows a poisonous tree through repressed emotion—“I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow” (ll. 1-2), but also represses the words that would signify blame. Like the innocent chimney sweeper, the speaker uses a superfluity of conjunctions; in Experience those “and's” create a tree with the power to kill.25 Because some lines lack his habitual conjunction, the absence of an expected “and” indicates places where the speaker prefers not to acknowledge causal developments; delivering a step-by-step account of the tree's construction, each phrase soldered with an “and,” he neglects to insert an “and” between the fourteenth and fifteenth lines:

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

(ll. 9-16)

The missing conjunction signals the speaker's refusal to acknowledge how his nurturing activities engender the death (obliquely described as “foe outstretchd”) that presents itself one morning after night mysteriously veils the pole. In the manuscript drafts Blake inserts a subsequently deleted line that names the speaker's guilt: after “Till it bore an apple bright” the speaker asserts “And I gave it to my foe.”26 The final version absolves the speaker of murder in linguistically denying the bond between growth and death.27

“A Poison Tree” demonstrates the careful way one speaker filters reality through language to avoid bearing responsibility for his actions; in “The Human Abstract” another speaker describes the growth of a destructive tree in defining language and the external world as co-equal products of the human mind. Just as the speaker in “The Human Abstract” lists the more remote abstractions that arise from difficult human situations—the “Mercy Pity Peace and Love” of the innocent child's litany in “The Divine Image”—he removes himself from direct involvement with the tree's growth by delineating it in the third person:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the caterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their Search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

(ll. 1-24)

Failing to offer a logical antecedent for the personal pronoun,28 the speaker reveals his own complicity in using a stultifying language of abstractions; only in the final stanza do we discover who grows this tree: a generalized “Human Brain.”

Although conjunctions integrate the various stages of the tree's development, here they play no significant idiolectical role. The speaker of “The Human Abstract” shares linguistic habits with the experienced chimney sweeper: both reverse grammatical causality in underlining similar reversals in social reasoning. In the first eight lines the speaker describes the qualities of pity, mercy, peace, and care as parasitic attributes that feed on the negative elements of social existence—poverty, unhappiness, fear, selfish love—just as the caterpillar and fly feed on the poem's tree. His sentences mirror his thinking in borrowing—and inverting—the language of logical argumentation. He switches two “if A, then B” clauses to place consequences before probable causes. Further complicating these equations through negation, he makes it possible to reduce his words to disturbing mathematical formulas: “then no poverty, if no pity;” “then no mercy, if no unhappiness.” Echoes of this initial linguistic inversion pattern the rest of the poem:

  • 1 - Soon spreads the dismal shade / Of Mystery over his head
  • 2 - And it bears the fruit of Deceit, / Ruddy and sweet to eat
  • 3 - And the Raven his nest has made / In its thickest shade
  • 4 - There grows one in the Human Brain.

Manuscript drafts again show Blake's deliberateness; in changing the last line from “Till they sought one in the human brain” to its current reading, Blake abandons an active, non-inverted sentence for one that emphasizes passivity (deleting the seekers), meaningless language (the grammatically redundant “there”)29 and reversion. Transposing cause and effect, the speaker's idiolect reveals how abstractions reorder causality.

In an earlier version of the contrary to “The Divine Image,” Blake similarly demonstrates how generalizing produces idiots by giving us a speaker thoroughly enwrapped in abstract thinking. Unlike the more sophisticated “The Human Abstract,” the speaker in “A Divine Image” directly transposes the four divine and human attributes enumerated by his innocent counterpart into a horrifying vision of Experience:

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress
The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd.
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

(ll. 1-8)

Even more so than the language of the speaker in “The Human Abstract,” this speaker's unfailingly symmetrical form tempts readers to perform a series of mathematical equations; if we delete the few grammatically uninformative words (articles, possessives, and auxiliary verbs), we reduce the poem to the following:

cruelty = human heart
jealousy = human face
terror = human form divine
secrecy = human dress
human dress = forged iron
human form = fiery forge
human face = furnace seal'd
human heart = hungry gorge

The poem not only folds in upon itself, suggesting the kind of inversion that marks other lyrics in Experience,30 but also sets up an elaborate logical argument: if x + y, and y + z, then x + z.

Factoring out the y variable—all that is human—seals the connection between cruelty and the hungry gorge, jealousy and the sealed furnace, terror and the fiery forge, and secrecy and forged iron. Encouraging the use of mathematical abstractions, the speaker deploys the same deductive reasoning that marks the tenets of the first “There is No Natural Religion”: “Man by his reasoning power. can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv'd” (Poetry and Prose 2). When we accept the invitation to make a series of identifying comparisons, we inevitably demonstrate the validity of the corrective second “There is No Natural Religion”:

II Reason or the ratio of all we have already known. is not the same that it shall be when we know more.

Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character. the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.


In “A Divine Image” the speaker is stuck at the ratio of all things, trapped in a cognitive mode that only prepares him to begin the same dull round over again. Lacking the subtlety of the more advanced reasoner in “The Human Abstract,” he cannot warn us that abstraction begins in the “Human Brain.”

The speaker of “London” does recognize the source of idiolectical restriction as the human brain, but seems unable to break out of the Urizenic mold that binds human perception with mind-forged manacles:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

(ll. 1-8)

Again, syntactic inversion implicates the speaker as a participant in the general logic that results in social inequities. Using clauses that reorder more typical subject-verb-object constructions—the contorted “in every ban, / The mind-forg'd manacles I hear” or “the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every blackning Church appalls”—the speaker blames three institutions for corresponding social ills: the state for soldiers' deaths, the Church for sanctioning chimney sweepers (both employing them, and providing a Christian doctrine that fails to account for child labor), and marriage for harlotry (only when we authorize certain relations do others become unlawful). In the final stanza, the speaker lashes out at causality by collapsing the temporal connections that might order prostitution, marriage, pregnancy, and birth into the single moment of the harlot's curse:

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage Hearse

(ll. 13-16)

Not only do children grow up to be harlots, but harlots also “blast” children with the blight of venereal disease.

Utilizing two meanings of “blast” (disease and wind), the last two lines complete a second linguistic pattern in the poem: doubling in language. Dualistic words signify a multivalence that supports Blake's belief in multiple perspectives and undermines the speaker's single-minded observations: charters both restrict and legitimize, cries take the form of tears and announcements, and bans indicate marriage bans, curses, or proclamations (banns). The chimney sweeper's cry appalls by demonstrating the horror of the Church's policies while the sweeper himself whitens its blackened chimneys. Even the soldier's haplessness communicates a level of duality: hapless young men become soldiers, but young soldiers become hapless through their bloody commissions.31 Because human minds create all the two-fold charters named in the lyric—emphasized by Blake's revision of the original “german forged links” to “mind-forg'd manacles”32—we turn questioning eyes to the speaker. He marks “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” by observing signs inscribed by his own limited perceptual system.33 Blake's illumination enlarges the linguistic range of dualism by illustrating two conflicting views: a stunned old man (perhaps Urizen) led through the grim streets by a green-clad figure of youth (perhaps Los), and that same young man warming his hands over flames that might forge new images of society. The choice is ours: we create the manacles or perceptual categories that mandate grim visions of existence.

By unveiling the limited perceptual range of speakers in Innocence and Experience through their grammatical idiolects, Blake uncovers a concrete means of demonstrating how human beings restrict the potential of their imaginations. His linguistic strategies in Songs of Innocence and of Experience enable readers to see beyond the self-imposed boundaries speakers voice: disruptions within each lyric force us to re-examine the validity of the lyric's version of reality. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake describes a myth of poetic creation that reveals how humanity reenacts the fall in language; though we possess the imaginative power to form social and linguistic realities, we enslave ourselves to those realities, forgetting they present one manifestation of eternity:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.

And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country. placing it under its mental deity.

Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.

Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things.

Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the Human breast.

(pl. 11)

Although Blake believes human language is a symptom of the fall, words serve as a medium of imagination by providing physical form. When a devil writes “How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight clos'd by your senses five?” (MHH [Marriage of Heaven and Hell] pl. 7), he suggests our senses simultaneously close us out from a world of delight and enclose that world. Language similarly performs a dual role: circumscribing perception if we are weak enough to let reason restrain desire, but opening worlds of the imagination when “Writing / Is the Divine Revelation in the Litteral expression” (Milton 42:13-14). The language of speakers in Songs of Innocence and of Experience furnishes a path of entry into the less accessible environs of the human imagination, enabling Blake to realize the single goal that informs his poetic career:

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish'd at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding into the bosom of God. the Human Imagination.

(Jerusalem 5:16-20)


  1. Cohen provides an excellent history of how grammarians define language from the Renaissance through the latter half of the eighteenth century. One of the larger movements he traces is the shift from a seventeenth century belief in language as a sensible object that equates words with material things to the eighteenth century's classification of words as ideas, wherein syntax reflects thinking.

  2. Defining aesthetic idiolects, Eco suggests a rearrangement of linguistic rules that results in a new code: “this new code is apparently spoken by only one speaker, and understood by a very restricted audience; it is a semiotic enclave which society cannot recognize as a social rule acceptable by everyone. Such a type of private code is usually called an ‘idiolect’” (72).

  3. Adams writes, “irony is often created by making manifest some divorce between the author's point of view and the focus of narration or perspective of various characters in the story. Blake's ironies are almost always achieved by this method, and he is capable of delicate variations of the distance between author and speaker” (6), and Gillham believes the reader should always wonder “if Blake is speaking in his own voice, or if he is presenting a possible attitude for our inspection … none of the Songs can be taken simply as a direct personal utterance” (4).

  4. In “Point of View and Context in Blake's Songs” Gleckner proposes general symbolic properties for each state: “gradually many of Blake's characters merge. The final products of these mergers are what I have called the major symbols. Kindred points of view tend to unite holders of those points of view; characters who are associated continually with the same or similar symbols tend to melt into one another; and a similar pattern of action reveals a fundamental affinity among the actors” (13). In a later article Gleckner focuses on adjectival differences to demonstrate how the language of Innocence participates in a series of equivalences while the language of Experience expresses disjunction (“Blake's Verbal Technique,” 321-32).

  5. In arguing that innocent speakers parrot experienced speakers, I am considering Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience a complete unit encouraging interreferentiality. Although Blake first printed Songs of Innocence as an independent work, and only later added Songs of Experience (never printed separately), he had already conceived of some of the lyrics of Experience: four Songs of Experience were included among the Songs of Innocence (Poetry and Prose 791). I believe Blake always set the states of Innocence and Experience in opposition, differentiating them in part through language. Wilkie lists this belief as a premise of Blake's Songs critics (120).

  6. Although I am not specifically referring to the critical terms “presence” and “absence,” they do apply. Speakers in Experience lose a sense of presence (or centering unity) and undergo absence (or decentering) when they pass out of Innocence.

  7. Glen describes how the experienced speaker of “Holy Thursday” progresses “from the immediate, passionate response of the first stanza to a position of shocked withdrawal—a gradual rigidifying of stance which at length blocks out the possibility of any kind of fruitful interaction with the world” (53).

  8. Harrison writes “The secret of the poem lies in the extraordinary multiplicity of viewpoints and tones of voice which the poet plays off against each other in the reader's mind,” arguing that that highly individualized voice of the innocent sweeper makes the irony of the poem more devastating (2-3).

  9. Several critics note how Blake deliberately evokes the colloquial language of a child; see Gillham (40) and Glen (37).

  10. Wilkie similarly observes that the sweeper “translates and transmutes what he hears” (124-125).

  11. In the critical debate on whether “duty” is to be taken as positive or negative, Williams argues for a positive understanding in that the sweeper expresses the only available form of compassion (92-96), Harrison suggests a negative interpretation, calling it “the authentic voice of totally corrupted experience” trustingly reported by the voice of innocence (2-3), and Glen insists on the useful ambiguity of the word, enabling both interpretations (44).

  12. Speech-act theoreticians such as Austin or Searle consider threats and promises manifestations of the same general category.

  13. I am more inclined to believe that the sweeper echoes words first uttered by the interrogator (given the order of their dialogue); Leader suggests the Bard half-creates the sophisticated syntax of the analytical sweeper (160-61).

  14. Gillham comments “the innocent sweep looked forward in his story to results, the experienced sweep looks backward to motives” (46).

  15. In “Blake's Little Black Boy and the Bible” Gleckner glosses the image of light in the lyric with those in the Song of Solomon, the first epistle of John, and Samson Agonistes. Although Gleckner agrees that the boy internalizes false knowledge from his mother, he suggests the boy has a higher intrinsic awareness of innocence that denies any implication of inferiority in the last lines: “Only the black boy himself knows (imaginatively, without rationalization) that his soul is white, that ‘inward light’ does put forth a visual beam” (211).

  16. While not every rendition inks the boy as black, all show the careful positioning of the three figures. For a fine discussion of the poem as composite art, see Glazer's study or Leader (114).

  17. Leader also condemns the mother for offering poor advice to her son, making an interesting connection between her words and what I consider the parroted words that end the innocent sweeper's narration (110).

  18. Poetry and Prose 867.

  19. Janson 467.

  20. Gillham refutes the charge that this last line is a moral tag (195); Glen supports the assertion (48). Glen also comments that the speaker cannot be innocent and use the word “innocent” to describe others.

  21. Although Blake's punctuation was unconventional and erratic, both Erdman and Keynes show some kind of break in the text here; according to Keynes Blake uses a semicolon (54).

  22. Keynes 139.

  23. In Genesis 18:2-8 Abraham evidences such hospitality to the three angels en route to Sodom.

  24. “Night” undermines the purview of angelic guardians by showing how “When wolves and tygers howl for prey / They pitying stand and weep; / Seeking to drive their thirst away, / And keep them from the sheep. / But if they rush dreadful; / The angels most heedful / Receive each mild spirit” (ll. 25-32).

  25. Associating the tree with the Genesis tree of knowledge of good and evil, Gallagher makes a brilliant argument for reading “A Poison Tree” as an intermediate, corrupt version of the fall that demonstrates what Blake describes as the origin of priestly poetic tales in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate 11 (246).

  26. Poetry and Prose 799.

  27. Gallagher also notes Blake's careful use of “it,” and traces the way the pronoun replaces (and in some ways denies) the speaker's named “wrath” until the very last line, where the tree is finally named (239-41).

  28. Although “Cruelty” personified takes the personal pronoun “he,” cruelty cannot serve as the antecedent given the final stanza's identification of the place of origin as the human brain.

  29. “There” fills the dummy slot, superceded by the more information locative “in the Human Brain.”

  30. Adams considers another level of inversion, where the common outermost is actually the innermost—the human dress—due to the “characteristic Blakean paradox of inner being outer. Because the world is mental the human dress is really the mental being” (249).

  31. See Epstein (221-34) for a useful discussion of modifiers.

  32. Poetry and Prose 796. Hilton (63-64) and Thompson (15) also comment on the effect of this revision in “London.”

  33. Glen observes how “mark” acts as both verb and object (59), and notes that society itself marks the world through the soldier's blood and the sweeper's cries (64); Thompson calls attention to the revision of “see” in line three to “mark” (11).

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1963.

Austin, J. L. How to do Things With Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Newly revised edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1982.

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. A reproduction. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. London: Oxford UP, 1967.

Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse. New York: Cornell UP, 1963.

Cohen, Murray. Sensible Words: Linguistic Practice in England 1640-1785. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Epstein, Edmund L. “Non-Restrictive Modifiers: Poetic Features of Language.” Studies in English for Randolph Quirk. Ed. Sydney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartik. London: Longman, 1980. 221-34.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.

Gallagher, Phillip J. “The Word Made Flesh: Blake's ‘A Poison Tree’ and the Book of Genesis.” SiR [Studies in Romanticism] 16 (1977): 237-49.

Gillham, D. G. Blake's Contrary States: “The Songs of Innocence and of Experience” as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Glazer, Myra. “Blake's Little Black Boys: On the Dynamics of Blake's Composite Art.” Colby Library Quarterly 16 (1980): 220-36.

Gleckner, Robert F. “Blake's Little Black Boy and the Bible.” Colby Library Quarterly 18 (1982): 205-13.

———. “Blake's Verbal Technique.” William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon. Ed. Alvin H. Rosenfield. Providence: Brown UP, 1969. 321-32.

———. The Piper & the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.

———. “Point of View and Context in Blake's Songs.” Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Northrop Frye. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965. 8-14.

Glen, Heather. “Blake's Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.Interpreting Blake. Ed. Michael Phillips. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. 32-69.

Harrison, James. “Blake's ‘The Chimney Sweeper.’” Explicator 36 (1978): 2-3.

Hilton, Nelson. Literal Imagination: Blake's Vision of Words. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1983.

Janson, H. W. History of Art. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge, 1981.

Searle, John. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Thompson, E. P. “‘London.’” Interpreting Blake. Ed. Michael Phillips. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. 5-31.

Wilkie, Brian. “Blake's Innocence and Experience: An Approach.” Blake Studies 6 (1976): 119-37.

Williams, Porter, Jr. “‘Duty’ in Blake's ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Songs of Innocence.ELN [English Language Notes] 12 (1974): 92-96.

Harold Pagliaro (essay date 1987)

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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 formation of a Selfhood is the fulfillment of the ordering principle without which life cannot be sustained. The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence manages to control dangerous forces very efficiently, at least for the short term, whereas Lilly and Thel, each for different reasons and in different ways, do not do so. But in sustaining life, the Chimney Sweeper confines it, whereas in losing life, Lilly and Thel identify the possibility of engaging and knowing it fully.

The first two of the Songs of Experience represent this spiritual paradox. For taken together, “Introduction” and “Earth's Answer” imply both the need to order worldly life and the reduction of life implicit in a confined ordering. But it is not easy to understand the relationship between the order that sustains life and the order that reduces it unless we know more about the characters Bard and Earth, in whom that relationship is acted out. Though the two are only broadly representative of fallen humanity, they are at one level made available in psychological terms we can respond to immediately. Both are lonely, and both are full of the longing to overcome their isolation. Each sees the problem in different terms, and neither alone is able to solve it.

Although he is in several important ways endowed with a human psychology, the Bard is unconfined by time or place. He may be understood to embody universally valid poetic-religious truth, at the same time that he is burdened by unfulfilled desire. This complex pairing of his eternal endowment and his unfulfilled human need is reflected in his statement to Earth. As a prophet, he tries to reassure her by saying that the state of the fallen world that constrains her is also a state “given” her, apparently a useful or necessary “gift,” and certainly a “gift” she can change for the better over time. As prophet, he also associates himself with the Holy Word that calls upon Earth: “the lapsed Soul / … That might controll / The starry pole; / And fallen fallen light renew!” In short, he seems to know Earth's spiritual state, and knows Earth has the power to “control” and “renew” it. The solution to the problem of Earth's constraining order (expressed here in the terms of light) is not the absence of order, but its control and renewal.

In his unfulfilled human dimensions, however, the Bard seems as helpless as a rejected lover: “O Earth O Earth return! / … Turn away no more: / Why wilt thou turn away.” Whatever his prophetic knowledge may be, it is incomplete without Earth's return to him, which he seems to envisage in decidedly physical terms. His regard of her is complex to say the least. She is a lapsed Soul, and all lapsed Souls. She is, as Earth, the territory in which he works prophetically to effect redemption. But she is also the Bard's longed-for companion. It seems certain that he, as Holy Word, does not ask her simply to become what he is. Clearly what he is does not make for completeness. He wants her to join and complement him, as Earth. From the Bard's perspective as prophet, what Earth needs is his knowledge incorporated into her life, so that its ordering principle may be tempered by a liberty that takes it beyond the physical limits of mere body; and from his perspective as human manqué, what he needs is her field of being, her body or control of space, which is also an ordering principle.

On the face of it, Earth is in no state to receive either the Bard's spiritual reassurances or his pleas as lover. Confused by the anguish of constraint, she sees “starry floor” and “watry shore” as physical and imaginative barriers, not as life-sustaining limits temporarily imposed on her. She is filled with “Stony dread,” and “her locks [are] cover'd with grey despair.” Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that she does not reply to the Bard's plea directly. Instead, she characterizes her sexual predicament, and she does so in the terms of blame. She accuses “the Father of ancient men,” who through “Jealousy” constrains her.

For the most part her will to fulfillment is hostile. It accuses forces outside itself, unreflecting. But it also shows some sign of introspection compatible with the Bard's entreaty that she “Turn away no more.” Her references to spring's outwardly expressed joy in the fourth stanza imply her hope for the open expression of inner life, which anticipates liberty of mind no less than of body.

Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower?
Sow by night?
Or the plowman in darkness plow?

Fulfilled, her hope would make the Word flesh, or in less explicitly Christian terms, it would liberate her by combining the activities of body and imagination. Seen in this light, what she wants is very like what the Bard wants: the redemption of humanity in the form of “spiritual body, not as consciousness excluded from energy and desire.”2

Earth's explicit though curtailed knowledge of her own state implies that she is closer to the beginnings of redemption than her expressions of despair suggest. Still, she represents for humanity the grounds not so much for optimism as for hope. David Erdman's reasons for identifying the reclining figure in the illustration as the Bard's, not Earth's, are good ones. But I am inclined to agree with others, for example D. G. Gillham, who believes it to be “Earth …, a naked woman lying with her back turned … from the Bard himself, hiding her beauty from him, turned from the Holy Word.”3 She is certainly turned away from us, and presumably from the Bard as well, so that she is not available to him in one sense. But apparently she has arisen from “the dewy grass,” as if following the Bard's wishes, for as Erdman points out, the figure seems to be on a cloud-borne “lounging divan.”4 If she has indeed arisen, hers would not be the only illustration that complements the meaning carried by the text alone. In fact the same thing happens, as has already been suggested, in the illustrations of “The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence and of Thel, and it will be shown to recur elsewhere. Here it may be understood to verify the soundness of the Bard's redemptive hope, a gentle opposition to the heavy context of her despair, which is not entirely unqualified, as I have said already.

Separate and separated though Earth and Bard may be in text and illustration, they are ideally part of one another. The complex terms of their longing imply such an ideal. So do their closely related inadequacies, and the constraints working on them. Earth is no doubt physically coerced by the “Selfish father of men,” so that her blaming him may be said to have a real basis. In another sense, however, she has incorporated that coercion. One might say that her psychology includes the jealous guardian of her sexual life. If she were to become aware of this fact, she might be no less coerced physically, but the terms of the two songs in which she and the Bard figure indicate that she would “turn” toward the Bard as a result of her newly won knowledge. They are part of one another. Incidentally, she may already have begun to realize that her jealous guardian is, in a sense, within her. At least she listens to him with her mind's ear, as she lets us know in the tenth line—“I hear the Father of the ancient men”—an imaginative act that I take to be a good omen.5

The combination of the Bard's power and his deep need for Earth—it implies the insufficiency of an otherwise great being—has given trouble to some critics. Instead of seeing the Bard and Earth as two parts of a single humanity, they have explained his plea in the terms of Christian dualism. In this view, he asks Earth to give up her body for the Holy Word. The Bard's reference to “lapsed Soul,” understood to imply a conventional separation of body and soul, has also been made a basis for the claim of his dualism. But the term need not be taken in its most literal Christian sense.6 Would the Bard say the “lapsed Soul / … might controll” its physical environment if he were an orthodox Christian? He would rather say the physical environment might be transcended. His plea to Earth, full of sexual overtones, is not for the rejection of the flesh but for its permeation by poetic intellect, with flesh recognizing intellect's presence as part of itself, and with intellect enjoying the flesh.

The Bard and Earth together provide us with a representative or universal sense for the state of the world and the means for its redemption. From the poems in which they figure, we learn it is a fallen world, marked by a division of the principles of Body and Soul, whereas in fact “Man has no Body distinct from Soul, for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses.”7 What accounts for the unfortunate division is identified in part by Earth: “Starry Jealousy does keep my den / … Cruel jealous selfish fear / … That free Love with bondage bound.” But other of her comments suggest certain psychological components of her negative state apart from the sexual, narrowly defined. She lives in “darkness dread & drear / Her light fled.” She wants “emotional” as well as physical freedom: “Does spring hide its joy / When buds and blossoms grow?” She needs liberty for external action, sponsored and supported by liberty within. But it is in other songs that one finds the particulars that help to explain Earth's representative sense that she is being coerced.

As one moves forward in Songs of Innocence and of Experience from “Introduction” and “Earth's Answer,” or backward to Songs of Innocence, for that matter, one sees different categories of psychological territory, which together identify the dangerous world that Bard and Earth want redeemed. At one end of the range is the household into which the child is born, with its complex protections of love and confinement. In parents one discovers loving preoccupation with offspring—in Lyca's parents, Ona's father, the speaker of “A Cradle Song,” for example. But parents also confine and shape their children's minds. Having been molded by the mothers and fathers of their mortal parts, these parents pass on to their own children the crippling and yet necessary psychological heritage. Thel cannot enter Experience without it. At the other end of the range of negative influence is the natural world itself, which beyond the Piper and a few congenializing lambs, shepherds, sparrows, and rising suns, includes sobbing robbins, sorrowing wrens, lost emmets, howling wolves and tigers, and growling lions. Between these limits of household and natural world, whose psychological effects interpenetrate, are such structures as schools, churches, governments, armies, and social practices (marriage, prostitution, child labor, charity), along with their human representatives. Again, in individual minds and bodies throughout this range of territories are joy, hope, trust, faith, mercy, desire, pity, sympathy, peace, love, hate, cruelty, fear, jealousy, terror, sorrow, awe, incredulity, helplessness, despair, disease, death.

In the world of the Songs, parenthood is a function of a primary need to protect the lives of children, though there are a few parents who abandon them. Typically, the nature of the parents’ obligation requires them to prefer physical or psychological safety for their children to self-fulfillment or truth. Lyca's parents have in some degree inhibited her entry into the world of sleep, the world of her own mind, which she wishes to explore independently as an expression of her growing maturity: “How can Lyca sleep, / If her mother weep.” Though their hold on Lyca's imagination is not so great that she refrains long from going her own way, the strength and tenacity of their sense of parental obligation is identified by the utter inappropriateness of their pursuit of her, spiritually considered. Why do they enter her world of mind, where they are complete strangers? Or rather, in what sense can they be supposed to enter it? It is probably reasonable to think of their journey, for whose details there are no correlatives in their own imaginations, as an aspect of Lyca's journey. She leaves them behind to enter her own world of sleep, but she also worries about doing so: “Do father, mother weep.—/ Where can Lyca sleep.” And so despite herself she carries them along in dreams—“Sleeping Lyca lay; / While the beasts of prey, / … View'd the maid asleep”—in a form in which she remembers and understands them, that is, worried about her well-being, even in the new private territory she has just entered. In fact, her parents are her problem, the bar to imaginative maturity. Both the curious shift in Blake's interest from Lyca to her parents—from “The Little Girl Lost,” in which Lyca figures, to “The Little Girl Found,” in which they seem to figure—and the parents' complete absence from the illustrations to the poems, may be thus explained. Her poems are about leaving her parents behind, psychologically more than physically, which she does by carrying them along with her and neutralizing their presence in her new state. So regarded, the two poems become more intensely poems about Lyca primarily, and about the necessity and difficulty of overcoming the conditioning influence of the parents of one's mortal part, even when they are loving, nourishing, and benevolent, or perhaps especially then.

Ona's case reinforces this view. More explicitly interested in the direct expression of her new sexual maturity than Lyca, Ona too tries to leave her parents (her father) behind, but only partly succeeds. The bond between the generations is deep and fast. Its attachments are also reciprocal. The father has such a grip on Ona's emotional life that, after she has met her lover, he has only to give his daughter a loving look to induce a sense of guilt: “his loving look, / … All her tender limbs with terror shook.” But his susceptibility to her is equally deep, as his response to her terror makes clear. If the father were to respond to Ona's guilt with anger, one would be justified in supposing the subject of the poem to be exclusively authority's coercion of young love, as Blake's opening stanza seems to say it is. But instead, he begs her to explain why she is pale and weak, and he generalizes the present emergency by referring it to the terrible history of his parenthood: “O the trembling fear! / O the dismal care!” That he trembles in fear is no more surprising than that she shakes in terror.

As the last stanza of the poem makes clear, what the old man wants most is salvation from anxiety. The “hoary hair” is obviously enough the sign of his old age. What is not clear is why his hoary hair should have blossoms, or why the blossoms should “shake”—as Ona's limbs “shook,”—because of his dismal care. The answer is that his hoary hair may give way to death before Ona has done her part to assure the continuity of family. From her father's point of view, Ona is the wavering potentiality for such continuity rather than its realization, just as literal blossoms are a promise of fruit and not the fruit itself. If all goes well, if Ona will behave prudently, as the father understands prudence and as Ona with at least one part of her being understands it, then she will support the succession of the generations. Otherwise, the father's promising blossoms, that is, Ona herself, may shake and fall.

What Ona has tried and failed to do is to take an important step towards independence, without reference to the parentally defined world in which that step may have negative consequences. From the point of view of the life of the generations, she has no right to take the step towards sexual liberty, as if it were a private matter. She ought to produce children in an environment safe for them, presumably in matrimony and the domestic setting it generates.

Needless to say, the conventional attitude that governs both Ona's response and her father's cuts deep into their psyches. “Terror,” “trembling,” “dismal care” indicate their intensity of feeling. What is at stake is life and death as they see things. If the shaken blossoms fall, the sequence of generational life will end. It is irrelevant that other Onas may be relied on to produce children within the domestic setting, or that Ona may produce children outside it. Despite her earlier sympathy with the open view of love expressed in the first stanza of the poem, the fundamental truth for Ona and her father is that she has threatened to violate the law of domestic security. If she were in fact to do so, the result for the father would be a fruitless life. Whatever spiritual reserves he may have, they are not apparent. He is pure “father of generation” as we see him, so that without secure progeny similarly committed to generation, his life might never have been, from his point of view. For Ona the result would be her isolation from the domestic pattern, an isolation she finds attractive for the pleasure and the freedom it affords. But she does not have Lyca's psychological depth. She has taken on more than she can handle, it seems.

The crucial point is yet to be made. If the poem is read as Blake's censure of the coercive father, a reading the last stanza, particularly, makes unlikely, the obstacle to redemption represented by “A Little Girl Lost” is reduced enormously. One has only to assign the blame for Ona's guilt to the father who reared her, encourage her to see the hold he has on her, and await the good results. Indeed, that is finally the irrational and unjust thing that must be done if one is to change the kind of distorted vision brought about by Ona's unconscious domestic molding, as the speaker of “To Tirzah” makes clear. But there is a vast difference between blaming the parent and realizing that both parent and child are victims of the same tyranny.

A close reader is made to cover the distance between the sympathies of the first stanza of the poem and the last, weighing both. In the first, the speaker sides “indignantly” with the children, who, like Ona, want the open love of Blake's “future age”; in the last, he understands the parent. The lesson of “A Little Girl Lost” is that parents and children alike are tyrannized by the domestic view of things. Both are its unconscious vehicles. The intergenerational nature of the affliction enlarges the problem represented by Ona's uncertainty about her sexual life. She is terrified when she attempts a solution on her own. And her father's complete dependence on her actions reveals his limited capacities. His fatigue with guardianship and his premonition of failure are both induced by fear. He is afraid, like the “Selfish father of men” accused by Earth; “Cruel jealous selfish fear” is at the root of his severity. As a victim, Ona's father is pitiable. As an unconscious disciplinarian who is also a responsible loving father, he will be hard for Ona to satisfy sanely. Given the complexities of confined domestic life, perception beyond the narrow view it engenders requires great imagination.

Though I shall offer a reading of “To Tirzah” in a later chapter, I wish to mention here that it is the piece above all others in the Songs that defines the relationship between child's and parent's domestic vision and the terrifying world that seems to require it.8 Its late addition to the Songs, 1802 at the earliest, and its imagery, more nearly like the language of the prophetic works than that of the other songs, has raised questions as to the propriety of considering it along with Songs of Innocence and of Experience.9 But there seems no good reason to doubt that Blake intended it as a clarification of the spirit of the Songs generally. The poem works by implying the psychology of the child's response to the inimical world in which he lives up to the time he repudiates his mother. Clearly, he believes himself to have been profoundly confined by her, psychologically shaped to conform to the requirements of “Mortal Life,” without any concern for his need “To rise from Generation free.” As he sees it, she does all this with “self-deceiving tears.” The result is that she influences him profoundly in the direction of mortal and away from eternal life. Her unconscious teaching inculcates a richness and consistency of attitude in her child that mere precept could never achieve. Not only does she dominate and cruelly mold him in the self-conscious way in which one person may dominate and mold another. She also unconsciously initiates him into seeing life, unconsciously, in the way the race has come to see it over millenia of trial and error since the Fall, as a battle for survival at any cost. Her work as mother of his mortal part embeds him in a heritage of seeing with the eye rather than through it. The fallen world is in him and around him, and in a sense he has become that world.

In different ways and in different degrees so have Lyca and Ona. All three show us the tight grip mortal life has on them, through its convenient agent, their parents, who are themselves victims. All of them also have some resources for escaping the grip. The speaker of “To Tirzah” seems to know most about his relationship with his parent, in the terms of consciousness. Ona has physical daring—perhaps it is only that she soon forgets her fear—though we have no evidence for concluding that she has much understanding. But Lyca behaves in a way very promising for redemption. She manages her parents by means of the powerful metaphors of her own world of imagination, to which her parents succumb. All three young people have a long way to go, nevertheless. The household may become the place that makes the earthly family eternal, but it is typically the place that weaves its children tightly into mortal life. And yet, it is as necessary as Selfhood. In fact, it is Selfhood's most nearly complete social analogue.

The Songs include adults other than parents who control and shape vulnerable children. Occasionally, grown-ups are supportive, like the Nurse and Old John of Innocence, though even in the poems in which these benevolent characters figure, “the light fades away” or “The sun does descend,” leaving the children on “the darkening Green.” More often the controlling adults who are not parents represent the large system of things constructed by analogy with family—government, church, school, labor force. One might suppose an unconscious collusion between parents and these corrupt institutions to be at work in the Songs. The Sweeper of Experience observes that his parents “think they have done [him] no injury” by selling him to an entrepreneur. Then he identifies their unconscious cruelty with the deceitful cruelty of “God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery,” by telling us his parents have “gone to praise” them. The constraining love of Ona's father is associated with “the holy book,” and in “The Garden of Love” we see “Priests in black gowns” doing work like his—“binding with briars, … joys & desires.” The Little Vagabond mocks his mother's preference for the Church over the Alehouse. It is “father & mother” who permit the School Boy to be exposed to the “cruel eye outworn” of his teacher. And Tirzah, the very epitome of the natural world and death, the ultimate coercer, simply replaces the parent in “To Tirzah,” or to put it the other way round, the child recognizes the coercive parent as Tirzah. But the important fact is that the household, the world's institutions, and the natural world itself all join in the damaging and necessary work of forming Selfhood, by constraining the child's eye to worldly perception.

The Nurse of Experience is a pathetic and dangerous example of a being distorted by constraint. She has come to believe that all of life is represented by her own experience of it. Her lesson to the children—that their “spring & [their] day, are wasted in play / And [their] winter and night in disguise”—might be less effective if it were not reinforced by her “green and pale” face. One understands the psychological burden of her presence to be a heavy one, the clue being that the poem does not offer a single intimation of the children's perspective. They seem to be nothing but recipients of her barren “song.” Other children who feel the psychological weight of their elders are the “Babes reducd to misery” of “Holy Thursday.” They are betrayed to mortal life by adult “society” itself. It promises nourishment and fulfillment, at least implicitly—they are the wards of “holy” church and they live “In a rich and fruitful land”—but instead they are “Fed with cold and usurous hand.” The signs of their reduction “to misery” are many. “Their sun,” “their fields,” and “their ways,” which could be bright, full, and easy, are “bleak,” “bare,” and “fill'd with thorns,” in the world of their “eternal winter.”

Parents and other adults do not intentionally inflict themselves upon children. Nor do inhibited lovers intend to hurt their loves in Blake's world. Nor do foes intend to be foes and not friends. It is simply that the entanglements of mortal life produce unconscious mental operations that carry over from the most immediate victim, the person whose mind has been conditioned, to any number of secondary victims, those persons with whom the first victim shares the world. The mother of “A Cradle Song” is herself caught in a net of false hope which she unconsciously weaves around her child. The foe of “A Poison Tree” intimidates the speaker simply by being “himself.” The Pretty Rose-tree cannot help turning her thorns “unjustly” against her tried and true lover. The maiden Queen (or the dreamer who dreams her) reduces her guardian angel compulsively. These errors of false being or Selfhood proliferate beyond control because they are expressions of the mind's blind will to survive without reference to any standard beyond survival. Whatever shape of Selfhood has carried us safely to adulthood, that shape of Selfhood we believe unconsciously to be the whole of us, just as we believe unconsciously that it perceives all of life. Imperious beyond understanding (with very rare exceptions), it acts out its distorted psychology in fulfillment of its need to continue itself.

The two songs that most intensely represent the powerful overflow of inner state into outer world are “London” and “The Human Abstract.” Both have seemed to many readers to say that the destructive work done by humans to their kind can be undone once it is intelligently identified and its unfortunate consequences understood. And yet both poems ultimately imply such complexities of energized psychological and physical damage that one is left wondering whether it can be stopped and its root causes done away with ever.10 Though for Blake the answer is affirmative, it is by no means simply so. “London” gives us the vision of a speaker who sees and hears by means of human symptoms—facial expressions, cries in the night—their implications for the sufferer and for the world those symptoms disclose. Though his perceptions are extraordinarily intense, they identify the context in which we all live. It is as inappropriate to say about the wanderer through the chartered streets that he perceives selectively as it is to say that Thel does. Both have been moved to respond openly, without psychological deflection of painful impressions, to the destructive forces at work around them. Thel has been prepared for her vision by means of a special past. And the speaker of “London,” to judge from his intense and immediate sense of penetration and discovery, has just crossed a threshold of susceptibility to the world around him, having left his customary orientation behind. His routine guard is down, for reasons the poem does not provide. It only affirms that it is so by implying that he observes with a fresh intensity and observes what ordinarily one masks or quickly turns away from or explains factitiously.11

Not only are the streets of his London “charter'd”—accounted for in the terms of assigned property and power that deprive many more people than they enrich—so is the flowing Thames, whose movement away from London might otherwise have offered the imagination escape from confinement.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

The consequences of this implicit demand for control of the whole world, presumably by the few in authority, is recorded in the rest of the poem as the physical and psychological reduction of the many. In fact, the repetition of “every”—“every face,” “every cry,” “every Infants cry,” “every voice,” “every ban”—implies the everywhereness of these consequences. And the other early repetition, “mark” or “marks,” greatly intensifies their potency. “Weakness” and “woe” have passed into “every face” the speaker meets, the internal affliction having “marked” its human covering with its own significance. This flow of meaning from mind to face continues to the speaker, who “marks” it in the sense that he notices and gives it heed, attention, consideration.12 The terrible movement is endless.

In Blake's London, the correspondence between inner and outer worlds is suggested in various ways. Chartered streets and river are an expression of the greed of entrepreneurs and others in authority. The weak and woeful state of Londoners comes through their faces. The speaker's sympathetic perceptions become the poem he speaks. In fact, “mind-forging” is an accommodation of inner and outer realities. In this poem of sounds, it accounts for all the notes of distress the speaker hears after he has marked weakness and woe visually. They are the audible consequences of emotional distortion, though of course the mind-forging itself has a basis in the threat of physical power over life and death, the chartered world, with its unjust distribution of good things. Cries of men, cries of infants, cries of chimney-sweeping children, sigh of youthful soldier, curse of youthful harlot, a cacophony of the distraught that culminates in the plagued “Marriage hearse,” which is the cry of the speaker himself. Psychological and physical disease have everywhere come together, and in this context the promise of life has become the carriage of death.

The series in some ways implies its own continuity of disease from unfortunate harlot to man and, through marriage, to infant, youth, harlot.13 No one is untouched and no one can be cured in the painfully lifelike fiction of this system. And beyond the cycle of disease in love and marriage are the intimations of another. Owners order and control the physical world everywhere—river as well as streets—supported by “Church,” whose priests permit the utter exploitation of its children, and by “Palace,” which calls on soldier's blood to maintain the status quo of chartered things, or, alternatively, which is to be overthrown by the soldiers it exploits after the “apocalyptic omen of mutiny and civil war …” appears in blood on its walls.14 Everywhere, authority confines the lives of the many and makes use of their flesh, in terminal work or war or prostitution, as if it were the currency of the reduced world.

In the Songs and elsewhere, Blake understands that the world, like his London, has been brought to its terrible state by a combination of natural and social causes,15 which promise death. For as long as fear determines psychological and physical behavior, it multiplies constraint and intensifies humanity's confinement.16 Not only are Infants, Chimney-sweepers, Soldier, Man, Harlot controlled by death, so is London itself, futilely defined by charter against change, as if what were legally rendered “in perpetuity” could control mutability. And so are those who control the charter, taken in as they are by the greediest illusion of Selfhood, that natural life can be mastered by natural means. Obviously at one level Blake wants to save the victims of this greed. He was a reformer who certainly favored measures for improving the general well being of the socially exploited.17 But he was not like Hobbes or Godwin, or Coleridge in the days of Pantisocracy, a thinker whose social remedies relied ultimately on natural methods.18 Blake never dismisses the physical world. Rather he is deeply concerned that its perception by the eyes of fear, which have reduced it to a place of misery, must be understood, for the sake of the liberty from fear such understanding may bring. But the youthful Harlot's curse in the midnight streets of London is a far cry from the Bard's promised “break of day,” whatever redemptive value there may be in it for “London's” speaker.

As if it were a gloss on “London,” “The Human Abstract” opens by indicting a destructive social behavior, the general human willingness to provide the grounds for Pity, an ostensible virtue, by allowing people to be poor and therefore pitiable; and it concludes by locating the problem, and by implication its solution, in the “Human Brain.” The opening stanza also treats Mercy as it has treated Pity, as a virtue resting on social culpability: “And Mercy no more could be, / If all were as happy as we.” The transition to the next stanza is cryptic, suitable to the speaker's movement from outside world to inside mind. But it soon becomes clear that in the first line of the second stanza he is explaining how the injustices he has identified are maintained. He points out that all involved in the unconscious conspiracy to provide the grounds for pity and mercy, and all for whom pity and mercy may be felt—the poor and unhappy—are so afraid of each other that the result is a momentary social stability; “mutual fear brings peace.” But this gives way in the minds of those who have the upper hand. Out of self-interest, spurred by cruelty, in whose name the unmasking speaker has them operate, the exploiters cunningly identify and pretend to believe in an otherworldly or holy basis of human affairs and they imply their own proprietary control of this holiness. With expressions of false humility, they induce the exploited, who are already frightened, humbly to accept their own adversity.

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

The personified Cruelty of the exploiters, having succeeded in this first part of his program of human management, extends his control through the growth of Mystery from the root of Humility. That is, he takes advantage of the fear and pliability of the exploited, institutionalizing their low status by getting them to believe their well-being is located in the context of Mystery, which seems to sponsor his authority, though it is his own brain-child. Reduced to unthinking reproductive entities which grow out of each other and no more—“catterpiller” and “butterfly”—they believe themselves nourished by Mystery. But its fruit is a lie, borne by the tree that harbors not life, but death (the Raven).

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

Finally, it becomes clear that the most thorough search of the natural world reveals no sign at all of this Tree of Mystery. Its only habitat is the human mind.

The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

Both “The Human Abstract” and “London” are concerned with two very closely related matters—the mind's constrained predicament and the fact that the manacles that constrain it are “mind-forg'd.” In both poems, the speaker reveals his awareness that the manacles have been abstracted from the mind and methodized as institutions. In “London,” the institution is chartering, the legalized acquisition of rights (property, authority) by the few against the many. In “The Human Abstract,” the institution is (at the first level) religion, the church-sanctified acquisition of authority by the few over the many. But the poems complement each other. Each gives its major emphasis to one of the two matters. “London” stresses humanity's predicament, and “The Human Abstract” stresses the making and the operation of the mind-forged manacles. This division of interests, incidentally, is well supported by the illustrations to the poems.19

The speaker's vision in “London” identifies the “limits of opacity”; the world of night he sees there is defined by death (“Marriage hearse”), not life. Yet the very fact that his vision is as close to darkness as it is implies some liberty from Selfhood's control.20 He sees worldly things for what they are, and he is no longer capable of turning away or accepting the intolerable as tolerable. More important, his vision is shaped so intensely that we as readers may share with him something of his clarified sense for the fullness and continuousness of destruction and pain. By contrast, the speaker of “The Human Abstract” seems to have stepped back from human anguish. From the nature of his immense practical wisdom, we may conclude that he has perceived that anguish sympathetically in the past. But as we encounter him, he is regarding it ironically. Human virtue, he says, is a luxury we make possible by the cruel handling of our fellows. As he moves quickly from human misery to his chief subject, mental operations, the immediacy and intensity of his involvement increase. Like the speaker of “London,” he finds death to be the beneficiary of the mind's coercions. What death begins by nourishing—the mind's intermittent willingness to make life an exercise in survival—it ends by controlling, to the disadvantage of both outer life and the life within. Also like the speaker of “London,” he understands false vision—sees how it works—and this too is a sign of his increasing power of eternal vision. But he takes a further step by denying a truly visionary correlation between mind and outer world as the basis for the holy Mystery, the archetype of institutional and familial coercion. The responsible agent is the human brain. Taken singly and together, these two poems imply both the mind's (hence the body's) enormous susceptibility to the coercive force of other minds, and the mind's capacity to discover that imposition, which is the beginning of redemptive control.

Of course physical death itself exists in Blake's world. But it is chiefly as a mind-forging threat that death appears in the Songs, usually in the form of one of its proxies, or as a means of characterizing the minds and lives death has come to dominate—Marriage hearse, Raven, clothes of death, coffins of black, graves in the Garden of Love, shaken blossoms, the School Boy's nipped buds and so on. The proportions of this usage correlate well with Blake's own view of things. Though he is profoundly interested in mind and world and how the two work on each other, and though he sees the heavy hand of death in both, he himself is not emotionally arrested by the fact of mortality. Even in the management of Thel, who is so arrested, Blake the artist controls her unprotected mind and presents its brief exposure to experience so as to make psychological process, rather than morbidity, the matter of interest. Aware of death's enormous power over life, including his own, no doubt, Blake can see the worst and yet understand the best the imagination is capable of in response to it. He was well able to balance his sense that Los and Enitharmon, our representatives, are “Terrified at Non Existence / For such they deemd the death of the body,”21 with his conviction that “When the mortal disappears in improved knowledge cast away / … so shall the Mortal gently fade away / And so become invisible to those who still remain.”22

Death nevertheless reveals itself in compelling physical ways for Blake. Given the “little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire,” and the “tender curb upon the youthful burning boy,” can it be only mind-forging by the “Selfish father of men” that accounts for Earth's being held by a “heavy chain, / That does freeze [her] bones around”? Or is it that the natural world and the people in it are intractably mortal?23 If Blake entertained this conclusion, he probably did so in the way most do who waver at times about vital matters knowable only in the imagination. Perhaps he had doubts. But he had a strong overriding belief, psychologically grounded, that though the world's coercers “impress on men the fear of death; … / Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness,” it is possible “to teach Men to despise death & to go on / In fearless majesty annihilating Self.”24 Certainly he could teach himself well enough that about a year before he died he was able to say to Henry Crabb Robinson that he could not “consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another.”25

But the world most people live in is a terrible place, as “Earth's Answer,” “A Little Girl Lost,” “The Human Abstract,” and “London,” no less than The Argument of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or the song of the Bard in Milton, make dreadfully clear. Fortunately, certain of the Songs of Experience allow us to observe the psychology of self-discovery that begins one's liberation from that world. One of these is the mischievous “Infant Sorrow,” from which this chapter takes its title. But others represent the mind so profoundly controlled by manacles that it seems not to have a chance to mediate between its error-filled vision of life and eternity. These apparently transfixed minds seem almost beyond salvation. It is the study of particulars identifying their state that must engage us. We know they can be saved. The interesting intermediate question is, what must they overcome on their journey?


  1. In one of his references to the ordering principle of the creation itself (for Blake “an act of Mercy”), Frye puts it this way: “This world is pervaded by a force we call natural law, and natural law, however mindless and automatic, at any rate affords a solid bottom to life: it provides a sense for the predictable and trustworthy on which the imagination may build.” See “Blake's Introduction to Experience,” in Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Northrop Frye (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 28.

  2. Harold Bloom, Blake's Apocalypse (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), p. 130. In The Four Zoas, Blake explains that “The Eternal Man … sat down upon the Couches of Beulah / Sorrowful that he could not put off his new risen body / In mental flames the flames refusd they drove him back to Beulah / His body was redeemd to be permanent thro the Mercy Divine” (125:36-39).

  3. David V. Erdman, The Illuminated Blake (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974), says, “I incline to interpret this figure as the bard, aloft in clouds on a prophetic scroll from which he can see ‘Present, Past, & Future’ … or the human form of The Holy Word, which would account for the halo. … Both Keynes and Grant hold that this reclining figure must be Earth herself, who is shown in somewhat this posture arising at the lark's call in L'Allegro 2 and at the nativity of Jesus in the watercolor for Milton's Nativity Hymn. … But Earth in these scenes lies very much on the earth or on the grass.” (p. 72). D. G. Gillham, William Blake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 49-50.

  4. Erdman, The Illuminated Blake, p. 72.

  5. W. J. T. Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), may be making the same or a similar point when he says “The ‘Introduction’ to Experience presents the ‘Voice of the Bard’ who … transmits the ‘Holy Word / … Calling the lapsed Soul. …’ What Earth hears, however, is not the Bard calling her to rise up, but the ‘Selfish father of men who accuses and punishes’” (p. 90n). Even if Mitchell intends to imply only that Earth is in no state to hear the Bard qua Bard, his comment may be taken to support the idea of an Earth-internalized “Selfish father of men.”

  6. Bloom says, “the Bard … thinks of man as a ‘lapsed Soul,’ and Blake of course does not. … The Bard's dualism, traditional in orthodox Christian accounts of apocalypse, divides still further an already dangerous division” (pp. 130-31). Frye also pauses over “lapsed Soul,” but he decides against taking it in its orthodox Christian meaning because the rest of the poem makes it clear that “the conquest of nature is now within man's powers, and is a conquest to which the poets and prophets are summoning him with the voice of the Word of God” (p. 26). A look at the OED shows that “soul” is often enough used to mean “person” rather than “disembodied spirit.” And “lapsare,” from which “lapse” derives, means “to slip” or “to stumble,” as well as “to fall.” The etymological fact by itself might not mean very much, except that Blake's “other” Bard of the Songs, whom we know through “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” identifies humans who are “fallen” and “who stumble all night over bones of the dead” in a context that promises earthly redemption.

  7. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 4.

  8. Though for Blake the world could be seen as terrifying (his Thel sees it that way), I shall continue to argue that he believed it is within the power of the imagination, through the psychological examination of one's Selfhood, to control the sense of death that is the root cause of terror. I can understand the reasons for concluding with E. D. Hirsch, Innocence and Experience (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964), that “To Tirzah” marks “a return to Blake's primordial faith in the Atonement, in the saving agencies of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” (p. 147). But I do not weigh the evidence as he does. The apparent “pessimism” and “optimism” of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience are well explained by Blake's very unusual capacity to see the world at its most frightening, without being so much frightened as moved to see beyond the threats to a higher integration of things. They are much less well explained by his “naturalism” than Hirsch claims they are (pp. 58-87). Blake was always a social reformer, but he did not believe social reform could provide the ultimate amelioration.

  9. Hirsch, pp. 106-8.

  10. David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954), reminds us that Oliver Elton called “London” Blake's “mightiest brief poem,” to which Erdman adds that the poem is “infinite curses in a little room, a world at war in a grain of London soot” (p. 255), implying to one who recalls “a World in a Grain of Sand” that the poem is an “eternity” of a very negative sort indeed. Bloom says, “The Human Abstract” is the “terrible image of the Tree of Mystery, growing out of the human brain and darkening vision with thickest shades” (p. 142). About both of these poems, Hazard Adams, William Blake (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963), either states or implies that the capacity to see to the center of satanic things is to reach the point from which “one again turns upward” (p. 285).

  11. The poem as a whole supports the view that the speaker is in a heightened state of observation, probably moving along an unpremeditated course, seeing things he may have seen before without apprehending them as he does during the time of his present wandering. The fact that, by wandering, he finds such a totality of destructive and destroyed things, and nothing saving or saved, implies the absence of all else in London. The word “wander” itself reinforces the idea of the speaker's lack of premeditation and the idea that he is outside his customary world of vision and perhaps outside his customary world of peace too. The OED includes these meanings for “wander”: “To move hither and thither without fixed course or aim”; “To have no fixed abode or station”; “To go or take one's way casually or without predetermined route”; “To deviate from a given path or determined course”; “to stray from one's home or company, or from protection or control.” Michael Ferber, “‘London’ and Its Politics,” ELH, 48, 2 (1981), 310-38, discusses some of the ways in which critics of the poem have understood “wander” (pp. 313-15). He concludes this section of his essay by referring “London” to Jerusalem: “When Blake returned to the motif of a walker through London streets some ten years later (Jerusalem, plates 45 and 82 to 85), the walker is Los, who by this time in Jerusalem has begun the work of redemption, and [is] not an errant soul with limited vision. He does not wander lost; he is the watchman who searches the interiors of Albion to find out why everyone is degraded or murdered” (pp. 314-15). Though I agree with Ferber's view that “it is too simple to claim [as Adams does, p. 280] that ‘Los and Blake and the speaker of “London” are the same’” (p. 344n), I think one ought to remain open to the idea that the wanderer's new view of things in “London” is promising for his redemption, a conclusion which Ferber, in his excellent article, acknowledges to be an important part of Adams's view (p. 332).

  12. OED. An additional weight may be given to “mark” here, from a use outside the poem. Recall the Bard's song, in Milton, where a similar marking of the signs of woe is identified as necessary for redemption: “Mark well my words! they are of your eternal salvation.”

  13. Ferber identifies the cycle in a slightly different way: “After the general every Man there is a sequence of youthful victims, perhaps in order of age (infant, sweeper, soldier, harlot), and then the last of them victimizes the first and starts the cycle over again” (p. 312).

  14. For a clear argument about the “blood down Palace walls” as an omen of mutiny and regicide, see Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, pp. 256-58.

  15. Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), for example, sees the natural or fallen world as giving rise to “tyranny as the defense of [that] world and of liberty as the effort of the imagination to recover the state of innocence” (p. 182), though Orc, an early instrument of the effort at recovery, is modified in various senses by Blake over time. Bloom says, “Of the four stanzas of London only the third is really about the oppression of man by society. The other three emphasize man's all-too-natural repression of his own freedom” (p. 140).

  16. Frye, “Blake's Introduction to Experience,” effectively explains the psychology of fear: “Man makes a gigantic idol out of the dark world [of fallen nature], and is so impressed by its stupidity, cruelty, empty spaces, and automatism that he tries to live in accordance with the dreary ideals it suggests. He naturally assumes that his god is jealous of everything he clings to with secret longing and wants it surrendered to him; hence he develops a religion of sacrifice” (p. 30).

  17. Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, in the chapter “O Voltaire! Rousseau!” (pp. 387-93), makes a persuasive case for Blake's ambivalence, divided as he seems to be between revolution and patient forgiveness: “Blake's political ambivalence stands out sharply in his notebook jottings and marginalia of 1808-1812. ‘If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them,’ and Blake is ‘really sorry to see my countrymen trouble themselves about Politics.’ Yet he cannot refrain from exclaiming the Princes and their Hirelings have hurt him deeply, nor from crying with Solomon: ‘Oppression makes the Wise Man Mad’” (pp. 391-92). Erdman also remarks Blake's pleasure in the passage of the Slave Trade Bill in 1807 and in action taken against the corruption surrounding the sale of army commissions (p. 392). Redemption, not politics, must provide the final solution of the problems of a failing society, but political reform is inseparable from the redemption of men and women in society.

  18. Blake shared the growing belief in the age that men and women could free themselves from the tyrannies of false education and entrenched authority and control their own fates to build a new Jerusalem. The difference between him and others may be measured best by his sense for the difficulties to be overcome. The speakers of “London” and “The Human Abstract” (see below) and Thel at her “own grave plot” imply those difficulties, as does Blake's sense for the mind's complexity in Self-deception generally and the closely related tenacity of Selfhood. His fellow romantics in different ways came to conclusions about the mind very like Blake's. Among his other contemporaries there was a range of optimism, sometimes pretty facile. For example, though not a simple idealist by any means, Godwin believed man's mind and worldly condition could be enormously improved. (Note the word “Happiness” in the full title of Political Justice, below.) He held the mind was formed by conditioning—accidental, preceptoral, and social conditioning, for which last “the forms of government under which we live” are responsible. Almost always temperately expressed, his views could be radically optimistic, as, for example, this one: “Multitudes … [might] exert the energy necessary to extraordinary success … [if] they [would] dismiss the prejudices that fetter them, get rid of the chilling system of occult and inexplicable causes, and consider the human mind as an intelligent agent, guided by motives and prospects presented to the understanding, and not by causes of which we have no proper cognisance. … We have been ignorant, we have been hasty, or we have been misled. Remove the causes of this ignorance or this miscalculation, and the effects will cease” (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, 3 vols., ed. F. E. L. Priestley [Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1946], 1:44-45).

    The history of social betterment in England, starting in the seventeenth century, includes the establishment of numerous institutions intended to save or improve lives. Many of them were doubtless founded out of a growing sense of social responsibility, supported by a growing technology in medicine, agriculture, manufacture, and distribution. But considered in the context of Blake's poetry, these charitable activities seem pathetic, given their clear inadequacy to solve the social problems of “London” and the more fundamental psychological problem of the mind-forged manacles that perpetuate the chartered city. What they do in fact is indirectly to support the status quo, or help benefactors quite inappropriately to feel the virtue of their charity, as Blake tells us in “The Human Abstract.”

  19. Though there may be promise in “a beam of strong light” towards which a “vagabond boy” guides “a long-bearded barefoot man with crutches along a cobblestone pavement, past a closed door” (Erdman, The Illuminated Blake, p. 88), the man, probably London (Jerusalem, 84), is clearly in bad shape. Referring to him as a “crippled old man,” and identifying him with Urizen, Hirsch says, “the weakness and woe he symbolizes is also the weakness and woe he has caused” (p. 265). The illustration to “London” also includes a naked child warming himself at an outdoor fire. But it is mind's, not body's, plight one sees in the illustration to “The Human Abstract,” where an old man, probably “Cruelty,” is being snared in a net that seems to emanate from his own head.

  20. As I have earlier indicated, Adams very much sees it this way: “‘London,’ through the fierce delineation of its vision, becomes an affirmative poem. … For Blake, to see error in its completed form is to vitiate its power” (p. 285).

  21. Four Zoas, 117: 5-6. Blake in any age might have had the poetic insight that fear of nonexistence is at the heart of Selfhood's will to stay with the natural world rather than to surrender itself to Self-annihilation and eternity. But in fact men and women of his own age were in special need of the lesson, and probably he too needed its reinforcement from time to time.

  22. Four Zoas, 109: 32-34.

  23. The physical constraints suggest that nature has implied a danger in sexuality by these anatomical means. How then can the imagination avoid the fear built into the body itself might be the question. Thel's response is that it cannot. Diana Hume George, Blake and Freud (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), represents Thel's response in Freudian terms, which provide one way of understanding the bond between body and mind at issue here: “The final and decisive boundary for Thel is the hymen, the ‘little curtain of flesh.’ … Its invasion by the youthful burning boy on the bed of their mutual desire signifies complete loss of self to Thel, the dissolution of ego boundaries that is experienced in love. That ‘boundarilessness’ is the very essence of eroticism …, ‘assenting to life to the point of death.’ Thel is unable to face [it]” (p. 97).

  24. Milton, 38:38-41.

  25. Nineteenth-Century Accounts of William Blake, ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970), p. 72.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1987)

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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 famous visions of a childhood world, as their genesis out of An Island in the Moon might suggest.

Pastoral as a literary form is generally associated with the antithetical relationship of Nature and Art, which on a social level becomes an opposition between country and town. Art and the urban world come together as an image of experiential Fall from Nature's Golden Age, a sad manhood following a glorious childhood. This pastoral association, which held from Theocritus and Virgil until the seventeenth century, has no relevance to Songs of Innocence.

Blake's shepherds are not types of the natural life as such, but rather ironically accepted figures, whose joys testify to the benevolent maternalism of the world as it supposedly is when viewed by the Deistical temperament. The Nature of Songs of Innocence is viewed softly, and seems to offer back the soft comfort implicit in the earliest Christian pastoral, as well as its eighteenth-century adaptations. The Christ of St. John is the good shepherd who knows his sheep and is known of them, and who offers his pastoral call to the scattered flocks. Behind this shepherd is the pastoralism of the Song of Solomon, where an allegory of divine love is presented as a song of human marriage set “beside the shepherds' tents.” Blake also sets a desired good in the simple context of pastoral convention, but then demonstrates that no value can be sustained by that context. The purity and wisdom of the child or natural man is for Blake not the reflection of environment, but a self-consuming light that momentarily transforms natural reality into an illusion of innocence. The human child of Songs of Innocence is a changeling, reared by a foster nurse who cannot recognize his divinity, and whose ministrations entrap him in a universe of death.

Blake's reading of literary pastoral centered in Spenser and Milton, but included (in translation) Virgil, who inaugurated the tradition by which the young poet aspiring towards epic begins with allegorical pastoral. Late in life, Blake executed a beautiful series of woodcuts for Thornton's version of Virgil's pastorals. In these woodcuts, which strongly affected the younger painters Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, Blake presents a remarkably Hebraized Virgil, who has more in common with Bunyan, Spenser, and Milton than with his own Roman world.

In so thoroughly absorbing Virgil into an English Puritan vision of innocence, Blake made a startling but successful continuance of the long tradition by which European pastoral had turned Virgil to its own purposes. The idealization of an Arcadian existence in nature became assimilated to Adam's loss of Eden, and to his descendants' nostalgia for that blissful seat. The theme of heroic virtue in the Puritan Saint could not readily be associated with longings for a naturalistic repose in an earthly paradise. The Protestant poet's solution was to dream of two paradises, an upper and a lower, a heavenly city and a breathing garden. So Bunyan's Pilgrims saw “the Countrey of Beulah … within sight of the City they were going to.” Beulah being a land where “the shining Ones commonly walked, because it was upon the Borders of Heaven.” So Spenser, whose Red-Crosse Knight is allowed only a distant glimpse of the City he is going to, nevertheless allows himself and his readers a detailed view of the Gardens of Adonis, a place where Spring and harvest are continual, both meeting at one time. Michael Drayton in his Muses' Elizium, the Spenserian culmination of visionary pastoral in English before Milton, secularizes these Gardens into a Poet's Paradise, an allegory of poetry's solace rendered by poetry itself. Milton is Blake's direct ancestor in pastoral as he was in epic, and Milton's early poetry is the likely source for Blake's version of the locus amoenus, the lovely place upon which a visionary landscape centers.

Milton's earlier poetry, from “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity” to “Lycidas” and “Comus,” failed to resolve its creator's inner conflicts between the other-worldly religion of a Puritan believer and the desire of the greatest of Renaissance Humanists to free man's thought and imagination. Unlike Calvin, Milton insists always that the will of a regenerate man is made free by his rebirth in the spirit. Again unlike Calvin, Milton is not a dualist; the outward form of man as well as the human soul is made in God's image. Arthur Barker summarizes Milton's position by emphasizing that dualism “was unpalatable to one whose highest delight was the integration of form and substance in poetry. Man must therefore be regarded as an indivisible unit.” Yet, as Barker emphasizes again, Milton turned to prose in his middle period because his early pastorals did not fulfill this desire to integrate nature and spirit within himself.

Blake recognized this aspect of Milton's experience, and profited by it to the extent of approaching pastoral in a spirit of subtle irony. The Songs of Innocence are the songs of the innocent state; they are not songs about Innocence. For Blake's “Innocence” is from the start an equivocal term. The root meaning of innocence is “harmlessness”; hence its derived meanings of “freedom from sin” and “guiltlessness.” Blake's first use of Innocence is in the “Song by an Old Shepherd” he added to Poetical Sketches, where the quality of Innocence serves as a winter's gown that enables us to abide “life's pelting storm.” In annotating the moralist Lavater, probably in 1788, Blake speaks of one who is “offended with the innocence of a child & for the same reason, because it reproaches him with the errors of acquired folly.” Neither of these uses of Innocence make it an opposite of sin or harmfulness or guilt, but rather of experiential life, its storms and its acquired follies. So, by 1789 when he engraved the Songs of Innocence, Blake already seems to have anticipated joining them together with songs that would show the “Contrary State of the Human Soul,” as he did five years later. Innocence is a state of the soul that warms our hearts against experience, and reproaches the errors of a supposedly mature existence. So far this is easily assimilated to the Arcadian state of the soul presented by the Virgilian pastoral and its descendants. But Blake could not stop with a study of the nostalgias, or with a simple reproach to adult readers. The next step in understanding his concept of Innocence is to begin examining some of its songs.

The “Introduction,” “Piping down the valleys wild,” is a poem of immediate knowledge, and evidently celebrates a kind of unsought natural harmony. The pure reactions of the child to the piper are those of the spirit as yet undivided against itself, free of self-consciousness. The child has not sundered itself to self-realization, and his natural world shares the same unity, as the little poem, “A Dream,” indicates.

The same theme, of a primal oneness between the human and the natural, is exemplified in the traditional Christian pastoral of “The Lamb” and “The Shepherd,” but a disturbing element begins to enter as well. The Lamb dressed in its own wool is described as wearing “clothing of delight,” in an overly anthropomorphized image, and the Shepherd inspires a confidence in his flock which is entirely dependent upon his actual presence. “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found,” transferred by Blake to Songs of Experience in 1794, relate the theme of Innocence as primal unity with the animal creation, to the romance convention of the lost child cared for by beasts of prey. The transfer to Experience was probably based on “The Little Girl Lost”'s opening stanzas:

In futurity
I prophetic see
That the earth from sleep
(Grave the sentence deep)
Shall arise and seek
For her maker meek;
And the desert wild
Become a garden mild.

As a prophecy of a return to Innocence, this was clearly out of place in the realm of Innocence. So was the implied sardonicism that climaxes “The Little Girl Found,” when the seeking parents lose their fear and make their home in the land of lions and tygers where their daughter is found:

Then they followed
Where the vision led,
And saw their sleeping child
Among tygers wild.
To this day they dwell
In a lonely dell;
Nor fear the wolvish howl
Nor the lions' growl.

This is an escape from Experience, as Blake recognized when he transposed the poem into that state of existence. The genuine ambiguities of Innocence begin to reveal themselves in “The Blossom”:

Merry, Merry Sparrow!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Sees you swift as arrow,
Seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.
Pretty, Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, Pretty Robin,
Near my Bosom.

The repeated phrase, “A happy Blossom,” in the third line of each stanza is a clear mark of the inadvertence of the natural world to suffering even when the grief ought to be its own. The Blossom is equally happy to grow on the same tree that cradles the sparrow's merriness, or that merely shades the robin's sobbing. It is enough that the joy or the sorrow takes place near its bosom. In “The Ecchoing Green” a day's cycle moves from spontaneous sounds of happiness in the first stanza to the nostalgic laughter of the old folk in the second, to the total absence of any sound in the conclusion:

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

The refrains of the first two stanzas were of sport seen, in present and then in past time, on an Ecchoing Green. Now, with no sport to be seen upon it, the Green has lost its echoes also, and the darkening upon it is the shadow of mortality, recognition of which will end Innocence as a state. “The Divine Image” sets forth the virtues of that state at its most confident:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

The human form divine is the God of Innocence, but this God is not presented as a visual form or the image of the title, but rather as a monster of abstractions, formed out of the supposedly human element in each of Innocence's four prime virtues. What is the face of Mercy, or the heart of Pity, we are expected to wonder. In what dress does the human form of Love present itself, and what is the form of Peace? Until its matching contrary comes to it in Songs of Experience, the poem's prime characteristic is its deliberate incompleteness.

The same incompleteness, but expressed as an inability to make a necessary moral judgment, dominates “The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence, where for the first time the inadequacy of the unsundered state is stressed. The voice of the Piper is replaced by the voice of the Chimney Sweeper, a charity child sold into bondage by his father and the Church:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.

The coming together of “sweep” and “weep” here introduces the cry of Experience, which is “weep!”. Blake is returning to the rhetorical art of his “Mad Song”; as readers we need both to understand the limitations of the poem's dramatic speaker, and yet to feel also the poignance attained by the intensity of that speaker's Innocence:

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curl'd like a lamb's back, was shav'd: so I said
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

This is the Lamb, called by Christ's name, who became a little child, only to have his clothing of delight shorn by the exploiter of Experience. But more is in this stanza; the child's illogic mounts to a prophetic and menacing sublimity. The bare head remains adorned by an unspoiled white hair, comparable to the “naked & white” appearance of the children in their own liberating dream:

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

The black coffins are at once confining chimneys and the black ragged forms of the sweeps, in the death of the body which has become their life. The Angel's promise is the loving fatherhood of God which, with the loving motherhood of Nature, is one of the prime postulates of Innocence. But the Angel's promise is also the direct projection, as dream-fulfillment, of the Church's disciplinary promise to its exploited charges. The final stanza, more powerful for its lack of consciously directed irony on the child's part, beats, with a new fierceness for Blake, against the confining and now self-deceiving trust of Innocence:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

The sourness of that last line as a moral tag becomes sourer still in the last line of the “Holy Thursday” of Innocence:

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk'd before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow.
O what a multitude they seem'd, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

On Ascension Day the charity children are led into St. Paul's to celebrate the charity of God, that loving pity of which human charity is intended as a direct reflection. The voice of this song is not a child's, but rather of a self-deceived onlooker, impressed by a palpable vision of Innocence, moved by these flowers of London town. The flowing metre is gently idyllic, and the singer gives us two stanzas of Innocent sight, followed by the triumphant sound of Innocence raising its voice to Heaven.

The ambiguity of tone of Blake's songs is never more evident than here, and yet never more difficult to evidence. One can point of course to several disturbing details. The children's faces have been scrubbed clean, and are innocent, in a debased sense—because they ought to appear brutalized, which they are, and yet do not. The children are regimented; they walk two and two, and the beadles' wands are both badges of office and undoubtedly instruments of discipline in a savage British scholastic tradition. The children are dressed in the colors of life; the beadles are grey-headed and carry white as a death emblem. It is the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, forty days after Christ's ascension into Heaven, yet the children, his Lambs, still linger unwillingly in the wilderness of an exploiting society. Though they flow like Thames's waters, this is not a mark of their freedom but of the binding of the Thames, which is already the “chartered” river of the poem “London” in Songs of Experience. The prophet Joel, crying that man's wickedness was great, called for “multitude, multitudes in the valley of decision.” The hum of multitudes is in St. Paul's, but these are multitudes of lambs, and their radiance is “all their own”; it has nothing to do with the Church. Their voice rises like a wind of judgment, and thunders harmoniously among the seats of Heaven. Beneath the children, spiritually as well as actually, are the seats of Heaven upon which sit the beadles. If these guardians of the poor are wise, it is not with the wisdom of Innocence, and their wisdom is epitomized in the last line, at once one of the bitterest in Blake by its context, and one of the most seemingly Innocent in its content.

This contrast between context and content is prevalent. The childish patter of “Infant Joy” is meaningful only when we realize how much the poem's voice imposes its sentimentality upon the helplessly mute infant. “A Cradle Song” has a surface of even more exquisite sentimentality, as it identifies the lovely infant with the Christ Child for whom “all creation slept and smil'd.” The poem's enigmatic beauty hovers in the juxtaposition of its final stanzas with the milkiness that has gone before:

Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe, once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,
Smiles on thee, on me, on all;
Who became an infant small.
Infant smiles are his own smiles;
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

The tears of the Christ Child were not an image of infant helplessness, but a lament for all mortality, for the transience of Innocence. Yet the mother singing “A Cradle Song” will not see this, but converts the infant god of Innocence very rapidly into a father god of the same state, with a supposedly inevitable movement from “Wept for me, for thee, for all” to “Smiles on thee, on me, on all.” The tense shifts from past to present, for Christ's incarnation, to the Mother of Innocence, is a past moment, and his heavenly smiles a perpetual present.

The more elaborate patterning of “Night” is a clearer testimony to the ambiguities of Innocence. The best definition of Innocence may be that it is that state of the human soul in which we ascertain truth as immediate knowledge, for the knower and the known share an unsought natural harmony. In “Night” that harmony is apprehended with a loving wonder, edged by the consciousness of how precarious such harmony must be. The guardian angels of the childhood world may not avert all natural calamity, but what they cannot prevent, they translate into new worlds:

When wolves and tygers howl for prey,
They pitying stand and weep;
Seeking to drive their thirst away,
And keep them from the sheep.
But if they rush dreadful,
The angels, most heedful,
Recieve each mild spirit,
New worlds to inherit.

This is a gentle irony, but an irony nevertheless. The confiding simplicity of tone reminds us of the paradox of how the spiritual must be sundered from the natural, for the spiritual “new worlds” cannot exist unless the condition of nature surrenders itself, to be absorbed in the higher angelic condition. However gently, Blake begins to hint that Innocence is not enough, that realization depends upon a severing between the natural and the human.

Nor can concord be won in nature or Innocence again, as “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” exist to show us. The lost child weeps to see his father vaporize into the dark night, but his tears vanish at the appearance of the God of Innocence, a white likeness of the father who has abandoned him. Led by this ghostly father back to his pale and weeping mother, the little boy is back where he started, in a helpless dependence on a state of being where any darkness can vaporize the forms of his protection. We have here the prelude to the entrapments of Experience, as the songs there of “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Girl Lost” will show. The “Nurse's Song” of Innocence is another of these delicate premonitions of the sundered state. Here the poem's meaning is in the implied time-to-be, when the voices of children are no longer heard on the green, and the heart ceases to rest in their laughter. Yet to become as little children is not always to remain children, and to find knowledge of delight we need to discover sorrow. “On Another's Sorrow” gets this exactly (and deliberately) backwards. Here the poem's progression depends on a rather grim little cycle in which Christ's incarnation is ascribed to his pity for the helplessness of infancy's natural grief. The communion of sorrow is the only vision available to Innocence of the mature consciousness of sin in Experience:

He doth give his joy to all;
He becomes an infant small;
He becomes a man of woe;
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy maker is not by;
Think not thou canst weep a tear
And thy maker is not near.
O! he gives to us his joy
That our grief he may destroy;
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

The poem in Songs of Innocence that most clearly forebodes that state's lament against its destruction is “The School Boy” (later transferred to Songs of Experience), where the child's voice undergoes a transition from the sweet company of the sounds he hears in a summer morn to the anxious sighing and dismay of his schooling. The bafflement of instinct presents questions which Experience will not answer:

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

The epitome of Songs of Innocence, and the best poem in the series, is “The Little Black Boy,” one of the most deliberately misleading and ironic of all Blake's lyrics. A detailed reading of this poem will serve here as a temporary farewell to Blake's vision of Innocence, until we can return to it by juxtaposition with Songs of Experience.

The Little Black Boy speaks his own poem, and his voice rises to an intensity of innocent love in the final stanza, where he seeks to apply his mother's teachings to the dilemma of his own condition. His mother's wisdom fuses together the hopeful beliefs of Innocence: the loving fatherhood of God, the saving identity of maternal guidance and the natural world, and the brotherhood of all children born from Nature under God. The child accepts all this as truth, and his clear and sweet urge to work out the consequences of such truth reveals the inadequacy of Innocence, of the natural context, to sustain any idealizations whatsoever.

The first stanza presents a categorical dualism which is at once philosophical and social, and vicious, to Blake, in either sphere:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.

The English child is white, angelic, and all soul. The Little Black Boy is a ghost in a machine, a white soul in a black body, as if bereav'd of light. “Bereaved” here has the force of “dispossessed” or “divested”; the myth of the Fall has entered the poem.

My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east, began to say:
“Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.”

To be taught underneath a tree is to learn the lessons of life beneath the shrouding of Nature, the Tree of Mystery, as it will come to be called later in Blake. The mother instructs her child before the heat of day, in the comfort of morning, not in the naturalistic joy of noonday. God gives both his light and his heat away, but the mother is not altogether of one mind about the heat of divine love:

“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
“For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice,
Saying: ‘Come out from the grove, my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.’”

Our time here on earth is not the immediate now of Eternity for the mother, but only a little space in which we learn to bear the force of God's love. The spatial concept is allied to the mother's obsession with the blackness of the body, the fallen form or debased extension of the soul. An imagination so flawed is ironically incapable of even an accurate empirical association of cause and effect. The black bodies and sunburnt face are somehow not to be desired, and yet are the consequences of having borne the beams of love. They are a cloud which will vanish, and yet are created by a cloudless sun, emblematic of God. Yet even the mother does not deceive her stronger instinct; the blackness has the providential aspect of a shady grove, and is therefore both trial and comfort. The God of Innocence, when his love has been fully endured, will call mother and child out of their bodies, out from the grove, and into the golden tent of his heaven.

On the basis of this unintentionally equivocal teaching, the Little Black Boy makes explicit the full irony of his mother's confused vision:

Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.

Nothing in Blake that we have so far encountered has the rhetorical force of that tremendous line in which all the ambiguities of Innocence are implied: “When I from black and he from white cloud free.” The Little Black Boy does not know all that he is saying, and it is too much of an irony that so many of Blake's readers have chosen not to know either. To be free of the body's separation from the soul will not liberate us, if the soul continues to be separate from the body. The Little Black Boy knows what his mother evidently cannot know, that:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

To have a white body is not to have borne enough love, and so in God's revelation the little English boy will need his black friend's body to shade him from the heat of that full noonday. Yet Blake is already too bitter, too much aware of the confining menace of a merely natural context, to allow himself to end the poem with so radiant an insight. Having been instructed by confusion, the Little Black Boy ends in that state. By his own logic, he ought to say that the English boy will be like himself at the last, but instead he gives us the opposite notion, the pathos of unfulfillable wish:

And be like him and he will then love me.

Brooding on the unresolved antinomies of Innocence, Blake must have undergone that most subtle of artistic dissatisfactions, the realization of imaginative incompleteness, a knowledge that the state he had shown was potentiality and not reality. The garden of natural childhood was both vision and illusion, poem and deception. No more than Poetical Sketches and Tiriel could these isolated Songs of Innocence please the prophetic humanist in Blake. Like Milton, he desired to identify all of man's capabilities with imaginative redemption. Not for another five years did Blake arrive at the necessary complement to Innocence, the myth of the contrary state of Experience. …

Blake wrote the Songs of Experience between 1789 and 1794, engraving them in the latter year but probably not often as a separate work. Though I have discussed the Songs of Innocence in their chronological position, Blake clearly wanted the two groups of songs to be read (and viewed) together. The title of the 1794 engraved work is Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, and the Songs of Experience do not in fact exist for us in a single copy without the preceding work. To some extent the discussion here of Blake's most famous work will recapitulate that of the earlier songs, but from another aspect.

Magnificent as the best of the Songs of Experience are, it is unfortunate that they continue to usurp something of the study that should be given to Blake's more ambitious and greater works. Their relative conventionality of form has made them popular for some of the wrong reasons, and they frequently tend to be misread. It is as though Milton were to be esteemed for “Lycidas” alone, and “Lycidas” to be read as a tormented mystic's outcry against the harshness of an existence that devastates the dreams of childhood. Even learned readers, who can laugh at such a possibility, are willing to see the Songs of Experience as Blake's greatest achievement, and to see it also as a lamentation for lost Innocence.

Songs of Experience begins with a powerful “Introduction” addressed to Earth by a Bard, and follows with “Earth's Answer.” This Bard of Experience has considerable capacity for vision, and has much in common with Blake, but he is not Blake, and his songs are limited by his perspective. They are songs of the state of Experience, but Experience is hardly Blake's highest and most desired state of existence.

We can see the distance between the Bard of Experience and Blake in the second stanza of the “Introduction.” The first stanza tells us that the Bard sees the “Present, Past & Future,” but this is not the statement that will be made later in Jerusalem: “I see the Past, Present & Future existing all at once Before me.” The later statement is true vision, for it makes the prophetic point that compels clock time to become imaginative or human time: If not now, when? The Bard of Experience sees what is, what was, and what is to come, but he does not necessarily see them all as a single mental form, which is the clue to his tragic mental error throughout the “Introduction.” His ears have heard the Holy Word that walk'd among the ancient trees, but he does not hear that Word now. This is made altogether clear when he refers to the Soul as having lapsed:

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

The Holy Word is God-as-Man, Jesus, who once walked in the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the day.” The Word calls and weeps, and if the Word were heeded, the Fall could be undone, for “the lapsed Soul” still has the potential that might control nature. But the Bard, though he sees all this, thinks of man as a “lapsed Soul,” and Blake of course does not, as [The] Marriage [of Heaven and Hell] has shown us. Blake knows that when man is raised, he must be raised as a spiritual body, not as a consciousness excluded from energy and desire.

The Bard's error takes on an added poignancy as he emulates Milton, in deliberately echoing the desperation of the prophet Jeremiah. He tries to tell the very soil itself what her inhabitants are deaf to, urging the Earth to hear the word of the Lord and to return:

O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

In this precisely worded stanza, Earth is being urged to arise literally out of herself; to abandon her present form for the original she has forsaken. If the morn can rise in its cycle, cannot Earth break the cycle and be herself at last?

Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day.

What the Bard urges is what ought to be, but Earth can no more arise “from out” the grass than man's “lapsed soul” can rise from the “slumberous mass” of his body. The Bard's dualism, traditional in orthodox Christian accounts of apocalypse, divides still further an already dangerous division. If Earth returns it must be in every blade of grass, even as man must rise in every minute particular of his body. The starry roof of the spatially bound heavens ought to be only the floor of Earth's aspirations, just as the wat'ry shore marking Earth's narrow border upon chaos ought to be a starting point of the natural, and not its end. But it is again a not fully imaginative hope, to believe that a world of matter is given to Earth only until the apocalyptic break of day. Blake's heaven, unlike the Bard's, is a radical renewal of this world, an Earth more alive to the awakened senses than the one that so fearfully turns away.

The Bard is neither the prophetic Devil nor the timeserving Angel of the Marriage, but the ancestor of and spokesman for a third class of men in Blake, the almost-imaginative, who will later be termed the Redeemed. The parallel names for Devil and Angel will be the Reprobate and the Elect respectively, and clearly all three names are as ironic as Devil and Angel. The Reprobate are the prophets who appear reprobate to society; the Elect are dogmatists of societal values, as self-deluded as the Calvinist chosen; the Redeemed are those capable of imaginative redemption who still stand in need of it. The central irony of the Songs of Experience has proved too subtle for most of Blake's readers; the songs sung directly by the Bard are only in the Redeemed, and not the Reprobate category. That is, just as most of the Songs of Innocence are trapped in the limitations of that vision, so are many of the Songs of Experience caught in the dilemmas implicit in that state. The Bard's songs are, besides the “Introduction,” notably “The Tyger,” “A Poison Tree,” and “A Little Girl Lost.” Blake's own songs, in which he allows himself a full Reprobate awareness, are “Holy Thursday,” “Ah! Sun-Flower,” “London,” “The Human Abstract,” and the defiant “To Tirzah.” The remaining poems in Songs of Experience belong to various other Redeemed speakers.

One of this group is “Earth's Answer” to the Bard. A Reprobate prophet would take a tone less optimistic than that of the Bard, and Earth is too experienced to react to optimism with less than an immense bitterness. Earth is exactly like the Earth of act 1 of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, dominated by a “stony dread” of what Jupiter or “Starry Jealousy” may yet do to her, though that Nobodaddy has already done his worst. Grimly, Blake's Earth refers to her jealous jailer as “the Father of the ancient men,” a title Blake would never grant him. Earth is in despair, and will not believe that the oppressive sky-god is merely a usurper of power. Even in despair she allies herself to Oothoon's questionings:

Selfish father of men!
Cruel, jealous, selfish fear!
Can delight,
Chain'd in night,
The virgins of youth and morning bear?
Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower
Sow by night?
Or the plowman in darkness plow?

Blake's most distinguished commentator, Northrop Frye, remarks that “Earth is not saying, as some critics accuse her of saying, that all would be well if lovers would only learn to copulate in the daytime.” But one ought not to leave Blake's image too quickly, since it dominates both these stanzas. The contrast to a dark secret love must be a bright open one, and the dark secret love that destroys is destructive because the dark secresy is psychic rather than just physical; the concealment is being practiced upon elements within the self. To expose love to the light is a combative image, that takes its force from the social association usually made between night or darkness and the sexual act, an association with a tradition of orthodox Christian imagery behind it.

The issue between the Bard and Earth intensifies in Earth's last stanza:

Break this heavy chain
That does freeze my bones around.
Selfish! vain!
Eternal bane!
That free Love with bondage bound.

The Bard sought to put the burden upon nature, urging Earth to turn away no more. Earth gives the burden back to whom it belongs: the Bard, and all men, must act to break the freezing weight of Jealousy's chain. If they can free Love, then nature will respond, but the sexual initiative must be taken by and between humans, for they need not be subject to natural limitations.

The themes announced in these two introductory poems are the principal themes of the entire song cycle. “The Clod and the Pebble” opposes two loves, the Clod's of total sacrifice, and the Pebble's of total self-appropriation. The irony is that the opposition is a negation, for neither love can lead to the progression of contraries that is a marriage. The Clod joys in its own loss of ease; the Pebble in another's loss, but there is loss in either case. Heaven is being built in Hell's despair, Hell in Heaven's despite. Both Clod and Pebble are caught in the sinister moral dialectic of exploitation that is a mark of Experience, for neither believes that any individuality can gain except at the expense of another.

This dialectic of exploitation expands to social dimensions in “Holy Thursday,” which matches the earlier “Holy Thursday” of Innocence. But the ambiguity of tone of the earlier song has vanished:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

Two contrary readings of the first “Holy Thursday” were equally true, but from the stance of Experience only one reading is possible. This second poem goes so far as to insist that the charity children live in an “eternal winter” without the fostering power of nature's sun and rain, since the dazed mind cannot accept poverty as natural. “The Chimney Sweeper” of Experience has the same childlike logic, with the peculiar rhetorical force that “because” takes in this context:

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

The second “Nurse's Song” affords a remarkably instructive contrast to the first. The Nurse of Experience reacts to the sound of children's voices on the green by recalling her earlier vision, and her face “turns green and pale,” as well it might, in comparing the two states, for the movement is from:

Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.


Your spring & your day are wasted in play
And your winter and night in disguise.

This is neither realism nor cynicism replacing Innocence, but an existence both lower and higher, less and more real than the undivided state of consciousness. The morning does not appear again, and so the generous expectations are self-deceptions. But the wisdom of Experience is at its best too much the wisdom of the natural heart, and we cannot altogether accept that the play was wasted. Nor are we meant to forget that the final waste will be in the disguise of death, which is the culmination of the cruder deceptions of Experience.

The subtler deceptions of Experience are presented in “The Sick Rose,” one of Blake's gnomic triumphs, a profound irony given to us in the ruthless economy of thirty-four words:

O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The first line expresses a shock of terrible pity, but what follows puts a probable tonal stress on the “art,” for the rose is not blameless, and has an inner sickness that helps bring on the outer destructiveness of the worm's “dark secret love.” The worm is borne to the hidden rose bed (it must be “found out”) by the agency of nature (“the howling storm”), and his phallic passion devours the rose's life. Dark secret love is the jealous lust for possession of the Devourer, the reasonable Selfhood that quests only to appropriate. Yet the worm is scarcely at fault; by his nature he is the negation, not the contrary of the rose. The rose is less Innocent; she enjoys the self-enjoyings of self-denial, an enclosed bower of self-gratification, for her bed is already “of crimson joy” before it is found out. The rose is a Leutha-figure subservient to the Enitharmon of nature, and the frustrations of male sexuality strike back in the worm's Orc-like destructiveness.

“The Fly” is a less ferocious emblem-poem, but it also turns upon unexpected ironies. The insect here is probably a common housefly, and the speaker a man awakening to mortality, to the precariousness of human existence in the state of Experience:

Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance,
And drink, & sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live
Or if I die.

It may be that Blake is recalling King Lear, and the frightening reflection that the gods kill us for their sport, even as wanton boys kill flies. If so, Blake uses the recollection to help us realize that we need to free ourselves of those gods. The want of thought is death; the thoughtless hand is therefore murderous. The blind hand of a god will thus be a thoughtless hand when it brushes us away. If Nobodaddy is the deity, then we are at best happy flies (because deluded ones), whether we live or die. To seek a heavenly father beyond the skies is to find a moral chaos, and to abrogate the pragmatic distinction between life and death, and so to dehumanize oneself. What makes “The Fly” so effective a poem is that this grim and humanistic sermon is conveyed in a deliberate sing-song, as light and wayward as a fly's movements.

“The Angel,” “My Pretty Rose Tree,” and “The Lilly” are a group of slight but exquisite exercises upon the frustrating theme of natural modesty or female concealment. “The Lilly” celebrates that flower's openness to love, in contrast to the thorny Rose Tree, for the sake of which an offering greater than natural, “as May never bore,” was unwisely rejected. “The Angel” gains in meaning if the reader will remember the kind of orthodox evasion of passion that Blake associates with Angelic mildness.

With the greatest of these poems, “The Tyger,” the Bard of Experience returns, in all the baffled wonder of his strong but self-fettered imagination:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Nobody staring at Blake's illustration to this would see its Tyger as anything but a mild and silly, perhaps worried, certainly shabby, little beast. Blake uses the same irony of contrast between text and design that he has in at least one place in America, where Orc is being described by Albion's Angel as a fierce monster while two sleeping children are shown nestling against a peaceful ram. The Tyger of the design is not in the forests of the night, but in the open world of clear vision. The forests are “of” the night in belonging to it; the Bard of Experience is in mental darkness. He sees a burning beast against a bordering blackness, and his own mortal eye is framing the Tyger in a double sense: creating it, and surrounding it with an opaque world. But from the start he desires to delude himself; the first of his rhetorical questions insists on a god or demon for its answer.

Blake evidently derived the notion of confronting a mythic beast and having it serve as the text for a series of increasingly rhetorical questions that will help to demonstrate an orthodox theodicy from the Book of Job. The Tyger is a precise parallel to the Behemoth and the Leviathan, emblems of the sanctified tyranny of nature over man. The Bard's Tyger is also “the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.”

Fearful and awed, the Bard learns the logic of Leviathan: “None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” Jehovah proudly boasted of Leviathan that he was a king over men, those deluded children of pride. Though he worships in fear, the Bard also is proud to reveal the Tyger's power. Melville's Moby Dick is another Tyger, but Ahab strikes through the mask, and asserts the Promethean defiance of an Orc. The Bard of Experience is confused, because this world in many of its visible aspects seems to have been formed both in love (the Lamb) and fright (the Tyger). The Bard is one of the Redeemed, capable of imaginative salvation, but before the poem ends he has worked his frenzy into the self-enclosure of the Elect Angels, prostrate before a mystery entirely of his own creation.

To trace this process of wilful failure one need only notice the progressive limitation of the poem's questionings. The second stanza asks whether the Tyger was created in some “distant deeps” (Hell) “or skies” (Heaven). If a mortal were the creator in either case he must have been an Icarus (“On what wings dare he aspire?”) or a Prometheus (“What the hand dare seize the fire?”), both punished by the sky-gods for their temerity. Behind the Tyger's presumably lawful creation must be the blacksmith god who serves as a trusty subordinate to the chief sky-god. His furnace, and not the human brain, wrought the Tyger's deadly terrors, including that symmetry so surprisingly fearful. What Blake called “Deism” is entering the poem, but inverted so that an argument from design induces a question that the Bard cannot wish to have answered:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

We will come upon this image later in Blake, but its Miltonic background is enough for our understanding. When the fallen Angels were defeated, when their tears and weapons alike came down as so many shooting stars, did the same god, who is now taken to be an answer to the poem's earlier questionings, smile at his victory? And is that god, clearly the creator of the tyrants of Experience, Tyger and Leviathan, also the god of unsundered Innocence, of which the Lamb is emblematic? The Bard abandons the issue and plunges back into the affrighted awe of his first stanza, but with the self-abnegating change of “Could frame thy fearful symmetry” to “Dare frame.” I do not think that Blake meant it to remain an open question, but also he clearly did not want a premature answer. All deities, for him, resided within the human breast, and so, necessarily, did all Lambs and Tygers.

The ironies of apprehension mount in the remaining Songs of Experience. The reader learns in time that what these poems demand is a heightened awareness of tonal complexities. Here is the limpid “Ah! Sun-Flower,” so evidently a study of the nostalgias, and yet as cruel a poem as Blake ever wrote:

Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Blake himself speaks here, and is a little weary of his own pity for those who will not learn to free themselves from the ascetic delusion—the dualistic hope that a denial of the body's desires will bring about “that sweet golden clime,” a heaven for the soul. The whole meaning of this poem is in another of Blake's descriptions of heaven, as “an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.” The Sun-flower is weary of time because of its heliotropic bondage; nature has condemned it to the perpetual cycle of counting the steps of the sun. Each twilight it watches the sunset, and desires to be in that sweet golden clime on the western horizon, where all journeys would seem to be done. It is the next stanza that establishes the little poem's pungency, for the three “where”s are the same. The Sun-flower desires to go where the sun sets; that heaven is where the Youth and Virgin are resurrected to the rewards of their holy chastity. They arise, and they still aspire to go to their heaven, but that is where they already are. They have not escaped nature, by seeking to deny it; they have become monuments to its limitations. To repress energy is to join the sunset, and yet still to aspire after it. The flower is rooted in nature; the Youth and the Virgin were not, but have become so. To aspire only as the vegetative world aspires is to suffer a metamorphosis into the vegetative existence.

“The Garden of Love” offers a simpler and poetically less effective bitterness, so much less so that it seems to me the poorest of the Songs of Experience, and might perhaps have been better left in the notebook. “The Little Vagabond,” much less famous, is not only a better poem, but spills more of the blood of the oppressive Church. Blake's tone is his most popular, and most bitterly jovial, in the sudden vision of a humanized God replacing Nobodaddy in the last stanza.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

Nothing jovial exists in the remaining Songs. “London” is a prophetic cry in which Blake turns upon Pitt's city of oppression as Amos turned upon Uzziah's. The epigraph might well be from Amos: “The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, surely I will never forget any of their works.” But we mistake the poem if we read it as an attack upon oppression alone. Blake is a poet in whom the larger apocalyptic impulse always contains the political as a single element in a more complex vision. Of the four stanzas of “London” only the third is really about the oppression of man by society. The other three emphasize man's all-too-natural repression of his own freedom. The street is charter'd by society (both bound and, ironically, supposedly granted liberties) but the Thames is bound between its banks as well. There are marks of woe in every face, but marks of weakness are mentioned first. Every voice and every ban (Pitt's bans against the people—but every vow authorized by society including those relating to marriage) has in it the sound of mind-forged manacles, but that mind is every mind, and not just the mind of Pitt. It is because all men make and accept mental chains, that the Chimney-sweeper's cry (“'weep! 'weep!’ in notes of woe”) makes the perpetually blackening Church yet blacker:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

“Appalls” means “drapes in a pall” here; in its intransitive sense it hints, not that the exploiting Church is at all unhappy about the sweeper's servitude, but that it trembles involuntarily at the accusing prophecy of the cry. The hapless Soldier, enforcing a ban he has not the courage to defy, releases a breath that is a kind of prophetic handwriting on the wall of the Palace, foretelling the King's punishment and the suffering of all society before the storm of revolution and subsequent apocalypse. But most of all, Blake hears the consequences of the societal code that represses sexuality:

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

Two readings, at least, are possible here, and may reinforce one another. One is that the blasting of the tear refers to prenatal blindness due to venereal disease, the “plagues” of the poem's last line. A closer reading gives what is at first more surprising and yet finally more characteristic of Blake's individual thinking. Most of “London” is sounds; after the first stanza, Blake talks about what he hears as he walks the streets of his city. In the midnight streets of the city, he hears a harlot's curse against the morality of the Bromions, who speak of her with the authority of reason and society and, as they would suppose, of nature. But it is her cry, from street to street that weaves their fate, the winding sheet of their England. They have mistaken her, for she is nature, and her plagues are subtler than those of venereal disease. A shouted curse can blast a tear in a quite literal way; the released breath can scatter the small body of moisture out of existence. Blake knows his natural facts; he distrusted nature too much not to know them. The tear ducts of a new born infant are closed; its eyes need to be moistened before it can begin to weep. Blake ascribes a natural fact to the Harlot's curse, and so the Harlot is not just an exploited Londoner but nature herself, the Tirzah of the last Song of Experience. In this reading, “London” 's concluding line takes a very different and greater emphasis. The curse of nature that blights the marriage coach and turns it into a hearse is venereal infection in the first reading. But Blake is talking about every marriage, and he means literally that each rides in a hearse. The plagues are the enormous plagues that come from identifying reason, society, and nature, and the greatest of these plagues is the Jealousy of Experience, the dark secret love of the natural heart.

The heart of Experience is the theme of “The Human Abstract,” a matching poem to “The Divine Image” of Innocence. Blake's title is probably not to be understood in terms of the Latin abstractus (“separated,” “drawn apart”), for the contrast between the two poems is not between the integral and the split human nature, but rather between the equal delusions of Innocence and Experience as to the relationship of the human to the natural. “The Divine Image,” as we have seen, is no image at all but a deliberately confused tangle of abstractions, as befits the limitations of the Innocent vision. “The Human Abstract” is an image, the organic and terrible image of the Tree of Mystery, growing out of the human brain and darkening vision with thickest shades:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

The virtues of “The Divine Image” are exposed as being founded upon the exploiting selfishness of natural man. Not content with this inversion, the death-impulse of Cruelty traps the self-approving heart through the most dangerous of its smugnesses, Humility:

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

From this root there soon spreads “the dismal shade of Mystery,” the projection of Experiential man's fears upon the body of nature, and the subsequent identification of those fears with the Mystery of the Incarnation. The poem climaxes in the Deceit of natural religion, with images drawn from Norse mythology:

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

Odin, the Norse Nobodaddy, hanged himself upon Yggdrasil, a Tree of Mystery, self-slain as a sacrifice to himself, that he might gain knowledge of the runes, a key to mystery. The fruit of Deceit includes the runes and the apple of Eve's fall, the natural entrance to the negations or moral good and moral evil, the ethical mazes of Urizen. The Raven is Odin's emblem, a Devourer who nests within the tree waiting to consume the Prolific of man's sacrificed desires. The last stanza evidently refers to an adumbration of the Norse myth of Balder's death. The other gods seek vainly for the mistletoe, a branch of which had slain Balder; but the Tree of Death is now not in nature but within the human mind.

Much the same tree appears in the slighter “A Poison Tree,” first entitled “Christian Forbearance,” a grisly meditation on the natural consequences of repressed anger. “Infant Sorrow” and “A Little Boy Lost” are less successful, for Blake does little in them to guard himself against his own indignation, against nature in “Infant Sorrow,” against priestcraft in “A Little Boy Lost.” “A Little Girl Lost” is saved by its simplicity, by the very starkness of its contrast between two kinds of love, that which can “naked in the sunny beams delight” and the jealous paternal “loving look” that strikes terror even as the restrictive Bible of Heaven can.

Perhaps as late as 1805, Blake added a final poem to the Songs of Experience, together with an illustration depicting the raising from death of the Spiritual Body. This poem, “To Tirzah,” is a condensed summary of the entire cycle of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Tirzah we will meet again later in Blake, but all we need to know of her for this poem is in her name. Tirzah was the capital of the kingdom of Israel, the ten lost tribes, and therefore opposed to Jerusalem, capital of Judah, the two redeemed tribes. By 1801, Jerusalem, for Blake, symbolizes Milton's Christian Liberty, the spiritual freedom of man. Tirzah therefore stands for man's bondage to nature:

Whate'er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth,
To rise from Generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

As Jesus denied his mother and so declared his freedom from mortal birth, so Blake now denies the motherhood of Tirzah. Whatever is mortal will be consumed, when the Earth is enabled to heed the opening plea of the Bard of Experience. Consumed by the revelation of the human, with natural disguise fallen away, the generative cycle can cease:

The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride,
Blow'd in the morn; in evening died;
But Mercy chang'd Death into Sleep;
The Sexes rose to work and weep.

Blake is not saying that the sexual act sprang from the Fall, but he is insisting that sexual division in its present form must be the result of a “Shame & Pride” that were not originally human. In The Book of Urizen, Blake identifies the Fall with the Creation of man and nature in their present forms. They came together in the morn of history and would have died already, but for the Mercy of time's potential, which allows the imagination to convert the deathly nightmare of history into the sweet and bitter sleep of human survival, the generative struggle of sexual labor and lamentation. But that struggle, if it is to turn into a progression, must be freed of its mortal patroness:

Thou Mother of my Mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my Heart,
And with false self-decieving tears
Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears;
Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,
And me to Mortal Life betray:
The Death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

Nature restricts the heart and four senses; she cannot bind or close the fifth sense, the specifically sexual sense of touch. The Atonement set Blake free, not from the orthodox notion of original sin, but from the deceits of natural religion. Blake understands the Atonement as the triumph of the imaginative body over the natural body, a triumph through touch, an improvement in sensual enjoyment. “To Tirzah” repudiates Innocence and Experience alike, for Tirzah is the goddess of both states, the loving mother of one and the mocking nature of the other. But “To Tirzah” is a later poem, and in 1794, Blake could not so triumphantly dismiss the nightmare of history. The symbolic lyrics of the Songs of Experience have shown us the world into which the energy of Orc had to enter, to be tried by the challenge of entrenched error.


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Nelson Hilton (essay date 1998)

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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 significance offered by the most familiar work of England's ‘last great religious poet’ (Ackroyd, Blake, p. 18) and ‘greatest revolutionary artist’ (Eagleton, in Larrissy's William Blake, p. ix).

What we know as his Songs of Innocence and of Experience begins in the publication, over the space of 35 years, of 50 copies of Songs of Innocence and 28 of Songs of Experience, from which were constituted the two dozen actual sets of the combined Songs, variously ordered and with a joint title page. The work in its full form consists of 54 designs and poems which only in the last few copies follow the sequence adopted by almost every modern edition. These Blake etched in relief on relatively small (7 × 11 cm) copper plates, printed, often coloured, and bound: his title page gives equal weight to his labours as ‘Author & Printer’, and expects no less of his readers.1 Composition also was protracted—while the poems and designs of Innocence are dated 1789, three early drafts surface in a 1785 manuscript which also reveals the 28-year-old artist's predilection for ‘making a fool’ of the reader (E 453); Songs of Experience and the joint title page are dated 1794, and one poem (‘To Tirzah’) appears a few years after that. The five epochal years between the title-page dates of Innocence and Experience bracket the bulk of Blake's so-called ‘Bible of Hell’, including remarkable works such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (MHH), Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and, also dated 1794, The Book of Urizen.

As part of the ‘discovery’ or ‘invention’ of childhood in the eighteenth century associated with the interest in early education shown by Locke, Rousseau and the Sunday school movement, the decades before the Songs saw the genre of short collections of devotional and moral poems for children emerge as a ‘most prolific and controversial literary form’ (Shrimpton, ‘Hell's hymnbook’, p. 22). The genre's mainstay was Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs Attempted in easy Language, for the Use of Children (1715), influential enough to be parodied not only by Blake (in ‘A Cradle Song’), but still later in Alice in Wonderland; other titles could be cited, however, including Charles Wesley's Hymns for Children (1763); Christopher Smart's Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1770); and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). These works make a small subset of eighteenth-century hymnody, itself arguably the most pervasively influential innovation of cultural discourse in Blake's time. While it has long been recognized that in terms of metrical and stanzaic variety, Blake's songs ‘make as clear a parallel with eighteenth-century hymns, as they make a contrast with eighteenth-century lyric’ (Holloway, Blake, p. 37), their contrast with the ideological burden of hymns has yet to be explored fully. If John Wesley could preface his brother's hymns with the hope that once children ‘understand them they will be children no longer, only in years and stature’, then Blake might counter that if adults could understand his songs, their ‘doors of perception’ might be cleansed (MHH 14). Following his own interpretation of the gospel, Blake thinks ‘every Thing to be Evident to the Child’ (E 664), and writes that ‘the innocence of a child’ can reproach the reader ‘with the errors of acquired folly’ (E 600). His songs ‘about’ or ‘from the perspective of’ a guiltless point of view offer parables to test what such pure perception might be, and how our sense might be folly.

The girl and boy learning to read at the lap of their nurse or mother who appear on the Innocence title page announce the ‘scene of instruction’ to be found in or behind almost every song. The quintessential object of instruction is, in one form or another, language and the concomitant ability to play with the symbolic order, and Songs might be taken as evoking stations along a gradient beginning with total ignorance of that realm of symbol and culture and ending with original artistic contribution. These various stations can be shuffled in the various sequences of different copies of Songs—there is no one developmental path, no single authorized reading. From a social perspective, the poems represent minute particulars from the spectrum of discourses across the social field. These different, often ‘contrary’, stations or moments are rooted in the individual poems and designs themselves, making lack of single meaning a crucial point about each of the Songs. Given inescapable divisions in self and society, a Wordsworthian ‘common language of men’ is impossible for Blake (Glen, Vision and Disenchantment, p. 106). There are no lyric effusions of emotion recollected, but rather dramatic stagings of language in action (see Gillham, Blake's Contrary States)—as the few readings which follow hope to suggest.

Many readers have found the ballad-like Introduction to Innocence a commentary on individual and cultural artistic development, which moves from (‘pipes down’) preverbal, pure sound inspiration to sung words to written text—and, simultaneously, from a state of presence and mutual participation to one of absence and emphatic separateness (the penultimate four lines which begin ‘And I’). This process also foregrounds Blake's ongoing concern with identity (repetition, sameness) and difference, as elsewhere in the focus on ‘echoing’: in what sense is a song ‘the same again’ if it is rendered in words rather than sound? In Blake's time, especially with the popular ‘Glee Club’ movement, ‘glee’ was familiar as a song scored for three or more voices to make up a series of interwoven melodies—a meaning applicable throughout to these ‘songs of pleasant glee’. The poem's closing sets up the paradoxical realization that the only way ‘every child may joy to hear’ the song is through its being sung by one who has learned to read. So we return to the issue of inspiration and transmission, of the ‘pipe’, the conduit, the I (to represent it typographically). The engendering spring of the song-stream comes to readers via the ‘hollow reed’ of the pipe and the pen, but for hearers requires that readers reinspire (literally, blow into again) the otherwise ‘hollow read’ of the text.

The child asks the piper to pipe, then to sing about ‘a Lamb’, and while ‘The Lamb’ follows in one copy, ‘The Shepherd’ comes next in most. These pastoral references, as well as the term ‘innocence’ itself, indicate the Christian imagery and themes which saturate Songs. The complex and idiosyncratic nature of Blake's Christianity has yet to receive full consideration, but any account must reckon with his apparent childhood in a private, radical Protestant sect, the Muggletonians (see Thompson, Witness Against the Beast), his later involvement with Swedenborg and the ‘New Church’, his professional connections to the Dissenters, and his own various pronouncements—those on the equivalence of Christ and imagination not least. In annotations written around the time of Innocence, Blake argues that ‘our Lord is the word of God’ (E 599), but also that ‘the Poetic Genius … is the Lord’ (E 603). The ‘acquired folly’ which innocence challenges concerns especially religious ceremony, tedious hymns and conventional theology, and their want of perception for that energetic, spiritual and intellectual vision which exists in no sense.

Orthodox Blake criticism takes ‘The Shepherd’ as an evocation of familiar themes, with apparent parallels in traditional and contemporary devotional verse. But for Blake, always ready to read ‘white’ where we read ‘black’ (E 524), the poem may also invite us to reconsider what the sheep herd heard. To begin with, the cloying repetition in ‘How sweet is the Shepherd's sweet lot’ seems, literally, too sweet; and with the odd image that not the sheep, but the shepherd ‘strays’, brings up nagging associations of error, deviation, lack of guidance. ‘For he hears the lambs' innocent call’ offers a lame rationale for praise, and the curious logic culminates in the awkward grammar of the conclusion:

He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.

Songs is filled with such worrying verbal and graphic minute particulars (the stance and expression of the illustrated shepherd make for another) which, if we let them work, tease us into thought—in this case all the more if we consider the dissonance with the biblical allusion, ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young’ (Isaiah 40:11). It seems likely that one part of this glee reflects Blake's already longstanding meditation on the indictment penned by a similarly aged Milton of earlier faithless ‘pastors’ with their ‘lean and flashy songs’ (Lycidas 123).

If one wishes to locate the poems on some ideal gradient of language-acquisition, ‘Infant Joy’ offers an obvious place to begin—and indeed it follows next in the same number of copies (11) as the common order. The poem appears to involve two voices, and many editors have felt compelled to ‘improve’ the text with quotation marks. A moment's reflection may suggest that we are overhearing the play of a mother and baby in an initial enactment of how, especially for the infant, language comes to us already articulated in forms we must learn to comprehend. The text foregrounds the role of name and calling, yet seems to associate ‘joy’ with a preverbal, unnamed state—indeed, ‘infant’ derives from the Latin infans or ‘not speaking’. Unspeakable joy, perhaps. With an age of two days, the infant is on the eve of the traditional occasion for baptism and official recording of name (Shakespeare's birthday, for instance, is hypothesized by subtracting three from the known baptismal date). This fall into language, into the symbolic machinery of society, is gain, in the eventual acquisition of skill with symbols, but also loss of the glory in undifferentiated potential. At the moment, for a moment, this latter joy assimilates the ineffable ‘I AM’ of Exodus and Coleridge's later ‘primary imagination’—but ‘The I am’ cannot go unnamed for long.

‘The Lamb’ moves further along the language-acquisition gradient and into a paradigmatic scene of instruction. This evident response to the inspiring child's request for ‘a song about a lamb’ offers at the least a three-part glee: one for the Lamb as child, the ‘bonnie lamb’ of nursery rhymes and endearment; another for the young sheep also illustrated in the design; and another for the Agnus Dei. But by beginning with a question out of catechism (‘Canst thou tell who made thee?’ also begins a lesson in The Pilgrim's Progress, Part two) ‘The Lamb’ tells any who have ears to hear that it has been to Sunday school and encoded one of the most popular of Wesley's Hymns for Children, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’:

Lamb of God, I look to thee
Thou shalt my example be;
Thou are gentle, meek, and mild,
Thou wast once a little child.

This source suggests how the child's naming or calling, based on the symbolic identifications which ground perception, unselfconsciously reflects her or his indoctrination. Such scenes of instruction show how we cannot talk about naming without entering into the context of power and the imposition of form, whether under the aegis of Louis Althusser's ‘interpellation’, Jacques Lacan's ‘Name-of-the-Father’, or whatever other theory one uses to situate the never-innocent discourse instruction which is ‘education’. Blake knows as well as Lewis Carroll's Humpty-Dumpty that the question in naming is ‘who is to be master’, and the fact of the matter here is that Jesus never calls himself a Lamb.

Too young to formulate distinctions of logic and Logos, the child, like a lamb led to language, gets lost in figural possibilities and in differences between calling oneself and being called. The alteration the ‘Author & Printer’ makes between capitals and lower-case (‘He’ / ‘he’, ‘Lamb’ / ‘lamb’) further evokes the fusion or confusion in the child's inability to comprehend metaphor, even as the text conveys the child's joy in the exercise of his or her developing semiotic mastery: ‘I'll tell thee, / … I'll tell thee!’ Fresh from instruction, the child tries to pipe on ‘the same again’, but even as she or he delights gleefully in such empowerment, the insinuated discourses configure that energy for the maintenance of their own forms.

The repeated unpunctuated closing refrain, ‘Little Lamb God bless thee’, again problematizes identity—here of blessing and blessed, of subject and object—and modulates into the poem which follows more often than any other, ‘The Little Black Boy’. Among the most intimate of scenes of instruction, it challenges our sense of innocence as it shows the child take in ‘slave religion’ for comfort against an oppressive system which has made everything black and white. One of Watts's songs for children has God shining ‘with beams of love’ (Praise for Creation and Providence), but Blake deftly turns the tables to suggest these beams and their ideological freight as a cross the blacks ‘learn to bear’ with the great white father's other ‘gifts’. The boy's pathetic conclusion, ‘love me’, reveals that however much his mother's pious lessons may, as he suggests, ‘bore’ him, the suffering they seek to buffer and alleviate is real.

Trauma also occupies ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, where children abandoned by their parents are to ‘do their duty’ despite the daily harm in their unimaginable working conditions. Critics often cite its last line, ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’, as an instance of irony in Songs, but if one thinks of irony as ‘saying one thing while meaning another’, the term is too limited. The glees of Songs say several things while meaning them all—and ‘innocence’ entails the accepting of them all. On the one hand, little Tom Dacre has a dream which evidently recycles the consoling scene of instruction offered by the frame narrator, and believes it to such extent that ‘Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm’. Ideology and the imaginary combine for this real power. On the other hand, the poem's slightly older speaker's detachment and unselfconsciousness (as in his transitions ‘so’, ‘And so’) heighten our sense of his pain and the force of the actuality he relates: ‘So your chimneys I sweep’ (emphasis added). The last line then tests your response-ability, which will decide its inflection and with that, your position vis-à-vis an ‘all’ who have not, by some reckonings, given due to the sweeps and who should perhaps fear possible harm at the hands of mobilized ‘thousands of sweepers’. Imagine, for instance, the tone of Blake's contemporary Mrs Sarah Trimmer, a popular educator and pioneer in the Sunday school movement, who wrote in 1792 concerning the establishment of ‘schools of industry’ for the ‘inferior sorts’ of children:

it cannot be right to train them all in a way which will most probably raise their ideas above the very lowest occupations of life, and disqualify them for those servile offices which must be filled by some of the members of the community, and in which they may be equally happy with the highest, if they will do their duty.

(See Gardner, Blake's Innocence, p. 83)

‘The Little Girl Lost’ and ‘The Little Girl Found’ are clearly to be taken together, as their shared middle plate insists. Like two other poems, ‘The School Boy’ and ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’, they appear first in Songs of Innocence, but often move to Experience in the joint collection, suggesting again that the experience of changing perspective is crucial to Songs. The two poems seem obviously allegorical, but of what? The absence of compelling interpretations—invocations of the soul's journey, the myth of Persephone, and female adolescence notwithstanding—suggests that the text may be a failure of obscurity. But if one sees Songs as concerned with the learning of language, which means, inevitably, wrestling with figurative language and the symbolic transferences which permit allegory, metaphor and complex verbal meaning, then one might pause again over the protagonist's name, ‘Lyca’. By way of context, consider Blake's treatment of another virginal figure in The Book of Thel, published the same year as Songs of Innocence:

Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. And like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. Like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. Like a smile upon an infant's face


Here again, as with ‘Infant Joy’, we circle around what has no name, and what in being named becomes defined and finite, subject to the limitations of our vocabulary. Lyca is like a figure for figuration—a literalization of what happens when, in her poem, we try to grasp or impose our ‘fancied image’ for all that might be meant by ‘sleep’, ‘tree’, ‘lion’, ‘ruby tears’. Imagine the poem itself, that emanation of the artist's mind, as ‘The Little Girl Lost’ (just like Wordsworth's Lucy Gray) and perhaps being found forever still the little girl is a distressing experience of innocence.

Point of view and desire for certainty are also at stake in the poem which often closes Innocence, ‘On Anothers Sorrow’. Here every reader at least considers the possibility of another answer to the excessive rhetoric:

Can a mother sit and hear,
An infant groan an infant fear—
No no never can it be.
Never never can it be.

Even William Cowper, in a hymn Blake would have known, answers the analogous question ‘Can a woman's tender care / Cease towards the child she bare’ with an honest ‘Yes, she may forgetful be’. In Blake's poem the reiterated ‘Think not’ collides with the concluding reality of ‘our grief’ (not ‘another's’ after all!) to end the poem, and Innocence, with ‘moan’. So we confront at once our distance from such naive denial and the powerful (dare one say ‘innocent’?) longing such fantasy exerts for at least some part of us. It is the chimney sweeper's consolation for Tom Dacre writ large, and sometimes as effective.

‘Language is the house of Being’, according to Heidegger's famous figure (see Steiner, Martin Heidegger, p. 127), but for Blake, as for Wordsworth, that structure becomes a prison-house maintained by ‘pre-established codes’, by cliché and convention. The warden of the prison-house, the fashioner of ‘mind-forg'd manacles’, the force that has barred us from the play of Being in language, as from the stunning energy of true poetry, can be seen as ‘the bard’. The fallacy in crediting such assumed authority looms in the Introduction to Songs of Experience, where, by the eighth line, three distinct subjects ‘might controll / The starry pole’. With its echoes of Jeremiah (‘O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord’) and the God of Paradise Lost (‘past, present, future he beholds’), the bard seems to command reverence—but as in other cases, on inspection, the compelling language breaks into mumbo-jumbo, etched on a plate whose vista of stars is graphically barred by the cloud of words. Students of the Bible, and of Wesley's great hymn, Wrestling Jacob, will recognize that it is the opportunity to struggle for blessing or interpretation from a sacred messenger which is given ‘till the break of day’. The religious references resonate with the particularly eighteenth-century, evangelical sense of ‘experience’ as the inner history of one's religious emotion (see OED, s.v., 4b)—indeed, ‘hymn of experience’ appears throughout accounts of Methodism.

The scene of instruction accosts the reader directly in ‘London’, whose speaker's repeated self-reference makes him or her emphatically ‘here’ and demanding dialogue. For ‘I hear’ asks implicitly, ‘do you hear?’—which is to say, ‘are you here?’ ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear’, is one inspired teacher's reiterated elliptical comment, but the general lack of comprehension for the parables, says Jesus, fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah that ‘hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive’ (Matthew 13:14). So what do we hear, here in this poem? ‘Mine’ or ‘mind’? ‘Forg'd’ or ‘fraudulent’? ‘Man’ in manacles? Whatever it is, however it works, it is everywhere mined and forged in the hearth of the heard and seen in the here and now of everyday Babelondon. Amidst the din of official ‘chartered’ ideologies and unexamined lives, the speaker strives to unlock the reader by the multiplication of significance, breaking chains of thought and speech at their weakest link, the idea of a single meaning, univocal sign. This deconstruction involves asserting a new synaesthetic logic for eye and ear. Thus, we are urged to hear how a sigh runs in blood, how the sweepers' cry makes pale a blackening St Paul's—in short, we must learn to see, hear in a new way:

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear

The small shock of perceptual expansion occasioned by the acrostic can stand for the larger reconfiguring necessary if we are to attend truly to the voice of the barred.

In the final stanza, what is heard is not the ‘curse’ ending the second line but, again, how it blasts the ‘tear’ which ends the third and rhymes back to ‘hear’. These rhymes, ‘… hear / … curse / … tear’, bring to bear the contrary dictions of sight and sound as we hear, see them coalesce in the final sight and sound rhyme, ‘hearse’. The oxymoronic image of the ‘marriage hearse’ points to the impossibility of imagining that sight and sound, sign and meaning can be eternally linked or chartered, and in its unexpected juxtaposition of ‘hearse’ for ‘bed’ asserts an intelligence and point of view which calls our own to account. That everyone who has stopped us with a claim to hear voices and see invisible marks can be dismissed as crazy does not mean that we are never to imagine the evidence of things unseen.

According to a recent collection of ‘the top 500 poems’ as determined by computer analysis of hundreds of anthologies, the now most published poem in the language is ‘The Tyger’. Or should we write, to follow the renaming in that anthology (Harmon, The Top 500 Poems, p. 1,077) and by some other editors, ‘The Tiger’? Would it make any difference to an artist who writes ‘tiger’ when he wishes, and who asserts elsewhere that ‘Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place’? (E 146) What of the asymmetrical rhyme, in the beat of the poem's dread feet, of the word ‘symmetry’? Shall we pronounce it to match with ‘eye’? And what of the notoriously toy-like, even bemused feline whose illustration seems so incongruous with the celebrated words?

The poem's insistent rhetorical and figural emphasis—beginning with the opening hurdle of metaphor, ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’—announces a text which will test the language sensitivity Songs explores. Either we are not concerned with a conventional ‘tiger’, or with usual ‘burning’, or both. Before the poem beguiles us to the self-congratulation of some imaginary theodicy by the answering of its questions, consider, with Jean-Jacques Lecercle, the implications:

A question's purpose is not, as is commonly thought, to solicit information, but to elicit an answer, to establish a relation of power between questioner and questioned. It is a striking feature of questions that he who asks them establishes, by the very act of asking them, his right to question, his expectation of an answer, and his power to elicit one.

(Lecercle, The Violence of Language, p. 46)

In ‘The Tyger’, if we answer, we become like God—a temptation which has proved alluring enough, it would appear, to make the language's top poem. Well might the illustrated Tyger smile over this ultimate fooling of readers.

The decades of answers which make up ‘Tyger studies’ must be passed over for a few observations. Given the cost of copper, Blake etched both sides of the plates for Songs (using small dikes of wax around each side) and exact measurements indicate that the question ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ refers, in part, to the poem of that name only millimetres away on the flip side and a few years older. On the one hand, it is the ‘Author & Printer’ himself who dares seize the ‘brightness of fancy; power of genius … poetic inspiration’ which his contemporaries characterized as ‘fire’ (OED, s.v.). Part of that genius seems to concern the author's appropriation of Milton, who writes in Paradise Lost that the Creator ‘of Celestial Bodies first the sun / A mighty Sphear he fram'd’ (7.354-5). In a work dated the year after Experience, Blake's creator figure Los similarly makes a celestial body: he beats ‘Roaring … bright sparks’ with a ‘vast Hammer’ on ‘the Anvil’ until ‘An immense Orb of fire he fram'd’, at which he ‘smiled with joy’ (E 98)—momentarily regaining the flow, the peak experience of the artist's unspeakable ‘infant joy’.

The very latest of the Songs, appearing only after the collection had been published initially, and linked through its curious name to Blake's later work, ‘To Tirzah’ deserves special attention as a kind of coda. Using a dictionary to the Bible (Authorized Version) one can identify Tirzah as the one-time capital of the Northern Kingdom, memorable for a comparison to Jerusalem in the erotic lushness of Song of Songs (6:4), and Tirzah as the fifth of five daughters whose collective petition for inheritance decided women's rights in property for their culture. Given Blake's other emphases on ‘five’, one could associate the daughters with the senses, so that seeing only the sense of smell, sight, audition, and taste named in the poem, Tirzah might be associated with the remaining sense of touch. In fact, the AV's mistaking of ‘Tirzah’ for a form of the Hebrew verb tirseh, allows one to imagine the title translated as ‘To Sensual Enjoyment’.

The obsession of the speaker in ‘To Tirzah’ ‘To rise from Generation free’, must in part be referenced to the word's sexual sense as exemplified by Hume's argument that ‘there is in all men, both male and female, a desire and power of generation more active than is ever universally exerted’ (OED, s.v. ‘generation’). The speaker's preoccupation strengthens through the second stanza's concern with ‘The Sexes’ and the story of how they generated or ‘sprung from Shame & Pride’, then ‘blow'd’ or blossomed (literally, exposed organs of generation) and died—at which point one might want to invoke Original Sin, but if ‘Shame & Pride’ preceded and engendered ‘The Sexes’, then that familiar story has been made strange. The mortality established with that sin weighs heavy on a speaker obsessed—in hymnal long measure—with ‘Mortal Birth’, ‘my Mortal part’ and ‘Mortal Life’, and while such concern is ostensibly obviated by the poem's penultimate line, the very existence of the text undercuts dramatically assurance that ‘The Death of Jesus set me free’. Many hymns voice this idea, though few so bluntly; and sin, the hymns agree, is that from which the death of Jesus frees us, so that a disjunction opens between ‘Generation’, from which the speaker still wishes to rise free, and the implied condition of sin, from which he or she claims to be set free. Similarly, the sincerity of the speaker's attribution of ‘false self-deceiving tears’ is compromised dramatically by our understanding that such accusation comes from personal experience—that in calling Tirzah false, the speaker indicates his or her own weepy-eyed self-deception.

The question the speaker twice addresses to the mother, ‘Then what have I to do with thee?’ might evoke Jesus's apparently rude words to his mother at Cana: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ (John 2:4). Here again, as elsewhere in the poem and throughout the Songs, desire for simple meaning, a direct lock of words and meaning, begins to slide under the surfacing contradictions of a speaker who doesn't know what he or she is saying, another subject who hasn't learned to read aright. In fact the repeated question appears a number of times in the Bible, and for an author learned with the best in that ‘great code of art’ (E 274), the cumulative effect of these contexts subverts what might seem at first an obvious significant allusion. A review of its instances shows that to ask ‘What have I to do with thee?’ places one in the company of those who address some form of power while already deeply involved in events which will show that they have very much to do with what they question. Perhaps, indeed, only one possessed, like Legion, and not ‘in his right mind’ (Mark 5: 15; Luke 8:35-6) would treat with such dismissive rhetoric the crucial question of existence. In one contemporary hymn, Legion recalls how, ‘Fill'd with madness, sin and woe’, he was found by Jesus,

Yet in this forlorn condition,
When he came to set me free,
I reply'd to my Physician,
‘What have I to do with thee?’

(Cowper and Newton, Olney Hymns, p. 407)

There is no space to enter the still greater scandal of the poem's illustration, which would further the sense that ‘To Tirzah’ enacts the strained psychology of a hymn-singing ‘Moral Christian’ (E 877) and sexist upholder of the ‘patriarchial religion’ (E 171) who cannot imagine ‘the improvement of sensual enjoyment’ (MHH 15) or celebrate ‘holy Generation! [Image] of regeneration!’ (Jerusalem 7.65). But given the argument of The Everlasting Gospel that ‘The Vision of Christ that thou dost see / Is my Visions Greatest Enemy’ (E 524), and the context of hymns, ‘To Tirzah’ serves to confirm that Blake's Songs are psalms and parables for the Bible of Hell.


  1. The best generally available facsimile of Songs of Innocence and of Experience is that edited by Lincoln. A hypertext version, which facilitates experience of the various sequences and includes annotated bibliographies, can be accessed at; colour reproductions will be found at the web site for The Blake Archive.


Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, ed. Andrew Lincoln, London and Princeton, Blake Trust and Princeton University Press, 1991. This is the student's text of choice; includes useful notes and commentary.

Erdman, David V. (ed.) The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, New York, Doubleday, 1988. An electronic version is freely available on the Internet.

References and Further Reading

Ackroyd, Peter, Blake London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

Bentley, G. E., Blake Books: Annotated Catalogues of William Blake's Writings in Illuminated Printing, in Conventional Typography and in Manuscript, and Reprints thereof; Reproductions of his designs, Books with his Engravings, Catalogues, Books he owned, and Scholarly and Critical Works about him, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977. Includes detailed descriptions of the various copies of Songs, and an extensive bibliography of criticism.

———. Blake Books Supplement: A Bibliography of Publications and Discoveries about William Blake 1971-1992, being a Continuation of Blake Books, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995. Again, use the index to access criticism on particular poems.

Cowper, William and Newton, John, Olney Hymns (1779), vol. 3 of The Works of John Newton, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988.

Gardner, Stanley, Blake's ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ Retraced, London and New York, Athlone Press and St Martin's, 1986. Good on London background.

Gillham, D. G., Blake's Contrary States: The Songs of Innocence and of Experience as Dramatic Poems, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Gleckner, Robert F. and Greenberg, Mark L. (ed.) Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, New York, Modern Language Association, 1989. Highly useful collection of materials and approaches.

Glen, Heather, Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983. Good on the context of eighteenth-century children's verse.

Harmon, William, The Top 500 Poems, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992.

Holloway, John, Blake: The Lyric Poetry, London, Edward Arnold, 1968.

Leader, Zachery, Reading Blake's Songs, Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, The Violence of Language, London, Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990.

Larrissy, Edward, William Blake, preface by Terry Eagleton, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985.

Lindsay, David W., Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience, Atlantic Highlands, Humanities Press, 1989. One of the series ‘the Critics Debate’—will they take up the dropped preposition?

Shrimpton, Nick, ‘Hell's hymnbook: Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and their models’, in Literature of the Romantic Period, 1750-1850, ed. R. T. Davies and B. G. Beatty, New York, Barnes & Noble, 1976, pp. 19-35.

Steiner, George, Martin Heidegger, Harmondsworth and New York, Penguin Books, 1980.

Thompson, E. P., Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, New York, The New Press, 1993.

Viscomi, Joseph, Blake and the Idea of the Book, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993. Exhaustive treatment of Blake's actual etching process and its consequences for his work.

Watts, Isaac, Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715), London, The Religious Tract Society, 1837.

Wesley, Charles, Hymns for Children, and Persons of Riper Years, 4th edn, London, 1784. Preface by John Wesley.

K. E. Smith (essay date 1999)

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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, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988] 14)


This stanza from ‘Night’ reminds us precisely how far Blake has moved from the world of Barbauld's Hymns. There we were concerned with a kind of naturalistic claim for the innocence and goodness of the world of childhood, a claim which, for all its pastoral and Biblical overtones, depended on a prior claim to an empirically-verifiable truth: that is, that children are not the flawed, easily-tempted creatures of Watts's early Dissenting vision but the bearers of a simple and pure spirituality. Blake's vision here, by contrast, comes over not as affirming the empirically-observed laws of nature (as the culture of sensibility selectively interpreted them) but as radically subverting them. Drawing on easily-recognizable imagery of the peaceable kingdom, to be sure, the poetry nevertheless confronts, challenges and contests the reader's implied vision of a fallen world—a world in which Innocence might safely live in nostalgic memory but not as active presence in the world.

This is of course to affirm in different words that Innocence for Blake in 1789 is already a State in the sense in which he would use the word on his engraved title-page for the first joint edition of the songs in 1794: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Shewing the two Contrary States of the Human Soul. What we have called ‘the road to Innocence’ meant for him both the stripping away of sentimentalist nostalgia for a delightful, but sadly bygone era and the confident assertion of a whole way of apprehending the world, a way whose ethical and epistemological assumptions have been well-characterized by David W. Lindsay:

Innocence may provisionally be described as a state in which the human faculties are perfectly integrated, in which no being can refuse full sympathy to another, and in which the harmony of Man, God and Nature is too complete to allow a non-human conception of divinity or matter.1

This description suggests the need to affirm and respect the autonomy of the world of Innocence as a complete vision. Intrinsically, this means respecting the power and range of the innocent vision even while being aware of that closure of perspective which filters out the pain of the historically-fallen world an actual adult—or even child—reader would have encountered. For despite its contained nature it is nevertheless the case, as Anne Kostelanetz Mellor suggests2, that Innocence is related to the needs and aims of daily lives in two crucial ways: first, by providing an image of human divine potential and second, by suggesting how it might be realized in the context of contemporary society with its chimney sweepers and slaves.

Further, as a corollary of this respect for the power of the innocent vision, we are led to see Innocence in a different authorial teleology—not so much part of a developing Blakean system as the culmination or destination of a process begun back in the 1770s and accelerating in the late 1780s. That we know Blake to have gone on from Innocence to Experience and then on to Beulah and Jerusalem should not obscure this 1789 reality of a destination arrived at. There is, as critics from Gleckner onwards have argued3, no empirical evidence for a project of non-innocent songs and the positing of a contrary State, before the outpouring of 1791-1792 notebook poems gives the possibility for one. Conversely, there is very much the feeling of an emergent and undoubting vision crystallizing through the encounters with Lavater and Swedenborg, a vision confident of its own self-coherence and potency. When we eventually come to the edge of that world, to its limits as a diagnostic tool for Blake's artistic vision, it will not be in order to see it synchronically as an embodiment of Beulah in the way that Frye does4 or as retrospectively undercut by experienced wisdoms as in the readings of Zachary Leader5 but to re-enact a process of unforeseen change and difficult adjustment in Blake's outlook.

Insofar as our concern is with the special, distinctive contribution of Songs of Innocence to Blake's artistic repertoire up to 1789, we may usefully invoke the two characteristic processes noted in the last chapter—a stripping-down followed by elaboration—as marking the distinctive contribution of Songs of Innocence. The first aspect, then is a deliberate restraint of large-scale innovation and complexity in order to achieve an intensified lucidity of effect. Doubtless we can trace the ultimate motivation for this to the desire to produce a book for children. But there is also a strong sense of artistic discovery, or delight in a new artistic world. After all, if one trait could be said to characterize the Blake we have discussed so far, it would surely be stylistic flamboyance and eclecticism. In terms of writing we may recall the rhetorical and metrical variety of Poetical Sketches—Spenserian stanza, Elizabethan blank verse, Ossianic prose—or the parodic possibilities offered by Sternean narrative in An Island in the Moon where three draft childhood songs had already appeared. Now, in the Songs of Innocence themselves, we find stanza forms which, though in fact mixing feet and rhythms to give constant variety and freshness, yet recall the simple forms of hymn, ballad or nursery rhyme.6 Simplicity and symmetry, in the words of Anne Kostelanetz Mellor7, are the initial broad effects, even where a song such as ‘The Divine Image’ may suggest great depths below its clear surface:

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

(E 12)

The second process we note, that of enrichment or complexification, may seem to contradict or undermine the simplicity so hardly won. But, broadly speaking, this is not so. While we can easily point to two very different areas of potentially ironic effect—that is, the relation between speakers in a poem and the relation between poem and design on the same page—these effects are different from the compacted dialectics achieved within Songs of Experience such as ‘London’ or in poem-design contrasts of mood such as ‘The Tyger’. Generally speaking, the specific complexity of Innocence can be aligned with the observation of E. D. Hirsch, that the child's-eye-view is juxtaposed with the adult view not to produce doubt but to enhance affirmation:

Their childish simplicity of language belies their adult profundity of insight but their symbolic implications tend to resolve rather than manufacture complexities8 … The fusion of the childlike and the adult presents the child's unfallen world as being penetrated by religious insight but given form and explicitness by the wise innocence of a more comprehensive intelligence.9

The actual workings of what we might term in shorthand unity-from-juxtaposition in the Songs—whether of voices within the writings or of symbolic motifs within the designs—are best explored in our later analysis of particular songs. But one or two guidelines might be anticipated here. First, there is the fact that in a number of the Songs we appear to be in the presence of a kind of dialogue between speakers, as with the child and the lamb in ‘Spring’ or child and mother in ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’. Seizing on a precise aspect of Blake's presentation of these dialogues, his general omission of quotation marks in the engraved texts, David W. Lindsay makes a telling broader point about Blake's conception of communication and empathy in the Songs of Innocence (drawing attention also to the care needed by both editors and their readers in attending to precisely what Blake wrote):

One of Blake's characteristic devices in Songs of Innocence is the presentation of a monologue which subsumes a dialogue: the implication is that the primary speaker has achieved complete empathy with the secondary speaker and is thus in a position to undertake both roles. This can be seen in the dialogue between child and lamb in ‘Spring’ which Keynes wisely leaves without quotation marks; and it can be seen again in the dialogue between mother and child in ‘Infant Joy’ where the editorial quotation marks contradict Blake's meaning by insisting on distinction instead of unity. The absence of quotation marks is a significant feature of Blake's engraved text in both these poems; and it is equally significant in the first ‘Nurse's Song’, in ‘The Little Black Boy’ and in ‘Introduction’ to Songs of Experience. It is closely related to the merging of identities which we recognize, especially in ‘The Lamb’ and ‘A Cradle Song’, as a manifestation both of Innocence and redemptive love.10

What underlies Lindsay's precise points is surely a more general sense that the ironies and disparities in Songs of Innocence need to be seen as having a larger affirmatory unity rather than as prefiguring the undercutting dialectics of ‘London’ or ‘The Sick Rose’. To use the language of Paul Ricoeur, a hermeneutic of belief rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion is being elicited from us.11

The notions employed here are capable of more general application, particularly if we consider that most crucial of areas, the relationship between poem and design. Here, once more, it is possible to point to differences that are not necessarily conflicts, towards a dialogic rather than an argumentative frame of reference. It is true that there are interpretations such as Leader's which do suggest a conflictual model.12 It is possible to see over-arching trees as threatening because they become so after ‘the dismal shade / Of Mystery’ (E 27) had made its appearance in ‘The Human Abstract’ of Songs of Experience. It is also possible to see the mothers of ‘A Cradle Song’ or ‘Spring’ as watchful or active restrainers of their infants' freedom. But the counter to such interpretations is not just the extrinsic strategy of pointing to the unlikelihood, and indeed lack of any evidence for, such perspectives in the Blake of 1789; it is that the iconography of all these designs is readily interpretable in less disrupted terms. So, within the terms of pastoral art, leafy trees may be taken as connoting vitality or comfort, depending on their vigorous or sheltering aspects being stressed. And the mothers who watch over or restrain their children are fulfilling their role in the pastoral drama, of a restraining protection which does not in fact prevent the child's peaceful dream or exuberant activity.

More fruitful is a model which see the designs as a descant or counterpoint to the action of the poem. An example of the former would be the ability of the designs to embody that freedom from empiricist constraints which the poems dramatize. As Kathleen Raine observes, this freedom of movement is manifest both in the vegetative borders and in the human figures: ‘In Songs of Innocence the energy and spontaneity of life runs through every line of Blake's leaping, running, flying figures, the tendrils of his “wandering vine”, symbol of the one life in all things, in the world of Innocence, not a theory but a state of pure being.’13

But there is naturally access in the visual designs to a range of traditional motifs and symbols not fully reproducible in pastoral poetry. David Bindman sees not just the presence of Jesus as shepherd, lamb and child but also the invocation of an iconography passed on by the paintings of the later middle ages and Renaissance with whose engravings Blake was familiar, an iconography evoked when ‘in “Spring” the child reaching out on his mother's knee towards the sheep evokes the pastoral Madonna of Titian’ … [and] ‘in “Infant Joy” the nature spirits enact an Adoration scene in the flower’.14 And while Bindman does argue for a degree of conflict in ‘A Cradle Song’, where he sees the vegetations as ‘agitated’ and its ‘small human figures trapped as though in a maze’15, it is equally possible to interpret these features as respectively the verdant fertility of Edenic nature and the capacity of human beings to climb joyously heavenward to higher states of being.

Thus though there is, as we shall see, great variety in the counterpointing of these Songs of Innocence—of voice-line against voice-line, of writing against design, there is also, encompassing all, the vision of the piper whose voice we hear in the ‘Introduction’. On the farthest edge of this study we shall encounter the voice of the Bard, one who is able to dramatize the divisions of an experienced world, to provide a moral critique of them and to call for renewal of the light. Energy will be necessary to vitalize a corrupted world back to the apprehension of delight. But Innocence is the world of the Piper, where there is consonance between the world of the child on a cloud who sets the agenda of wholesome joy and tears and the piper who provides their artistic articulation:

Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again—
So I piped, he wept to hear.

(E 7)

As this initial encounter suggests, there is no contradiction between the notion that Innocence is an enclosing harmony and its capacity to include a great variety of poetic dialogues. Nor, as contemplation of ‘Introduction’ in the context of its elaborate borders suggests, is there a felt contradiction between the downward triumphant narrative of the verse and the upward swing towards heaven of the design's vegetation with its lively variety of figures. The hints, here as elsewhere, of the Tree of Jesse traditionally showing Christ's ancestry in vine-like form16, show the capacity of the Innocent world for multi-layered implication without losing the naivety of its ‘happy songs’. To some of these implications we may now turn in detail.

The first question that arises when we approach the Songs is of the degree to which they can be seen as interlinked or as forming a few obvious groupings. In his pioneering study of 1928 Joseph H. Wicksteed had pursued the most obvious way of affirming such integration—that is, by mapping out a progression through the Songs using categories such as ‘Thoughtless Innocence’, ‘Innocence and Sorrow’, ‘Imagination restoring Innocence in Happiness’ etc.17 Unfortunately, although the categories do provoke thought on thematic threads in the book and do suggest some convincing links between theme and song in a number of cases, their schematic sequence can only connect with a particular copy of the Songs. In looking at the range of surviving copies we find a variety of ordering of the songs so great that Erdman, who tabulates the variations precisely, is driven to conclude that ‘Blake tried a new arrangement every time he assembled a copy of Songs of Innocence or the combined songs’.18

Attempts to suggest some sort of order have, however, recurred. Gleckner, despite avowedly paying little attention to the ordering of the songs in his own analysis, declares himself ‘impressed by the obvious pains which Blake seemed to take to establish a definite order’19. More precisely, again, Erdman points to recurrent clusterings in a substantial number of copies. This goes beyond the linking of the obvious little boy/ little girl pairs of songs. Thus, for example, the pairing of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ with ‘The Divine Image’ suggests an obvious programme of affirming the apprentice sweep as an embodiment of the divine humanity, as the linking of ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘Nurse's Song’ suggests a contrasting of different adult supervisions of children's lives. But other clusters, like the trio of ‘Laughing Song’, ‘The Little Black Boy’ and ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’ have much vaguer affinities. That twelve of forty-two copies collated by Erdman20 end with ‘On Another's Sorrow’ does seem appropriate, as we shall later argue, to that song's synoptic range. But such pattern-making must equally take on board seven endings with ‘The Little Boy Found’ (a satisfying image of the saviour) and eight with ‘Night’ (a quite different, peaceful close), not to mention endings with no fewer than six other different songs.

The image of the author we might take from all this is less that of an artist seeking a single ideal order than of one constantly highlighting different paths through the innocent world. That the journey may end with an image of the divine humanity, of the beneficent saviour or of angel-guarded night, suggests paradoxically something stable, holistic about the State of Innocence. The emphasis on any one element does not entail diminution of the others and there is safety in whichever path the author decides to lead us down. It is surely a perspective which empowers us as readers to construct our own beginnings, middles and ends for our own reflective conspectus on the songs, as Erdman's annotation suggests: ‘It is suggested that the reader experiment, as Blake did, to find what different tensions and resonances are produced by different juxtapositions.’21 Reasonably, too, such a perspective might legitimate my seeking here to attempt a categorization which has some of the advantages of Wicksteed's pioneering work, without his literal-minded building of sequence on a particular order of the songs or his more subtle implication that his is the only meaningful path through them. Tentatively, then, I would suggest that we might locate four levels of innocent song, namely (a) a group of ‘London-humanitarian’ songs, (b) songs of infant joy with strongly Christian-pastoral-symbolic overtones, (c) songs which use Innocence as startling light into pressing social problems of the age and (d) songs which affirm in a broad, sweeping context the validity of Innocence as a world-view. This would then leave us with a residual category of songs, namely those four which Blake eventually transferred from Innocence to Experience. These we may see in the next chapter as important steps across the no-man's-land between the two States. But for the moment we may take the significance of the transferred songs as at least a negative evidence of Innocence's holistic quality. Their particular exclusion22 suggests that Innocence is confident and coherent enough to mark out its own territory.


The first area of territory we have referred to as ‘London-humanitarian’, a group of poems which as Stanley Gardner has circumstantially argued23 are firmly rooted in the London of the 1780s. To begin with this rooting is not to exclude other perspectives but it is usefully to complement approaches from Christian, neoplatonist or politically radical traditions, all of which would have their particular but significantly different impacts on Blake in other historical contexts. The presence of more localized elements than these we have of course already noted in the case of ‘Holy Thursday’. Indeed the undoubted early existence of that song might lead us to hypothesize that thematically related songs such as ‘The Ecchoing Green’ are fairly early products of the renewed innocent impulse just before the French Revolution. But we have no concrete evidence for this and in any case we are not now looking back to 1785 but forward to the integrating of these songs as one element of the new, post-Swedenborgian world of Innocence.

Without trying to summarize Gardner's detailed findings, based on first-hand research in the City of Westminster archives, we can characterize his argument briefly as positing a positive moment in local social policy towards poor children, followed by a negative one implicitly and explicitly criticized in Songs of Experience. It is a sequence at least consonant with our picture of Blake in the later 1780s as filled with a pre-Revolutionary social optimism. In terms of ‘Holy Thursday’ Gardner indeed goes further than this earlier-noted positive vision of charity schooling by reminding us of M. G. Jones's finding that charity schools were often seen as giving children from pauper backgrounds an unfair advantage over the middling sort.24 It is true that the addition of the design in 1789 can reasonably be seen as causing some problems for Gardner's analysis. Are the children walking two by two as relaxed as he claims, or in truth unduly regimented? In this case, the usefulness of Gardner's account is not so much in providing an either/or choice with more radical accounts of the song as in allowing us to think of Blake as starting with an open mind—impressed by powerful spectacle—and only then working his way through a complex of attitudes to what he has experienced.

More significant though in the present context, and more telling as evidence of social policy which Blake could endorse, is the content of such songs as ‘Nurse's Song’, ‘The Ecchoing Green’ and ‘Night’. Gardner recalls to us the humanitarian initiative of St. James's parish, Westminster, in paying for workhouse children to be nursed and educated in pleasant surroundings at Wimbledon. Using the Annual Register of the Poor for 1783 he notes that while ‘twenty four of the fifty infants nursed by their mothers in St. James's workhouse died before the year was out … in the same year the nurses at Wimbledon took care of seventy-seven children with “such skill and attention” that only two died’.25 This policy of sending children out to nurse was no more a cheap option than was pauper schooling. Both would come under pressure from rate-payers anxious to save money and to promote cheaper options such as despatching children to apprenticeships in northern mills.

Such a context might at least help us avoid unhelpful presuppositions such as the assumption that the presence of a nurse's rather than a mother's song is itself unsettling. Where harried workhouse mothers could see so many of their children die, the policies described could hardly suggest to Blake parental rejection or ominous social engineering. The initial context of the songs would rather seem to be a beneficent civic policy which, Gardner argues with topographical and historical precision, a Sunday walk to Wimbledon would plausibly fix as an image in the minds of Blake and others.26 Momentarily at least, it would seem that the physical context of greenery and fresh air, the outdoor games of the children and the care of the nurses were part of one homogeneous picture:

The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh'd
                    And all the hills ecchoed.

(E 15)

Although these concluding lines of ‘Nurse's Song’ have been seen as shifting the poem into ‘an indefinite past’,27 one could as well ally the effect with the tense-shifts of ‘Holy Thursday’ where the mix of past and present appears to connote above all a desire to convey and share experience. It is as if the narrator wishes simultaneously to convey two time perspectives: this is the feel of it, I was there to participate.

For both text and design of ‘Nurse's Song’ surely convey a compatibility between nurture and freedom, a reciprocity in which the proper needs of caring and self-expression are balanced. Textually, this is manifested in the dialogic sequence of the poem as (a) the nurse rejoicing in the children's freedom, (b) her warning of the dangers of the night, (c) The children claiming more daylight for their play and (d) the creative compromise of being able to play ‘till the light fades away’. The design at the song's foot offers a cheering reprise of this ending with the whirl of dancing figures opening out to the composed nurse: in this context the languorous weeping willow half-way down seems less an omen of sadness28 than an anticipation of the rest and sleepiness which are the natural outcome of such play.

‘The Ecchoing Green’ enacts a variation on this relationship between play and a caring relationship. We move from the children's play to the old ones whose ageing does not preclude them from sharing in the memory of the children's sports. Sunset comes in again but very much as a containing framework. Time means not that Innocence is lost but that it passes on from generation to generation: the presence of older children already experiencing sexual desire does not deny but confirms this picture. Innocence in this song is, after all, still very much a State within a recognizable social context. If play occupies more of the first design and care of the second, then this is appropriate in temporal terms as the day declines, but the crucial thing is that the two elements are simultaneously present and harmoniously related on both occasions:

Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end:
Round the laps of their mothers,
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

(E 8)

Eventually, ‘Night’ takes us to the limit of this most realist phase of Innocence. Indeed, its three stanzas can be seen as moving us from a world where Innocence transforms its mundane surroundings to one where it transforms the very nature of existence. Thus the poem begins with four lines which could almost be a coda, albeit in a slower and longer line, to ‘The Ecchoing Green’:

The sun descending in the west.
The evening star does shine.
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.

(E 13)

But this farewell to ‘green fields’ and ‘happy groves’ is transmuted as the world becomes a stranger one where ‘silent moves / The feet of angels bright’ (E 13).

The song's most interesting feature is not so much the sequential move from one plane to another, as its exposing the reasons for that move. For it becomes clear to the narrator that to extend his naturalistic daylight Innocence into the night would be to expose its vulnerability. The discovery of ‘all perils and dangers of this night’ as the Third Collect of the 1662 Anglican Evensong has it, reveals the need for a transcendent Innocence to ensure security. We can see this search for supervening pattern in the design where the seven stars and seven angels complement the naturalistic, vine-wreathed tree and, more mysteriously, in the five female figures (seen by Wagenknecht as the five senses)29 who haunt the garden in the second design. But it is in the penultimate stanza of the song itself, already quoted as the epigraph to this chapter, that we find embodied the imaginative transformation as the lion becomes the protector of the fold. At first it seems that the last stanza's transition to the lion lying down with the lamb will simply offer a conventional conclusion for this process. But this unity is given a more active, sacramental aspect as the lion moves from lying down with the lamb ‘to think on him who bore thy name’ and to image himself ‘wash'd in lifes river’ (E 14). We are being led towards a world where lamb, child and Christ enact for us a more dynamic process of redemption.

This world of Christianized, child-centred pastoral constitutes, if not a core for Innocence then at least a touchstone for it, perhaps because its matching of symbolic arena to childhood perceptions is so close as to create a unique co-presence of typological resonance and ease of access. The creation here of a psalm-energized pastoral escaping the conventions of second-hand rural classicizing is interestingly anticipated by Hugh Blair who, in Lecture III of his 1783-published Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (‘Nature of Poetry—Its Origin and Progress—Versification’) appears to give a green light to Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and their successors. Whether or no Blake had read the passage it is indicative of an atmosphere highly encouraging to the young poet with its invocations of human nature, innocence and virtue expressed through a pastoralism redeemed from derivativeness:

I much question, however, whether this insipidity be not owing to the fault of the poets, and to their barren and slavish imitation of the ancient pastoral topics, rather than to the confined nature of the subject. For why may not pastoral poetry take a wider range? Human nature, and human passions, are much the same in every rank of life; and wherever these passions operate on objects that are within the rural sphere, there may be a proper subject for pastoral. One would indeed choose to remove from this sort of composition the operations of violent and direful passions, and to present such only as are consistent with innocence, simplicity, and virtue … and were more of the narrative and sentimental intermixed with the descriptive in this kind of poetry, it would become much more interesting than it now generally is, to the bulk of readers.30

Hirsch's formulation of this strain in Songs of Innocence brings out the degree to which songs such as ‘The Shepherd’, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘Spring’ combine theological implication with immediacy of effect:

This radically immanental Christianity gives the Songs of Innocence their characteristic form and intensity. Every event has sacramental implications because all human relationships are sacramental re-enactments of man's relation to God and God's to man. Every shepherd is a lamb and every lamb a shepherd. These are not merely symbols, they are the thing itself; they partake of the divinity they represent.31

Perhaps the best entry-point to these poems is the wordless frontispiece to Innocence itself. The piper whose song will appear next as ‘Introduction’ holds his pipe aside as he contemplates the infant flying above him: he is not surprised by what he sees but looking up intently, set on learning what he can. Behind him the abundant sheep munch contentedly while on both sides grow vigorous, organically-twisting trunks. The green canopy at once protects yet opens to a space of sky in which exuberant child and the piper's intent absorption are highlighted against a lake of blue. Having conjured up this imagery by ‘Piping down the valleys wild’ the piper must now follow the infant's injunction to ‘Pipe a song about a Lamb’ (E 7).

The piper's replacement in ‘The Shepherd’ contemplates a broadly similar scene but in a different relationship. The sheep are in the same satisfied postures but the shepherd, in contrast to the piper, is appropriately watchful rather than celebratory. Subtly, the song moves us along from a world of pastoral freedom which is close to that of the piper:

How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot,
From the morn to the evening he strays

to the Biblical heightening and ritualizing of tone noted earlier:

He shall follow his sheep all the day
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

(E 7)

Here it is the slight but marked shift of syntax which alerts us to the new dimension. Without any direct allusion to the twenty-third psalm, the insistent ‘shall’, combining with the verb ‘follow’ hints at ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalms 23. 6). Again, without over-literal emphasis, the ‘and our tongues shall show forth thy praise’ of the Anglican Prayer Book response is evoked. Thus when we come to the second stanza we hardly need the presence of Biblical phraseology any more. The simplest words—the repetition of ‘hears’, the collocation of watchfulness and peace, the comforting closure of ‘their Shepherd is nigh’, are at their double work, conjuring up a simple, vivid scene and evoking Biblical parallels to it. As Leslie Tannenbaum notes more generally of Biblical resonance, there can be no real gap between exemplum and symbolic meaning when an imagination is as typological as that of Blake for whom ‘all imaginative activity begins and ends with Christ, and all cultural artifacts typologically represent the members of the divine body of God, the human form itself’.32

The whole triangle of child-lamb-shepherd relationships is rendered to us in the immediate, apparently naive narrative voice of ‘The Lamb’. Yet it is rendered to us not as static symbolism but as discovery along several dimensions. The key terms of Blake's discourse here are, as Jerome J. McGann argues, energized by one another: “‘Lamb”, “Child” and the unnamed Jesus are transformational terms. They do not so much reflect each other, thus constructing a symbolic structure of meaning; they literally make and remake each other’.33 Such dynamic relationships are seen in the connections unlocked by the opening question:

Little lamb who made thee.

(E 8)

Here the answer constructs an energized circuit: that the God who became Jesus and thus also child and lamb is the creator of the lamb. But the same process of analogical reasoning leads to the conclusion that the child-God is also the creator of the child-speaker of the poem. Having established in the song this mapping of child, lamb and Jesus, Blake then uses the design to identify child with shepherd, as the child stands in exactly the same posture as the caring guardian of ‘The Shepherd’ himself. Turning back to the conclusion of the song we find the child uttering a blessing which is less sentimental outburst than effective sacrament:

Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little lamb God bless thee.

(E 9)

It is notable that ‘Spring’, although in its energetic outbursts seeming merely to embody the child-lamb relationship, concludes in its second design in remarkably similar affirmative fashion. The child which in the first design of ‘Spring’ simply yearns to leave its mother's arms—as we might surmise, to chase and play with the lambs34—is seen in the second design as stroking the lamb and being licked in return. The sleepy clustering round of the other sheep reinforces the sense of a miniature shepherd and the consonance of the three entities—child, shepherd, lamb—once more provides positive evidence of a peaceable kingdom. The way in which child-shepherd-lamb are inter-substituted and woven together in these songs exemplifies that powerful device which Wagenknecht calls ‘pastoral ignorance’ in which innocuous and quietly playful dramas entice the reader into breathtaking acts of unification and discrimination:

The assumption of simplicity is an important aspect of pastoralism … Pastoral ignorance … appears at first to be rather a light-hearted dramatic or rhetorical posture but one of the first things we notice about the dramatic assumptions of pastoralism is that, while masks are worn nonchalantly or with as much grace as is consistent with rusticity, there is nothing frivolous about the act.35

Yet it is arguable that on each level of Innocence we encounter the limits of the State, and this is no less true of the pastoral, symbolic songs than it is of the humanitarian songs or of two further categories—politically engaged and explicitly affirmative songs—which we have yet to examine. On this plane, it is when the emphasis shifts from pastoral proper to the symbolic garden, from child-lamb links to child-flower links, that we encounter these borders. Specifically, the presence of a vitalistic, sexual reference suggests a world which, for good or ill, breaks free of Innocence. Although Desmond King-Hele argues that Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants only affects Blake's outlook from The Book of Thel onwards36, Darwin's sexualization of flowers does seem relevant here. The first stage of this is seen in ‘Infant Joy’ where the apparently innocuous (if magically precocious) dialogue of mother and two-day old child is transformed in the extraordinary dynamism of the design in which the red flower that contains mother, child and angel has a womb-like enfolding power. More overt still is ‘The Blossom’, where we do not have to agree with Wicksteed's explicit sexual rendering of the song to accept that its interactive dynamism, as the little birds home in on the speaker, and its dialectical swing from joy to sorrow, bespeak a more open-ended world. Nor does the tree on the right hand side of the design have to be an erect phallus37 in order to connote vitalistic energies or the flying and embracing cherubs to be designated as sexual to embody the thrusting energies of life.

The point is that there is that ‘Excess of joy’ (E 36) here which seems to point us towards a more tyger-like world if not towards The Marriage of Heaven and Hell itself. Innocence here appears to be unlocking energies which could take us beyond Innocence, though it is important to stress that this going beyond does not suggest fissure but rather fulfilment, as Stewart Crehan argues: ‘Innocence, once nurtured in the family, seeks to realise itself in the wider world, conceived ideally as an extended family. Divisions between parents and children, or between classes, races and religions, are thus imaginatively overcome.’38 Nevertheless, the diversity of readings may itself suggest that we have entered more problematic territory beyond Innocence here in this world of flower images.


These observations lead us on well to two final sets of poems which yet more strongly raise Innocence to its greatest potency and at the same time delineate its limits. Before concluding with its two most strenuously explicit affirmations in ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘On Another's Sorrow’ we may turn to the two songs which most obviously test the innocent vision against the evils of contemporary society—‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’. Clearly what these songs have in common is their enlistment in the radical social agenda of the late 1780s—a humanitarianism which on the one hand had issued forth in Jonas Hanway's organizing and writing and would find expression in the (ineffective) parliamentary act of 1788, and on the other hand had led to the founding in 1787 of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Hanway, a Russia Company merchant already well-known for his philanthropic work for the Foundling Hospital, the Marine Society and the Magdalen Hospital (for penitent prostitutes) had taken up the cause of climbing boys in 1773. His 1785 A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps with its dedication ‘To Humanity’ may have been known to Blake: in any case Hanway's various writings on the subject have both a vivid physicality and a sense of mental cruelty which anticipate the ‘Chimney Sweeper’ songs:

Let us view an ill-fated child, called from his bag of soot on which he slept, at the hour best suiting his driver … We frequently behold him with sores bleeding, or with limbs contracted, whilst his misery is rendered the more pungent by his merciless task-master's having no feeling of his sorrows.39

There is an even closer chronological link between Songs of Innocence and the agitation to abolish the slave trade. Agitation reached a first climax with the petition to parliament of 1788. By 1789 parliament was actually debating the issue although it would be ‘talked out’ that summer. While the largest petition of 1792 was yet to come and of course abolition (of the trade not the institution) would only come about with the passage of Wilberforce's bill in 1807, the years 1788-1789 provided impressive and unprecedented nationwide organization by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Of particular interest in a Blakean context is the growth of a strong visual and literary abolitionist culture in the late 1780s.40 We might note in particular George Morland's Royal Academy paintings Execrable Human Traffic and African Hospitality of 1788 and 1789 respectively. The latter, showing Africans caring for shipwrecked white people, shares with ‘The Little Black Boy’ an image of Africans as caring humanitarians capable of taking a moral lead. Clearly Blake was not alone in going beyond well-meaning compassion in his attitude to the condition of black people.

Yet although the general orientation of Blake alongside these humanitarian movements is clear, the songs themselves are not content with attributing Innocence and eliciting sympathy. Indeed from an interpretative point of view these songs also set the reader a joint challenge—to what degree are the songs endorsing of, or ironic towards, their innocent speakers' hopeful perspectives on these terrible and enduring social evils? Much of the power of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ indeed stems from the co-presence of its speaker/singer's energetic optimism and of his evocation of sufferings which are liable to impress readers with the terribleness of his existence. That the latter has sometimes appeared to dominate readers' responses is not surprising if we confine ourselves to the sequence of images evoked by the apprentice sweep. From its first line the song is a narrative of unmerited suffering at the hands of society, a suffering alarmingly pointed back at the reader by the consequentiality of ‘so’ and the home truth of ‘your’ in the fourth line:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

(E 10)

Many elements of the following narrative, from the shaved head of Tom Dacre through to the dark cold morning of the last verse may lead to the boy-sweep's cheerfulness being seen as at best the embodiment of naive pathos. The reader knows that his heavenly dream will not alter things in the real world and even the sweep seems to admit that his narrative must return from a place where

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.

(E 10)

But most powerfully pointing the poem away from innocent acceptance on the reader's part, for many critics, is the moralizing of the last line:

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

(E 10)

Reactions to this may vary from D. G. Gillham's characterization of the line as a ‘shabby pronouncement’41 to Bloom's cursory reference to ‘the sourness of that last line as a moral tag’42 and Crehan's more measured ‘Tom's innocence here is close to naiveté’.43 Such viewpoints are, not illogically, often linked to sceptical views of the last line of the innocent ‘Holy Thursday’ which we considered much earlier.

Yet such interpretations can be strongly qualified by a change of perspective. Curiously, it is Gillham himself who gives us the best clue to an alternative, more positive, viewpoint. He does this by entering into the actual momentum and power of the sweep's narrative. In particular, we see that much of the song's power lies in its not being the account which a knowing adult would give of these same data:

The sweep repeats his boyishly factual ‘so’ several times in the course of the poem. These ‘so's’ together with his ‘and so's’ and ‘and's’, which occur frequently as they do in all stories told by small boys, give the poem the authority of a logic that is familiar enough to children perhaps, but often overlooked by adults. No adult, and certainly no outsider (no person not in the same plight) could offer little Tom Dacre the comfort given by the sweep:

‘Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

(E 10)

Only a sweep could offer such comfort. A sense of dismay, of injustice, would keep other persons dumb, unable to say anything to the point … Fellow-feeling is its main content and that has had its effect. The truth of the statement is proved by its consequence, and the considerations it leaves out of account are rendered subordinate.44

It is not difficult to see how such a reading of—or rather listening to—‘The Chimney Sweeper’ could lead into a momentary entering into, rather than cool critique of, a world where ‘if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father & never want joy’ (E 10). But the last line of the song remains more difficult. How can we enter even momentarily into believing that ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’? Again, any answer would seem to lie in an ability to listen to exactly what is being said by this child at this moment and to escape momentarily our own preconception of our greater wisdom on the subject. We only have to take the full force of the word ‘all’ to see that the innocent world is not simply one of uplifting yet deluded idealism: in that world all—legislators, churchmen, master sweeps as well as their apprentices—would do what they should. Harm is the product of a world where individuals are treated as means to ends rather than as ends in themselves: to take ‘duty’ as suggesting for the young sweep a world redeemed where all is well, rather than a Hannah More-like acceptance of the status quo, is to give this line its own potency. But whatever our various interpretations may be, the most important thing is to have the right starting-point for them in the simulation of the chimney sweeper's voice—our intuition of authorial sub-texts and search for our own framework of evaluation will follow soon enough.45

‘The Little Black Boy’ veers its compassionate readers even nearer to a savage bitterness of childhood betrayed, yet it too manages to swerve us back towards an unnervingly innocent conclusion. Here it is not just the upbeat tone of the speakers (both the little black boy and his mother) that appears problematic but their skirting with perspectives which could seem demeaning and patronizing if extracted from their particular discourses. The black boy's assertion of his inner whiteness can certainly be felt as simultaneously discomfiting and moving, as the by-product of victimization, and his identification of whiteness with heavenly influence and of blackness with mourning reinforces this perspective:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.

(E 9)

Equally, his mother's religion can be seen as attempting to explain away and justify blackness in ways that reveal the same internalization of a white perspective:

And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

(E 9)

Yet both speakers have a visionary power which compels as well as disconcerts the reader. When we look more closely at the mother's religious vision we can see it as having both power and coherence. We are reminded not just of Swedenborg's general affirmation that Africans are near to God46, but of a more precise respect for African visions. Whether or not Blake knew ‘A Hymn to the Morning’ by black former slave Phyllis Wheatley as has been argued by Lauren Henry47, it is clear that he is drawing on contemporary awareness of African reverence for the sun and the significance of shady tree-temples in the mother's energetic affirmation:

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men recieve
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.

(E 9)

The little boy's own conclusion also has its bold, religiously innovative aspect. Even as he wishes to ‘be like him’ he yet fulfils a role for the little white boy that is semi-divine, serving as Jesus orthodoxly does as a crucial mediator with God the Father. Relating this role to the potential empowerment of slaves by their appropriation of Christian religion, Alan Richardson stresses the degree to which the little black boy inserts himself strategically into the power-structures of his situation:

Christian teachings could dissolve the ideological ground on which the principle of absolute mastery rested … Blake's ‘Little Black Boy’ achieves a still greater degree of ‘cultural autonomy’, more analogous to the slave religion of the West Indies than that of the American South, by supplementing Christian propaganda with African religious beliefs to create a synthetic religious vision of his own, one subversive of or at least resistant to the Manichean oppositions of colonial discourse. Taking advantage of his otherwise difficult position between cultures he is able (however provisionally) to establish an autonomous perspective which temporarily reverses his relation to the English child, placing him in the role of instructor.48

The white boy will find it more difficult to bear the light of heaven and it will be the black boy who (implicitly returning good for evil) will actively forward the process of union with the divine sunlight:

Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.

(E 9)

Once more, the last line swings us back from the little black boy's redemptive role to his vulnerable need for identity and compensation for rejections undergone. Neither with this song nor with ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ is it possible or desirable to exclude those experienced readerly reactions of grief, horror or anger to which critics have pointed. Even a detail of the design such as Blake's own oscillation over the portrayal of the little black boy's colour—pale in some copies, darker in others—could be seen as evidence of Blake's own variability of reaction to his narratives, though Erdman sees the variations as ‘different ways of making the same points’.49 But readings such as that of Leader, by ironizing redemptive affirmation and by quickly foreclosing on the innocent vision,50 weaken the impact not only of that vision but also of the contrasting experienced insight. Putting it at its simplest, the songs need to be heard before they are analyzed, their energies responded to before their framework is deconstructed. Heather Glen encapsulates this need to attend directly to the call of these innocent narrators before we contextualize those calls:

Blake's chimney-sweep (like the other innocent speakers of Songs of Innocence) testifies to a human potentia which transcends all the distortions and the devaluations which the social experience of his time has left embedded in the language of ordinary moral discourse: his dream is not a vague unfocussed private aspiration, but a vivid articulation of possibility, activated by an unjudging love, which leads naturally into a sense of how ‘all’ might be51

Perhaps Blake's awareness of how quickly readerly scepticism might invade the songs was one of the motivations for creating the two more explicit credos of Innocence, ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘On Another's Sorrow’. Whatever scepticism may be expressed about the overall impact of these songs, they are clearly affirmative in overt intent and adult in their tone of voice. The former aspect can indeed be seen as the ‘simple and orthodox statement of the central doctrine of the New Church’ which Kathleen Raine takes it to be.52 It is certainly important to ally the song with those universalizing religious tendencies which were suggesting simultaneously to Blake the foundation of Christianity in a Divine Humanity and the concomitant equality with Christians of ‘heathen, turk or jew’ (E 13). But the song has even more resonance when placed by Andrew Lincoln in its Dissenting intellectual context of Watts's ‘Praise for the Gospel’:

Lord I ascribe it to thy Grace
And not to chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian Race,
And not a Heathen, or a Jew.(53)

This contrast with Watts is not just important from the viewpoint of origins, but also insofar as it helps illuminate the spine of argument running through the positive affirmations of ‘The Divine Image’. It is not just the presence of the universalizing subject ‘all’ or the ringing declarative verbs that propel the verse forward. It is the consequential adverb clauses beginning ‘for’ and ‘then’ and indeed the very strategically-placed ‘ands’ with their more than connective force, which bind the first three stanzas together and begin the final affirmation. As often in the innocent world the moment where the ultimate affirmation is made is the one where the reader turns for contrast to the observed world:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

(E 13)

In terms of the song's internal logic, then, ‘all must …’ while in terms of the experienced world of 1789, and ever since, all very clearly do not. Again, Innocence affirms itself while revealing its absence from the mindset of contemporary world history.

Such boundary-testing of Innocence is even more marked in the final song to be considered here, ‘On Another's Sorrow’. Whereas ‘The Divine Image’ confined itself to a sequence of positive affirmations, ‘On Another's Sorrow’ sets its affirmations against a series of human woes which are alleviated, not denied. It is as if the adult narrator of the song has felt the need to take up the ‘case’ for Innocence, to bring the unselfconscious strengths of the chimney sweeper and the little black boy into the framework of conscious adult value-assertion implied in ‘A Divine Image’. Insofar as it constitutes a kind of apologia for Innocence the placing last of ‘On Another's Sorrow’ in a number of copies of Songs of Innocence can be seen as a significant gesture.

The song offers one of the most through-composed and formal structures to be found in Songs of Innocence. The first three stanzas invite us rhetorically to the thought-experiment of living without the divine humanity within ourselves:

Can I see a falling tear.
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father see his child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd.

(E 17)

It is with a sense of relieved tension that, after ten lines of this, the expected denial bursts through with exclamatory force. The singer rhythmically involves the reader in his increasingly vehement denial of indifference as a viable stance. Through those ten lines of rhetorical questioning the tension is built up until singer and reader share with relief the positive affirmation:

No no never can it be.
Never never can it be.

(E 17)

The other side of the coin, that is the humanity of God, is then embodied in the next three verses which, interestingly, vary the rhythm of rhetorical questions, now sweeping the momentum of utterance through the ends of the stanzas in a way which suggests mounting intensity. The final movement of the song turns from question to affirmation and from compassionate pity to incarnated sharing. Although the themes of incarnation and of painful redemption had been touched on in ‘A Cradle Song’, their presence here is much more explicit and in terms of content might seem to take us well beyond Innocence. Certainly the presence in the song of one who ‘becomes a man of woe’ yet ‘gives to us his joy’ seems to move us nearer the soteriological framework and the dialectics of a later Blake. Yet once more it is directness of tone, simplicity of diction and symmetrical balancing of syntax which keep the song in its innocent plenum, while averting to a world beyond it:

He doth give his joy to all.
He becomes an infant small.
He becomes a man of woe
He doth feel the sorrow too.

(E 17)


More broadly, if we look back over all these songs where a fallen, divided world has threatened to invade yet has been kept at bay, we find that the pattern of ‘On Another's Sorrow’ is paradigmatic of the ways in which Innocence renews and secures itself, that is ultimately through performance and enactment. The continued cleaving to simple diction, balanced phrasing, song-like strophes, means that even where it is semantically threatened, Innocence sustains itself as a voice, as spoken song. It is indeed attractive to entertain the possibility, suggested by E. P. Thompson, that these songs can be seen as originating in new hymns offered by Blake for the Swedenborgian New Church:

It is surely more than a coincidence that Blake should have written the Songs of Innocence at exactly the same time that the New Church was calling for songs? What kind of songs, if one was determined to exclude all ceremonial, humiliations, prayer and obeisance before a paternal image of God, lessons of reward and eternal punishment, and, at the same time, the ‘natural religion’ of a deist First Cause? The songs must be either such as ‘The Divine Image’, or else songs of the primary affections (through whom alone the divine ‘influx’ of love could come, as in ‘The Little Black Boy’)—songs of innocence … And so the Songs could have evolved: some on the primary affections, some showing ‘resigned submission’ and renunciation of will, others glimpses of human potentia.54

If the truth or otherwise of this is literally undecideable it should not detract from Thompson's more general registering of the similarity between Songs of Innocence and the hymns being concurrently composed for Dissenters old and new, from Muggletonians to Swedenborgians. But the important general point is that their style, as with all language which partakes of a liturgical role, is an inseparable part of their meaning and that the specific function of communal affirmation is sustained throughout Songs of Innocence. Even where the reader construes charity child, little boy lost, chimney sweeper, little black boy or indeed lamb faced by lion, as potential—and all too often actual—victims of the world they live in, that reader also hears that hope and vision can be sustained.

The same reader may also be led to reflect that such sustaining has led Innocence to its historical triumphs: insofar as Innocence has implicitly sung ‘We shall overcome’, it has had its moments of historical validation such as the abolition of the slave trade to set alongside the terrible pathos of ventures such as the Childen's Crusade, triumphs which could arguably not have been achieved without just such ‘naïve’ and ‘unrealistic’ hopeful idealism. If this is accepted, then it also follows that our earlier observation that world history could seem to be empty of, or at least unregarding of, Innocence, needs to be qualified. In Blakean terms this now appears as the restricted vision of an Experience-oriented reader, a reader who has jumped ahead to the insights of ‘The Human Abstract’:

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare.
And spreads his baits with care.

(E 27)

But this is also a reader who has, in the process of absorbing such searing and necessary insights, forgotten the equal truth and efficacy of ‘The Divine Image’:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

(E 12-13)

Here the active social virtues are seen as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual Innocence. That State of Innocence which appears at first to be a pleasing but somewhat unworldly fiction turns out to be both a foundational element of our humanity and a potentially powerful agent of social change.


  1. David W. Lindsay, Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), p. 30.

  2. Mellor (1974), pp. 12-13.

  3. Gleckner (1959), p. 143.

  4. Frye (1969), p. 235.

  5. Zachary Leader, Reading Blake's Songs (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). Several analyses might be cited (.e.g. ‘The Lamb’ and ‘A Cradle Song’) but the analysis of the Songs of Innocence ‘Nurse's Song’ (pp. 102-108) probably provides the clearest example of Leader's propensity for finding a darkening frame for Innocence.

  6. There is curiously little discussion of this metrical variety of Songs of Innocence in larger-scale studies of Blake's poetry. The most helpful discussion which I have located is in a student textbook, Alan Tomlinson's Songs of Innocence and Experience (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 68-72.

  7. Mellor (1974), p. 8.

  8. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 21.

  9. Hirsch (1964), p. 172.

  10. Lindsay (1989), p. 19.

  11. See the discussion by John B. Thompson, Critical Hermeneutics: A Study in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 46-47.

  12. Cf. The discussion of song and design for ‘Infant Joy’ in Leader (1981), pp. 117-122.

  13. Raine (1970), p. 51.

  14. Bindman (1977), p. 60.

  15. Bindman (1977), p. 60.

  16. Cf. Isaiah 11.1, ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots’.

  17. Joseph H. Wicksteed, Blake's Innocence and Experience (London, Toronto and New York: Dent Dutton 1928), p. 142.

  18. Erdman (1975), p. 69.

  19. Gleckner (1959), p. 292.

  20. Erdman (1975), p. 69.

  21. Erdman (1988), p. 791.

  22. See the opening section of the next chapter for discussion of the probable reasons for moving the four songs from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience.

  23. Cf. Stanley Gardner, Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced (London and New York: Athlone Press and St. Martin's Press, 1986), pp. 31-37.

  24. Gardner (1986), p. 32. For a fuller discussion of the issues involved see Jones (1938), pp. 85-96.

  25. Gardner (1986), p. 7.

  26. Cf. Gardner (1986), pp. 43-51.

  27. Leader (1981), p. 105.

  28. Cf. Leader (1981), pp. 107-108.

  29. David Wagenknecht, Blake's Night: William Blake and the Idea of Pastoral (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 55.

  30. Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (London, 1783), Lecture III, ‘Nature of Poetry—Its Origin and Progress—Versification’, II, pp. 120-121.

  31. Hirsch (1964), pp. 29-30.

  32. Leslie Tannenbaum, Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 102.

  33. Jerome J. McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 134.

  34. There is an interesting precursor to the design in There is No Natural Religion, first series, Plate II. Here the inscription ‘Man by his reasoning power. can only compare and judge of what he has already perciev'd’ is accompanied by an image of a child pulling forward from his mother's arms, to reach for a flying bird. In this context the emphasis is presumably on the child's impetuosity representing the limitations of sense experience. Cf. the discussion in Lincoln (1993), p. 38.

  35. Wagenknecht (1973), p. 15.

  36. Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 35. Cf. the discussion of Darwin's relevance to The Book of Thel in the next chapter.

  37. Wicksteed (1928), pp. 125-126.

  38. Crehan (1984), pp. 98-99.

  39. Jonas Hanway, The State of Master Chimney Sweepers, and their Journeymen, Particularly the Distressed Boys, Apprentices (London, 1779), quoted in James Stephen Taylor, Jonas Hanway Founder of the Marine Society: Charity and Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and Berkeley: Scolar Press, 1985), p. 121.

  40. Cf. the chapter ‘Abolition, Visual Culture, and Popular Politics’ in J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilization of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1781-1807 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press and St Martin's Press, 1995), pp. 155-164.

  41. D. G. Gillham, Blake's Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) p. 42.

  42. Harold Bloom, Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (London: Gollancz, 1963), p. 43.

  43. Crehan (1985), p. 103.

  44. Gillham (1966), pp. 40-41.

  45. I am indebted to Ian M. Emberson for bringing me strongly back to this fundamental—yet easily-evaded—starting point for understanding ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Innocence (Letter to the author of 21 November, 1996).

  46. Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (London, 1788), p. 12.

  47. Lauren Henry, ‘Sunshine and Shady Groves: What Blake's “Little Black Boy” Learned from African Writers’, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 29.1, (Summer 1995), 4-11.

  48. Alan Richardson, ‘Colonialism, Race, and Lyric Irony in Blake's “The Little Black Boy’”, in Papers on Language and Literature (Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University, 1990) vol 26, 233-248 (p. 245).

  49. Erdman (1975), p. 51.

  50. Cf. Leader (1981), pp. 108-116.

  51. Heather Glen, ‘Blake's Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and Experience’, in Interpreting Blake, edited by Michael Phillips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 32-69 (p. 46).

  52. Raine (1968), I, 20.

  53. Quoted in Lincoln (1993), p. 159.

  54. Thompson (1993), pp. 169-170.


1. Primary Texts: Blake, his Predecessors and his Contemporaries

Blair, Hugh, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 2 vols (London, 1783).

Blake, William [Blake editions listed in chronological order of publication]

———. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, ed. with Introduction by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).

———. Songs of Innocence (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1971).

———. The Illuminated Blake, ed. by David V. Erdman (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

———. Songs of Experience (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1984).

———. Complete Poetry and Prose, ed. by David V. Erdman, rev. edn (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

———. The Illuminated Books, vol 2: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, ed. by Andrew Lincoln (London: The William Blake Trust/The Tate Gallery, 1991).

[A complete list of original copies and facsimiles of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Innocence and of Experience which have been consulted follows:

For this present study original copies of the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience A (1795), B (1795) and T (1818) were consulted in the British Museum Print Room. Facsimiles of the following copies have also been used: Songs of Innocence copies B (1789) and b (posthumous c. 1831); Songs of Innocence and of Experience copies BB (1795), I (1795), W (1825), j (posthumous c. 1831-1832), Z (1826) and AA (1826). For a full census of extant copies of Songs of Innocence and of Songs of Innocence and of Experience produced by Blake, and of the various facsimiles created since the nineteenth century, see G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 364-439, and Blake Books Supplement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 111-137.

Swedenborg, Emanuel, The Wisdom of Angels Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (London, 1788).

2. Modern Studies: Critical, Historical and Theoretical

Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977).

Bloom, Harold, Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (London: Gollancz, 1963).

Crehan, Stewart, Blake in Context (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984).

Frye, Northrop, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, rev. edn (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969).

Gardner, Stanley, Blake's ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ Retraced (London: Athlone Press, 1986).

Gillham, D. G., Blake's Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966).

Gleckner, Robert F., The Piper and the Bard: A Study of William Blake (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959).

Glen, Heather, ‘Blake's Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, in Interpreting Blake, ed. by Michael Phillips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 32-69.

Henry, Lauren, ‘Sunshine and Shady Groves; What Blake's “Little Black Boy” Learned from African Writers’, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 29.1 (Summer, 1995), pp. 4-11.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr., Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964).

King-Hele, Desmond, Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1986).

Leader, Zachary, Reading Blake's Songs (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

Lindsay, David W., Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989).

McGann, Jerome J., The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz, Blake's Human Form Divine (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974).

Oldfield, J. R., Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade 1787-1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

Raine, Kathleen, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968).

———. William Blake (Thames and Hudson: London, 1970).

Richardson, Alan, ‘Colonialism, Race, and Lyric Irony in Blake's “The Little Black Boy’”, Papers on Language and Literature, 26 (Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University, 1990), pp. 233-248.

Tannenbaum, Leslie, Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982).

Taylor, James Stephen, Jonas Hanway Founder of the Marine Society: Charity and Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and Berkeley: Scolar Press, 1985).

Thompson, E. P., Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Thompson, John B., Critical Hermeneutics: A Study in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Tomlinson, Alan, Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke and London, 1987).

Wagenknecht, David, Blake's Night: William Blake and the Idea of Pastoral (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Wicksteed, Joseph H., Blake's Innocence and Experience: A Study of the Songs and Manuscripts ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’ (London: Dent, 1928).

Jon Mee (essay date 2000)

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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 beyond those few collectors who bought copies printed by the author himself. Without mentioning Blake, the successful bookseller James Lackington noted in his 1792 Memoirs (224) that several authors had tried to sell their own works in order to by-pass the book trade. Blake went further than most and attempted to exploit the expanding market for illustrated books—to which he had contributed both as a designer and copy engraver—by combining his genius as a writer and artist into the form of an illuminated book. For all their originality, however, the songs often work by mimicking familiar forms and arousing expectations which they go on to frustrate. Playing on generic conventions only in order to leave the reader in an uncomfortable quandary, they seem to practise ‘the infernal method’ recommended by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’ (see The Complete Poetry and Prose, ed. Erdman, p. 39, cited hereafter as E).

Although Songs remains Blake's best-known work, printing the books was a small-scale operation probably intended originally to showcase his talents as a visual artist (Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book). Only twenty-four copies of the combined Songs survive, along with four separate copies of Experience and twenty-six copies of the separate Innocence (although more may be discovered, and have been very recently). The combination of the visual and verbal arts in the collection remains one of its most exciting dimensions. Critics have long pointed out that the designs which accompany the poems cannot simply be regarded as illustrations, that is, few of them simply show what the poems they accompany tell. On several of the pages, in fact, the visual dominates the verbal. Certainly any reader intending to read the poems seriously needs to look at them alongside the designs with which they were originally published by Blake.

Innocence and Experience both seem to have been available to buyers separately as well as in a combined volume. Together they illustrate ‘the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’ (title page: E7). Although Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that ‘Without Contraries there is no progression’ (E34), there is no straight-forward journey from innocence to experience in the combined version of Songs. Poems do echo each other across the divide between the two parts of the collection, but despite critical attempts to establish a pattern of correspondences no single set of relationships structures the collection. In fact Blake altered the contents and order for different editions. ‘The Little Girl Lost’ and ‘The Little Girl Found’, for instance, along with ‘The School Boy’ and ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’, all appeared first in Songs of Innocence, but were more often placed by Blake in the Experience section of the joint collection. Not that seeking echoes between the poems is irrelevant. Blake always wrote in a way which ‘rouzes the faculties to act’ (E702). The collection seems to encourage its readers to find echoes, but ultimately frustrates any attempt to reify them into an overarching system. A playful open-endedness is a feature of the patterning of correspondences between the poems, the relationship between text and design on individual pages, and the texts of the poems themselves.

This open-endedness makes a particularly striking contrast between the poems and the children's verses to which many critics have pointed as their source (see, for instance, Glen, Vision and Disenchantment and Leader, Reading Blake's Songs). Children's literature was a growth industry in the eighteenth century. The publisher Joseph Johnson, for whom Blake did most of his copy engraving work in the 1780s and early 1790s, was closely involved with this part of the book trade. Blake himself provided illustrations for Johnson's edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life (1791). Earlier children's literature, such as Isaac Watts's Divine Songs (1715), hugely popular throughout the century and beyond, was usually baldly moralistic, often threatening divine retribution for very minor misdemeanours, but even the more liberal children's literature of the kind published by Johnson, influenced by the educational theories of Rousseau, tended to be didactic in its recommendations of Reason and Nature. Neither left much room for spontaneous play or the imaginative exploration of the world. Neither allowed the perspectives of Innocence seriously to challenge the perspectives of Experience. They certainly did not concur with Blake's view that ‘the innocence of a child’ could be superior to ‘the errors of acquired folly’ (E600). The divinity of play, in contrast, is a major theme of poems such as the ‘Nurse's Song’ of Innocence where the nurse seems to be educated out of ignorance by the children in her charge. In the design which accompanies the poem, she is invited to join in the play by filling the space left in the circle of dancing children. Other poems present the suppression of such instinctual pleasure as an almost ungodly denial of human divinity. ‘Holy Thursday’ of Innocence even hints that divine retribution awaits those who would regiment desire and drive away the presence which serves to protect them: ‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’ Several of the poems are almost parodies of children's literature in that they end, like ‘Holy Thursday’, with lines that can easily be mistaken for traditional moral sentiments. These lines on closer inspection prove to be difficult to square with the rest of the poem in anything like a conventional sense. The most discussed example is probably ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in Innocence. Its closing line, ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’, places a great deal of pressure on eighteenth-century ideas of what ‘duty’ might entail. Betrayed by his father and mother, exploited by his master, only the sweep himself tries to do his duty by creating a Heaven from this Hell for his friend Tom. Rather than educating the child, the poem asks its adult readers whether they are doing their duty to the sweeps.

This poem highlights another generic connection for Songs in the flood of poetry published in newspapers and periodicals in the 1770s and 1780s which again and again addressed humanitarian issues such as slavery, prostitution and child labourers such as Blake's sweeps (see Glen). While these poems sometimes reflected genuine concerns, and could be connected to real reform movements, such as John Howard's work in the prisons, they often represented little more than opportunities for the polite reader to exercise his or her sensibility. A good example, which provides a direct analogy for Blake's Chimney Sweep poems, is Mary Alcock's ‘The Chimney-Sweeper's Complaint’ (Poems, 22-4):

A CHIMNEY-sweeper's boy am I;
Pity my wretched fate!
Ah, turn your eyes; 'twould draw a tear,
Knew you my helpless state.
Far from my home, no parents I
Am ever doom'd to see;
My master, should I sue to him,
He'd flog the skin from me.
Ah, dearest Madam, dearest Sir,
Have pity on my youth;
Tho' black, and cover'd o'er with rags,
I tell you nought but truth.
My feeble limbs, benumb'd with cold,
Totter beneath the sack,
Which ere the morning dawn appears
Is loaded on my back.
My legs you see are burnt and bruis'd,
My feet are gall'd by stones,
My flesh for lack of food is gone,
I'm little else but bones.
Yet still my master makes me work,
Nor spares me day or night;
His 'prentice boy he says I am,
And he will have his right.
‘Up to the highest top’, he cries,
‘there call out chimney-sweep!’
With panting heart and weeping eyes,
Trembling I upwards creep.
But stop! no more—I see him come;
Kind Sir, remember me!
Oh, could I hide me under ground,
How thankful should I be!

Alcock's poem is not to be lightly dismissed as sentimentalism. It has a directness and energy often lacking in the magazine verse of the period. Where it differs from Blake is in the way it privileges the polite reader for whom the sweep exists entirely as a victim. Alcock's sweeper is incapable of conceiving of his own freedom in any positive sense and wishes only to hide himself from oppression. It is never suggested that such children, no less than the reader of sensibility, might have aspirations and imaginative capacities of their own. The smooth easy rhythms of the poem seem made for ease-of-consumption rather than any fundamental challenge to the assumptions of the reader. Blake's poem with its stuttering internal rhymes, echoes and repetitions is much more difficult to read smoothly. Alcock's reader is outside of the problem. It is only the master who oppresses the child. The reader is not called upon to consider his or her role in the system of child labour. Blake's reader is directly implicated in what is happening: ‘So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.’ For all that he may not be entirely able to perceive the causes of his suffering, Blake's sweep retains an imaginative autonomy and a sense of active human sympathy in the midst of suffering and degradation. He is not simply a victim. Although the last line of the poem has often been read ironically, to regard the sweep's dream merely as the product of false consciousness would be to miss this dimension of the poem. Blake's sweep is not entirely deluding himself about duty. He may not be able to alleviate the suffering and pain, but he has found a creative way to comfort his friend in their immediate circumstance. The poem throws the question of duty back on to its readers, asking them to examine their role in what has been revealed, and denies them the comforts of mere spectatorship.

The experience of seeing something familiar like the moral at the end of ‘The Chimney Sweep’ transmute into a strangely different alternative is an integral part of the experience of reading Songs. Many of the poems, for instance, make use of traditional Christian symbolism, a poem like ‘The Lamb’ is a case in point, but these symbols are frequently used in ways which seem at odds with the Christian orthodoxy of Blake's time. Partly this is a culminative effect. ‘The Lamb’ could be read as a conventional statement of the immanence of Christ, but, placed in the context of the collection overall, it seems typical in having little room for any other conception of divinity than the Divine-in-the-Human. No less than the more obviously polemical The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,Songs implies that ‘All deities reside in the human breast’ (E38). Both texts are also equally concerned with the pain brought about by forgetting this fact. Blake was involved in the Swedenborgian movement when the Songs were being contemplated, but institutionalized religion is presented as a painful blight on natural energies in poems such as ‘The Garden of Love’ and ‘London’. The anger articulated in such poems may reflect the revolutionary sympathies expressed more overtly in Blake's unpublished poem The French Revolution (1790). Certainly the trinity of ‘God & his Priest & King’ indicted by the Chimney Sweeper in the Experience version was a common target in the radical literature of the period (see Mee, 1992, 181-2). Recent critics of the poems, however, have suggested that the voice of Experience is often being presented as deliberately limited in its view of oppression and suffering, in a kind of parody of poems such as Alcock's, cut off from the Innocence it should be seeking to liberate (see Glen, 1983, 222). From this perspective, the speaker of ‘London’, for instance, could be seen as trapped within and perpetuating ‘mind-forg'd manacles’ in his despair. He fails to see any redemptive possibilities in the city that so oppressively surrounds him. The difficulty for the reader and critic is to register this limitation while taking seriously the anger and frustration vented in that most powerful of poems.

Perhaps the most famous poem in the whole collection is ‘The Tyger’. Here too the relationship of the speaker to what is described is far from straightforward. If the energy of the tiger echoes contemporary descriptions of the French revolutionary crowd as several critics have suggested (see Erdman, 1977, 195; Crehan, 1984, 127-8), then the speaker seems both appalled and fascinated by its tremendous energy. The tiger refuses to accommodate its interrogator, who finishes simply by restating the question, but now with less conviction. The move from ‘Could’ to ‘Dare’ seems to mark the impossibility of any ‘frame’ for this fearful symmetry. Where it is framed, is on the page, by its creator Blake. In this respect Blake's human ‘hand or eye’ seems superior to the ‘immortal’. Or is it that immortality is being offered to any human hand turning the page or eye reading the poem that will claim for itself the power of the tiger? Certainly the poem seems to end with a challenge, a ‘Dare’, to see who will enter into, take on and perhaps take over the energy of the tiger in ‘Mental Fight’ (E95).

The ‘Bard’ who welcomes the reader in the ‘Introduction’ to Experience suggests Blake's relationship with eighteenth-century primitivists such as Thomas Gray and James Macpherson, but, when compared to the nostalgia which permeates their writing, Blake's poetry has a much stronger sense of the possibility of recuperating the energies of Innocence for the present. In this respect Innocence and Experience are not opposed in the collection, but shown to permeate in different ways every aspect of existence. ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’ exist as productive contraries in the same collection. Indeed the latter was engraved on the back of the copper plate on which the former was etched. Innocence can be reborn at any point in time to provide an alternative to the bitterness and oppression which Experience critiques. Without perceiving the barren world of oppression the potentiality of Innocence cannot fully be grasped. Without a sense of the utopian possibilities of Innocence, the perspectives of Experience are simply affirmations of despair. For unredeemed Experience ‘The Tyger’ is simply a poem about ‘dread’. From the perspective of the contraries of the combined collection, however, it challenges the reader to think of a way in which the tiger can lie down with the lamb.


Blake, William (1991). Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Andrew Lincoln. London and Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Erdman, David V., ed. (1988). The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Doubleday.

References and Further Reading

Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake. London: Sinclair-Stevenson.

Alcock, Mary (1799). Poems. London.

Crehan, Stewart (1984). Blake in Context. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Humanities Press.

Erdman, David V. (1977). Blake: Prophet Against Empire. 3rd edn, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gardner, Stanley (1986). Blake's ‘Innocence and Experience’ Retraced. London: Athlone Press; New York: St Martin's Press.

Gillham, D. G. (1966). Blake's Contrary States: ‘The Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gleckner, Robert (1959). The Piper and the Bard: A Study of William Blake. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Glen, Heather (1983). Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's ‘Songs’ and Wordsworth's ‘Lyrical Ballads’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holloway, John (1968). Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Edward Arnold.

Lackington, James (1792). Memoirs of the First Forty Five Years of the Life of James Lackington. 2nd edn. London.

Larrissy, Edward (1985). William Blake. Preface by Terry Eagleton. Oxford: Blackwell.

Leader, Zachery (1981). Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mee, Jon (1992). Dangerous Enthusiasm: Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shrimpton, Nick (1976). ‘Hell's hymnbook: Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and their models’. In Literature of the Romantic Period, 1750-1850. Ed. R. T. Davies and B. G. Beatty. New York: Barnes and Noble, 19-35.

Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Viscomi, Joseph (1993). Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Watts, Isaac (1715). Divine and Moral Songs for Children. London.


Principal Works


Further Reading