Songs of Innocence and of Experience Questions and Answers

William Blake

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Songs of Innocence and of Experience questions.

How does Blake explore the "two contrary states of the human soul"?

The universal ideology of Blake constructs a view of human life that is even more complicated than what conventional binary thinking produces. Blake accomplishes this through his poetic investigation of the “two contrary states of the human soul.” Blake’s complication of the binary is not detaching the two states from one another, but in fact, creating a new unity.

How does Blake complicate binary moral thinking in "The Human Abstract"?

In the Songs, the larger issues—institutional oppression, chronological movement, and human states of consciousness—are all human concerns which are not simply confined to a single era. This is most established by “The Human Abstract,” in which the good/evil binary is complicated: “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” (1-4). Blake suggests that the virtues we code as “good” are often predicated on the fact that they rely on the existence of human suffering. Pity is not necessary in a world without poor people; mercy is not necessary in a world in which all happiness is vast and equal.

“The Human Abstract” uses these paradoxes to reject concrete moral thinking. The poem indicates innocence and experience through allusions to the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the ultimate symbolic transition from innocence to experience: “The gods of the earth and sea/Sought through nature to find this tree,/But their search was all in vain:/There grows one in the human Brain” (21-24). Yet, Blake further complicates binary moral thinking by at once implicating both human nature and human choice in the corruption of the world. With the paradoxes he first presents, he evokes a lack of human agency—we are stuck in moral muddiness through forces beyond our control. The personification of “Cruelty” also presents cruelty as something that exists outside of human nature (7). However, at the same time, Blake implies that human will is a powerful component of this cycle. After all, it is “we” who “make somebody poor” (2). The tree is ambiguously found in the human brain—it “grows” there, which signifies that it is a development of the brain that did not “naturally” exist, but also that it is cultivated by the human carrier (24). According to Blake, human nature (a state of innocence) is not mutually exclusive with human choice (a state of experience). “The Human Abstract” is clearly a poem that speaks to universal human concerns.

How does Blake address the black/white binary in "The Little Black Boy"?

In “The Little Black Boy,” Blake addresses racism and the slave trade through his complication of the black/white binary. Through examination of the oppression, the clear divide between the speaker’s “innocence” and the “experience” of the topic becomes blurred. At first, the binary remains in the expected: “And I am black, but O my soul is white!/White as an angel is the English child,/But I am black, as if bereaved of light” (2-4). The contrast between the black—associated with negativity, darkness, and evil—and the white—associated with positivity, lightness, and good—is the typical neat binary. Blake takes these oppositions, which were rationalizations of racial oppression, and questions their roles. The innocence of the black boy creates a perspective that is both naïve and optimistic, while the reader’s experienced view sees cruel repression. The poem raises the reader’s consciousness to the complexity of the black/white binary. In this way, the two main binaries of the poem clash against each other.

In Blake’s poem, God, equated to the sun, “gives His light, and gives His heat away” as symbols of his love (10). It turns out then that blackness is not “bereaved of light,” but in fact full of it (4). The logic indicates that the boy is black because he is close to God: “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/Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (13-16). God’s love is equated to sunbeams and black faces are depicted as sunburnt, which is a turn from the original binary. Yet, Blake’s verse is even more complicated than that. The boy’s mother tells him that the suffering of their “black bodies” brings them closer to god’s “beams of love,” which is presented as a desirable thing (15, 14). Yet, God’s sunlight is not a comfortable one, but one that they must “learn to bear” (14) There is no clear moral standpoint in the poem.

What are the parallels between "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper"?

There are many parallels between “The Little Black Boy” and “The Chimney Sweeper.” The speakers of both poems are victims of oppression who see the world from an “innocent” point of view. Both narrators cling to a promise of joy with absolute confidence. Yet there is a hint of dramatic irony in both stories—the experienced reader knows these children are being oppressed, but the children do not know this. The chimney sweeper’s axiom at the end—“So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”—can be read from both the innocent and the experienced perspectives (24). There is the straightforward moral, but there is also an undercurrent of eerie indoctrination. There is an implication that the ignorance of the victims is a part of the problem, but the impossibility of escape is also evident. If the innocence of the child creates ignorance of oppression, then it seems like creating experience would be the solution. On the other hand, the victim cannot do anything about his own situation, so unveiling his eyes isn’t the answer either.

The black/white binary is also explored in “The Chimney Sweeper.” The speaker tells his fellow sweep, little Tom Dacre, that the sacrifices of the sweeps, such as their heads being shaved, are actually blessings: “Hush Tom! Never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,/You know that soot cannot spoil your white hair” (7-8). The speaker is unwaveringly optimistic, although the experienced reader can see how society has completely failed these children. The whiteness of Tom’s hair, symbolizing his innocence, contrasted with the blackness of the soot, symbolizing their severe experiences, embodies their oppression as a whole. In Tom’s dream, the black/white binary remains in the expected classification. He sees “thousands of sweepers […] were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (11-12). Then an angel comes to save them and “set them all free,” and the joy of heaven is represented by the sweeps becoming “naked and white” (14, 17). The blackness of death and exploitation transmutes into the whiteness of joy and freedom. However, this typicality is subverted by our experienced perception.