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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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What is the purpose of Songs of Innocence and what do they teach us?

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Although published first and as a separate volume, Blake's Songs of Innocence functions as a counterpoint to his Songs of Experience. The volume Songs of Experience retells the naive and gentle Songs of Innocence from the point-of-view of a narrator or persona who understands the reality of evil in the world.

The volume Songs of Innocence shows the consciousness of a child's pure mind. The child's mind tries to see the good in everything and tries to trust that the world is ruled by a kind, merciful, and just God.

The poems sometimes use dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows what the person experiencing events in a play or poem doesn't. In this case, some of the poems are particularly heartbreaking. When Tom, a poor chimney sweep in the poem "The Chimney Sweep," has a dream, the dream tells hims:

And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.

He takes away the lesson that "if all do their duty they need not fear harm."

We as more mature readers know—and the poem makes this very clear, in case we don't—that chimney sweeps had miserable lives and every reason to "fear harm." The counterpart poem in Songs of Experience takes a much harsher tone toward the plight of the chimney sweep. 

On the other hand, a poem like "The Lamb" can be read as a simple, innocent child's rhyme. It does not carry within itself a portrait of cruelty. It simply shows the gentle, loving side of God:

He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child

In this case, readers are dependent on "The Tyger," the counterpart poem in Songs of Experience, to understand that the meek, kind God is also a powerful deity capable of creating the fearsome, devouring tiger. Through breaking the world into good and evil and showing the good in Songs of Innocence, Blakes examines the paradox of good and evil existing side-by-side in a fallen world. Songs of Innocence teaches us that good exists, but that it is not the whole picture. 

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The need to explore human existence and see it through more than one perspective, particularly a child's perspective, is Blake's intention in Songs of Innocence. For the child in Songs of Innocence, for example in The Chimney Sweeper, there is an acceptance of life and any injustices are a part of it so that even "Tom was happy & warm. The beatings that will take place if the boys do not "do their duty" are considered normal. However, in the Songs of Experience version of The Chimney Sweeper, the same narrator has a sarcastic and a knowing tone; wise beyond his years.  

According to the narrator of Introduction to Songs of Innocence, the poems need to be written down so that all people may read or listen to them and any "child" feel happy and "joy to hear." An adult can learn from this simplicity and there is a definite message in the poems to any cynical adult who needs to be content in God's love and accept that a return to innocence ensures a less self-absorbed existence. The use of  "all" and "child" in "Introduction" infers that these poems are for everyone and child can be interpreted to mean any child of God. The Songs of Innocence reveal one state of consciousness and an unquestioning faith and trust. When reading the poems, a reader should always be mindful of this and learn, as children do, to find peace in whatever situation he is faced with.    

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