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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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Student Question

Does Blake depict parents as oppressive and controlling in his works?

Quick answer:

In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake presents parents who are kind and loving to their children, as in “The Little Black Boy” and “The Little Boy Found,” as well as parents who exploit their children and care little about them, as in the two chimney sweep poems and “The Little Vagabond.”

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In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake presents both loving parents and parents who exploit their children. Let's look at examples of both. We'll begin with examples from Songs of Innocence.

In “The Echoing Green” the children are laughing and playing on the village green. They are happy, and as evening draws near, the little ones curl up on their mothers' laps, safe and comfortable. In “The Little Black Boy,” the boy's mother teaches him many things, holds him on her lap, and kisses him. She tells him all about God and love and shows him how to look toward Heaven. In “On Another's Sorrow,” the narrator speaks of fathers being filled with sorrow when their children weep and mothers responding immediately to their infants' cries.

However, in “The Chimney-Sweeper,” the narrator relates that his mother died when he was a small child and his father sold him as a chimney sweep. The father cares nothing for his son—he only cares for the money he makes off him, and the boy endures a difficult life of hard work and oppression.

The twin poems “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” suggest a blend of parental interest. In the first, the boy cries out to his father not to walk so fast. Apparently the father does anyway, and the boy cannot keep up. He falls behind and gets lost in the mire. But in the second poem, God appears in the image of the boy's father and leads him home to his worried mother, who has been searching for her child. The parents here are a mixed bag, with the boy's father apparently not caring much about his son and his mother loving him dearly.

Now let's turn our attention to Songs of Experience. In “The Little Girl Lost,” no one searches for Lyca. The narrator implies that she is alone and lost and that her parents do not weep for her. Yet in “The Little Girl Found,” the narrator shows that Lyca's parents are indeed seeking their daughter and go to join her among the animals.

Another poem called “The Chimney-Sweeper” presents a bleaker picture than the first poem with that title. In this one, the child narrator, a “little black thing among the snow,” says that his parents have gone to church and that because he was happy, they had taught him to “sing the notes of woe” and clothed him “in the clothes of death.” What he means is that they have essentially sold him as a chimney sweep into a life of misery.

“The Little Vagabond” speaks directly to his mother in this poem. He is apparently away from her and wandering on his own, and he claims that he is happier and better-used in the alehouse than in the church. Since he is away from his mother, we can infer that she cares little about his well-being.

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