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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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How does the conception of nature differ in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience?

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The concept of nature in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience is contrary to each other because the two collections present the "two contrary states of the human soul." The paired poems like "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" clearly present such contrast. Whereas in Songs of Innocence nature has been presented as the glorious and beautiful creation of God, in Songs of Experience, Blake signifies that all meek and mild creations of God actually stand in contrast to the dark, dangerous, and furious creations of God presented in nature.

Poems like "The Echoing Green," "The Shepherd," and "The Blossom" of Songs of Innocence carry the mood of merriness in nature. In "The Shepherd," Blake says:

For he hears the lambs innocent call,
And he hears the ewes tender reply.

or 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.

Such merriness in nature has been compared to the poems like ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Lilly’ or ‘The Garden of Love’ in Songs of Experience. Here we get the beauty of the rose is decayed by mutability:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm.

And Blake finds the harsh realities in the same natural objects where he discovered beauty in Songs of Innocence:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn:
The humble Sheep, a threatning horn. ("The Lilly")

Even in the "Garden of Love," he finds graves:

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

Harold C. Pagliaro, in his 1981 essay “Blake's ‘Self-annihilation’: Aspects of Its Function in the Songs, with a Glance at Its History,” wonderfully analyzed Blake’s presentation of natural and human world. Samuel Foster Damon and Harold Blooms's classic analyses of the poems would also throw light on various aspects of these poems.

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In Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake expresses two contrasting views of nature and of the God who created it.

One of the most well-known poems from Songs of Innocence is “The Lamb,” which paints a blissful picture of the natural world.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Does thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?

The soft, woolly lamb is gentle, and its creator is portrayed as a creative, nurturing being. He gave the lamb life, made it soft and comforting with its wool coat and “tender voice,” and provides wholesome food and drink for the animal.

In Songs of Experience, however, the speaker comes from a very different perspective. In “The Tiger,” we see a frightening creature. The first sentence questions what kind of creator could conceive of such an animal.

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

The speaker then spends the next four stanzas musing on how God created the tiger.

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

This is not the gentle creator of the lamb who gives his creation a soft coat and voice. This God gives life through violence. He twists “the sinews of thy heart” and causes it to beat with a “dread hand.” The speaker expresses his doubt that the same God created both when he asks, “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”

A similar disparity exists between the two versions of “Holy Thursday.” The poem from Songs of Innocence paints a picture of the children on their way to church using soothing, happy images of nature.

The children walking two and two, in red, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked 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 seemed, these flowers of London town!

By contrast, the children in Songs of Experience are the miserable victims of poverty and want.

Babes reduced 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!

Blake’s introduction to Songs of Innocence describes them as “happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.” But people do not remain children forever, and the speaker in Songs of Experience is the voice of a person who has seen and lived in the real world with all its dangers and despair.

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You have done well to recognise the different way that nature is viewed in the two different books of poetry that Blake wrote to complement each other and also to challenge our thinking about the relationship between the various states of innocence and experience. Generally, The Songs of Innocence portray nature in a way that we might call Romantic given the way that Blake deliberately associates nature in these poems with happiness, childhood memories and confidence in the future. In The Songs of Experience, by contrast, nature is given a much more sinister feel and is seen in some ways as the opponent of man and the descriptions that Blake gives us make the world seem a much more dangerous place. Let us look at the two versions of "The Nurse's Song" to explore this further.

In the Innocence section of this collection, nature is described as a haven for the innocent children, and they are described in a way that portrays them as being yet another example of God's creation being left to play in perfect peace and tranquility with other forms of nature:

Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,

And the hills are all covered with sheep.

The children are described as having an intimate relationship with nature and they obviously feel a companionship with the "little birds" and "sheep." In the Experience poem, however, we are given a completely different image of nature. The coming of night is something that is seen as dangerous and something that exposes the vulnerability of the children:

Your spring and your day are wasted in play,

And your winter and night in disguise.

In this poem, the children do not get to respond to the Nurse, and her world-weary voice attaches very negative feelings to the seasons, giving spring a sense of waste and winter a sense of danger and cynicism through her reference to it being a time of "disguise."

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