These naive and childlike poems belie their complex form and content. SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE is one of the most remarkable books ever issued. Blake employed here for the first time his unique method for publishing poetry; he wrote the text, drew the designs to illustrate it, engraved the plates, and handpainted the printed volumes with water colors.
Underlying theme in SONGS OF INNOCENCE is the all-pervading presence of divine love and sympathy. Such lyrics as “The Lamb” show the confidence that a child has in the goodness of God and the creation. In “THE LITTLE BLACK BOY” the child’s innocent acceptance of racial differences is celebrated. In poems such as “HOLY THURSDAY,” which describes a procession of charity children into St. Paul’s church, Blake employs irony, implying that the children are too innocent to recognize that they are repressed. Likewise, in “THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER” the urchin’s dream of release from his life of dirt, danger, and drudgery provides a satiric comment on child labor customs.
SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, the complementary work to SONGS OF INNOCENCE, there is a growing sense of gloom, mystery, and evil. Blake depicts the actual world of human suffering in lyrics such as “LONDON,” where the economic, social, and political doctrines of the 18th century are indicted. In the cryptic poem “THE TYGER,” the speaker asks the same questions about the creator as in “THE LAMB,” but here there is no reassuring answer; rather, it is suggested that the creator is savage and malefic.
Many of the poems in these two collections present parallel situations from opposite sides of the coin. The shift from innocence to experience can be seen in change from lamb to tiger, childhood to adulthood, rural to urban scenes, and generous love to selfish sexuality. These are the dominant symbolic patterns that Blake uses to show the differences between the contrary states of the human soul.
For Further Review
Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Interprets Songs of Innocence and of Experience from a symbolic and archetypal perspective.
Gleckner, Robert F., and Mark L. Greenberg, eds. Approaches to Teaching Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989. A collection of background materials and critical essays by several authors designed to help teachers present Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the classroom.
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Analyzes Songs of Innocence and of Experience based on perceived changes in Blake’s philosophical and religious ideas while he wrote them.
Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake’s Songs. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. Shows the relation between Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Blake’s possible models, contemporary children’s educational books.
Phillips, Michael. William Blake: The Creation of the “Songs”, from Manuscript to Illuminated Printing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. A scholarly presentation of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Gorgeously illustrated, with transcriptions of the text and subsequent revisions.
Wicksteed, Joseph. Blake’s Innocence and Experience. New York: Dutton, 1928. This first book on Songs of Innocence and of Experience establishes several foundational critical points, such as the interrelatedness of all the poems. Some of Wicksteed’s interpretations of specific poems have been superseded; a good starting place.