William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 to a family of moderate means. His father James was a hosier, a profession in which one sells stockings, gloves, and haberdashery. The family lived at 28 Broad Street in London in an unpretentious but respectable neighborhood. Blake’s parents did not force him to attend formal schooling; instead, he learned to read and write at home. When he was ten years old, Blake expressed a wish to become a painter, so his parents sent him to a drawing school until it proved to be too costly. Blake began writing poetry at age twelve. When he was fourteen, he apprenticed with an engraver and one of his assignments was to sketch the tombs at Westminster Abbey. This exposed him to a variety of Gothic styles which often inspired his work throughout his career.
William Blake’s most popular collection of poetry was Songs of Innocence, which was published in 1789. Five years later he bound these poems with a set of new poems in a volume titled Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the two contrary States of the Human Soul. At first glance, the Songs of Innocence appear to be straightforward and simplistic with seemingly naïve lyrics. This could not be further from the truth. Together, the Songs of Innocence and of Experience are complicated critiques of childhood virtue, reflective experience, and sociopolitical issues.
Major Themes of the Text
Innocence versus Experience: Changing Perspectives
It should not be surprising that some of the major themes Blake deals with in this compilation of poems is the changing perspectives and perceptions of innocence and experience. Blake’s categories are modes of perception that become standard in Romanticism, where childhood is a state of “innocence” and virtue, but is not wholly protected from the world. In contrast, events which lend “experience” are those which mark a loss of childhood vitality by fear and inhibition, social and political corruption, and the oppression of organized religion, government, and the ruling classes.
One set of poems dealing with contrasting, yet complicated, issues of innocence and experience are “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” These two poems deal largely with expanding ideas about religion as one makes the transition from childhood into adulthood. In “The Lamb,” the narrator―a child―asks a lamb if it knows its creator.
“Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little Lamb God bless thee
Little Lamb God bless thee.” (lines 1-2, 11-12, 19-20)
While the child is explicitly questioning the lamb, Blake intentionally does not use question marks. This means that the question is largely rhetorical. The child does not truly want to know the answer to the question because it is believed to already be known. Childhood innocence, therefore, accepts religion without question.
This dynamic changes in “The Tyger,” which contains 13 question marks in only 24 lines. These questions are not rhetorical; the narrator is genuinely interested in knowing the answers.
“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” (lines 17-24)
The narrator of “The Tyger” is inferred to be the same narrator in “The Lamb,” but older and with more experience. The narrator no longer simply repeats what has been told, but now is able to more deeply reflect upon the complications of creation and religious belief. The narrator of “The Tyger” has a changed perspective of religion. No longer is the world viewed only through its good, harmless wonders; the tiger is not only more sublime than the lamb, but it also makes the narrator question whether good and evil were created by the same power, and if so, what its intentions were. The same mind that in childhood accepted the world as it was becomes in adulthood a more reflective, perceptive individual.
Social and Political Agendas
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience also deal heavily with themes of social and political issues. “The Blossom” and “The Sick Rose” are two poems which together focus primarily on issues of sexuality and femininity. “The Sick Rose” is a sexually explicit poem in which Blake deals with a social and cultural issue, a situation which can be interpreted as a rape. “The Blossom,” in contrast, offers a consensual scene of romantic love wherein the blossom, symbolic of femininity, shelters both a “Merry Merry Sparrow” and a “Pretty Pretty Robin” under its leaves (lines 1, 7). In the case of these two poems, Blake not only makes a statement about innocence and sexual agency versus experience and worldly vices, but he also makes a social statement concerning a relevant cultural issue.
Something similar could be said of another set of poems of innocence and experience, both of which are titled “The Chimney Sweeper.” The two poems are a social critique addressing the working conditions of chimney sweepers, who were very young children from families living in extreme poverty in London. These children, usually young boys, manually cleaned the chimneys of wealthier residents, a dangerous job which often resulted in sickness and early death due to ash inhalation. “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence has a sort of dark hope and sense of community.
“And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.
And the Angel told Tom if he’d been a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.” (lines 13-14, 19-20)
In a state of innocence, the chimney sweepers turn to God for hope that they will have happiness and joy in heaven. The last line of the poem states, “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm” (line 24). Blake complicates this image of the profession in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience, wherein a chimney sweeper becomes “a little black thing among the snow” (line 1). No longer is there a sense of community among the chimney sweepers; instead, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness. Blake paints the scene in an accompanying image, in which the contrasting colors of soot and snow also involve a moral recognition: during the winter when home heating required clean chimneys, the warm homes are ironically closed to the sweep.
“And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (lines 9-12)
In these final lines, Blake offers his argument, condemning the ways in which organized religion is used socially to control people. This reading of “The Chimney Sweeper” poems is highly motivated by sociopolitical issues, and is highly influenced by Blake’s stance on religious agendas and government. The contrasting views of innocence and experience are in this case influenced by other issues relevant to Blake’s era.
Relevance to Romanticism and Nature
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the themes they explore are relevant to the Romantic period as well as the theme of nature which was often prevalent in that period. In his exploration of innocence versus experience, Blake complicates the Romantic view that childhood is inherently a state of protected innocence. He also complicates ideas about adulthood experiences which, through contact with the world, soil the untainted innocence of childhood.
However, the values of innocence and experience are complex. With the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake often presents innocence as a state in which imagination is untainted and full of vitality. He also views innocence as a state in which one is vulnerable to oppression through ignorance. This view is similar to that of one of Blake’s contemporaries, Mary Wollstonecraft. William Blake was a nonconformist and associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of the day, such as Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, who is perhaps most famous for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, expresses the opinion that female ignorance is due to a lack of educational equality and the societal idea that women are “angels” or “girls” instead of rationally capable, intelligent, mature adults.
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience are also reflective of the ideas in Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Paine’s powerful, forceful prose equates tradition to tyranny. To Paine, the monarchy symbolized everything that was wrong with the government because of the monarchy’s reliance on tradition. Thomas Paine is concerned with issues of the present in relation to revolution, and William Blake shared many of these ideals.
Blake’s exploration of themes of innocence versus experience and sociopolitical issues are highly influenced by the Romantic period’s association with the revolution, but the Songs of Innocence and of Experience explore this issue with a more prevalent theme of nature. While Blake is concerned with politics and revolution, his poetry is also imbued with Romantic ideas of nature and sublimity. He specifically explores the issues of the natural state of human beings and the world using animals as metaphors (as in “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”) and the subtle personification of plant life (as in “The Blossom” and “The Sick Rose”) to encapsulate his arguments.
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Simpson, Matt. "Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience." Critical Survey Vol. 4 No. 1 Jane Austen and Romanticism, 1992. 22-27. Print.
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