Discuss the significance of Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake.

William_BlakeAnswer: Showing more than ‘the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience reveals a symbolic development which existed in opposition to conventional concepts of modernity and morality. Blake’s writings are an endeavor to loosen or break societies ‘mind-forged manacles’, which had been created through the edicts of a repressive church and supported by Parliament. Blake pointed to what he saw as the traditional values lost in the late 18th century. Through his poetry Blake fashioned an ideal form of human existence and weighed contemporary society against it. He found society wanting. Calling for the liberation of human energy and creativity, Blake’s Songs are scathing in their criticism of the prevailing mood of enlightenment rationality, a spirit of the age manifested in Newton, industry and conquest. Blake’s poems serve to damn those institutions which, by their advocacy of this rationality, sought to stifle divine energy with oppressive morality. This restrictive morality was anathema to Blake’s concept of the innate divinity of life, and a continuation of the practices which had separated man from God. Unity between energy, poetry and God was portrayed by Blake as an eternal ‘innocence’ while ‘experience’ came to embody that which had led man to fall from Eden – the invasion and subsequent enslavement of imagination by reason.

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience represents Blake’s theological and mythological development which culminated in a belief system both radical and deeply spiritual, causing some to dismiss his works as lunatic rantings. Blake was both poet and artist, and it is a mistake for any interpretation of his poems to ignore the central role his engravings played in creating meaning. The bird of paradise is a common image used in Blake’s works to symbolize innocence and creative freedom, yet it is only in the pictures accompanying Blake’s verse that the reader can observe it. Similarly, ‘experience’ is often shown as a dark forest in which mankind finds himself alone and lost. This image appears in the background of many of Blake’s engravings: it is the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that separate rational man from the idyllic pastures which came to represent innocence.

[adToAppearHere]

While Innocence was published in 1789, it was not until 1794 that its companion Experience was released. Indeed, some literary historians have argued that Blake, when writing Innocence, did not intend for a latter series of antithetical poems to be created.8 Despite being written earlier, Innocence is not rendered irrelevant by its sibling, as it contributes equally to Blake’s vision of the spiritual and to his critique of the corporal world. In effect, it is by having these parallel texts that Blake can respond to the decay in human values. The state of purity and childlike perspectives, discussed in Innocence, establishes Blake’s ideal condition for humanity. Experience was born out of the political troubles – both in England and abroad – which, to Blake, exemplified the struggle of spirit against oppression.

Nonetheless it would be inappropriate to read the two collections in isolation. Blake published both Songs in one volume and the thematic development and harmony between the volumes and individual poems supports an interpretation which treats both Songs as contrasting elements of a single discourse. Similarities between Innocence and Experience are most evident in the titles of the poems, but this resemblance extends also to the subject matter and structure of the verses. Most poems in Innocence have an opposite in Experience. Thus the pastoral paradise of ‘The Lamb’ is juxtaposed with the industrial furnace of ‘The Tyger’ and the holy unity between man and God in ‘The Divine Image’ is offset by man’s malice in ‘The Human Abstract’. Blake’s poems can be analyzed as a response to a collapse in human innocence – his maxim ‘every thing that lives is holy’ challenging the status quo enforced by those who would ‘[bind] with briars … joys & desires’. Blake’s innocence was once possessed by all, when man and God were united in a common ‘divine image’. All souls in this state of innocence were ‘white’ – filled with the light divine. Now, however, the new-born babe has innocence swiftly stolen by the repressions of an age where children were damned to work as chimney sweeps or to morals founded on pronouncements of ‘Thou shalt not’.

Songs of Experience is an account of man’s cruelty and shrewd rationality, manifested in humanity’s current condition. It does not seek simply to damn humanity, however, as Blake creates a spiritual essence – the ‘Bard’ – which guides individuals towards paradise. The bard calls to Earth and fallen man to walk again ‘among the ancient trees’, an allusion to the unity that existed between God and human in the Garden of Eden. Earth, however, finds itself unable to restore divine unity alone as ‘Starry Jealousy’ has ‘Prison’d [it] on watry shore’. Throughout Blake’s poetry stars and mills come to represent Newtonian – in other words rational – thought, while water is used to symbolize chaos. Since its fall, humanity has been stumbling through a dark forest, Blake’s image for misguided materialism, and is held back from Eden by blind reason. It remains to humankind to liberate their souls and rejoin God in paradise. This will not occur, Blake states, so long as man ‘builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite’.

Expressed throughout Blake’s poetry is a theme of unity with the divine. ‘The Divine Image’ speaks of ‘Mercy Pity Peace and Love’ as the forces which bind man with God. At our best, argues Blake, ‘Mercy has a human heart’, while Pity is revealed in the human face. These ‘virtues of delight’, however, have become corrupted by false religions and oppressors of the soul. This decay is expressed in ‘The Human Abstract’ where the unifying forces of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love have become tools of repression – wielded by hypocritical priests and moralists. Building upon a theme developed in ‘The Chimney Sweep’ and ‘Holy Thursday’, Blake contends that ‘Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor’. Like many Londoners, Blake had witnessed the abject poverty and despair suffered by the working classes. Not only was it appalling to see children exploited, but this exploitative labour also separated them from God. Confronted by the misery of babes, Blake saw little of the purportedly ‘rich and fruitful land’ the propertied classes claimed to have created. Blake’s writings in Experience are at once a lament for the lost innocence of children and a rebuke to an industrialist class indifferent to their suffering, a group whose wealth was made from the blood, sweat, toil and tears of impoverished workers. Cut off from the divine spirit, the ‘sun does never shine’ for the children of England – the sun a recurring symbol of divine love.

Many, of course, did not share the radical views of Blake and, if his works were ever commented on by his peers, their remarks usually reflected the tastes of the time. Blake’s writings were viewed as potentially dangerous in a time when the established order in England had witnessed the violent destruction of the ancien régime across the channel. Blake’s ‘London’ charges Parliament with perpetuating the wretchedness of the human condition.

Wherever Blake wanders in London all he observes are ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. Human creativity and freedom are imprisoned by the ‘mindforg’d manacles’ which materialise ‘in every ban’. The third stanza of ‘London’ attacks the Church which, while preaching charity, employs children as young as four as chimney-sweeps. These false priests feed these babes only enough to keep them alive and then, on Holy Thursday, march them to Church and demand pious thanks for their generosity. Blake comes close to sedition here when he reproaches the State, on whose walls the blood of soldiers runs down. This is Blake’s most political poem in Experience yet it is matched in forcefulness by ‘The Garden of Love’, where Blake’s rancor is directed again at the Church. This poem examines the negation of the divine spirit by false priests. Only the human in a fallen state of experience notices the Chapel in the garden but, because the ‘gates of this Chapel [are] shut’, there is no hope of salvation. Dressed in ‘black gowns’, the priests are shown as separated from the divine energy and are therefore both deceivers and deceived. It is important to remember that Blake was a ‘complete’ artist and his writings need to be interpreted alongside his engravings. In Innocence those who are united with God – children, poets, and spirits – are represented as being without clothes. This detail cannot be deduced from the poems alone yet it is crucial in understanding Blake’s response to the decay in values. In his anti-slavery poem ‘The Little Black Boy’ two naked children, one black, the other white, are pictured standing before Jesus. The message is two-fold: first, both the black child and the white child are equal in God’s love – expressed as God’s heat or ‘beams of love’. Secondly, ‘when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear / The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice’. Once we cast off the man-made bonds that bind us, our reunification with the eternal divine will be complete.

Anything that came between the soul and God was appalling to Blake. These metaphysical barriers come in numerous forms, from ‘black gowns’ (‘The Garden of Love’) to ‘swaddling [sic] bands’ (‘Infant Sorrow’) and even soot (‘The Chimney Sweeper’). By identifying these ‘bans’ upon the human soul Blake sought to emancipate humanity from the slavery of reason.

To ‘enlightened’ and experienced minds, however, this spirit of innocence offended their rational sensibilities. Amazingly – to a modern reader at least – Blake’s works were dismissed in his time as demonstrating a ‘dangerous prevalence of imagination’. Even Coleridge, whose mind’s eye could summon up the palace of a dead emperor, criticized Blake’s work as sacrificing accuracy for creativity. Furthermore, if Blake was attempting social reform through his work it was hindered by the general belief in his mental instability. His few public exhibitions were failures, with the London Examiner reporting on one such display that: If beside the stupid and mad-brained political project of their rulers, the sane part of the people of England required fresh proof of the alarming increase of the effects of insanity, they will be too well convinced from its having lately spread into the hitherto sober region of Art. These remarks were directed not only at Blake but at his sponsors in the Royal Academy. Clearly the views being expressed by Blake lay outside the main current of political and artistic thought. It is comforting, however, that on earthly issues, such as slavery and child labor, Blake found a wider audience. Accordingly, where Blake is acknowledged in contemporary works, it is for the humanity of his writings. In 1824 ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ was published in The Chimney Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing Boy’s Album – a publication aiming to abolish or at least regulate the use of children as sweeps.

Only a few in Blake’s lifetime appreciated the genius of his verse and it was not until after his death that the poet’s writings found a support base. At the time Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience it was too easy to dismiss his works as the rantings of a misanthrope, estranged from the establishment and cultural world. Few saw Blake as ‘a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straight forwards’. Since that time, however, Blake has come to be seen as one of the masters of English verse. Few in literature have matched the imaginative power and intense visual force of his work and mythology. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is both a wondrous voyage into this shadowy spiritual world and a harsh indictment upon a society infamous for its injustices, cruelty and hypocrisy. Through his poems, animated by his engravings, Blake sought to challenge the collapse in society’s values, to reverse the decent into the godless abyss of reason and to reunite an intrinsically holy humanity with its creator.

Leave a Reply