When attempting to penetrate into the deeper themes of William Blake’s cycle of poems “Songs of Innocence and Experience” it can be useful to recognize that the title of the poems, as well as the subsequent division into sections of innocence and experience carries ironic connotations. Blake’s intention in this cycle of poems, which he subtitled “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” (Ostriker, 1977, p. 104) was to posit the relationship of individual freedom and self-determination as being at one with Divine Will.
Therefore, the state of innocence which is referred to in the cycle’s title as well as in the division of poems itself is meant to suggest — not ignorance which leads to innocence — but the innocence which is gained (or reclaimed) by the experience of the Divine. In fact the first poem in the “innocence” cycle, “Introduction” makes plainly manifest, Blake’s ironic use of the titular connotations of innocence and experience. The poem’s second stanza reads: Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear, Piper pipe that song again— So I piped, he wept to hear (Ostriker, 1977, p. 104) The subtlety of Blake’s theme here is so accomplished as to be almost invisible when one reads the lines without carefully probing each word for its connotations. Special attention must be given to each word-choice to extract from the sing-song pleasantness of the poem, the resounding and profound thematic ideas which lay beneath the poem’s surface.
The word “Lamb” for example is capitalized not only to emphasize the mythic and religious ideas which are an intimate part of Christian symbolism, but to inform the reader that “Lamb” is, indeed, the theme of the entire poem. The repeating of the word “piped” is intended to show that the Divine voice is always trying to break through to humanity; the line “So I piped, he wept to hear” reveals that this song of “innocence” is, in fact, a song of experience: the knowledge that humanity is blind to, or in this case, deaf to, the Divine voice.
While Blake emphasizes a state of idealism in his “Songs of Innocence and Experience” nowhere does he proffer the idea of passive acceptance of the world’s injustices or pain. In fact, passivity to the world’s suffering is defined not in the poems of “innocence” but in a poem of “experience” where Blake’s verdict on the lack of empathy in the modern world could be made no more certain or clear. His poem “London” is a lament for precisely this idea of passive acceptance of world injustice and suffering:
In ever cry of every man, In every Infants cry f fear, In very voice; in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I hear (Ostriker, 1977, 128). In these lines, the capitalized word “Infants” denotes a connection to the “Lamb” of th other poems: in Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” the lamb and the child are both symbols of the individuated self, and also of the Divine Will, which Blake, as mentioned, attempts to unify in his poetry. (Ostriker).
The phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” is important because it shows how a lack of empathy and compassion or even concern for the world’s troubles is a function of ignorance, of a bad kind of “innocence” a worldly oblivion, which stands in sharp contrast to Blake’s idealized state of Divine innocence which is often frustrated by the materiality of ignorance of the world, but is nevertheless, an inheritance, according to Blake, which is due to every living individual on earth.
The attainment of a state of ideal innocence in Blake denotes a state of self-awareness and self-identity which steps outside of the concerns of material wealth and social standing and relies purely upon the human heart as its gauge of success and its proximity to the Divine as a measure of its truth. Reference Ostriker, Alicia. 1977. “William Blake: The Complete Poems”. Penguin Books, New York.
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