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Innocence and experience in Blake’s Songs Essay

A Romantic as he was, William Blake created his rather simple songs as an opposition to the poetry the eighteenth-century poets tried to impose, the so called ornated word,poetry of beautiful words saying very little. Songs of Innocence and Experience are about the “two contrary states of the human soul” as Blake put it.

To confirm this he wrote some of the poems of Innocence with their pairs in Experience. Such a pair is “The Lamb” from Innocence and “The Tyger” from Experience. “The Lamb” consists of two stanzas, each one of them based on simple rhyming scheme like the children’s songs. The first stanza poses the questions while the second one is left for the answers. The questions are for the lamb, the speaker, presumably a child, asks the animal who has made it. The whole description of the animal supposes a meek and good one, the use of soft vowels makes the perception stronger. The second stanza gives the answers, although obvious, they are given in the form of a child’s puzzle, showing a bit of naivete. After a bit of a puzzle-playing the answer is crystal clear, the creator of the lamb is God. With the lines “For he is called by thy name/For he calls himself a lamb” Blake reminds the reader of the Bible and more specifically of Jesus, who after his Crucifixion becomes the Lamb of God.

Following this, the lamb is a symbol of naïve innocence, also suffering one. “The Tyger” is the “experienced” poem of the pair. The lines “Did He smile His work to see?/Did He who made the lamb make thee?” may be considered a symbolic centre of the poem. The persona asks the tyger if his creator is the one who created the lamb. The questions are seeking an answer and at the same time are showing deep disbelieve, how can God who created the meek lamb create also the fierce tiger and frame his “fearful symmetry”. If innocence is naïve and suffering then experience, according to “The Tyger”, whose eyes have burnt in “distant deeps or skies”, should be dark and fierce having collected all the darkness “in the forests of the night” as is presented the life of the grown-up people in “The Tyger”.

If “The Tyger” from Experience is the opposite poem to “The Lamb”, “To Tirzah” doesn’t have a particular opposite in Innocence, it may be considered as a single poem opposing the whole of Songs of Innocence. Tirzah is one of the five daughters of Zelophehad, also the name of the capital of Israel, which is in opposition with Jerusalem, the city of God. The first stanza begins with the well-known fact that “Whate’er is born of mortal birth” dies. And ends with the question “Then what have I to do with thee?”, it seems it is directed exactly to that mortal part of humans. The second stanza is a reminder of Genesis, the fall of Adam and Eve when looking for knowledge and their curse when drown out of Heaven, men to work with sweat on their foreheads and women to cry of pain while giving birth to their children.

In the third stanza Tirzah proves out to be the mother of the “mortal part” of humans and thus mother of death. The persona of the poem seems to be a young man who is angry with his mother for giving him life that inevitably ends in death. The young man may also be afraid to break the bond with his mother and live in the world of experience on his own. The last stanza opposes life on earth whose “tongue is made of clay” and life in heaven whose symbol is Jesus and his crucifixion. Experience understands the simple rules of life that what is born dies and can’t accept them, while innocence accepts and amuses in everything even in perceiving experience. The bond between innocence and experience when judged from “To Tirzah” seems to be the bond of a blissful student to his desperate teacher.

Such blissful innocence is presented in the “Introduction” of Songs of Innocence. The poem begins with a piper’s song, the persona sees a child on a cloud, an ordinary symbol of blissful innocence, the child/angel is enjoying the piper’s song, which in Blakean times is considered to be the purest of all. The child nearly orders the piper to “Pipe a song about a Lamb!”, innocence enjoys the song about another blissful innocent creature – the lamb. Experience in the form of the grown-up piper praises and at the same time amuses innocence. The bond between “the two contrary states of the human soul” is a mother-child relationship. Experience teaches innocence as the piper writes down in a book the songs he knows so that “Every child may joy to hear.”

But the mother also protects her child, so does experience as is clearly seen from the poem “Holy Thursday”. Children, the most common symbol of innocence, are walking two by two and “grey-headed beadles” are leading them to St. Paul’s cathedral, experience protects innocence and leads it to a
place where God will guide and protect it. In the second stanza of the poem innocence is a multitude, children are like “flowers of London town”, “multitudes of lambs”, innocence is being united with nature.

Following the flow of thought innocence seems to glow with its divine image as is presented in “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence. The first stanza of the poem states that Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love are the four most important virtues that every man prays to. The second stanza reveals that the virtues symbol of innocence and purity are God and human “His child and care”. Reading on the poem shows that man is made up of virtues and possesses the human form divine, the purest and Godly innocence.

If innocence is “the human form divine” then what is experience and what have they to do with one another? Does “London” from Songs of Experience give the answer? “London” is symbol of fallen humanity, symbol of the dark face of the industrial revolution that Blake’s contemporaries so much prided on. The persona’s journey begins with “I wander”, he walks through “each chartered street”, in Blakean times charters were given to rich people as a permission to rule given city. A city, in our case London, may be chartered, but Blake uses irony when defining the river Thames as chartered because a river cannot be put under human rules. The whole city, even the river, look like prisoners that’s why the persona can observe “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on every face he meets. From the first stanza his journey seems to be a sad walk through experience. In the second stanza the poet uses repetition in order to make the impact of his words stronger. He mentions manacles that were an ordinary thing to be seen on the hands of prisoners that were sent to Australia. But Blake’s manacles are ‘mind-forged’, a symbol of moral rules and laws that restrict “civilized” people.

This image is also an allusion to Rousseau’s statement that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” The third stanza gives more specific examples of weakness and woe. The image of the child chimney-sweeper crying is a symbol of the unlawful use of child’s labour; the second – the blackening church appalls every one, the church is blackening as a symbol of stagnation, injustice, wrongly used power of not helping those that most need its caress – the poor. And last but not least the sound of the hapless soldier’s sigh; Blake uses hyperbole in this particular image when describing that the sigh “Runs in blood down palace walls”. Being a reminder of the French revolution the poet warns the king and the people who rule the “chartered streets” and “the chartered Thames” that the misfortunate British may rise following the example of their soul mates – the French.

The action in the last stanza takes place at midnight, the time when all monsters come out to haunt the living, this is the time of full darkness, symbol of impurity. At midnight the young harlot is forced to sell her body in a society where money is God. Blake uses a rather strong oxymoron to outline her image, “marriage hearse”, there can never be such a thing or it can in a London with “chartered streets” and “blackening church”; her curse damns lost innocence that can never be returned. “London” has a simple AB rhyming scheme that is typical for nursery rhymes, its innocent representation is in ironic opposition with its content, exactly like London of Blakean time, it was considered the peak of civilization while from the inside it was rotting away. From “London” it looks like that the bond between innocence and experience is very narrow, to enter experience one just has to be aware of evil.

Experience is also understanding and accepting death, most fearful of all experience. “The Fly” from Songs of Experience proves it. At first sight the poem’s theme is about destruction, the persona kills the fly; but as the speaker identifies with the fly in the third stanza he is also vulnerable to “some blind hand” that may brush him away, the hand of the inevitable, of blind providence. The perspective of the persona killing the fly is turned a bit sideways with the act of the speaker’s identification with the fly; his act of killing may be not aimed to the fly but to himself. The last two stanzas are the most enigmatic and at the same time most universal ones.

The forth stanza toys with the idea that if “thought is life” meaning that knowledge is life and “the want of thought is death” – an allusion to the Bible, when Adam and Eve are repelled from Heaven for seeking knowledge, when leaving Heaven they leave innocence behind and enter experience where they learn of death. But the poet shows death as the lack of thought, the lack of life, he teaches us that the price for gaining experience is losing innocence but death may be the gate to achieving regained innocence, because if death is the lack of thought then it is the lack of experience meaning that it is regained innocence.

Experience also has its own unique form according to the “Introduction” of Songs of Experience, its voice is the voice of the ancient bard who “present, past and future sees”, its ears have heard the Holy Word that is symbol of Jesus who “walked among the ancient trees” more than 2,000 years ago.

The form of Innocence is presented in “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence. The most well-known symbol of Innocence is the child, on that ground children are presented in the first stanza of “Holy Thursday”, children are walking two by two and beadles are leading them to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Experience is guiding Innocence to the cathedral were Innocence is to be protected by God himself. In the second stanza the children are multitude, they are like lambs and exactly then and there Innocence is united with nature. In the last stanza the children raise their voice to Heaven and the aged men, Experience, are still there to protect Innocence.

Innocence is also symbol of new life being born as is presented in “The Echoing Green” from Songs of Innocence. “Spring” in the first stanza of the poem is symbol of the new life, of new Innocence being born. The colour of Innocence, as is easy to be guessed, according to the poem is green. The second stanza presents happy old people, sitting under an oak tree, and laughing at the youths’ games. They remember their own children’s games and their Innocence returns on the echoing green. The last stanza is no more cheerful, youth is tired and everyone is returning to their homes “like birds in the nests”; the echoing green is no more, it is darkening, like a haunting experience, like a date on which Innocence will come for the last time and be gone forever.

Interesting connection between innocence and experience provide also the pair of poems “The Chimney-Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence and the one from Songs of Experience. “The Chimney-Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence is Blake’s most ironic poem if he ever intended to write such. In 18th century England the chimney-sweepers were little children, most often orphans or from poor families. Such is the case with the persona of the poem, when his mother dies his father sells him to be a chimney-sweeper and dooms him to sure early death because the chimney-sweepers from that time lived until they were seven or eight years old and died most often of respiratory problems caused by the soot. That is the story of the child-persona told in the first stanza while he walks the streets and cries “Sweep, sweep, sweep” as a kind of commercial for his job. But the misspelling of the word is not by chance, the author chose to write “Weep, weep, weep” because misery is the true occupation of the child – chimney-sweeper. The story goes on in the second stanza with little Tom Dacre.

His head is “curled like a lamb’s back” and that is allegory to another poem from Songs of Innocence “The Lamb”, like the lamb Tom is meek and innocent and he cries when his hair is shaved. The child-persona consoles him that when shaved the soot cannot spoil his white hair; so far innocence blinded Tom when it is “shaved” he could see the real world. So in the third stanza he is quiet and has a dream that thousands of sweepers are “locked in coffins of black”. Knowing the hard lives of England’s 18th century child-chimney-sweepers the “coffins of black” are the chimneys that buried the children.

The forth stanza is left for the angel with the bright key who comes and sets all the chimney-sweepers free. But the only Angel who has such a key is the Angel of Death. Tom dreams that all are running down a green plain, washing in the river – all these are symbols of innocence. Later on the Angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy and does his work well he’ll have God for his father, meaning that he’ll return to innocence but only after his death. The children chimney-sweepers are doomed to have entered experience and the bad part of it too early and innocence is for them only a dream.

“The Chimney-Sweeper” from Songs of Experience opposes the one from Songs of Innocence. “A little black thing” enters the scene, the child-chimney-sweeper has become one with the soot, he has even obtained its colour. As in Songs of Innocence the perssona cries “weep” instead of “sweep”, it sound is part of a melody whose notes are “the notes of woe”. The second stanza begins with “Because”, the child-chimney-sweeper feels that because he was happy upon the heath and smiled his parents have given him the clothes of death and give him to it.

The persona is angry, he is no longer innocent because anger is feeling of experience, so he enters experience angry. His parents think they have done him no injury and are gone to praise the Lord who cannot save the child from singing his “notes of woe”. In the last line of the poem God is frankly accused of being an alliance with church and state who “made up a heaven of our misery”. Heaven is no more a consoling place for the child-chimney-sweeper who has entered experience it is a place made up of the misery of his fellow “black things”.

Blake’s Songs prove his statement that innocence and experience are “the two contrary states of the human soul”, the relationship between the two is always opposition: innocence is meek and suffering while experience is fierce and dark but experience accepts and understands life as it is while innocence amuses in everything, it is united with nature. The Godly innocence is the human form divine.

Sometimes the bond between innocence and experience is very narrow, to enter experience one has to be aware of evil, experience is also understanding and accepting death. The most well-known form of experience is the grown-up while innocence is the little child, the colour of innocence is green, while those of experience is black. And last but not least the relationship between innocence and experience is that they are both states of the human soul but to the first one is given the blissful life, to the second – the angry existence.


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