Throughout both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake repeatedly addresses the destruction of childlike innocence, and in many cases of children’s lives, by a society designed to use people for its own selfish ends. Blake romanticizes the children of his poems, only to place them in situations common to his day, in which they find their simple faith in parents or God challenged by harsh conditions. Songs of Experience is an attempt to denounce the cruel society that harms the human soul in such terrible ways, but it also calls the reader back to innocence, through Imagination, in an effort to redeem a fallen world.
Throughout his works, Blake frequently refers to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. While he alludes to the atoning act of Christ Crucified, more often Blake focuses on the Incarnation, the taking on of human form by the divine Creator, as the source of redemption for both human beings and nature. He emphasizes that Christ “became a little child” just as men and women need to return to a state of childlike grace in order to restore the innocence lost to the social machinery of a cruel world.
In such poems as “Holy Thursday” and “The Little Vagabond,” Blake critiques the religious leaders of his day for their abuse of spiritual authority. The men who should be shepherds to their flocks are in fact reinforcing a political and economic system that turns children into short-lived chimney sweepers and that represses love and creative expression in adults.
Blake has no patience with clergy who would assuage their own or their earthly patrons’ guilt by parading poor children through a church on Ascension Day, as in “Holy Thursday” from both sections, and he reserves most of his sharpest verse for these men.
Imagination over Reason
Blake is a strong proponent of the value of human creativity, or Imagination, over materialistic rationalism, or Reason. As a poet and artist, Blake sees the power of art in its various forms to raise the human spirit above its earth-bound mire. He also sees the soul-killing materialism of his day, which uses rational thought as an excuse to perpetuate crimes against the innocent via societal and religious norms. Songs of Experience in particular decries Reason’s hold over Imagination, and it uses several ironic poems to undermine the alleged superiority of rationalism. Blake was not opposed to intelligent inquiry, however. In “A Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Experience, Blake admires the boy’s inquiries into the nature of God and his own Thought, even as he sharply criticizes the religious leaders of his day for demanding mindless obedience to dogma.
Nature as the Purest State of Man
Like many of his contemporary Romantic poets, Blake sees in the natural world an idyllic universe that can influence human beings in a positive manner. Many of his poems, such as “Spring,” celebrate the beauty and fecundity of nature, while others, such as “London,” deride the sterile mechanism of urban society. Blake’s characters are happiest when they are surrounded by natural beauty and following their natural instincts; they are most oppressed when they are trapped in social or religious institutions or are subject to the horrors of urban living.
The Flaws of Earthly Parents
One recurring motif in both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is the failure of human parents to properly nurture their children. The “Little Boy Lost” is abandoned by his earthly father, yet rescued by his Heavenly Father. The parents of “The Little Vagabond” weep in vain as their son is burned alive for heresy. Both mother and father seem frustrated by their child’s temperament in “Infant Sorrow.” This recurring motif allows Blake to emphasize the frailty of human communities, in which the roles of mother and father are defined by society rather than by natural instincts, and to emphasize the supremacy of Nature and of divine care in the form of God the Father.
While much of Blake’s poetry focuses on leaving behind the material world in favor of a more perfect spiritual nature, his poetry nonetheless offers realistic and socially conscious critiques of existing situations. Both of his “Chimney Sweeper” poems highlight the abuse of children by parents and employers as they are forced into hazardous, and potentially fatal, situations for the sake of earning money. Both “Holy Thursday” poems decry the overt display of the poor as a spectacle of absolution for the wealthy and affluent. “The Human Abstract” points out that our virtues are predicated on the existence of human suffering. Although Blake is certainly more spiritually than practically minded, the seeds of social reform can be seen in the philosophy underlying his verses: innocence is a state of man that must be preserved, not destroyed, and the social systems that seek to destroy innocence must be changed or eliminated.
The poem begins with the question, “Little Lamb, who made thee?” The speaker, a child, asks the lamb about its origins: how it came into being, how it acquired its particular manner of feeding, its “clothing” of wool, its “tender voice.” In the next stanza, the speaker attempts a riddling answer to his own question: the lamb was made by one who “calls himself a Lamb,” one who resembles in his gentleness both the child and the lamb. The poem ends with the child bestowing a blessing on the lamb.
“The Lamb” has two stanzas, each containing five rhymed couplets. Repetition in the first and last couplet of each stanza makes these lines into a refrain, and helps to give the poem its song-like quality. The flowing l’s and soft vowel sounds contribute to this effect, and also suggest the bleating of a lamb or the lisping character of a child’s chant.
The poem is a child’s song, in the form of a question and answer. The first stanza is rural and descriptive, while the second focuses on abstract spiritual matters and contains explanation and analogy. The child’s question is both naive and profound. The question (“who made thee?”) is a simple one, and yet the child is also tapping into the deep and timeless questions that all human beings have, about their own origins and the nature of creation. The poem’s apostrophic form contributes to the effect of naiveté, since the situation of a child talking to an animal is a believable one, and not simply a literary contrivance. Yet by answering his own question, the child converts it into a rhetorical one, thus counteracting the initial spontaneous sense of the poem.
The answer is presented as a puzzle or riddle, and even though it is an easy one—child’s play—this also contributes to an underlying sense of ironic knowingness or artifice in the poem. The child’s answer, however, reveals his confidence in his simple Christian faith and his innocent acceptance of its teachings. The lamb of course symbolizes Jesus. The traditional image of Jesus as a lamb underscores the Christian values of gentleness, meekness, and peace. The image of the child is also associated with Jesus: in the Gospel, Jesus displays a special solicitude for children, and the Bible’s depiction of Jesus in his childhood shows him as guileless and vulnerable.
These are also the characteristics from which the child-speaker approaches the ideas of nature and of God. This poem, like many of theSongs of Innocence, accepts what Blake saw as the more positive aspects of conventional Christian belief. But it does not provide a completely adequate doctrine, because it fails to account for the presence of suffering and evil in the world. The pendant (or companion) poem to this one, found in the Songs of Experience, is“The Tyger”; taken together, the two poems give a perspective on religion that includes the good and clear as well as the terrible and inscrutable. These poems complement each other to produce a fuller account than either offers independently. They offer a good instance of how Blake himself stands somewhere outside the perspectives of innocence and experience he projects.
The speaker, identifying himself as a child, asks a series of questions of a little lamb, and then answers the questions for the lamb. He asks if the lamb knows who made it, who provides it food to eat, or who gives it warm wool and a pleasant voice. The speaker then tells the lamb that the one who made it is also called “the Lamb” and is the creator of both the lamb and the speaker. He goes on to explain that this Creator is meek and mild, and Himself became a little child. The speaker finishes by blessing the lamb in God’s name.
Each stanza of “The Lamb” has five couplets, typifying the AABB rhyme scheme common to Blake’s Innocence poems. By keeping the rhymes simple and close-knit, Blake conveys the tone of childlike wonder and the singsong voice of innocent boys and girls. The soft vowel sounds and repetition of the “l” sound may also convey the soft bleating of a lamb. One of Blake’s most strongly religious poems, “The Lamb” takes the pastoral life of the lamb and fuses it with the Biblical symbolism of Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” By using poetic rhetorical questions, the speaker, who is probably childlike rather than actually a child, creates a sort of lyric catechism in which the existence of both a young boy and a tender lamb stand as proof of a loving, compassionate Creator.
The lamb stands in relation to the boy as the boy stands in relation to his elders; each must learn the truth of his existence by questioning the origin of his life and inferring a Creator who possesses the same characteristics of gentleness, innocence, and loving kindness as both the lamb and the child. Then the direct revelation of the Scripture comes into play. The Creator, here identified specifically as Jesus Christ by his title of “Lamb of God,” displays these characteristics in his design of the natural and human world, and in His offer of salvation to all (hence the child is also “called by his name”) through his incarnation (“he became a little child”) and presumably his death and resurrection.
“The Nurse’s Song”
The scene of the poem features a group of children playing outside in the hills, while their nurse listens to them in contentment. As twilight begins to fall, she gently urges them to “leave off play” and retire to the house for the night. They ask to play on till bedtime, for as long as the light lasts. The nurse yields to their pleas, and the children shout and laugh with joy while the hills echo their gladness.
The poem has four quatrains, rhymed ABCB and containing an internal rhyme in the third line of each verse.
This is a poem of affinities and correspondences. There is no suggestion of alienation, either between children and adults or between man and nature, and even the dark certainty of nightfall is tempered by the promise of resuming play in the morning. The theme of the poem is the children’s innocent and simple joy. Their happiness persists unabashed and uninhibited, and without shame the children plead for permission to continue in it. The sounds and games of the children harmonize with a busy world of sheep and birds. They think of themselves as part of nature, and cannot bear the thought of abandoning their play while birds and sheep still frolic in the sky and on the hills, for the children share the innocence and unselfconscious spontaneity of these natural creatures.
They also approach the world with a cheerful optimism, focusing not on the impending nightfall but on the last drops of daylight that surely can be eked out of the evening. A similar innocence characterizes the pleasure the adult nurse takes in watching her charges play. Their happiness inspires in her a feeling of peace, and their desire to prolong their own delight is one she readily indulges. She is a kind of angelic, guardian presence who, while standing apart from the children, supports rather than overshadows their innocence. As an adult, she is identified with “everything else” in nature; but while her inner repose does contrast with the children’s exuberant delight, the difference does not constitute an antagonism. Rather, her tranquility resonates with the evening’s natural stillness, and both seem to envelop the carefree children in a tender protection.
“The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Innocence)
The speaker of this poem is a small boy who was sold into the chimney-sweeping business when his mother died. He recounts the story of a fellow chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre, who cried when his hair was shaved to prevent vermin and soot from infesting it. The speaker comforts Tom, who falls asleep and has a dream or vision of several chimney sweepers all locked in black coffins. An angel arrives with a special key that opens the locks on the coffins and sets the children free. The newly freed children run through a green field and wash themselves in a river, coming out clean and white in the bright sun. The angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will have this paradise for his own. When Tom awakens, he and the speaker gather their tools and head out to work, somewhat comforted that their lives will one day improve.
“The Chimney Sweeper” comprises six quatrains, each following the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain. The first stanza introduces the speaker, a young boy who has been forced by circumstances into the hazardous occupation of chimney sweeper. The second stanza introduces Tom Dacre, a fellow chimney sweep who acts as a foil to the speaker. Tom is upset about his lot in life, so the speaker comforts him until he falls asleep. The next three stanzas recount Tom Dacre’s somewhat apocalyptic dream of the chimney sweepers’ “heaven.” However, the final stanza finds Tom waking up the following morning, with him and the speaker still trapped in their dangerous line of work. There is a hint of criticism here in Tom Dacre’s dream and in the boys’ subsequent actions, however.
Blake decries the use of promised future happiness as a way of subduing the oppressed. The boys carry on with their terrible, probably fatal work because of their hope in a future where their circumstances will be set right. This same promise was often used by those in power to maintain the status quo so that workers and the weak would not unite to stand against the inhuman conditions forced upon them. As becomes clearer in Blake’s Songs of Experience, the poet had little patience with palliative measures that did nothing to alter the present suffering of impoverished families. What on the surface appears to be a condescending moral to lazy boys is in fact a sharp criticism of a culture that would perpetuate the inhuman conditions of chimney sweeping on children.
Tom Dacre (whose name may derive from “Tom Dark,” reflecting the sooty countenance of most chimney sweeps) is comforted by the promise of a future outside the “coffin” that is his life’s lot. Clearly, his present state is terrible and only made bearable by the two-edged hope of a happy afterlife following a quick death. Blake here critiques not just the deplorable conditions of the children sold into chimney sweeping, but also the society, and particularly its religious aspect that would offer these children palliatives rather than aid. That the speaker and Tom Dacre get up from the vision to head back into their dangerous drudgery suggests that these children cannot help themselves, so it is left to responsible, sensitive adults to do something for them.
“The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found”
A little boy cannot keep up with his father, so he cries out for the older man to slow down or speak to him so he can find his way. No one answers and
the darkness rolls in, so the boy begins to weep. In the companion poem, God hears the little boy’s weeping and appears to him in the image of his father dressed in white. He leads the boy home to his mother, whom the boy greets with weeping.
Both “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” are two-stanza poems composed of two quatrains. The first poem has an erratic rhyme scheme, ABCD ABCB (although it is possible line 2’s “fast” is a slant rhyme with line 4’s “lost,” making the first stanza ABCB). By contrast, the second poem is clearly ABCB in both stanzas. The first poem’s near rhyme adds to the tone of discomfort and fear the boy feels toward his too-quick father. The second poem’s rhyme is more easily identified, making it seem more organized and “right” to the reader’s senses. The little boy of these two poems represents the human soul or spirit, seeking God the Father in a sin-wracked world that seeks to obliterate the signs of His presence. In the first of the two poems, the boy calls out to his earthly father, but is left behind to fend for himself.
Blake suggests that earthly religious practices, philosophies, or institutions cannot lead the soul to absolute truth and peace. In following the “father” of the world, the boy only becomes more lost. It is only through the intervention of God Himself in the second poem that the child returns to a state of safety, possibly intended to suggest the salvation of the regenerate soul, in the arms of a maternal figure. The nurturing mother is able to give comfort where the earthly father and or the society created by such men only offer abandonment and hopelessness. That it is the female figure who actually comforts the boy is telling. Blake may be suggesting a stronger healing power within “mother earth” than within the “father church” of his day. He may also be seeking to balance the male and female aspects of creation: the male, in this case God the Father, leads the soul to its destination, while the female passively awaits the soul to offer it bliss. Nonetheless, the mother figure is more positively represented in these two poems.
“Nurse’s Song” (Songs of Innocence)
The nurse of the title listens as the children under her care play on the green hills. As the day ends, she urges them to come home, but the children plead that the sun has not yet set and they “cannot go to sleep.” They argue by analogy that “the little birds fly/And the hills are all covered with sheep,” and if nature has not put her children to bed, why should the nurse require that her charges go to sleep? She is the one who introduces the argument from nature by claiming the darkening sky as a sign that bedtime drew near, after all. The nurse accedes to their request and the children laugh and play until dark. The last line, “And all the hills ecchoed,” implies that just as the children have expressed their desire to emulate nature and the birds and sheep still wandering about, nature in turn emulates the children in their joyous laughter.
“Nurse’s Song” is four stanzas long, twice the length of its counterpart in Songs of Experience. Each stanza is an ABCB quatrain. Blake often uses the ABCB pattern inSongs of Innocence to reflect the tone of an adult speaker, in contrast to the AABB pattern usually associated with children and pure innocents. The first stanza sets the scene, and the remainder of the poem is structure in a call-and-response format, with the Nurse first calling the children in, then the children responding with their counterargument, and finally the nurse accepting the children’s terms and letting them play longer.
“The Clod and the Pebble”
This poem takes up the refrain of love from the last line of “Earth’s Answer” and explicates two views on the nature of love. The “Clod of Clay” sees love as selfless and giving, building “a Heaven in Hells despair.” The hard “Pebble of the brook,” however, sees love as seeking “only Self to please” in order to eventually build “a Hell in Heavens despite.”
The love that has been bound by Reason, and which must be renewed in order to free Earth from her chains, is thus examined to ask if men love selflessly or selfishly. The difference in perspective aligns with the “experiences” of the two inanimate speakers. The clod has been “Trodden with the cattle’s feet,” so that it is malleable, but also easily shaped to the will of others. The pebble has been hardened by its time in the brook and therefore offers resistance to any who would seek to use it for their own ends. By contrast, the clod is somewhat mobile, whereas the pebble must remain at rest in its place on the bottom of the brook. Blake uses his ironic voice of experience to point out that love, if done according to the edicts of Reason, creates a Hell on earth, whereas selfless love—love from the heart and the ever-adapting Imagination—can make a Heaven out of the Hell surrounding mankind. Nonetheless, the poem does not allow the reader to side completely with the Clod and its view of love.
Both clod and pebble experience loss; the Pebble rejoices in the loss of others, while the Clod rejoices in its own loss of ease. Even the Clod’s Heaven is built on the despair of Hell, thus “taking” from another in order to increase. In the “Experienced” mind, exploitation of others is a requirement for progress of any sort. Structurally, the poem appears at first to be two balanced syllogisms of the respective viewpoints. The word “but” in line 6 is the turning point from the Clod’s argument to that of the Pebble. The former argument is one of Innocence, while the second shifts to Experience. That Blake chooses to end the debate with the Pebble’s argument lends to this poem an interpretation that favors the Pebble’s hardened point of view regarding love. However, the balancing lines “And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair” (line 4) and “And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite” (line 12) force the reader to see the two views as balanced and to reach his own conclusions based on personal experience.
“The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”
These two poems parallel the similarly titled “Little Boy Lost” and “Little Boy Found” ofSongs of Innocence. In fact, these two poems were originally written for Songs of Innocence, but were moved to Songs of Experience due to their eschatological themes. In the first stanza, Blake returns to his prophetic voice from the first two poems, envisioning a future in which the Earth has been unbound from the chains of Reason and seeks her creator. In that day, the wild desert in which the little girl will wander later in the poem becomes “a garden mild.” The seven-year-old girl, Lyca, represents the human soul, lost and wandering “in desert wild” as she searches for meaning or solace. Unlike the “Little Boy” poems, Lyca’s parents seek after her with desperate hearts. In her wandering, Lyca cannot rest as long as her mother weeps for her. Eventually her mother stops weeping long enough for the girl to go to sleep, and it is here that she finds the beginning of her own paradise.
The wild animals, most notably a lion and lioness, surround Lyca’s sleeping form but cannot or will not harm her because she is a virgin. The lion, an echo of the protective king of beasts from “Night” in Songs of Innocence, weeps “ruby tears” while the lioness disrobes Lyca, symbolically removing her soul from her material body in death. The lions then take Lyca to their cave to sleep. The second poem follows the parents in their search for Lyca. They grow increasingly desperate, a state that is only increased when they dream of her starving in the desert. They encounter the lion, who at first knocks them to the ground then stalks around them. Smelling their scent, or more likely the scent of their daughter Lyca, the lion licks their hands and speaks to them, telling them to cease weeping and follow him to his “palace” wherein their daughter rests “among tygers wild.” The parents follow the lion and spend the rest of their days in the lion’s “lonely dell” fearing neither wolf nor lion.
“The Little Girl Lost” is unusual in that it is a thirteen-stanza poem, which does not follow the tradition that “perfect” poetry has evenly balanced stanzas. Each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme, with the word “asleep” or “sleep” making up many of the rhymes through frequent repetition. The sibilance of these words contributes to the dreamlike quality of the poem. “The Little Girl Found” is also thirteen stanzas, also following the AABB rhyme scheme. “Sleep” and “Asleep” are again repeated, but not as much as in the former poem, indicating that this poem takes place in the waking world more than in the dream world of Lyca’s rest.
The latter poem focuses on the parents, who are representatives of Experience in many ways, and who are still woefully inadequate in caring for their child. Consequently, it uses rougher words (“shriek,” “ground,” “moan,” “sore”) to complete the rhyming couplets. The lion again represents Jesus Christ, as both the image of the lion of the tribe of Judah and his own reference to a palace indicate. The innocent child is taken from her earthly suffering by death and given comfort and rest for eternity. The parents, dedicated to finding their lost daughter, are similarly rewarded, although the poem is reticent on the details: do they cease from fears because they are in paradise, or simply because they are dead? Either way, their suffering is ended by a more dangerous vision of God than that often presented in the Christianity of Blake’s day.
In this counterpart poem to “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence, Blake offers another view of God through His creation. Whereas the lamb implied God’s tenderness and mercy, the tiger suggests His ferocity and power. The speaker again asks questions of the subject: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The questions continue throughout the poem, with the answers implied in the final question that is not a repetition of an earlier question: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The same God who made the gentle, obedient lamb also made the frightening, powerful, and bloody-minded tiger, and whereas the lamb was simply “made,” the tiger is forged: “What the hammer? what the chain?/ In what furnace was thy brain?”
The use of smithing imagery for the creation of the tiger hearkens to Blake’s own oft-written contrast between the natural world and the industrialism of the London of his day. While the creator is still God, the means of creation for so dangerous a creature is mechanical rather than natural. Technology may be a benefit to mankind in many ways, but within it still holds deadly potential. In form and content, “The Tyger” also parallels the Biblical book of Job. Job, too, was confronted by the sheer awe and power of God, who asks the suffering man a similar series of rhetorical questions designed to lead Job not to an answer, but to an understanding of the limitations inherent in human wisdom.
This limitation is forced into view by the final paradox: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Can the God of Innocence also be the God of Experience? If so, how can mere mortals, trapped in one state or the other, ever hope to understand this God? “The Tyger” follows an AABB rhyme scheme throughout, but with the somewhat problematic first and last stanzas rhyming “eye” with “symmetry.” This jarring near rhyme puts the reader in an uneasy spot from the beginning and returns him to it at the end, thus foreshadowing and concluding the experience of reading “The Tyger” as one of discomfort.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
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?
The poem begins with the speaker asking a fearsome tiger what kind of divine being could have created it: “What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame they fearful symmetry?” Each subsequent stanza contains further questions, all of which refine this first one. From what part of the cosmos could the tiger’s fiery eyes have come, and who would have dared to handle that fire? What sort of physical presence, and what kind of dark craftsmanship, would have been required to “twist the sinews” of the tiger’s heart? The speaker wonders how, once that horrible heart “began to beat,” its creator would have had the courage to continue the job. Comparing the creator to a blacksmith, he ponders about the anvil and the furnace that the project would have required and the smith who could have wielded them. And when the job was done, the speaker wonders, how would the creator have felt? “Did he smile his work to see?” Could this possibly be the same being who made the lamb?
The poem is comprised of six quatrains in rhymed couplets. The meter is regular and rhythmic, its hammering beat suggestive of the smithy that is the poem’s central image. The simplicity and neat proportions of the poems form perfectly suit its regular structure, in which a string of questions all contribute to the articulation of a single, central idea.
The opening question enacts what will be the single dramatic gesture of the poem, and each subsequent stanza elaborates on this conception. Blake is building on the conventional idea that nature, like a work of art, must in some way contain a reflection of its creator. The tiger is strikingly beautiful yet also horrific in its capacity for violence. What kind of a God, then, could or would design such a terrifying beast as the tiger? In more general terms, what does the undeniable existence of evil and violence in the world tell us about the nature of God, and what does it mean to live in a world where a being can at once contain both beauty and horror? The tiger initially appears as a strikingly sensuous image. However, as the poem progresses, it takes on a symbolic character, and comes to embody the spiritual and moral problem the poem explores: perfectly beautiful and yet perfectly destructive, Blake’s tiger becomes the symbolic center for an investigation into the presence of evil in the world. Since the tiger’s remarkable nature exists both in physical and moral terms, the speaker’s questions about its origin must also encompass both physical and moral dimensions.
The poem’s series of questions repeatedly ask what sort of physical creative capacity the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger bespeaks; assumedly only a very strong and powerful being could be capable of such a creation. The smithy represents a traditional image of artistic creation; here Blake applies it to the divine creation of the natural world. The “forging” of the tiger suggests a very physical, laborious, and deliberate kind of making; it emphasizes the awesome physical presence of the tiger and precludes the idea that such a creation could have been in any way accidentally or haphazardly produced. It also continues from the first description of the tiger the imagery of fire with its simultaneous connotations of creation, purification, and destruction.
The speaker stands in awe of the tiger as a sheer physical and aesthetic achievement, even as he recoils in horror from the moral implications of such a creation; for the poem addresses not only the question of who could make such a creature as the tiger, but who would perform this act. This is a question of creative responsibility and of will, and the poet carefully includes this moral question with the consideration of physical power. Note, in the third stanza, the parallelism of “shoulder” and “art,” as well as the fact that it is not just the body but also the “heart” of the tiger that is being forged. The repeated use of word the “dare” to replace the “could” of the first stanza introduces a dimension of aspiration and willfulness into the sheer might of the creative act.
The reference to the lamb in the penultimate stanza reminds the reader that a tiger and a lamb have been created by the same God, and raises questions about the implications of this. It also invites a contrast between the perspectives of “experience” and “innocence” represented here and in the poem “The Lamb.” “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions, and the poet leaves us to awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, and the inscrutability of divine will. The perspective of experience in this poem involves a sophisticated acknowledgment of what is unexplainable in the universe, presenting evil as the prime example of something that cannot be denied, but will not withstand facile explanation, either. The open awe of “The Tyger” contrasts with the easy confidence, in “The Lamb,” of a child’s innocent faith in a benevolent universe.
Blake’s London is a dismal place, populated by crying infants, poor chimney sweepers, violent soldiers, and brazen prostitutes. Here the prophetic voice of the Bard returns to decry the existence of such a place. Everywhere he sees “Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Like and Amos or Jonah of old, the Bard calls London to repent of its wickedness, its oppression of the poor, and its cultivation of vice, or be destroyed.
“London” follows an ABAB rhyme scheme throughout its three stanzas with little deviation from iambic tetrameter. Only “Mind-forg’d manacles” and “How” and “Blasts” in lines 14-15 are irregularly stressed. “Mind-forg’d” is stressed to further its contrast from the preceding three lines, each of which begins “In every” to create a litany of cries throughout London. Lines 14 and 15 give irregular stress to the two words in order to further disturb the reader, leading up to the oxymoron of the “marriage hearse” in line 16. The poet expresses his disdain for the urban sprawl of post-Industrial Revolution London in terms as harsh as his praise for nature and innocence are pleasant. A society of people so tightly packed into artificial structures breeds evil upon evil, culminating with the “Harlot’s curse” that harms both the young and the married.
It is as if a system has been created specifically to destroy all that is good in humankind, a theme Blake takes up in his later works. The reader is warned off visiting or dwelling in London, and by implication urged to seek refuge from the world’s ills in a more rural setting. Blake’s critique is not aimed only at society or the system of the world, however. Only the third stanza directly addresses one group’s oppression of another. Instead, much of the poem decries man’s self-oppression. One reading of the poem suggests that the Harlot of the last stanza is in fact Nature herself, proclaimed a Harlot by a narrow-minded, patriarchal religious system. In this interpretation, Nature turns the marriage coach into a hearse for all marriage everywhere, because marriage is a limiting human institution that leads to the death of love rather than its fulfillment in natural impulses.