William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience Summary & Analysis

Ode on melancholy
Ode on melancholy

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary & Analysis

William Blake published his second collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence, in 1789. He published it with the accompanying illustrative plates, a feat accomplished through an engraving and illustrating a process of his own design. The publication of Songs of Innocence began his series of “Illuminated Books,” in which Blake combined text and visual artwork to achieve his poetic effect. Blake always intended the poems of Songs of Innocence to be accompanied by their respective illustrations, analyzing the texts alone problematic at times.While ostensibly about the naivety and simplicity of innocent youth, Songs of Innocence is not merely a collection of verses for children. Several of the poems include an ironic tone, and some, such as “The Chimney Sweeper,” imply sharp criticism of the society of Blake’s time. Although intended as a celebration of children and of their unadulterated enjoyment of the world around them, Songs of Innocence is also a warning to adult readers. Innocence has been lost not simply through aging, but because the forces of culture have allowed a hope-crushing society to flourish, sometimes at the direct expense of children’s souls.

Songs of Experience followed five years later, bound with a reprinting and slight revision of Songs of InnocenceSongs of Experience has never been printed separately from the former volume, and Blake intended it as a companion piece to the earlier work. The same method of engraving plates to illustrate the poems is used in Songs of Experience.

Songs of Experience allows Blake to be more direct in his criticism of society. He attacks church leaders, wealthy socialites, and cruel parents with equal vehemence. Blake also uses Songs of Experience to further develop his own personal theological system, which was portrayed as mostly very traditional in Songs of Innocence. In Songs of Experience, Blake questions how we know that God exists, whether a God who allows poor children to suffer and be exploited is in fact, good, and whether love can exist as an abstract concept apart from human interaction. Blake also hints at his belief in “free love” in this volume, suggesting that he would like to dismantle the institution of marriage along with all other artificial restrictions on human freedom.

Both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contain poems that are interdependent. A critical reading of “The Lamb,” for example, is impossible without also reading the “Introduction,” “The Shepherd,” and “Night” from Songs of Innocence. Its meaning is further deepened when reading “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience, and vice versa.

Taken as a whole, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience offer a romanticized yet carefully thought out view of nature, God, society, and religion from a variety of perspectives, ultimately demanding that the reader choose the view he or she finds most compelling from among the myriad voices of the poems.

Ode on melancholy
Ode on melancholy

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Character List

the Shepherd

Blake’s primary persona in Songs of Innocence, the Shepherd is inspired by a boy on a cloud to write his songs down. The Shepherd writes of Innocence, about lambs and the Lamb, about nature, and about the experiences of children. The Shepherd is intended as a (biased) view of the world from a more naive perspective than Blake himself holds.

the Bard

The Bard is Blake’s persona for several poems in Songs of Experience. More worldly-wise than his counterpart, the Shepherd, the Bard is also more a craftsman of words than is the rustic singer. The Bard also has a prophetic voice and claims to see past, present, and future all the same.

Tom Dacre

One of the few named characters in Songs of Innocence, Tom Dacre is the young boy who cries at night after a hard day as a chimney sweeper. He eventually sleeps and has a dream of an Angel, who reassures him that his present suffering will end one day, and that he will be welcomed into an afterlife without pain.

the Little Black Boy

A character from the poem of the same title, the Black Boy is used by Blake to critique “hope for the future” religious and social beliefs and also to point out the flaws of racism. The Little Black Boy at first dislikes his dark complexion in contrast to the white English boys, but is assured by his mother that all outward appearances will fall away one day, leaving only the pure (but white) souls to enjoy the love of God.

the School Boy

The School Boy typifies the desire of youth to be outdoors without restrictions, despite the confines of institutionalized education. He speaks of the drudgery he must undertake to be in school and compares it to the wonders he might experience outside on a summer’s day.

the Lost Little Boy

A recurring character (possibly different characters), the Little Boy who is lost appears in two poems from Songs of Innocence and in one poem in Songs of Experience. In each case, Blake uses the character to point out the failure of parents and of society to meet the needs of the children, and also the harm which blind religious devotion often entails. In Songs of Innocence, the Little Boy is rescued by God and finds comfort with his mother; in Songs of Experience he is discovered by a Priest as he questions his apprehension of God, and he is eventually burned alive for his alleged heresy.

the Lost Little Girl

The Lost Little Girl appears in Songs of Experience as a counterpoint to the “Little Boy Lost” of Songs of Innocence. She is pursued by her parents through the desert in which she wanders, but a lion and a lioness find her and bring her to their cave for safety. The poem suggests that they may have killed her in order to free her from her earthly suffering.

 

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Glossary

abstract

Thought or idea apart from concrete reality; having to do with non-material realities or truths.

Albion

Albion is the ancient name for Britain. Blake tends to use it ironically, recalling the “glory days” of the Empire and alluding to the reign of King Arthur while drawing attention to the moral and social blights affecting his country.

ale

Alcoholic drink similar to beer, but darker and heavier and with a more bitter taste.

bereaved

Having experienced loss, usually of a loved one, but the loss may also refer to loss of material items or abstract qualities.

dell

A small, wooded valley.

eschatological

Having to do with the “end times” as foretold in Biblical prophecy.

gambol

To skip about in a playful manner.

green

In the context of William Blake’s poetry, a “green” is a grassy area forming the common of a village.

hallowed

Set apart for use by God or a religious institution representing God.

harlot

A prostitute.

hearse

A vehicle used to convey the coffin of a deceased person from the place of ceremony to the burial ground. Blake uses it ironically when he describes a “marriage hearse.”

hoary

White, as if covered by frost.

innocence

The state of naïveté or lack of religious knowledge that comes before an understanding of sin and evil through experience.

irony

The use of language to convey a meaning opposite to the one ostensibly stated.

manacles

Chains used to bind prisoners.

materialism

Philosophical thought in which only the measurable physical world is held to exist or be of importance.

nature

In Blake’s poetry, nature is a living, sentient thing that possesses qualities embodied in the world at creation, and which nature has been slower to lose than human beings have. The natural state of man is one full of joy and free from the restrictions of man-made authorities.

parson

A Protestant minister or pastor.

reason

The capacity of human beings to think, often placed in opposition to imagination or emotion.

symmetry

The balanced and well-proportioned arrangement of the parts of a whole item or creature.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Themes

The Destruction of Innocence

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.

Redemption

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.

Religious Hypocrisy

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.

Social Reform

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.

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