Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

Magnificent Poetry
It is possible to read Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience and to be so enchanted by then that we do not stop to ask what in fact they mean. Such a procedure has the firm support of a great modern poet who said of them: “The meaning is a poor foolish disappointing thing in comparison with the verses themselves.” This is of course true. The mere meaning, extracted from the poems and paraphrased in lifeless prose, is indeed a poor thing in comparison with what Blake wrote. The poems succeed through the magnificence of their poetry, and no analysis can take its place.

Necessary to Know the Meaning
At the same time it is almost impossible to read and enjoy poetry without knowing what it means, for the good reason that the meaning is an essential part of the whole and makes an essential contribution to the delight which the poems give. When we know what Blake means, we appreciate more fully his capacity for transforming complex states of mind into pure song and for giving to his most unusual thoughts an appeal which is somehow both intimate and delightfully exciting.
Two Contrary States
Blake grouped these poems under two main headings— “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”—and there is plainly a great difference of character between the two groups. He described these songs as “showing the two contrary states of the human soul”. In so arranging his work, Blake followed his own maxim that “without contraries is no progression”.
Architectural Order
This contrast meant much to him, and if we neglect it we do so at the risk of misunderstanding his intention. So emphatic a division is not to be found in the prophetic books, and it shows that, when he liked, Blake could impose a fine architectural order on his work.
Innocence and Its Destruction
The two groups of songs are contrasted elements in a single design. The first group sets out an imaginative vision of the state of innocence; the second shows how life challenges and corrupts and destroys it. What Blake intended by this scheme may be seen from the motto which he wrote for the book but which he did not include in it. That motto (written in the form of a little poem of eight lines) shows how the Songs are related to some of the most persistent elements in Blake’s thought.
The Main Theme
For Blake what matters is the active life of the creative imagination. He is opposed to building philosophical systems on sense-perceptions instead of on “vision”. He believes that the naturally good are deceived by such systems and so corrupted by them that they cease to think for themselves. When this happens, knavery, hypocrisy, and selfishness enter into the soul and the state of innocence is lost. But for those who have eyes to see, the soaring spirit of the eagle is visible in all its difference from the sleepy owl. This is the main theme of the Songs. In the first group Blake shows what innocence means; in the second how it is corrupted and destroyed.
Innocence and Pastoral Life
Blake’s state of innocence is set forth in symbols of pastoral life. At first sight he seems to have something in common with what Vaughan, Traherne, and Wordsworth: say in their different ways about the vision of childhood which is lost later in life. But Blake is concerned not with the loss so much of actual childhood as of something wider and less definite. For him childhood is both itself and a symbol of a state of soul which may exist in maturity. His subject is the child-like vision of existence.
An Exposition and a Treatise
Songs of Innocence and of Experience showing the two Contrary States of the Human Soul is a title which shows that we are not dealing simply with a collection of songs about childhood and youth, but with a treatise and an exposition. And yet the word “Songs” tells us truthfully that the form is poetry.
Three Categories
Many of these Songs, it is true, are simple enough. They are exactly what they seem; lyrics of bird-like beauty and Arcadian charm. Others have a double beauty, a beauty of simple meaning and an accompanying beauty of remoter thought. In a few the very poetry seems to recede into magic caves, whence it can only be unearthed by deep study of the charms of Blake’s magianry.
A Didactic Purpose
But both beauty and meaning are intended to serve a purpose, a didactic purpose. Blake has set out to enlighten us about the soul of man, and to do this gives us a living realization of its “two contrary states”.
Double Vision
Blake at this time saw all things two-fold. If the soul had its contrary states, words and images had their secondary, and deeper meaning, while vision itself, the organic faculty of speculation in the eye, was often vividly two-fold. There were moments of exaltation when Blake quite literally saw double. A tree by a stream in the sunshine was not only a tree, but a paradise of angels, and yet still a tree. This ecstatic mystic experience is the foundation of Blake’s power.
Blake’s Fundamental Philosophy
Blake’s system sometimes entangled him and helped to weave that vast complex of obscurity which envelops his later poetry. But his fundamental philosophy, as we find it in the “Songs” is singularly simple and sane. Joy he conceives as the core of life. We do not learn, or receive, or derive this joy from something else; it is our being and essence. And yet no one better understood the part played by sorrow in the expansion of the soul. Indeed, grief and misunderstanding may be so bad as to destroy souls, so far as anything can ever be destroyed. In A Little Boy Lost and A Little Girl Lost, we have the stories of innocence thwarted and destroyed at the very moment when it was reaching out to experience. But every birth into a higher life may be through the portals of pain and distress; so that radiant as our essential Being is, there is no place too dark or dire for the mind to contemplate or for the soul to explore. If God is as manifest as the Lamb “by the stream and o’er the mead”, He can reveal himself equally “in the forests of the night” as the Tiger. And when the night yields to day it is a greater day.
Blake’s Child-like Qualities
And yet with all his maturity of meaning, Blake is in some ways singularly child-like. Indeed, he might almost be described as the boy who grew up to be a genius, a prophet, without ever “growing up”. Taken separately a number of the strands which make up Blake’s peculiar genius are characteristically childlike things. Children love to draw pictures and then paint them in bright colours. They make up little rhymes and sing them. They think it would be very nice if we all ran about naked and played with the animals. They like to imagine dreadful and lovely things happening. They are often very angry with the grown-up world. All these things Blake understood not as an outsider but because he had them in himself. There is also something of the child in his faith in the use of metaphor and symbol to explain and simplify the mysteries of being; and certainly the visionary faculty itself is almost universal in some form with children.
Blake’s Indifference to Being Understood
There are certain other child-like features of the Songs. One of these is Blake’s perfect indifference to being understood. He seems quite as happy talking to the angels as a child talking to its dolls, without a thought of being overheard.
Intense Concentration of Meaning
A characteristic of Blake’s, though not in itself child-like, is closely connected with things that are child-like. This characteristic is his intense concentration of meaning. He has so much to say that he can only express himself by using words that mean a great many things. His symbols are often nothing else than bundles crammed with feelings and meanings, laboriously assembled. But once completed these symbols are full of picturesque and dramatic possibilities, and are indispensable to his intensely condensed expression. But he does not always use them with success in the end. Jerusalem which is the noblest of his great prophecies and contains more precious lumps of gold than any, is not only very obscure but is too full of gloom and of horror for really great poetry. Much of what he had to say was for his own relief of mind, and it becomes a burden upon our minds.
The Use of Symbolical Metaphor
In the Songs the concentration is often as great as in anything Blake ever uttered. There is comparatively little actual symbolism, but there is constant and abundant use of symbolical metaphor, which must be understood if we are to enjoy either the meaning or the beauty to the full. (When Blake uses the Serpent to represent the Priest, it has become a pure symbol, whatever its origin. But when he uses a tree, or green leaves, to represent the flesh, it is a metaphor expressive of the sweet earthiness of the unthinking life of man and animals).
Musical Qualities of His Verse
Much of Blake’s verse suggests musical analogies. Almost all his greatest works are harmonies, a theme with a deeper and sometimes several deeper meanings reverberating below and within. The Blossom, for instance, is a pretty little song of the garden on the surface, but it is also a lullaby or cradle song. Closely examined, it turns out to be a unique and exquisite love-song, conveyed in symbol and closely associated with the exquisite inner theme of Infant Joy. (In conjunction with Blake’s illustration of its theme, the poem becomes an essay on bodily love, its beauty and its course in human life, and also its expression in art). All this is condensed into forty-four words including the title, (twenty-seven if we omit repetitions).
Exquisite Qualities of the Songs
These poems are really unequalled in their kind. Such verse was never written for children since verse-writing began. Only in a few of those faultless fragments of childish rhyme which float without name or form upon the memories of men shall we find such a pure clear cadence of verse, such rapid ring and flow of lyric laughter, such sweet and direct choice of the just word and figure, such an impeccable simplicity; nowhere but here such a tender wisdom of holiness, such a light and perfume of innocence.
The Beauty of “Night” and of “The Little Black Boy”
Nothing like this was ever written on that text of the lion and the lamb; no such heaven of sinless animal life was ever conceived so intensely and sweetly:
And there the lion’s ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold;
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold,
Saying, “Wrath, by His meekness,
And, by His health, sickness,
Is driven away
From our immortal day.
“And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep;
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee and weep.
For washed in life’s river
My bright mane for ever,
Shall shine like the gold,
As I guard o’er the fold.”
The leap and fall of the verse here is so perfect as to make it a fit garment and covering for the profound tenderness of faith and soft strength of innocent impulse embodied in it. But the whole of this hymn of Night is wholly beautiful; being perhaps one of the two poems of loftiest loveliness among all the Songs of Innocence. The other is called The Little Black Boy: a poem especially exquisite for its noble forbearance from vulgar pathos and achievement of the highest and must poignant sweetness of speech and sense; in which the poet’s mysticism is baptized with pure water and taught to speak as from faultless lips of children, to such effect as this:
“And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love’. And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
Other Wonderful Poems
Other poems of a very perfect beauty are The Piper, The Lamb, The Chimney Sweeper and Infant Joy; all, for the music in them, more like the notes of birds caught up and given back than the modulated measure of human verse. One cannot say, being so slight and seemingly wrong in metrical form, how they come to be so absolutely right, but right even in point of verses and words they assuredly are. If further formal completion of rhyme and rhythm were added to that song, Infant Joy, it would break up the soft bird-like perfection of clear light sound which gives it beauty: the little bodily melody of soul-less and painless laughter.
The Great Qualities of the “Songs of Experience”
The “Songs of Experience” contain several pieces which are higher, for the great qualities of verse, than anything in the “Songs of Innocence”. If the “Songs of Innocence” have the shape and smell of leaves or buds, the “Songs of Experience” have in them the light and sound of fire or the sea. Entering among them, a fresher savour and a larger breath strike one upon the lips and forehead. In the first collection we are shown those who have, or who deserve, the gift of spiritual sight; in the second we are shown what things there are for them to see when that gift (of spiritual sight) has been given. Innocence, the quality of beasts and children, has the keenest eyes; and such eyes alone can see and interpret the actual mysteries of experience. It is natural that this second collection, dealing as it does with such things as underlie the outer forms of the first collection, should rise higher and dive deeper in point of mere words. These (the Songs of Experience) give the distilled perfume and extracted blood of the veins in the rose-leaf, the sharp, liquid, intense spirit crushed out of the broken kernel in the fruit. The last of the Songs of Innocence is a prelude to this second collection; in it the poet summons to judgment the young and single-spirited, that by right of the natural impulse of delight in them they may give sentence against the preachers of convention and assumption.
And in the first poem of the second collection he, by the same “voice of the Bard”, calls upon Earth herself, the mother of all these, to arise and become free: since upon her limbs are also bound the fetters, and upon her forehead also has fallen the shadow, of a jealous law: from which nevertheless, by faithful following of instinct and divine liberal impulse, earth and man shall obtain deliverance:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, and Future sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word,
That walked among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
If Earth and the dwellers upon Earth will hear the Word, they shall be made again as little children; they shall regain the strong simplicity of eye and hand proper to the pure and single of heart; and for them inspiration shall do the work of innocence. Let them but once give up the doctrine by which comes sin and the law by which comes prohibition. Therefore must the appeal be made; so that the blind may see and the deaf hear, and the unity of body and spirit be made manifest in perfect freedom; and so that to the innocent even the liberty of “sin” may be granted. For, if the soul suffers by the body’s doing, are not both degraded? And if the body be oppressed for the soul’s sake, are not both the losers?
O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn.
And the mom
Rises from the slumberous mass.
Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery store.
Is given thee till the break of day.
For so long, during the night of law and oppression of material form, the divine evidences hidden under sky and sea are left her; even “till the break of day”. Will she not get quit of this spiritual bondage to the heavy body of things, to encumbrance of deaf clay and blind vegetation, before the light comes that shall redeem and reveal?
“Earth’s Answer”
But the earth, being yet in subjection to the creator of men, the jealous God who divided Nature against herself—father of woman and man, legislator of sex and race—makes blind and bitter answer as in sleep, “her locks covered with grey despair”:
Prisoned on this watery shore,
Starry jealousy does keep my den;
Cold and hoar, Weeping o’er,
I hear the Father of the Ancient Men.
Thus in the poet’s mind, Nature and Religion are the two letters of life, one on the right wrist, the other on the left; an obscure material force on this hand, and on that a mournful impious law: the law of divine jealousy, the government of a God who weeps over his creature and subject with unprofitable tears, and rules by forbidding and dividing: the Urizen of the Prophetic Books, clothed with the coldness and the grief of remote sky and jealous cloud. Here as always, the cry is as much for light as for licence, the appeal not more against prohibition than against obscurity:
Does the sower
Sow by night,
Or the ploughman in darkness plough ?
In the Songs of Innocence there is no such glory of metre or sonorous beauty of lyrical work as here. No possible effect of verse can be finer in a great brief way than that given in the second and the last stanzas of the first poem here. It recalls within one’s ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave; in the third and fourth lines sinking suppressed as with equal pulses and soft sobbing noise of ebb, to climb again in the fifth line with a rapid clamour of ripples and strong ensuing strain of weightier sound, lifted with the lift of the running and ringing sea.
“The Tiger”
In the Songs of Experience is to be found also that most famous of Blake’s lyrics, The Tiger, a poem beyond praise for its fervent beauty and vigour of music. Nor has Blake left us anything of more profound and perfect value than The Human Abstract; a little mythical vision of the growth of terror; through soft sophistries of pity and faith, subtle humanity of abstinence and fear, under which the pure simple nature lies corrupted and strangled; through selfish loves which prepare a way for cruelty, and cruelty that works by spiritual abasement and awe:
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
Under the shadow of this tree of mystery, rooted in artificial belief, all the meaner kinds of devouring things take shelter and eat of the fruit of its branches; the sweet poison of false faith, painted on its outer husk with the likeness of all things noble and desirable; and in the deepest implication of barren branch and deadly leaf, the bird of death, with priests for worshippers (“the priests of the raven of dawn”, loud of lip and hoarse of throat until the light of love have risen), find house and resting-place. Only in the “miscreative brain” of fallen men can such a thing strike its tortuous root and bring forth its fatal flower; nowhere else in all nature can the tyrants of divided matter and moral law, “Gods of the earth and sea”, find soil that will bear such fruit.
“To Tirzah”
To Tirzah is a poem in which Blake has expressed his spiritual creed more clearly and earnestly than anything else. Tirzah in his mythology represents the mere separate and human nature, mother of the perishing body and daughter of the “religion” which occupies itself with laying down laws for the flesh; which, while pretending (and that in all good faith) to despise the body and bring it into subjection as with control of bit and bridle, does implicitly over-rate its power upon the soul for evil or good, and thus falls foul of fact on all sides by assuming that spirit and flesh are twain, and that things pleasant and good for the one can properly be loathsome or poisonous to the other. In this poem Blake eagerly and directly appeals against any rule or reasoning based on reference to the more sexual and external nature of man—the nature made for ephemeral life and speedy death, kept alive “to work and weep” only through that mercy which “changed death into sleep”. Blake shows a strong reliance on redemption from such a law by the grace of imaginative insight and spiritual freedom, typified in “the death of Jesus”.
The Living Power of the Imagination
In the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, we get only hints of the final consummation which shall restore men to the fullness of joy. These poems are concerned with an earlier stage in the struggle and treat of it from a purely poetical standpoint. What Blake gives is the essence of his imaginative thought about this crisis in himself and in all men. When he completed the whole book in its two parts, he knew that the state of innocence was not enough, but he had not found his full answer to his doubts and questions. From this uncertainty he wrote his miraculous poetry. Against the negative powers, which he found so menacingly in the ascendant, he set, both in theory and in practice, his gospel of the imagination. Strange as some of his ideas may be to us, the poetry comes with an unparalleled force because of the prodigious release of creative energy which has gone to its making. The prophet of gigantic catastrophes and celestial reconciliations was also a poet who knew that poetry alone could make others share his central experiences. In the passion and tenderness of these Songs there is something beyond analysis, that living power of the imagination which was the beginning and the end of Blake’s activity. Because Blake pierced beyond the visible world to eternal powers (“an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty”) and made them his daily company, he was able to give to his poetry the clarity and the brightness of vision.
Rossetti’s Comment
This is how Dante Gabriel Rossetti reacted to the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”:
“The first series is incomparably the more beautiful of the two, being indeed almost flawless in essential respects; while in the second series, the five years intervening between the two had proved sufficient for obscurity and the darker mental phases of Blake’s writing to set in and greatly mar its poetic value. This contrast is more especially evident in those pieces whose subjects tally in one and the other series. For instance, there can be no comparison between the first Chimney Sweeper, which touches with such perfect simplicity the true pathetic chord of its subject, and the second, tinged somewhat with the common-places, if also with the truths, of social discontents.”
Remarkable Lyrical Poems
In recent years scholars have tended to neglect the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” for the prophetic books, because the Songs look limpid and translucent, while the prophetic books are rich in unresolved mysteries and alluring secrets. But the Songs deserve special attention if only because they constitute one of the most remarkable collections of lyrical poems written in English.
The Singer
Blake made in practice a distinction between poetry and prophecy. In the first place, he recognized and maintained a difference of form. In the Songs he uses the traditional metres of English songs and hymns without even repeating the experiment, of using lyrical blank verse, which he made in Poetical Sketches. In the prophecies he uses what is in fact free verse, and his reasons for this are given in the Foreword to Jerusalem. In the prophecies he speaks as an orator and needs an orator’s freedom. In the Songs he sings and needs the regular measures of song.
The Purpose
In the second place, his purpose differs in the Songs and in the prophecies. In the prophecies he had a great message for his generation, an urgent call to awake from its slothful sleep, a summons to activity and to that fuller life which comes from exerting the imagination. This is not the spirit in which he begins the “Songs of Innocence” with a poem significantly called Introduction which reveals a poet who sings because he must and not a prophet whose first wish is to summon his generation to a new life. In the Songs Blake pursued a more traditional and more lyrical art, because some deep need in him called for this kind of expression. There are undeniable connections between the Songs and the prophetic books, but the Songs go their own way in their own spirit. In the Songs he speaks of himself from a purely personal point of view. It is true that he uses his own remarkable symbols, but not quite in the same way as in the prophetic books, and certainly not with the same desire for a new mythology to supplement or correct that of the Bible.
Blake’s Conception of God
In the “Songs of Innocence” the symbols convey a special kind of existence or state of soul. In this state human beings have the same kind of security and assurance as belongs to lambs under a wise shepherd or to children with loving parents. Both the shepherd and the father of Blake’s poems is God. It is He who is Himself a lamb and becomes a little child, who watches over sleeping children and gives his love to chimney sweepers and little black boys. In the fatherhood of God, Blake’s characters have equal rights and privileges. But by it he means not quite what orthodox Christians do. Blake, despite his deeply religious nature, did not believe that God exists apart from man. For him, God is the creative and spiritual power in man, and apart from man the idea of God has no meaning. When Blake speaks of the divine, it is with reference to this power and not to any external or independent godhead. So when his Songs tell of God’s love and care, we must think of them as qualities which men themselves display and in so doing realize their full, divine nature. For instance, in the poem On Another’s Sorrow, Blake’s message seems to be that every sigh and every tear of ours evoke a response from our divine nature and through this are cured and turned to joy. Compassion is part of man’s imaginative being, and through it he is able to transform existence. For Blake, God is the divine essence which exists potentially in every man and woman.
Divine Qualities in Man
The power and appeal of this belief appear in The Divine Image. The divine image, of course, is man, but man in part of his complex being and seen from a special point of view. The divine qualities, which Blake enumerates in the poem, exist in man and reveal their divine character through him. In mercy, pity, peace, and love he found the creed of brotherhood which is the centre of his gospel. It is in the combination of these qualities that man is God. In the state of innocence, life is governed by these qualities, and it is these which give to life its completeness and security in that state. That is why Blake calls his Songs of Innocence “happy songs” which “every child will joy to hear”.
The Use of Symbols
What Blake describes are not actual events as ordinary men see and understand them, but spiritual events which have to be stated in symbolic terms in order that they may be intelligible. In the “Songs of Innocence” his symbols are largely drawn from the Bible, and since he makes use of such familiar figures as the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, there is not much difficulty in seeing what he means. But in the “Songs of Experience” he often uses symbols of his own making, and his meaning is more elusive. Indeed, some poems in this group are fully understandable only by reference to symbols which Blake uses in his prophetic books.
Allegory Addressed to Intellectual Powers
Blake, then, anticipates those poets of a hundred years later who forged their own symbols in order to convey what would otherwise be almost inexpressible, since no adequate words exist for the unnamed powers of a supernatural world. Blake’s own view of his method was thus stated by him: “Allegory addressed to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal understanding, is my definition of the most sublime poetry.”
Events in a Spiritual World
Since by “corporeal understanding” Blake means the perception of sense-data, and by “intellectual powers” the imaginative spirit which is the only reality, it is clear that in his view poetry is concerned with something else than the phenomenal world, and that the only means to speak of it is what he calls “allegory”. It is true that elsewhere he sometimes speaks contemptuously of allegory, but that is because he distinguishes between true and false allegory. For him allegory in the good sense is a system of symbols which present events in a spiritual world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s