Songs of Experience

From Innocence to Experience
From innocence, man passes to experience. Blake knew that experience is bought at a bitter price. His Songs of Experience are the poetry of this process. They tell how, what we accept in childlike innocence, is tested and proved feeble by actual events, how much that we take for granted is not true of the living world, how every noble desire may be debased and perverted. When he sings of this process, he is no longer the piper of pleasant glee but an angry, passionate rebel. In Infant Sorrow he provides a counterpart to his Introduction and shows that even in the very beginnings of childhood there is a spirit of unrest and revolt: “Struggling in my father’s hands”, etc. At the start of its existence the human creature feels itself a prisoner, and, after its first efforts to resist, angrily gives up the struggle.

The Destructive Effects of Experience
When experience destroys the state of child-like innocence, it puts many destructive forces in its place. To show the extent of this destruction Blake places in the Songs of Experience certain poems which give poignant contrasts to other poems which appear in the Songs of Innocence. For instance, in the first Nurse’s Song he tells how children play and are allowed to go on playing until the light fades and it is time to go to bed. There Blake symbolizes the care-free play of the human imagination when it is not spoiled by senseless restrictions. But in the second Nurse’s Song we hear the other side of the matter, when experience has set to work. The voice that now speaks is not that of loving care but of sour age, envious of a happiness which it can no longer share and eager to point out the menaces and the dangers of the dark. It sees play as a waste of time and cruelly tells the children that their life is a sham passed in darkness and cold. The first and most fearful thing about experience is that it breaks the free life of the imagination and substitutes a dark, cold, imprisoning fear; and the result is a deadly blow to the cheerful human spirit.
The Sin of Hypocrisy
The fear and denial of life which come with experience breed hypocrisy, and this receives some of Blake’s harshest and hardest criticism. He regards hypocrisy as a grave sin, like cruelty, because it rises from the same causes, from the refusal to obey the creative spirit of the imagination and from submission to fear and envy. He defines it by providing an antithesis to The Divine Image in The Human Abstract. In bitter irony he shows how love, pity, and mercy can be distorted and used as a cover for base or cowardly motives. Speaking through the hypocrite’s lips, he goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing how glibly hypocrisy claims to observe these cardinal virtues .
Jealousy, Cruelty, Etc.
In Holy Thursday Blake shows what this means, how in a rich and fruitful land children live miserably. The horror of experience is all the greater because of the contrast which Blake suggests between it and innocence. In The Echoing Green he tells how the children are happy and contented at play, but in The Garden of Love, to the same rhythm and with the same setting, he presents an ugly antithesis. The green is still there, but on it is a chapel with “Thou shall not” written over the door, and the garden itself has changed. In the state of experience, jealousy, cruelty, and hypocrisy forbid the natural play of the affections and turn joy into misery.
Restrictions which Kill
Blake was painfully and acutely aware of the restrictions which kill the living spirit of man. His heart was outraged and wounded by the whole trend of contemporary civilization: In London he gives his own view of that “unchartered liberty” on which his countrymen prided themselves, and he exposes the indisputable, ugly facts. This poem shows the anguish with which Blake faced the social questions of his time. In a corrupt frame of mind, selfishness and cruelty flourish and are dignified under false names. This process wrecks the world. Harsh rules are imposed on life through what Blake calls “Mystery” with its ceremonies and hierarchies and its promise of “an allegorical abode where existence hath never come” (Europe). It supports those outward forms of religion which Blake regards as the death of the soul:
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.
(The Human Abstract)
In this poem Blake re-creates the myth of the Tree of Knowledge or of Life. This tree, which is fashioned by man’s reason, gives falsehood instead of truth, and death instead of life.
The Loss of Love and Affection
Perhaps the worst thing in experience, as Blake sees it, is that it destroys love and affection. On no point does he speak with more passionate conviction. He who believes that the full life demands not merely tolerance but forgiveness and brotherhood finds that in various ways love is corrupted or condemned. The Clod and The Pebble shows how love naturally seeks not to please itself, or have any care for itself, but in the world of experience the heart becomes like “a pebble of the brook” and turns love into a selfish desire for possession. The withering of the affections begins early, when the elders repress and frighten children.
The Anguish Behind the “Songs of Experience”
The Songs of Experience are more powerful than the Songs of Innocence because they are born of a deep anguish, from a storm in the poet’s soul. Blake knows that one kind of existence is bright with joy and harmony, but he sees its place taken by another which is dark and sinister and dead. But Blake was not content simply to complain or to criticize. He sought some ultimate synthesis is which innocence might be wedded to experience, and goodness to knowledge. That such a state is possible he reveals in the first poem of the “Songs of Experience”, where he speaks with the voice of the bard and summons the fallen soul of earth to some vast apocalypse.
The Link Between the Two Groups
Blake felt also that, although the state of child-like innocence and happiness is wonderfully charming, it was not everything and it could not last. To reach a higher state, man must be tested by experience and suffering. This is the link between the two groups of Songs—of Innocence and of Experience. Experience is not only a fact; it is a necessary stage in the cycle of being. It may in many ways be a much lower state than innocence, and this Blake stresses with great power, but it is nonetheless necessary.
The Difference Between the Two Groups
The difference between the state of innocence and the state of experience is reflected in the quality of Blake’s poetry. Sweet and pure though the Songs of Innocence are, they do not possess or need the compelling passion of the Songs of Experience. In dealing with innocence, Blake seems deliberately to have set his tone in a quiet key to show what innocence really means in his full scheme of spiritual development. He was careful to exclude from the first part of his book anything which might sound a disturbing note or suggest that innocence is anything but happy. That is why he omitted a striking verse which he wrote in the first version of A Cradle Song. The illusion of childhood and of the human state which resembles it must be kept free from such intruding suggestions, and there must be no hint that innocence is not complete and secure.
The Lyrical Quality of the “Songs of Experience”
The “Songs of Experience” were inspired by violent emotions and have a merciless satirical temper. In spite of that, they are in the highest degree lyrical. Indeed, no English poet, except Shakespeare, has written songs of such lightness and melody. Yet Blake’s subjects are not in the least like Shakespeare’s. He writes not about fundamental matters like spring and love and death, but about his own original and complex views on existence. And the miracle is that in presenting themes which might seem to need comment and explanations, he succeeds in creating pure song. His words have an Elizabethan lilt, a music which emphasizes their meaning and conforms exactly to it. Despite his strong emotions and his unfamiliar ideas, Blake keeps his form miraculously limpid and melodious. This success is partly the result of a highly discriminating art. Blake made many changes in his texts before he was satisfied with a final version, and these show how well he knew what he was doing, how clear an idea he had of the result which he wished to reach. But this art was shaped by a creative impulse so powerful that it can only be called inspiration. Blake indeed believed that his words were often dictated to him by some supernatural power. As he said about one of his prophetic books: “I may praise it, since I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary; the authors are in eternity”. In the strange workings of the creative mind there is a point at which words come with such force and intensity that they have a more than human appeal. Though the poet may not receive them all at once but gradually find, as Blake did, the exact words which he needs, yet these songs are miracles because their creation cannot be explained and because with them we feel ourselves in the presence of something beyond the control of man.
Separateness and Repulsion in their Unity
Some of the “Songs of Experience” produce an impression that, in respect of their mode of poetic organization or structure, everything is held back from contact with everything else. If they have a unity, it is that of a sustained negative conviction. Separateness and repulsion pervade this unity. For instance, it is a sequence of separated, isolated people that Blake passes and observes in London:
…… every cry of every man ……every infant’s cry of fear
man and child, church and child sweep, palace and soldier, harlot, client (it may be), child, bride and groom—each is the enemy of its counterpart; each is without a living relation to any of the others. The verbs (“appals”, “runs in blood down”, “blasts” “blight” and the concealed actions of fearing, cursing and weeping)—all show this same principle at work. In Infant. Sorrow, the child is endangered by the world, struggles against the father, strives against the swaddling bands, sulks against the mother. In A Little Boy Lost there is first the self-hood of the little boy, asserted over the bond between him and his father and brothers: and then the priest who seems to be enemy as much to the parents as to the child. Even between parent and child, there is no active relation, only helpless weeping.
The Structure of the Opening Poem
The Introduction to the “Songs of Experience” is another poem that presents a universe of disjunction and non-relation. Even the initial image of the divine presence (the “Holy Word”) walking among the trees is an illustration: its essential structure is not unlike that in London, of the poet walking among his fellow-Londoners and noticing them one by one. Both the divine presence is calling the soul that has “lapsed” away from it: and, whether it is the divine presence itself or the divinely inspired “voice of the Bard” that is in question, the starry pole that “might” be controlled but is not, and the “fallen” light that this might renew but does not, are “lapsed” into disjunction as well. When the “voice of the Bard” speaks, as it seems to do through the second half of the poem, what it speaks of is also opposites and unrelateds: the “starry floor” (of heaven) and “watery shore”, and the morning that “rises from” the “slumbrous mass” of the darkened earth. More remarkable still, even   what  the   poem  calls  for  (as  against  what  it  unhappily diagnoses), seems to come in similar terms:
O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass
The call is presumably to fallen humanity (“fashioned” out of clay), but that it should be called on to “rise from out” of the ground from which it was made is something that follows the reiterated movement of the poem. Similar again is at least the suggestion by the closing lines:
The starry floor,
The watery shore
Is given thee till the break of day.
If the esoteric, symbolic meaning of the poem be taken into account, this probably means that at the moment of his spiritual rejuvenation, man will repudiate, and be withdrawn from, the world of the senses and move into the intelligible world. But the poet has found means to refer even to this event (which, in his own terms, would be restoration of harmony) along the lines of the poem’s recurrent pattern: what is stressed is the break-up of an integration, the seeming cancellation of a bond. “Turn away no more”: that is how the stanza begins. What the poem as a whole depicts, and what it mirrors in its own mode of organization, is a world of universal “turn away”.
The “Songs of Experience” are poems belonging to that period of man’s development which succeeds the joyful state of Innocence, and takes its form in bitter disillusion, brought about by moral conventions and sordid realities. The happy and confident child becomes the jaded adult; the joyful bride becomes the hard-worked house-wife; the idealistic youth becomes a man of the world.
The poems may reflect, too, Blake’s own changing views. The ‘Songs of Innocence’ represented his outlook when they were written; but as he grew older he became painfully aware of the shortcomings of the life surrounding him—poverty, oppression, injustice, were but a few of the sores of contemporary society. And although he was successful as a journeyman engraver, his imaginative work found little recognition, his idealistic messages fell unheeded. The ‘Songs of Experience’, therefore, in seeing every innocent joy paralleled with a sorrow, may indicate Blake’s own state of mind at the time. Thus the innocent lamb is paralleled by the terrible tiger, in one of his greatest poems.
Blake asks a series of questions in The Tiger. He himself could have supplied one answer to these questions if he had quoted his own words from America and elsewhere: “Everything that lives is holy”—everything, including the tiger. “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” The answer is decidedly in the affirmative, and He must have smiled “his work to see”, who had created a world so rich that it contained both lamb and tiger, each different in kind, yet each, in its own terms, holy: “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression”. But the dreadful nature of the tiger remains; it was an act of daring even for a god to create such a being.
The first two lines of the penultimate stanza appear at first to be somewhat cryptic:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears, 
It is thought that these lines refer to the fall of the angels as described by Milton in Paradise Lost,
They, astonished, all resistance lost,
All courage, down their weapons dropt.
In Blake’s conception, when they were driven into hell, the fallen angels “watered heaven with their tears” leaving them behind as stars. All of this has obvious relationships with the fall of man, and the introduction into the world of death, and such terrors as the tigers. The angels and man have fallen into Experience.
Orthodox religion also is castigated in some of the poems, as may be seen in The Garden of Love, where priests are shown binding joys and desires with thorns:
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

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