The world as depicted in the “Songs of Experience” is widely different from that depicted in the “Songs of Innocence”. The world in the “Songs of Innocence” was largely a child’s world, a world of simplicity, innocence, happiness, and security. The world in the “Songs of Experience” is a world of cruelty, tyranny, repression, evil, guilt, and suffering. The “Songs of Experience” are poems which describe the woes and injustices of civilized society. Some of these poems are satirical of the “mind-forged manacles of custom and law. The poems in this group show Blake in a mood of sadness and bitterness. Experience seems to have taught Blake that men are shortsighted and blind, and that they are ignorant of the spiritual nature of life. Men wrongly prefer reason to the mystic vision, and they wrongly prefer law and morality to natural impulse.
The world of the “Songs of Experience” is full of dangers. It would seem that fear has infected human beings in this world. The hope of obtaining any comfort from love seems remote. There is too much of repression, including a repression of the sexual impulse. Any sexual expression of love meets with particularly bitter opposition from the elders in society. In these songs references to the fall of man from God’s grace are unmistakable. A golden age in the past is looked at with a longing. A possible return of bliss, either in another future golden age on earth or in heaven, is occasionally hinted at or stated as the only hope of human happiness, as in the
Introduction, in The Voice of the Ancient Bard and in the opening stanza of The Little Girl Lost.
The two opening poems strike the keynote of the “Songs of Experience”. In the Introduction, the Bard, like an ancient prophet, has heard God’s message. If mankind will only heal this message, a new dawn of happiness will break. Man has “lapsed” or fallen from his original happy state in the Garden of Eden, but there is a hope of recovering that state. However, in the poem that follows, Earth says that she is imprisoned by her fears of the false god of conventional religion. This false god is described as “Starry Jealousy” and “Selfish Father”. (He is Urizen of Blake’s later poems). The law prescribed by this god is a series of prohibitions. Blake effectively builds up here a picture of desolation, an atmosphere of darkness and of grey despair. Earth laments the fact that her bones are “frozen around with a heavy chain” and that “free love is bound with bondage”. In the two opening stanzas of The Little Girl Lost, the Bard, in the person of Blake himself, strikes an optimistic note, proclaiming a golden age in future when Earth will rise from her sleep and live in accordance with the imagination, that is, by the Word of God. The present world is, however, a “desert wild”. In The Voice of the Ancient Bard, the poet again looks forward to a new age, but the present world is full of doubt, dark disputes, folly, and “clouds of reason”. Blake was opposed to the dictates of “reason” and believed in “energy” or the “imagination”. For him the tiger symbolised that energy or imagination. The tiger represents the abundant life which Christ tried to bring into the world. The tiger certainly inspires terror, and that terror is fully conveyed to us by his poem, but the tiger is essentially Blake’s symbol of regeneration and energy, though it is a symbol also of the terrifying and violent forces within man.
Blake strongly deplores sexual repression in society. A number of poems have sexual repression as their subject. A Little Girl Lost opens with a vigorous condemnation by the poet of the suppression of love in the present time. In the story of the poem, Ona’s father is shocked and dismayed by her having made love to a boy. The father thus represents a restrictive influence. The Sick Rose is perhaps Blake’s most concentrated expression of the horror of repressed sexuality. Sexual repression diverts enormous psychic force into destructive eflects. This poem also illustrates his view that sexual repression is itself sexual in character. In the poem called, The Angel, the subject is again sexual frustration. The angel seems to protect the maiden tenderly, but frustratingly, from sexual experience. The maiden hides her sexual awareness, and the angel goes away. She resolves to have sexual experience and arms herself against the angel. But it is too late, for she has grown old.
The main theme of the poem, Ah, Sunflower, is the need for a free expression of sexual love. The youth and the virgin, denied and denying, are virtually dead and buried. There is no doubt that the poet looks at this state of affairs as deplorable. The Garden of Love is an attack on negative morality, particularly that which lays restrictions on sexual love. The garden of love represents spontaneous natural delight. But priestly prohibitions, destroy this delight and bring death in its place. In other words, the loss of the capacity for delight is equivalent to death. Priestly prohibitions are here conveyed through the words “Thou shall not” written over the door of the chapel.
In The Clod and the Pebble, Blake expresses his disapproval of the love that seeks only to please itself and to make a prisoner of the beloved. In this poem, the tyranny of love is the target of attack as much as the repression of love in various other poems. In My Pretty Rose Tree, the poet sacrifices the opportunity of enjoying a woman’s love in order to remain faithful to his wife, but even this virtuous conduct on his part produces hostility in the wife. This means that the poet might as well have enjoyed the love that was offered to him by the other woman. The wife’s jealousy shows the kind of love that is deplored in the pebble’s love in the poem already mentioned. This jealousy is the tyrannical possessiveness which Blake finds to be often a characteristic of women’s love. In The Lily, the poet sees the possibility of danger and treachery in love (represented by the rose and the sheep), but the poet also sees the possibility that genuine innocence and love do exist (in the shape of the white lily). The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found convey the idea that the passions which a growing young girl experiences should not be condemned or treated as being harmful and dangerous. These passions, particularly that of love, are symbolised by the wild animals who take charge of Lyca but do her no harm. Thus wild animals represent the human passions or energies which are also treated symbolically in the poem The Tiger. Lyca’s parents are made to recognise that their growing girl has now gone under the guardianship of Love, and is therefore perfectly secure.
Then there are poems of social protest. Blake is opposed to all kinds of oppression symbolised by the conventional religion, social institutions, schoolmasters, and even a children’s nurse. In (he “Songs of Experience”, the nurse has a negative approach to children’s playing. She thinks of play as a waste of time, and she anticipates the days of maturity which will be full of deceit and suffering for the children:
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
And your winter and night in disguise.
The chimney sweeper’s distress now distinctly arouses the poet’s indignation. The little chimney sweeper’s parents have gone to the church to pray, thinking that he is contented and happy. But the child is quite aware of the “injury” that has been done to him, and so he speaks of the priest and the king as making up “a Heaven of our misery”. Holy Thursday denounces a society which permits conditions in which children have to seek charity. The poet refers to England as “a land of poverty” even though it considers itself “a rich and fruitful land”. Children can never be hungry in a land where the sun shines and the rain falls, but there are hungry children in England. London is another poem that depicts sordid and sad conditions of life. The poet sees “marks of weakness, marks of woe” in every face. He hears “the mind-forged manacles” in every voice, whether of man or child. Then there is the soldier who sheds his blood in obedience to his king, and there are the blackened chimney sweepers. Lastly, there is the tragedy of loveless marriages which compel men to go to prostitutes and beget illegitimate children.
A Little Boy Lost, depicts the cruelty of the church and its priests. A little boy is burnt to death under the orders of a priest because he dared to think for himself. Blake here brings out the full cruelty and pathos of the situation in which a small child is accused of heresy and then punished with death. The child in The Little Vagabond is critical of the church which is too puritanical and which imposes unnecessary austerities upon the people. He cannot see why God and the Devil cannot be reconciled. Why should God not show love even for the Devil ? The Schoolboy shows the frustration of a growing child’s healthy instincts. There are things which can delight the mind of a child, but the child is sent to a school which oppresses and limits him. The schoolmaster here represents a tyrannical influence. and the child has to spend his whole day under the schoolmaster’s supervision:
Under a cruel eye outworn
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
Then there are a number of poems which depict human nature as unpleasant and ugly. Infant Sorrow shows the child as “a fiend hid in a cloud”, struggling and striving in his father’s hands. To Tirzak shows the physical body of man as being unwelcome and unwanted in contrast with the spiritual body or the soul. In The Human Abstract, we are told that mercy and pity are used as a justification for the continued existence of poverty and misery. If mercy and pity cannot he practised except by allowing poverty and misfortune to continue, they are no longer genuine virtues. If we really pity miserable people, we would do our best to improve their condition. As in the poem London, Blake is here pointing out that man is responsible for the evils of society. The “caterpillar” and the “fly” in this poem are the various types of clergymen to whom Blake was opposed. “Mystery” is the organised religion of which Blake was an enemy. Then there is the poem A Divine Image. Here we are told that cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secrecy are human attributes. (This can mean that God too suffers from such evils, because God made man in His own image).
In short, the “Songs of Experience” give us a repellent picture of human nature and English society, though we are not shut out completely from hope. Blake’s opposition to Reason is here quite apparent. Later on, he invented a god called Urizen to symbolise Reason. The attributes of this god are an negative, attributes which hinder, such as jealousy, fearfulness, cruelty, secrecy, hatred of life and of joy. His agents are priests and kings; but his agents also include parents, nurses, schoolteachers, and others in positions of some authority; they also include men and women whose love is selfish and tyrannical. The aim of Urizen is to bind, fetter, imprison, freeze. The above survey of the “Songs of Experience” shows clearly how the restrictive influences of Urizen operate upon human beings in various spheres of life, and especially in the sphere of sexual love.