Talking About: Growing Up and William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

I've been talking a fair bit in my opening posts about subjectivity, so I thought what better a place to start my examinations of literary works than with William Blake's collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Songs was on the syllabus of a poetry course I took while in my first year of university, and I regret the fact that I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have at the time. Blake is considered to be a poet of the Romantic Age, having lived from 1757 to 1827, and so I think to many of us reading today his poetry has that sort of aged, old fashioned feel to it that we might associate with other writers such as Shakespeare: his rhetoric includes 'thy' and 'thee', he uses an organized rhyme scheme, and there are many allusions to religion and the natural world.

At the time I think I found Blake to be somewhat irrelevant to my own life in the hyper modern world of the twentieth century, which is a shame because looking back, I realize how pertinent Songs are to adolescents reaching the threshold of adulthood, and moving from the magical realm of childhood to the darker, grittier world of maturation. 

Songs of Innocence, for me, beautifully captures the innocent world of childhood, and the sort of hopeful outlook that everything will be alright. Innocence takes the reader through pastoral settings filled with 'the lambs innocent call' and shepherds, across 'Echoing Greens' where 'Old John with white hair/ Does laugh away care'. The charming, bright and sunny natural world Blake presents can be seen as representing the dreamy interiority of youth, where life seems rather glowing and promising.

There's a sense that, even when conditions are not so idyllic, the presence of God will always lead one towards the light of goodness and salvation. In 'The Little Black Boy', a poem where poet and critic Stanley Kunitz argues that Blake is critical of both the slave trade and the harsh factory conditions of the Industrial Revolution, the little boy who is 'black as if bereav'd of light' learns from his mother that 'on the rising sun: there God does live/ And gives his light, and gives his heat away.' While they may be on earth, 'these black bodies and this sun-burnt face/ Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.' Eventually, when their 'souls have learn'd the heat to bear/ The cloud will vanish and we shall hear his voice,.'

This theme, that through God one will overcome one's circumstances, persists through 'The Chimney Sweeper' and the poems 'The Little Boy Lost' and 'The Little Boy Found'. Although the poems become increasingly darker, even in the final poem 'On Anothers Sorrow', Blake insists that 'Think not, thou canst sigh a sigh,/ And thy maker is not by.' Rather, 'he gives to us his joy,/ That our grief he may destroy'.

There's no evidence that when Blake first wrote Songs of Innocence in 1789 he had any intention of later writing Songs of Experience. However, as Geoffrey Keynes finely explains in his Introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience:

'The Innocence poems were the product of a mind in a state of innocence, and of an imagination unspoiled by stains of worldliness. Public events and private emotions soon converted Innocence into Experience, producing Blake's preoccupation with the problem of Good and Evil. This, with his feelings of indignation and pity for the sufferings of mankind as he saw them in the streets of London, resulted in his composing the second set.'

The title page of Songs of Experience is dated 1794 and it is believed that they were always combined with Songs of Innocence, in a single volume, from their initial inception. As a result, Blake forces the reader to look at each section as part of a dichotomy, and to read the poems against one another, rather than as separate entities. As Kunitz suggests, 'One poem does counterpoint another to highlight the contraries of innocence and experience, good and evil, to represent all the contradictions of one's life.' 

It's clear from the opening poems that Blake is presenting a much darker and sinister world than that which we encountered in Innocence. Rather than having a vision of a child who urges the poet to 'Pipe a song about a Lamb', as happens in the 'Introduction' to Innocence, here in the 'Introduction' we have the poet 'Calling the lapsed Soul/ And weeping in the evening dew'.

We are now in 'a land of poverty' where, for poor children, 'their sun never does shine./ And their fields are bleak & bare' and it is 'eternal winter'. In 'The Chimney Sweeper,' a poem that exists as a direct antithesis to the earlier version appearing in Innocence, Blake questions his earlier belief that God and religion can truly offer salvation, stating, in the voice of a child, that while his parents may 'think they have done me no injury: And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King', in reality these figures simply 'make up a heaven of our misery'.

As Kunitz describes, the songs here 'begin to concentrate on the evils of the world, the hardening of the soul, the afflictions of life.' They are filled with images of tears, graves, darkness, incompetent parents that fail to care for their children, and these now untrustworthy religious institutions. Perhaps this is shown most poignantly in 'A Little Boy Lost' where a little boy is murdered after speaking egotistically to a Priest. There's no longer a belief that if one believes, they will reach salvation. Rather, the Church may be as corrupt as everything else.

As I stated above, I think it's too bad that I didn't appreciate these poems more as an eighteen year old because I think if I had. they might have been helpful in the following years as the cynicism of my twenties kicked in, and inevitably my own sunny outlook of the world became tainted with the brutal realities of what adulthood was really like. The journey that Blake takes us on here is, I think, rather typical of what all of us go through as we mature, and the fantastical dreams of our childhood fail to come to fruition in the ways we previously imagined.

It's for this reason that I associate this collection of Blake so much with subjectivity, because what I think Blake does beautifully is prove the fact that really, there is no objective reality that any of us can access. For even within one individual, there's no hard, definitive 'I' that consistently gazes at the world in the same way. Rather, even within all of us, there are competing forces at work that push and pull our views in different directions. This can be no more evident than in the volume of Songs of Innocence and Experience that takes us on the journey from innocence to experience, and, along the way, questions its own earlier conclusions.