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William Blake contrasts the different states of the human mind in his poetry collection Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
William Blake (1757 – 1827) is widely believed to have been one of the most original English language writers of his time. His prowess both as a poet and an artist (he often used prints to illustrate his verse) allowed him to capture the human experience with great intelligence and beauty. His work is thought to have signalled the beginning of the Romantic period, and also later inspired the poetry of the 1950s Beat Generation. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is perhaps Blake’s most famous collection of poetry. Subtitled “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience examines the paradoxical nature of human existence. While Songs of Innocence describes the lightness, joy and purity of childhood, Songs of Experience expresses the corruption and disillusionment of adult life. Blake’s poetry seeks to understand how these contrary states relate to each other, and why they are both necessary to the human soul.
Songs of Innocence
Blake’s Songs of Innocence are characterised by descriptions of happiness, laughter, the beauty of nature and the carelessness of childhood. There is a lovely simplicity to these poems – they are lyrical and easy to read. References to children and nature are common, as in “The School Boy”: “I love to rise in a summer morn/When the birds sing on every tree;/The distant huntsman winds his horn,/And the sky-lark sings with me./O! what sweet company./ But to go to school in a summer morn,/O! it drives all joy away”. The poems “Laughing Song” and “The Ecchoing Green” also exalt the joy of playing outside, and the untroubled happiness of children.
Songs of Experience
It may be argued that the poems in Songs of Experience are more sophisticated than those in the preceding collection. They are certainly much darker in subject matter, and present more complex ideas than Songs of Innocence. “The Garden of Love”, for example, deals with the idea of religion destroying passion: “And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,/And binding with briars my joys and desires”, while the poem “A Poison Tree” famously investigates the complicated nature of anger: “I was angry with my friend:/I told my wrath, my wrath did end./I was angry with my foe:/I told it not, my wrath did grow.” The use of language and imagery in Songs of Experience is also much more evocative. The poem “London”, for example, creates a bleak sense of hopelessness with the lines – “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe”, and “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls.”
While Songs of Experience is a beautiful and thought-provoking collection of poetry in its own right, it can only truly be appreciated when read in comparison with Songs of Innocence. Many of the poems in Songs of Innocence have a corresponding verse in Songs of Experience, and reading them together reveals the conflicting ideas Blake was trying to make sense of. “Holy Thursday” in Songs of Innocence, for example, describes a group of children attending church: “’Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,/ The children walking two and two,/in red & blue & green”. The poem’s counterpart in Songs of Experience views the scene from a different angle, questioning how people can attend church and sing when so many children are facing poverty: “Is that trembling cry a song?/Can it be a song of joy?/And so many children poor?/It is a land of poverty!” Comparing the poems “The Lamb” (in Songs of Innocence) and “The Tyger” (Songs of Experience), however, is perhaps the best way to examine the paradox at the root of Blake’s poetry. In “The Lamb” the author wonders who “Gave thee clothing of delight,/Softest clothing, wooly, bright;/Gave these such a tender voice,/Making all the vales rejoice?” Similarly, in “The Tyger” Blake asks who could have created this ferocious animal: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” How, the poet seems to be asking, can something as gentle as a lamb exist in the same world as an animal as fearsome and violent as a tiger?
The poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are an effort to make sense of the paradoxical existence of love and hate, tenderness and violence, in our own souls. The conclusion seems to be that these contradictory states are natural parts of human life, and that they cannot exist without each other.
Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.