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William Blake Essay, Research Paper
T.S. Eliot once said of Blake’s writings, “The Songs of
Innocence and the Songs of Experience, and the poems from
the Rossetti manuscripts, are the poems of a man with a
profound interest in human emotions, and a profound
knowledge of them.” (Grant, Pg 507) These two famous books
of poetry written by William Blake, not only show men’s
emotions and feelings, but explain within themselves, the
child’s innocence, and man’s experience. A little over two
centuries ago, William Blake introduced to the English
literary world his two most famous books of poetry: the
Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. In his own
day, he was widely believed to be “quite mad,” though those
who knew him best thought otherwise. Today, few of us take
Blake’s madness seriously, either because we don’t believe
in it or because it no longer matters. Blake’s fundamental
concepts speak mainly about the human condition and emotion;
and within the realms of this paper, I would like to
persuade my readers that William Blake uses simple language
and metaphors to show the two contrary states of the human
soul – innocence and experience.
The world of innocence is a child’s world, and it is
preserved in the minds of full-grown children by projecting
the memory or desire for parental protection on to a higher
realm. The lambs with their “innocent calls”, the orphans
and children with their “innocent faces”, are simple and
pure in that they have done no harm; but they are also
innocent in that nothing challenges their faith. They are
naive and vulnerable to the conspiracy of the experienced
world, and yet superior to it in their blessed simplicity.
The world of experience is a different world then the one of
innocence. Northrop Frye once said of the experience world;
“The world of experience is the world that adults live in
while they are awake. It is a very big world, and a lot of
it seems to be dead, but still it makes its own kind of
sense… the changes that occur in the world of experience
are, on the whole. orderly and predictable changes.” (Grant,
Pg 510) However, the adults were also once children, and in
childhood, happiness differs from those of the full-grown.
As a child, happiness is based not on law and reason, but on
love, protection, and peace. As an adult, however, one must
follow the rules of law and order. Frye also said this of
the experienced world; “As adults, the law and order is the
basis both of reason and society, without it there is no
happiness.” (Grant, Pg 510)
“The Songs of Innocence does not seem to be songs only
about innocence, but by innocence.” (Ferber, Pg 2) This can
be seen clearly within the “Introduction” section to the
Songs of Innocence. The songs are ‘of’ innocence in the way
the Piper’s songs are ’songs of pleasant glee’ and ‘happy
chear’. They are of the world of innocence too, because
their internal audience consists of innocents. For
instance, when the child makes demands, the Piper casually
and innocently responds – four demands followed by four
Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear.
The child, then, innocently, requested to hear the song
again, but this time he ‘wept to hear.’ With the example
above, one may suspect that the Songs of Innocence is
‘really’ aimed at sophisticated adults, but the reader may
be ‘really’ a child anyway; therefore, it is safe to say
that, as simple as it may seem, one should take seriously
the Piper’s story that the Book of Innocence owes its
existence to the demands of a child, even if he is an
imaginary one. It is also say to say then, that in order to
fully understand and appreciate all the songs that follow,
one must comprehend the meanings hidden within the
The “Introduction” points the readers towards the
pastoral world and the pastoral idea to follow in the next
couple of songs. The reader can tell this by looking at
Blake’s usage of props and themes of the classical pastoral
tradition; such as the pipe and the hollow reed, the sweet
lot of the shepherd and the pleasant sounds of nature.
Blake uses a fairly clever conceit in the last stanza to
have the Piper manufacture a ‘rural pen’ out of a hollow
reed, rather then to pluck one from a bird, for it is a
routine pastoral fact that pipes are made of hollow reeds;
the pen, then, is thus a transformed pipe.
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs,
Every child may joy to hear.
‘Clear’ suggests ‘innocent’ and to stain clear water is
symbolically to corrupt innocence, water being as clear and
fluid as the air or cloud which are home to the child. Yet
’stain’d’ in one context may have moral connotations, while
in another it may not. For instance, in church, one is not
troubled by the thought of stained-glass windows? This is
one example of Blake’s ambiguities. “Blake is filled with
secondary and tertiary counter-meanings that lurk like
quicksand or trapdoors underfoot, and an innocent reader of
Blake must learn from experience to tread tiptoe through the
primary level (which turns out not to be primary after all)
and to leap and dance along all the others.” (Ferber, Pg 5)
Another example of this ‘allegedly ambiguity’ is within the
first stanza of “The Shepherd”:
How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot,
From the morn to the evening he strays.
The shepherd, who should be looking for stray sheep, has
gone astray himself. This subversive thought breeds others:
is he a wolf in shepherd’s clothing? Why, then, does Blake
throw such ambiguity at his readers? To explain his belief
that there are two contrary states of the man’s soul by
relating it with the idea of the astray shepherd, perhaps?
More important than classical pastoral in the Songs of
Innocence is Christian pastoral. “The tradition that Jesus
is the Good Shepherd and Christians are his flock is so
familiar that we scarcely notice a metaphor in the ‘pastor’
of a ‘congregation’, or an emblem in the bishop’s crozier or
crook.” (Ferber, Pg 7) Blake brings it to the readers
attention in the last stanza of “The Shepherd”:
He is watchful while they [the sheep] are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.
The poem would still make perfect sense even if there were
no “Good Shepherd” tradition; but by placing “Shepherd’ at
the end, Blake subtly evokes the thought that there may be
another, ‘divine’ Shepherd nigh and that the second ‘they’
includes the mortal shepherd with his sheep. This thought
clarifies the last line of the first stanza – “And his
tongue shall be filled with praise” – for readers may have
wondered whom he is praising. His sheep? No, he is
praising the Good Shepherd, or Whoever it is that unites
ewes and lambs and brings peace to the flock.
“Even more central to Christian tradition is the
inverse metaphor that Jesus is the Lamb of God; an innocent
lamb ‘without blemish’, acceptable to God as a sacrifice for
man’s sins. The identification of Jesus as Lamb is
connected to the Incarnation and the Nativity, the arrival
of the ‘divine’ among us not only in human form but as a
baby, born among common people and common animals.” (Ferber,
Pg 7) Therefore, the child who asks the lamb ‘who made thee’
(in “The Lamb”) answers his own question and tells how the
three of them – lamb, child, and Jesus – are all connected:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
“Jesus grew to be a man and made the supreme sacrifice at
his crucifixion – that is why he is called the lamb – and by
doing so, embraced man again in their sorrows and death as
well as their joys and life.” (Bloom, Pg 44) An example of
this can be found in the poem “On Anothers Sorrow” as the
speaker gives the readers both aspects:
He doth give his joy to all.
He becomes an infant small.
He becomes a man of woe
He doth feel the sorrow too.
. . . . .
O! he gives to us his joy,
That our grief he may destroy
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
With the above example, one can assume that there is a great
deal of sorrow within Blake’s ‘world of innocence’; for most
of the tears shed are not tears of joy. For instance then,
the last stanza in “The Little Boy Lost”:
The night was dark, no father was there.
The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
The tears mentioned were hardly those of joy; they were
tears of a child without his father – tears of sorrow.
Another prime example can be found within the mother’s
“Cradle Song”. This entire poem, more or less, tells of
Sleep sleep happy child.
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep,
While o’er thee thy mother weep.
Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When he was an infant small.
. . . . . .
We can see from these few poems that humans are very
susceptible to pity, to tears; this then, is what Blake took
into consideration when writing his poetry. He widened the
world of innocence to embrace the ultimate in suffering; but
he also kept it ‘innocent’, and rather obviously so. The
examples for this are found in the latter poems in the Book
of Innocence: “Holy Thursday”, “The Divine Image”, and “A
Dream”. These poems explain that “where mutual concern and
love break down, angels intervene and escorts the victim to
a world where the broken knots of love and pity are re-knit
for ever.” (Ferber, Pg 9)
Innocence is primary and self-sufficient, but
experience steals in or pounces upon unwary innocence in
man’s unhappy world. For Blake, however, experience is a
fallen state. A writer once said of this, “Experience is
the ‘lapsed Soul’ that is addressed in the ‘Introduction’ to
Experience … It is in no way higher than innocence, and it
is not clear if it is even a necessary phase or passage…”
(Rossetti, Pg 19) As with the Book of Innocence, there is a
singer in the introduction section. However, unlike the
first book, The Bard does not ‘introduce’ the readers to his
world in the same manner as the Piper did in the Book of
Innocence. One main thing the reader must notice is that
the “introduction” or that the Bard’s poem has a reply,
“Earth’s Answer”; this then, reveals the rough ground on
which the Bard’s appeal falls upon. The amount of distance
the readers have travelled can be seen in the fact that
there are two speakers as opposed to the one speaker in the
Book of Innocence. Another problem the reader encounters is
the difficulty of the poem. The structure and the syntax of
Blake’s writing is much harder and sophisticated in the Book
of Experience than in Innocence. Even with the difficult
punctuation and syntax Blake uses, the general purport of
the “introduction” shows itself to the readers on the first
reading; the Bard, like a biblical prophet, calls on the
world to leave its darkness and return to its former state
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees,
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word,
That walk’d 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!
“It is best to take ‘The Holy Word’, then, as calling to
‘the lapsed Soul’…” one critic explained. (Ferber, Pg 22)
Taken this into consideration then, the reader can see that
it is neither a man, nor animal, or sun, nor star that the
Bard is addressing; it is the earth itself.
O Earth O Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.
Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
. . . . . .
One can clearly see that these two stanzas parallel either
the creation in book Genesis or the addressing of un-
receptive souls of Israel by Jeremiah in book Jeremiah of
the Bible. “Blake, in the introduction to Experience, gives
us a set of mixed metaphors, but the metaphors have
subterranean connections among themselves and therefore they
are brilliantly mixed and hidden.” (Bloom, Pg 46) The
ending to the introduction is a quiet one, but very powerful
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.
If the starry pole really is a floor, then the place where
Earth “should” rise and walk is above the stars, the place
where the “Holy Word” reigns. Now then, if Earth sees the
stars from “beneath”, she is either upside down, or fallen,
or perhaps even both. The watry shore, which is the earth’s
limit, is in a way, symbolizing the starry floor; and the
watery shores are given to Earth by providence to sustain
her until morning. In the last stanza, however, Earth
finally sees herself as a victim of another, so she has but
one choice, and that is to call upon the Father (or the
voice she takes to be the Father) to
“Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around
That free Love with bondage bound.”
One can see that in the last stanza, the Earth is calling to
God to liberate her, rather than freeing herself.
Blake did not believe that all human woes are self-
induced. “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Little Black Boy” do no
afflict themselves. But, as states, innocence and
experience are subject to one’s own energies and intentions.
Innocence is not immunity to suffering, but a faith in life
and an openness to others that mitigate that suffering by
placing it in a larger universe. Experience is marked by
despair and a withdrawal into one’s private self.
“Ultimately one can see that the nettlesome bards ‘belong’
to the thorny ground of fallen Earth, but that is not to
reduce them to the same level of delusion. The bards are
one means of universal redemption, not least because they
call the readers to action against the social evils that
make innocent people suffer.” (Ferber, Pg 22)
Work Cited Page
Johnson, Mary L., and John E. Grant, eds. Blake’s Poetry
and Designs. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.
Bloom, Harold. William Blake. New York: Chelsea House
Ferber, Michael. The Poetry of William Blake. London:
Pengiun Books, 1991.
Rossetti, William M., ed. The Poetical Works of William
Blake. London: G. Bell and Sons, LTD., 1914.
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