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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

unaccountable tears:

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

of light:

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

in itself.

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

Selfish! vain!

Eternal bane!

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

Publishers, 1985.

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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