When considering a poetic imagination so expansive, powerful and frequently full of contradiction as William Blake’s, it is often very difficult, when not outright impossible, to file his multitude of opinions down to a single perspective, especially where such beliefs concern religious or ethical coda. One gets the sense from his diverse works, complex biography, and divergent critical responses that Blake was prone to frequent variation not only in his attitudes towards the world around him but also in his treatment of such external phenomena in his poetic materials as well. Yet if Blake’s work is often pregnant with this sort of paradox, it is less the result of the artist’s inconsistency and more the reflection of his desire to render the surrounding world in as many colours as possible. Frequently, in fact, Blake’s work derives much of its force from just this sort of conflict but is saved from inevitable fragmentation by the artist’s tremendous power to unify such disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

Blake’s own opinion, therefore, on the difficult relationship between innocence and experience is no less problematic to summarize than any of his other beliefs; indeed, his own relationship to these two concepts appears itself to have matured and changed dramatically over time, and such a change of opinion is well-documented in the history of his Songs of Innocence and Experience. If the germination for Songs of Innocence began almost incidentally, as Sir Geoffrey Keynes suggests, when perhaps “Blake recognized that these poems, so lightly thrown off, were better than their context (Introduction, xi)” within the early satirical prose work An Island in the Moon, then there is equally little evidence to suggest that Blake conceived of both Songs as a unified pair from the very beginning. Or, as Keynes puts it:

There is no reason for thinking that when {Blake} composed the Songs of Innocence he had already envisaged a second set of antithetical poems embodying Experience. The Innocence poems were the products of a mind in a state of innocence and of an imagination unstained 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. (Introduction, xiv)
The story of Songs of Innocence and Experience therefore begins with an inquiry into Songs of Innocence alone, and, therefore, into Blake’s concept of innocence itself. Fortunately enough, the poet provides something of a starting-point to this question in his short philosophical tract All Religions Are One, composed in 1788 – about the same time that Keynes has Blake assembling the poems that were to eventually make up Songs of Innocence. In this piece, Blake argues that the “outward form of man” is derived from something called the “Poetic Genius”, and that each particular religion is but a portion of this one, perfect universal. This concept is not altogether distant from Blake scholar David Lindsay’s description of innocence:

…a state in which the human faculties are perfectly integrated, in which no being can refuse full sympathy to another, and in which the harmony of Man, God and Nature is too complete to allow a non-human conception of divinity or matter (p. 30).
Lindsay continues on to note that “the separate poems in Songs of Innocence contribute to Blake’s celebration of this ideal, and draw added significance from it (ibid),” and it is precisely this sort of universal celebration that is at the root of all of Blake’s Innocence poems.

It is possible, for instance, to read his ‘Introduction’ to the series both as a celebration of such simple joy or harmony and as a special hymn to the divine concept of poetic genius as well. Zachary Leader does much to underscore the childish immediacy in both of the poem’s figures in his essay on Entering Innocence, noting both the eager impatience of the cloud-child’s commands and the ‘gently tolerant nature’ of the piping figure. Although his conclusion, that it is precisely “because the Piper allows himself to play, to enter into the child’s world… {that} he is granted the power to create the very Songs that are to follow (p. 70),” insists upon considering innocence in negative terms (that is, lacking experience), it nonetheless also sees the figure of the child purely as a positive, inspirational force that engenders the poet with his divine gift.

Leader goes on to further emphasize this power of the child, noting that the ‘manner of speaking’ that the Piper adopts once the child is literally gone from the poem is that which approximates ‘child-likeness’:

The simplicity and directness of the poem’s final lines reminds us of the way children tell stories. The Piper connects each new bit of information with the words ‘And I,’ much as a child punctuates a story. (p. 71) Leader’s conclusion from this is an interesting one: he aligns himself with fellow critic Joseph Wicksteed in envisioning the figure of the poet as having internalized the spirit of the child. Indeed, as Wicksteed writes, “the child is now something within” the figure of the Piper himself.
Without meaning to force unintended symbolic structure into the poem, it seems apparent that the powers within this child are fundamentally no different than those which Blake ascribes to his concept of Poetic Genius or that Lindsay assigns to his definition of innocence. In truth, the child embodies each of these, and both his appearance upon a cloud and his request to hear a ‘song about a Lamb’ echo common visual themes of both church and childhood. Like Blake’s Poetic Genius, he can be seen to represent the ‘outward form of man’ in tune with a more perfect universal; like Lindsay’s innocence, he thus reflects the harmony of man, nature and God together; like a real child, he is eager, enthusiastic, and free of a heavy, symbol-laden self-consciousness. All of these fuse into the mind of the Piper.

Appropriately enough, another of Blake’s Songs is titled ‘The Lamb,’ and its connection to the ‘Introduction’ both in theme and in structure is undeniable. Perhaps this is even the same song that the Piper offers the young child in the ‘Introduction’; perhaps not – what is important is the fact that both treat similar topics of religion and of childhood and do so in a deeply like manner. As Leader notes, “’The Lamb’ is all innocent harmony and inter-relation,” and indeed, the same charge can be made of the ‘Introduction’.

As he did in the earlier poem, Leader here also notes the “stylized child-likeness of the speaker’s tone”, pointing to its

multiple repetitions of word and phrase, the sing-songy, jingle-like quality of {its} three- and four-beat trochaic lines, {and its} diction and syntax of the utmost simplicity, (p. 88)
all of which, he claims, refer back “to the child’s way of seeing and speaking (ibid).” Whether this suggests that the poem’s narrator is literally a child or simply a poet such as the Piper from the Songs’ ‘Introduction’ in a appropriately ‘child-like’ state of mind, the inference is that the poem’s simplicity and clarity are necessarily the result of a distinctly childlike perspective. Other devices of the poem reinforce this idea as well, including the simple question-and-answer schema of the poem’s two stanzas and its elementary symbolic equation of the child and lamb with God, and by extension, both with each other and with the Christ child as well. All of these ideas, however, reinforce the possibility that in Blake’s mind, poetic power, divinity, and childlike innocence were each indistinctly linked together at the time of the poem’s conception. Or as Leader puts it, from a reading of the poem, one divines “the benevolent unity not just of lamb, child, and Christ, but of all creation, (p. 89)” and here one can easily substitute either ‘Poetic Genius’ or ‘innocence’ in for ‘all creation’.

If Blake’s concept of ‘Poetic Genius’ therefore does much to inform and establish his sensibility of innocence in the first book of the Songs, as a primal, innate, and total unity, then it is equally likely that his later view of experience evolves from a deep questioning of this ideal. Lindsay suggests precisely this when he opines that the impetus for the Experience poems began when Blake’s desire for poems which reflected “the celebration of Innocence {began} to modulate into a more explicit questioning of intellectual error and social injustice (p. 38).” He notes further that

the profound and complex changes which took place in Blake’s mind and vision during the early 1790s had religious, political and sexual dimensions, (ibid)
and that

in this context the writing of additional the writing of additional lyrics for Songs of Innocence led naturally to the formulation of plans for a new engraved book in which the voices of Innocence would be answered by contrasting views expressive of resentment, delusion, and prophetic indignation (ibid).
The implication is that, in tracing the evolution of Songs of Innocence into Songs of Experience, one is also tracing the growth of Blake’s widening opinion on these two concepts as well.

But what exactly is the relationship of experience to innocence for Blake? Did he view the latter merely as ‘a state of conflict and disintegration’ as Lindsay puts it (p. 43), or did he also recognize (as Lindsay later implies) that from such division also comes greater diversity and variation? Surely Blake would have acknowledged that there was, in some basic sense, greater freedom in writing about the varieties of human experience; while his poems in this second book are certainly much more fragmented and less perfectly unified, they are also much more expressive and reflect greater ranges of mood as well. Such evidence points to Blake’s conception of experience not only as a mere dissolution of innocent harmony, but also as a complication, even enrichment, of a one-note state of innocence. For this reason, he went on to integrate his poems of experience deeply into Songs of Innocence, oftentimes using works from the earlier book as thematic or stylistic templates for later poems.

One such example is found in the ‘Introduction’ to Songs of Experience. When Leader notes that, in ‘hearing the voice of the Bard’ readers “cannot help but associate the Bard with the youthful shepherd {from the ‘Introduction’ to Innocence},” the greater implication is that one cannot understand this introduction without relating it to the former poem. In doing so, one notices several things immediately. Gone, for instance, are the gentle, childlike iambs of the earlier ‘Introduction’; they are instead replaced with an irregular, accent-based meter. The simple, rhymed couplets, also, of the earlier poem are replaced by a more complicated, interlocking schema. Finally, whereas the first poem presented a simple, calm narrative of a boy and a naive Piper, this second ‘Introduction’ offers an epic story, peppered with imperatives, in which the experienced Bard calls upon the very spirit of the Earth itself.

Leader’s reading of the story in this ‘Introduction’ is of “the Bard’s task…to summon man to a realization of the divinity of his creative power and potentiality.” This certainly fits with the poem’s epic scope, and it barely suggests what subsequent poems in the series will make explicit: that the moral landscape of experience can include creative urges and desires that are both problematic and terrifying. Lindsay describes this sensibility as “prophetic anger” (p. 47) and its themes are foreshadowed by the powerful urgency of the ‘Introduction.’ “Hear the voice of the Bard!” its first line commands; “O Earth O Earth return!” it charges two stanzas later. The poem can thus be seen as a transformation of the essentially passive and perfect harmony in Songs of Innocence into something alive and full of agency, vitality and power; it likewise marks the change of the ‘Poetic Genius’ from something inert, celestial and simple into something active, material, and deeply complicated. These will be the defining characteristics in most of the Experience poems.

Nowhere is this contrast made more explicit than in a comparison between the previously-considered poem ‘The Lamb’ and it’s counterpart in Songs of Experience: ‘The Tyger.” Whereas the former is all gentle rhythms and simple, comforting question-answer dynamics, there are no such eases in ‘Tyger’, for although its meter approximates that of ‘The Lamb’ and it too poses questions, such devices are used for dramatically different purpose than in the earlier work. The rhythms in ‘Tyger’ are done, for instance, to evoke a persistent, driving, even tribal feeling, and the poem is all problematic inquiry without resolution or answer. Everything in the poem leads up to one powerful rhetorical question (“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”), where the contrast of the Tyger’s figure with that of the Lamb - and by extension, the scope and intent of both respective poems - is made terrifyingly explicit and immediate.

The poem’s tone, then, is chiefly one of awe, directed at a figure that simultaneously manages to be both immensely beautiful and deeply frightening. This ambiguity is in turn made explicit by the line that immediately precedes the poem’s ultimate question, where the narrator simply asks: “Did he smile his work to see?” The implied question of both lines is: “How could this same creator produce both tigers and lambs, one a gentle figure, the other terrible?” Blake provides no simple answer to this; he seems to think that all man can do is to wonder and to accept.

The final extension of this and other poems in the second book is that the world of experience is distinctly and wholly unlike the world of innocence, and in fact, frequently at odds with that world. They may be commonly related in abstract, formal ways, but in reality, these two worlds are animals as antithetically paired as tigers and lambs.

It is strangely appropriate, then, to consider that the two books of Songs were inspired and produced under such different circumstances. Given that Innocence and Experience were separated by a span of roughly 5 years, the maturity of the one book into the other can be seen as partially reflective of Blake’s evolution as well. For these poems best reflect their poet’s own battles with experience; they are the thoughts not merely of a high-minded artist abstractly contemplating innocence or experience, but rather the interior world of a man struggling to come to real understanding of two difficult concepts and their complicated relationship. These poems are born chiefly from that struggle, and it is this friction and conflict that drives most of their passion. Like the interrelationship between innocence and experience themselves, Blake’s relationship to his own material is often difficult and complicated: for this, his poems are fueled by tension and by power.

bibliography forthcoming...

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.