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William Blake - Songs of Innocence and Experience
Many attempts have been made to set Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience to music. Classical composers who have done so include William Bolcom (1984), Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Folk singers include Greg Brown, who recorded an album of sixteen tracks, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1987), and Finn Coren in his Blake Project. But the attempt I am most familiar with is by hip poet, Allen Ginsberg, who accompanied himself on harmonium on Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg (1970). Being a lover of Blake's poetry I decided to try my hand at recording the complete collection of poems. I have set them to music, partly original, partly adaptations of well-known folk tunes. It will be presented in eight videos, with some assistance from my sister, Annette, also a lover of Blake, and my nephew, Lachlan.
William Blake (1757–1827), now famous for his unique poetic and artistic vision, was not recognised during his own lifetime. His incredibly rich and imaginative poetry expresses a romantic and mystical view of the world, and, though he loved the Bible, an extreme hostility to established religion and the conventional view of marriage, all of which earned him a reputation for madness or at least eccentricity. He was influenced by the revolutions in France and America and by the writings of philosophers such as Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Songs of Innocence were published in 1789, and Songs of Experience in 1793. The following year a combined edition was published with the full title Songs of Innocence and Experience showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. This collection of poetry and engravings is the most accessible of Blake's work, most of which is very complex and intellectually taxing.
The copper plates Blake used and his method of etching his lyrics and illustrations were expensive and time-consuming and so copies were quite hard to come by. He regarded his poems and etchings as inseparable. Blake failed to impress his intended audience and considered himself a failure, living out his life after 1809 in a state of depression.
The Songs of Innocence and Experience are based on Blake's belief that these were “the two contrary states of the human soul,” and both essential for life. The poems in Songs of Innocence either express a child's point of view or are about children. Many of them have a matching poem in Songs of Experience, giving a very different and darker perspective.Though Blake believed children needed to become experienced, he blamed social exploitation, such as child labour, and dogmatic religion for their loss of innocence, rather than through their own exploration of the world around them.
To hear the songs, click the Headings. To read the lyrics, click the title of the song.
1. Introduction - Songs of Innocence (with Annette and Lachlan)
2. The Shepherd - Songs of Innocence
3. Introduction - Songs of Experience
4. Earth's Answer - Songs of Experience
5. The Echoing Green - Songs of Innocence
6. The Garden of Love - Songs of Experience
Blake was very much aware of the irony of presenting “songs,” basically ephemeral because of their oral nature, not only in written form, but elaborately and painstakingly engraved. His "Introduction" to The Songs of Innocence seems to cast doubt on the Romantic notion that the spoken voice could be truly captured in writing. The three instructions given by the child to the piper - to play his pipe, to sing his songs, and to write them down - implies a descent from the pure essence of music, through singing, still spontaneous but restricted by language, to the written word, which, once created, can exist on its own without the need for a human being to bring it to life. The act of writing itself, it is suggested, leads us away from nature to "experience".
The song of The Shepherd is a simple description of the shepherd's joyful relationship with his flock, obviously a reference to the love of God in the eyes of an innocent child. The image of people or animals guarding their children is a major motif in these songs.
Whereas the Introduction to Songs of Innocence presents the song-writer as a piper, the Introduction to Songs of Innocence shows him as an ancient bard, asking the sinful earth to return to God. There is disagreement over whether he is a benevolent prophet weeping for the fallen world or a jealous tyrant. In any case he does not represent Blake, who values the world of experience as an essential part of life. Rather, he is Urizen, a figure who turns up many times in Blake's works.
The Introduction is followed by the rather complex song, Earth's Answer. Earth perhaps represents the world of experience here. Whether she should take the bard's advice or try to remain free in her fallen state depends on our interpretation of the bard's motives in the Introduction. She seems to see herself as imprisoned by his jealousy in a world of darkness.
The Echoing Green presents a day in the life of a group of children playing, beginning with the rising sun and ending with its descent in the third verse. The cyclic nature of the song is reinforced by the "old folk" who watch the children and remember playing on the Green themselves as children, so the daily cycle is a metaphor for the cycle of life from birth to death. The image of the children returning to their mothers at the end of the day on the "darkening green" suggests the joyful return to God when life is over.
The Garden of Love shows that the natural setting for the children's innocent play, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, has now been destroyed by the institutions of organised religion, with its rules and restrictions. We find that "the gates of the chapel were shut / And 'Thou Shalt Not' writ over the door," and the final lines beautifully express this restrictiveness not only in the imagery, but also In the tight internal rhymes: "Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds / And binding with briars my joys and desires". The priests have turned the Garden of Love, "where I used to play on the green," into a garden of punishment and death, where the flowers have been replaced by graves.
1. The Lamb - Songs of Innocence
2. The Tyger - Songs of Experience (with Annette)
3. The Little Black Boy - Songs of Innocence
4. The Chimney Sweeper - Songs of Innocence
5. The Chimney Sweeper - Songs of Experience
The Lamb is a simple child's song in a question and answer format. Though the question, "Who made thee?" is simple it is also one that all humans have asked themselves - where do we come from? What are the origins of life? But the question is rhetorical. The child already knows the answer according to the Christian faith he is growing up with and therefore accepts as truth. Jesus is traditionally portrayed both as a gentle and peaceful lamb, and also as a child. Blake saw these aspects of conventional Christianity as positive, but felt they didn't tell the whole story as they didn't explain the existence of suffering and evil. He wrote The Tyger to balance this view with the darker side of the story.
It was a common idea in Blake's time that nature somehow reflected its creator. The tiger, though beautiful, has a violent aspect. The question Blake is asking is what kind of a God would wish to create such an animal. This is a simple way of raising the question of why God allows so much evil in a world which is also so beautiful. Blake uses the image of a smith, a traditional artisan, to represent the creator of all things. The amount of hard physical work that must have gone into “forging” the tiger suggests there is nothing accidental about the way this creature was made. The song moves from the question of who has the ability to create such an animal to who would want to do so. Like The Lamb, it is made up of questions, but these questions are very different from the child's innocent faith in the earlier song, suggesting a power and will beyond our comprehension.
The Little Black Boy is based on the traditional symbolism of white/light and black/dark. Right at the start we have the contrast between the child's black skin and his white soul. The negative connotations of blackness are clear from his assertion that he is “as if bereav’d of light,” but the rest of the song proves he is equal to any white child in God's eyes. His mother epitomises the ideal of natural love central to the poem, anxious that he will have confidence in himself and the love of God, and successfully persuading him that his suffering is something to be proud of rather than ashamed of. She presents the traditional Christian teaching that earthly life is a temporary state leading to eternal life, when skin colour will be irrelevant. The Songs of Experience show that Blake was not convinced by this conventional "pie in the sky" attitude. It is interesting that the black boy believes his black skin has better prepared him for the afterlife than the white child, whom he is prepared to shade from the brightness of God’s love until he gets used to it. He explains to the white boy that they are equals, but that true freedom can only be found beyond the trials of the physical world. It may strike the modern reader / listener, that the black boy is blind to the racism and oppression of the world around him and is too eager to accept the injustices of the system, and Blake's later songs suggest he may have had some sympathy with this view.
Child labour was common in Blake's time, in particular the phenomenon of the chimney sweeps, little boys about five years old whose parents sold them to a master sweep so they could earn a small amount of money by climbing up chimneys to clean out the soot, which often resulted in stunted growth, lung diseases and death by suffocation. The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence ironically shows the children accepting their lot in life, naively believing that they will come to no harm if they "all do their duty," as this is what they have been taught by those in authority over them. Tom Dacre's dream about leaping and laughing in the sun indicates what Blake thinks these children should be experiencing rather than the miserable life they lead. As this was a widespread practice of the time, he is attacking his audience for perpetuating their misery by allowing their chimneys to be cleaned in this way.
In its counterpart in Songs of Experience, Blake uses the traditional symbolism of black and white, contrasting the "little black thing" with the loss of his childhood innocence represented by the snow. His clothes are "clothes of death" not just because of their funereal colour but because this young child who has barely learned to speak will soon die from the diseases caused by the soot. The child cannot understand his parents' motives for selling him into this miserable life, concluding that it must be "Because I was happy." More likely it was due to their desperate poverty, and the fault of the social system rather than of the parents themselves who probably had little choice. They have convinced themselves that their child is okay and have gone to praise God, perhaps thanking him for the new laws of 1788 which purported to offer protection to chimney sweeps, but had in fact made little difference. The parents are blissfully unaware the church itself is part of the social system that has created "a heaven of our misery."
1. The Lilly - Songs of Experience
2. The Blossom - Songs of Innocence
3. My Pretty Rose Tree - Songs of Experience
4. Night - Songs of Innocence
5. The Sick Rose - Songs of Experience
6. Laughing Song - Songs of Innocence
7. Ah, Sunflower - Songs of Experience
8. Spring - Songs of Innocence
9. A Poison Tree - Songs of Experience
This set of songs consists mainly of those involving imagery of plants and flowers, though some are also about animals. Deceptive in their simplicity, they convey in their short lines several of Blake's major themes.
In the first one, The Lilly, the lily is compared to the rose, which is protected by its thorns. The lily, on the other hand exposes its 'beauty bright' and, unlike the modest rose, is ready for love.
The Blossom, full of joyful images of nature such as "leaves so green", and "happy blossom" is about two different birds - a sparrow and a robin. The sparrow is happy with life, but the robin is sad. It has been suggested that Blake is showing two different social groups here - the upper classes happy with their lot and the lower classes unhappy with life's unfairness. The robin, being a winter bird misses out on the blossoms of summer. There are also Freudian interpretations, with the sparrow seeking his cradle "swift as an arrow" in the "happy blossom" of the female. This is not as far-fetched as it may at first appear as many of the songs do have suggestions of giving in to physical desire.
My Pretty Rose Tree tells the sad story of a faithful man, deeply in love, who rejects a beautiful woman when she tries to seduce him. But when his wife (or lover) hears about it, she turns away from him in jealousy, thus leaving all three characters alone and in sorrow. The natural imagery is very effective, particularly in the last line where all he has left of his beautiful rose are her thorns.
Night shows an innocent world protected by angels, though they have limited power. They cannot prevent the slaughter of lambs by wolves and tigers, but they can soothe their spirits as they enter the afterlife. The lion, impressed by the lambs' meek acceptance of their fate, is moved to stand guard over them, as does his counterpart in the story of the little girl lost and found. The lamb, as always in Blake's works, is a reference to Jesus.
The Sick Rose is a short but very effective song, full of powerful imagery. The rose is both a beautiful part of nature and also a traditional symbol of love. The worm which infects it, symbolic of death and decay, suggests the serpent in the garden of Eden as well as the obvious sexual interpretation. The “bed” is both the flowerbed of nature and the lovers’ bed. The “crimson joy” indicates sexual enjoyment but also shame, because it must be hidden in the darkness of night. The suggestion is that love itself is sick without realising it, due to the need for secrecy rather than being able to love openly. Blake is attacking what he saw as the perverted idea of his society that love was something shameful to be kept hidden away from the common view.
The health-giving properties of laughter are well-known and Blake's The Laughing Song shows the joy of innocent laughter, associating it with images of nature. It is only in the world of "Experience" that we sometimes find there is not much to laugh about.
The sunflower in the next song is a potent symbol of desire. In Greek mythology the sunflower was created when a woman "pined away with desire" for the Sun God and turned into a sunflower, which follows the movements of the sun throughout the day. Just as the sunflower is unable to fulfill its desire to be with the sun so the young man and lady cannot act on their desires because their society would disapprove. Thus the girl is associated with images of death as her life is without meaning. In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, the poet, Allen Ginsberg, had an auditory hallucination while reading Blake's poetry. At first he believed he had heard the voice of God, but later interpreted the voice as Blake himself reading Ah, Sunflower, along with The Sick Rose, and Little Girl Lost. This was the start of his musical interpretation of Blake's "Songs".
The short lines of Spring express the joy of innocent children enjoying the sights and sound of nature as the new season begins. There are images of children interacting with birds and animals, in particular the lamb, which, of course, is symbolic of Jesus Christ.
One of Blake's most effective songs, A Poison Tree can be seen as further developing the ideas of the earlier songs in Songs of Experience, especially The Garden of Love and The Human Abstract, in attacking the teachings of the Church for stifling human emotions. Even emotions such as anger, he believed, should not be suppressed as this would only cause them to grow. The original draft was actually called Christian Forebearance, but Blake felt the need to make the meaning less obvious to avoid censure from the authorities. The message at the start of the song seems very simple. Tell people how you feel or the bad feelings will get worse. But this is not just about whether or not to hide or show your anger. There is a broader question about why we regard some people as friends and some as foes, and whether we should treat them differently. The next verse describes how the protagonist has cultivated his anger and allowed it to grow, comparing it to a plant, watered with his tears and "sunned ... with smiles / And with soft deceitful wiles," until it takes on a life of its own. The resultant fruit is "an apple bright," reminding us of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The protagonist sees the curiosity and envy in the mind of his foe and exploits it: "And my foe beheld it shine, / And he knew that it was mine." As expected, his foe steals into the garden to steal the apple, with a clever pun on the word "steal." The repetition of "And" at the start of the next three lines builds the song towards its climax, with the scene then cutting to the discovery of the body the next morning, the onset of darkness having obscured the event that took place. It is as though the protagonist must remove the actual crime from his memory, suppressing his guilt as he did his anger.
1. The Little Boy Lost - Songs of Innocence (With Annette and Lachlan)
2. The Little Boy Found - Songs of Innocence
3. The Little Girl Lost - Songs of Innocence
4. The Little Girl Found - Songs of Innocence
The theme of lost children is a common one in Blake's songs, as the overall theme is that of children losing their innocence as they enter the world of experience. It becomes clear in the first of these songs that the reason the boy gets lost is that his father is leading him into the marshes, like the father in the story of Hansel and Gretel, presumably because he can longer support his child. The innocent boy trustingly follows his father, who, perhaps unable to overcome his guilt and sorrow, does not answer him but simply disappears. Of course, it could also be read as a child following his priest, and finding that he is led astray by the institutionalised religion that Blake abhored.
In the song that follows, the abandoned child is given new hope as God himself steps in to lead him home. Unlike many of the Songs of Innocence which have counterparts in Songs of Experience, both songs here remain in the realm of innocence, showing that the child has retained his purity, blissfully unaware of his father's cruel attempt to abandon him. The irony is most obvious when he compares God to the father he still worships. The mother, to whom he is returned does not seem to share the father's heartlessness and is pleased to have her child back. It is interesting that there is no further mention of the father, who seems to have abandoned his wife as well.
The Little Girl Lost tells the story of Lyca, a seven-year old girl who becomes separated from her parents by following some beautiful birds into the jungle, enchanted by their singing. The parents react fearfully, unable to see that the jungle might have a gentler side. Tired from her wandering, Lyca lies under a tree to rest, but can not sleep due to missing her parents and concern that they will worry about her. She sleeps at last as night sets in, and is discovered by the nocturnal animals searching for food. But, this being Songs of Innocence, they do not harm her, despite hints that they might do so. The lion makes his decision not to eat Lyca as he licks her body, and finds feelings of kindness within himself. Instead, he and the lioness carry her to their cave for protection. The implication is that if a normally ferocious beast can care for an innocent child in this way then human beings should also treat one another with kindness.
The Little Girl Found is obviously a sequel to the above song and tells of the devastated parents' desperate week-long search for Lyca and their joy and gratitude at eventually finding her safe. The love and care they have for each other as well as their daughter is clear as they try to calm each others fears that they may never find her. When the lion appears and knocks them down, they think it is the end for them as well as Lyca, not realising that the lion is just trying to protect the girl, thinking they are there to harm her. A few sniffs assure him that they mean no harm and when he licks their hands they understand that they are not in danger, and begin to feel hope again. He then leads them to his cave where Lyca sleeps among other wild animals. The song ends with an assurance that Lyca and her parents now live peacefully with these animals. The lion is clearly a God-like creature, reminiscent of Aslan in C. S. Lewis's tales of Narnia, who, together with Lyca's parents, is willing to give her all the love and care she needs.
1. A Cradle Song - Songs of Innocence
2. A Cradle Song - Songs of Experience
3. Infant Joy - Songs of Innocence
4. Infant Sorrow - Songs of Experience
5. Nurse's Song - Songs of Innocence
6. Nurse's Song - Songs of Experience
7. The Voice of the Ancient Bard - Songs of Experience
A Cradle Song in Songs of Innocence is a lullaby sung to an innocent baby. On one level it is it is any mother singing to her child, on another it is the Virgin Mary singing to her infant Jesus, as suggested by the image of the baby's crown woven by sleep. As expected in Songs of Innocence the child dreams of natural delights such as "pleasant streams" and "moony beams." The mother weeps because she knows that the real world is not as innocent as in the state of sleep, particularly for children born into the lower classes at the time of the Industrial Revolution. And, of course, if the mother is Mary, she already knows the destiny of her child, who was born to die and take the sins of the world on his shoulders.
The baby in A Cradle Song of Songs of Experience has the child dreaming in the "joys of night", but there are also "little sorrows" sitting and weeping in his dreams. This sleep is not the same sleep we heard about in the earlier song. There are "soft desires", "secret smiles" and "pretty infant wiles" that become more specifically "cunning wiles" in the baby's heart. Hardly the sleep of innocence! We are then reminded that "the dreadful light shall break" when his "little heart doth wake" and he must face harsh reality. But this baby seems to have prepared himself well for the world of experience during his sleep.
Infant Joy celebrates the joy and wonder felt at the birth of a child. Both the mother and the child at her breast speak in this song, the mother expressing her love for the newborn baby, and the baby his joy in entering the world. The language used is studded with simple words like "joy", "happy", "pretty" and "sweet," giving a feeling of hope and freedom, emphasised by the fact that the innocent child is not yet tied down with a name. As yet unaware of the evil and suffering in the world he has been born into, it seems that life is full of endless possibilities.
Infant Sorrow is a clear contrast to the warmth and innocence of Infant Joy, presenting the experience of being born as frightening and dangerous. It emphasises the helplessness of the infant, unable to comprehend his new environment. Unlike the child in the first song, this baby is unwanted. The father weeps at having another mouth to feed. Already bound by his swaddling clothes (and his father's hands), the child gives up the struggle and resigns himself to the fate that awaits him as a victim of poverty in an uncaring world.
The Nurse's Song from Songs of Innocence shows a harmonious relationship between children and adults and between man and nature. Even though the darkness of night is inevitable, there is the promise of play returning in the morning. The children ask to be allowed to extend their joyful and innocent play, arguing that the birds and sheep are still enjoying themselves, the implication being that the children are just as much creatures of nature, and focusing optimistically on the last beams of the sun rather than the approaching darkness. The adult world, represented by their nurse, is happy to grant the children their wishes, taking pleasure in watching their play. She is a kind guardian who supports rather than distorts their innocence, unlike the adult characters of the Songs of Experience. Her calm demeanor identifies her with the natural softness of the evening, creating a feeling that all is well with the world, a belief that is later undermined in the Songs of Experience.
The Nurse's Song in Songs of Experience shows a nurse not motivated by loving care but of jealousy of the children's happiness which she can not share in - "My face turns green and pale." She responds by pointing out the dangers lurking in the dark. The laughter in this song is replaced by the more subdued whisperings, and children's play is seen merely as a waste of time and poor preparation for the miserable life ahead.
The Voice of the Ancient Bar was originally one of the Songs of Innocence but Blake moved it to the later series as the concluding song. The ancient bard seems to be a kind of balance to the piper of the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence. He may be asking the "youth of delight" to leave behind their innocence and learn from the message of the Songs of Experience. It is not an easy song to interpret, but it seems to suggest that reason alone is not sufficient, and that a combination of innocence and experience is needed.
1. To Tirzah - Songs of Experience
2. Holy Thursday - Songs of Innocence
3. Holy Thursday - Songs of Experience
4. The Divine Image - Songs of Innocence
5. A Divine Image - Songs of Experience
6. The Human Abstract - Songs of Experience (with Annette)
To Tirzah is generally considrered to be the most difficult of these songs, mainly because it is not clear who Tirzah is. It is apparently a Biblical reference to both a town and one of the daughters of Zelophehad, whose rights of inheritance were linked to restrictions on marriage. Blake is thought to have taken the name Tirzah to represent wordly materialism, as opposed to the world of the spirit, which began with Eve ("Thou mother of my mortal part"). "The Sexes sprung from Shame and Pride" is, of course, a reference to the story of the Garden of Eden. There appears to be a message of hope at the end in the assertion that Christ's Resurrection has freed all humanity from the sin of Tirzah, which is why he asks, "What have I to do with thee?"
Holy Thursday is Ascension Day, celebrating the fortieth day after Christ's resurrection. The setting is a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the children from one of the Charity Schools, which were publicly funded institutions that cared for and educated the large number of London's orphans and abandoned children. The first verse compares the lines of children moving to the church to the Thames River flowing through London, carried along by the current of their simple beliefs. The next verse compares them to flowers, stressing their beauty and fragility, and then to meek and innocent lambs, an image which associates them with Christ. Blake's vision is very different from the way most citizens of his time would have seen these lowest members of society. The song they sing is compared to “a mighty wind” and “harmonious thunderings,” in an image of heavenly strength that outshines the human authority of the beadles, who sit “beneath” them. The song ends with a plea for compassion for the poor, suggesting that the institutionalized charity of the schools is not enough. There are earlier hints that the children are merely on display and have been especially cleaned up, suggesting that this is not how they are normally treated. It was well known that children in such institutions were often treated cruelly. What exactly are the “wands” carried by the beadles, and are the children marching in such good order of their own free will? Does the stormy nature of the children's song hint at some collusion with the almighty to avenge their actual treatment?
The answer can be found in this song's counterpart in Songs of Experience, where Blake openly criticises the institutions he seemed to be praising in the earlier song. Several rhetorical questions are asked, leaving us in no doubt where Blake stood as a critic of his society. The “cold and usurous hand” that feeds these children is not motivated by love and pity. The city is not carrying out its obligation to its most needy citizens, but merely making token gestures. The Charity schools were actually designed to produce child workers for the worst jobs of the industrial revolution. Thousands of children died young in bringing profit to their employers. The public display of joy they are made to take part in merely reinforces the uncaring self-satisfaction of their so-called guardians. Instead of the flowing river of the earlier version, the images of nature here are of failing crops and sunless fields, representing the waste of the city's resources in neglecting the children who should be its future. Once again the children are associated with Christ, but this time by the "thorns" lining their path. They face an "eternal winter," being kept in poverty rather than being helped out of it.
The Divine Image, unlike most of the Songs of Innocence, points out similarities between Man and God. It takes the four abstract ideas of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love as the virtues which both have in common. There is the strangely modern idea that we should pray to these qualities because they themselves are God, rather than praying to a God who possesses these virtues. They are then claimed to also represent Man, as they are found in the heart, face, body and clothes of human beings. The suggestion is that when we pray to God, we are seeing Him as made up of these ideal human qualities, and thus really worshiping “the human form divine.” Rather than man being created in God's image, Blake suggests the reverse. Little wonder he was considered a heretic!
In A Divine Image from Songs of Experience, Mercy is replaced by Cruelty, which "has a human heart". This is a much shorter song, in keeping with its claim that "secrecy" is the "human dress." But the companion song to The Divine Image in Songs of Experience is not so much A Divine Image but The Human Abstract, which attacks institutionalised religion for deliberately obscuring the real nature of both God and mankind. It claims that the Christian virtues of mercy and pity can only exist by maintaining a world of poverty and suffering, and thus do not provide sufficient motivation to solve these problems in any meaningful way. All the virtues of The Divine Image are attacked and human love is seen as “selfish,” distorted by fear and hypocrisy. The image of the tree shows Cruelty as the end result of the values of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love. Cruelty plants the tree as a trap. Though rooted in humility it grows with fear and weeping. The raven, symbol of death, is found in its branches. The idea is that in relying on abstract reasoning rather than values from nature we get a totally unnatural tree, one that grows only in the depths of the human brain.
1. A Dream - Songs of Innocence
2. The Fly - Songs of Experience
3. The Angel - Songs of Experience
4. The Little Vagabond - Songs of Experience
5. On Another's Sorrow - Songs of Innocence
6. The Clod and the Pebble - Songs of Experience (with Annette)
A Dream seems to be inhabited by insects of different kinds. The main character is an ant (an emmet) who has lost her way and is worried about how her children and husband will react to her absence. The dreamer sheds a tear in sympathy, but all is well because a glow-worm, in a lovely bit of alliteration ("What wailing wight / Calls the watchman of the night?"), says he is there to light the way of the beetle. By following the beetle's hum the ant can find her way home. Presumably this is an allegory for Jesus, the light of God, taking care of our lost souls, but, like many of Blake's songs the meaning is open to interpretation.
The Fly draws a parallel between a fly and a human being, the difference being that a fly knows nothing of life and death and so is a lesser being, just as a human is a lesser being than God. Unlike the fly, the protagonist can choose either to live thoughtlessly, to "dance and drink and sing", or to live a more meaningful life, as "thought is life/And strength and breath." He is actually doing both. Though he asserts that he lives like the fly, oblivious to the harsher side of life, he is actually thinking about his inevitable death. Both "innocence" and "experience" are present just as he can be both a fly and a man at the same time.
The Angel is also open to interpretation. It tells of a dream in which a virgin is protected by an angel but seems to be secretly in love with him. He eventually leaves her, perhaps because he is unaware of her love. When he eventually comes back, she is ready for him, but it is too late as she has lost her youth and is now protected by old age.
Like The Garden of Love, The Little Vagabond shows Blake's anti-Church views. Blake believed that one's soul could be saved not by faith but by knowledge. He had no sympathy with those who thought going to church every Sunday was enough to get them into Heaven, no matter what they did the rest of the week. Blake found the rituals of the Church emotionless and meaningless and irrelevant to Christianity, an attitude which would have been considered blasphemous. The little vagabond's request for ale is an indication that the dry ceremonies of the church are not quenching his spiritual thirst. And the wish for a fire shows the lack of spiritual warmth he gets from the experience. He sees God as a loving father, not the God of Vengeance that is probably described by the priest.
On Another's Sorrow, presents the innocent idea that we are all capable of sympathising with the sorrows of other people, as opposed to the more realistic view that there is just too much suffering in the world for us to deal with, and we have to harden ourselves to survive. By extension, it asserts that God hears and pities the cries of every baby and every small bird, an idea that is disputed by the later Songs of Experience.
The Clod and the Pebble, one of Blake's most popular songs, encapsulates two views of love within its three short verses. The clod sees love as compassionate and selfless, whereas the pebble sees it as purely selfish. The clod, though "trodden with cattle's feet" is full of hope and optimism, like most of the characters found in Songs of Innocence. It has the "female" traits of softness and passivity, whereas the pebble has the traditional "male" characteristics of hardness and energy. But although the clod attracts our sympathy more readily, it is characterless, uncreative and masochistic. In an ideal world there would be a compromise between the two views. Blake sees both "Innocence" and "Experience" as essential parts of life that complement each other (like the yin and yang of Buddhism) and he made this clear in later work such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
1. London - Songs of Experience
2. A Little Boy Lost - Songs of Experience
3. A Little Girl Lost - Songs of Experience
4. The Schoolboy - Songs of Experience (with Kit)
London makes a striking contrast with the Introduction to Songs of Innocence. The freedom of the "valleys wild" has been replaced by a fixed location, the city of London, where images of restriction abound. Even the language is restrictive, with the repetition of “charter’d,” a word which refers to both mapping and law. The voice is oppressive and insistent, with even the word "mark" developing from a verb, implying some freedom of action, to a noun, emphasising the immutable state of the people trapped in this narrow world. Though the protagonist claims to “meet” various people, the only impression we get of them is through the "marks" they leave - the cries of the chimney sweep, the harlot and other victims and the soldier's blood, staining the walls of the palace, in a telling image of the age-old exploitation of the poor by those in authority. We do not see the actual people themselves, but only the outward signs of their suffering. Similarly the authorities are shown only by the buildings they inhabit - the church and the palace. But the powerful image of the “mind-forg’d manacles” hints that the people themselves are implicit in creating their own misery by passively accepting the system imposed on them, despite the example of the French revolution which began four years before this song was published, when the oppressors in the Church and State were overthrown by the people. The ending of the song shows the cycle of misery starting all over again as another baby is born into poverty, its mother a young prostitute. The song ends with the image of the “Marriage hearse,” the ideal of a possible new start undermined by the association of love and desire with death and disease.
The "anti-priest" theme of songs like The Garden of Love is presented again in A Little Boy Lost, the Experience counterpart to The Little Boy Lost. The priest, hearing a little boy speak of his innocent understanding of love, makes an example of him for his heresy, branding him as a fiend and has him burned.
In the Experience counterpart to The Little Girl Lost, A Little Girl Lost, the young girl, Ona, unlike the innocent Lyca, discovers the delights of passionate love, only to face her father's disapproval. The first stanza clearly tells us what the song is about. Ona's adventure begins in an "Age of Gold," reminiscent of Eden, and shows her enjoying her lover throughout the day, beginning at dawn and continuing until the night. But when she returns to her father, Ona is horrified to find that her love is forbidden. The Garden of Eden has fallen. The restrictions imposed by her father are like the law of God as proclaimed in organised religion.
The Schoolboy attacks the formal education system of the time, with the classroom seen as a place of restriction. The children confined there would be better off outside learning from the world of nature. It begins with the child's sense of wonder and happiness as he wakes up to the sound of the birds singing and the huntsman blowing his horn, only to be replaced by "sighing and dismay" under the "cruel eye" of the teacher. The boy sees himself as a bird that has lost the desire to sing when placed in a cage. Though willing to learn, he can not do so in such an unnatural setting. He then uses another analogy, comparing himself to a plant that has had its buds and flowers cut away and is therefore unable to bear fruit.
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