How do Blake's views of God presented in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience differ from and complement one another?
In Songs of Innocence, Blake leans toward the traditional view of God as benevolent father over a glorious creation. However, even in these "Innocent" poems, Blake hints at a flawed world that has remade God in its own image, and for its own ends. In Songs of Experience, Blake's critiques become more direct as he questions the goodness of God and his place in a world filled with crime, violence, and exploitation. In both books, Blake wishes to point the reader to a view of God that goes beyond mere human understanding and the popular conceptions of him as aloof and impersonal.
What is the place of nature in the works of William Blake?
Nature is the near-perfect state of the world and the closest human beings may get to the sinless state of innocence of the Garden of Eden. From the natural world, one may learn the attributes of God, both through the gentle lamb and the ferocious tiger, and find the freedom all human souls long for. In opposition to nature is the urban society of such population centers as London, where human life is bought and sold, and restrictions are placed upon the natural desires of humanity.
How did the plight of children in urban London affect Blake?
Blake seems to have been particularly concerned about the exploitation of children by the culture of his time. He dedicated two separate poems to the dangerous profession of chimney sweeping, which encouraged parents to sell their small children into an often-fatal service. He opposed the exploitation of impoverished children by their would-be benefactors in two poems about the Holy Thursday spectacle, and he regularly refers to lost boys and girls who have been abandoned by their parents and driven into wandering by a harsh world system.
In all these cases, Blake either implies or states that the solution to the problem is to reform the social system that holds the lives of children so cheap.
What view of urban living does Blake present in Songs of Innocence and of Experience?
Blake deals primarily with nature and rural settings in Songs of Innocence, implying by omission the superiority of the rural to the urban. In Songs of Experience, Blake includes the highly critical "London," which describes both streets and the river as "charter'd" or controlled by urban planning, yet despite this planned environment, there still exists violence, sorrow (particularly that of infants), and vice. The urban blight of London typifies everything Blake considered evil about human-created culture and societal mores.
What is Blake's concept of "free love"?
While never unfaithful to his wife Catherine Boucher, Blake often writes on the topic of "free love" in his works. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the concept is mostly hinted at, although the Earth offers free love as the key to unshackling her from captivity in "Earth's Answer." Blake's free love is more a rejection of religious and civil authority of the time, and he is quite clear in his disdain for both in such poems as "Holy Thursay" and "The Little Vagabond." Marriage as an institution, to Blake's mind, was yet another repression of the natural instincts forced upon mankind by those who would abuse their authority for their own ends.
How is the issue of race dealt with in Blake's "The Little Black Boy"?
Blake chooses the speaker of "The Little Black Boy" carefully. He is a child, and so can innocently ask the questions he has without seeming either mean-spirited or blasphemous. He wants to know why his skin is so dark, even though his soul is as white as that of the English boy. His mother seeks to explain this dichotomy to him: his dark skin was given to him by God to help him better endure the sun, which is the physical manifestation of God's love in this world. One day, says his mother, the "cloud" that is the skin or physical form will be removed when everyone enters into God's paradise. There all souls will be pure and white together, having learned how to endure God's powerful love on earth. The boy then takes this further, hinting that since God gave him a particularly difficult means of getting used to the sun (black skin), that he will in fact be the stronger of the two boys in paradise, or heaven.
What is significant about the child's self-naming in "Infant Joy"?
The two-day old baby in "Infant Joy" is able to name herself because she in her innocence understands what most have lost through experience: happiness and a state of bliss or perfection are self-created modes of being and independent of external forces. The infant is in a natural state of grace and has not yet become corrupted by the world; given the chance, she names herself, thus denying anyone or anything else the power to determine her true nature.
In "Earth's Answer," what prevents the Earth from returning to her pristine state?
The Earth replies to the Bard's summons in the "Introduction" to Songs of Experience by pointing out that she has been imprisoned by the "jealous maker of man" in this world. She is held down by cold chains and kept from enjoying the fecundity and brightness of springtime. Free love is the key that will unlock her manacles, and only when people can express themselves in keeping with their natural instincts rather than being made slaves to superimposed systems of behavior and morality will the Earth return to her pristine state.
Why do the Clod and the Pebble have such different views of love in "The Clod and the Pebble"?
The clod speaks of unselfish love, which looks out for the good of the beloved over itself. The pebble states that love is selfish and seeks its own pleasure first. The central stanza between the two views explains the natures of the clod and the pebble: the clod is malleable, and therefore more adaptable to change, but it is also more easily "trampled upon" by others; the pebble resides in a brook, where the constant flow of water has smoothed its rough edges and made it hard. The pebble cannot change its ways, lest it break, but it is also less fickle than the clod may be. The poem suggests that both views of love are accurate, and each can be taken to an unhealthy extreme if not balanced one with the other.
How does the view of the nurse change from the "Nurse's Song" in Songs of Innocence to the "Nurse's Song" in Songs of Experience?
In Songs of Innocence, the Nurse expresses her desire to care for the children who have been playing all day by getting them home before sunset. When the children ask to play as long as there is light, she indulges them and turns her mind back to her own pleasurable childhood with joy in her heart. In Songs of Experience, the Nurse is instead inspired to dread by the children, probably adolescents, who have gone off to "play" and are whispering as they are further away. She returns to memories of her own youth, but in this case she is sickened by memories of mistakes made and sorrows gained; she urges the children to return home quickly and not indulge their curiosities, lest they too make the same mistakes.
Children’s Literature: Example Student Essay (3rd year)
Gillian Tasker (December 2004)
Select any one text from the first semester set texts and write an essay about it that examines how that text relates to any one of the issues that the class is exploring. These issues might include questions of period, genre, national tradition, the nature of childhood, education, history, gender, literary form, text and illustration, and so on (see Class Description).
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789, 1794) extensively explores the concept of childhood. Often the concept explored is the Romantic vision of childhood, yet this is not always the case. It is therefore possible to suggest that the Songs of Innocence and of Experience presents polarised depictions of childhood. Consequently, two poems from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience will be compared and contrasted to answer the question of how the text relates to the Romantic concept of childhood.
In Blake’s Songs of Innocence, “Laughing Song” could be regarded as a poem that directly explores the idea of the Romantic childhood. The way in which nature is explored and portrayed in the poem is of particular significance to the Romantic concept of childhood. The Romantics believed that a natural or rural childhood was of paramount importance, possibly because this idea was integral to Romantic theology itself. Romanticism promoted country life, connecting the countryside with physical and moral purity, as well as a means of escapism. Wordsworth highlights the elevation of the rural, stating that “in that [rural] condition, the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature” (Leitch 2001, p.650). The view of superior country life was an idea that was also largely promoted by Rousseau, who advocated the notion of the noble savage. The noble savage was a figure who lived an essentially primitive lifestyle, and fused his own being with his natural surroundings:
“primitive people” – who are considered to live in a way more accordant to “nature” because they are isolated from civilisation – are preferable to the way of life, activities, and products of people living in a highly developed society, especially cities. (Abrams, 1981 p.41)
The countryside was therefore the easily accessible setting in which the Romantics could pursue their own “primitive” lifestyles. Similarly, the typical Romantic childhood embodied such values, where children were allowed to roam free in the countryside and to feel at one, or united, with nature and the natural elements. Wordsworth, in his autobiographical The Prelude (1805), promotes the Romantic ideology when he describes his own childhood:
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster'd alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favor'd in my birth-place, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted. Well I call to mind
('Twas at an early age, ere I had seen
Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope
The frost, and breath of frosty wind had snapp’d
The last autumnal crocus, ‘twas my joy
To wander half the night among the Cliffs
And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran
Along the open turf. (Wordsworth, 2003, I, 306-317)
The elevation of the rural is demonstrated here as Wordsworth recalls his “beloved Vale” and his “joy” of exploring his surroundings. The seemingly unimportant detail, such as the winter wind that had “snapp’d/The last autumnal crocus”, has specific poetic purposes, making the poem much more vivid and resonant whilst conforming to the Romantic ideal of nature.
The idea of the child as roaming, or wandering free in the countryside is an idea explored in “Laughing Song”, where Blake brings nature and children together to enjoy a sublimely idyllic scene of rural happiness and tranquillity. Similarly Blake promotes the superiority of rural life by the sheer innocence and joy that the children experience in their natural surroundings:
When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He.
(Blake, 1967, plate 15)
The unity between the “painted birds” and the child speaker at “our table” embodies this harmonic relationship between nature and man, an idea extended throughout the poem where the children, creatures and landscape are inter-connected. Extending this idea of nature and the Romantic childhood, Blake employs another technique common in Romantic writing, where nature is personified and used to reflect human feeling through the use of pathetic fallacy. Blake uses this technique when he describes the green woods as “laughing with the voice of joy” and says that “the air does laugh with our merry wit/And the green hill laughs with the noise of it” (Blake, 1967, plate 15). However, it is not only nature that is “laughing”, as the children in the song are also joyous and revelling in the rural scene.
It is also significant that “Laughing Song” is a Song of Innocence rather than of Experience. The poem really does demonstrate the sheer innocence of “Mary”, “Susan” and “Emily”. The scene represented is one of girlhood, a girlhood that is not at all tainted by any external or adult forces – both forces which could potentially render a child less “innocent”. This girlhood innocence is emphasised by the way Blake conveys the girls' laughter as “Ha, Ha, He”, an accurately representative, and yet somewhat adventurous, poetic technique that ensures that the laughter remains resonant, even after the reader has finished reading the poem. The continual and repeated word choice of “laugh”, “joy”, “merry” and “sweet” (Blake, 1967, plate 15) all emphasise the sheer purity and innocence that is evident in the woodland scene. This notion of childhood innocence is a significant Romantic value, and is again a viewpoint that Rousseau advocated:
Nature wants children to be children before being men. If we want to pervert this order we shall produce precocious fruits which will be immature and insipid and will not be long in rotting. (Rousseau, 1979, p.90)
This modern idea that children should be kept as children, rather than be moulded into mini-adults, is particularly significant. It is as though childhood should not be tainted or spoiled. This relates to the idea that a child’s innocence should be preserved for a long as possible, as when innocence is lost it would be replaced by a view of experience. Blake is thus highlighting the purity of innocence and girlhood in “Laughing Song”, as well as portraying a conventionally Romantic childhood in many aspects.
Rather than only portraying this conventional Romantic view of childhood in his writing, Blake describes a completely opposite childhood experience in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence. “The Chimney Sweeper” is concerned with the eighteenth century idea of working-class children labouring as chimney sweeps, an idea that contrasts sharply with the little girls in “Laughing Song”, who spend their childhood playing in the countryside. Children were used as chimney sweeps as they were lithe and slim and could climb up the narrow chimneys. This difficult and labour-intensive trade was also connoted with slavery, as many young children were sold in the cities. It is highly plausible that by writing about such a cause, Blake is critiquing this convention of society. The issues that he highlights would serve to back up this notion, since he presents a chimney sweep who, through his experiences, is totally removed from Rousseau’s ideal of a Romantic childhood. The speaker is not a child in the Rousseauean sense, although he remains a child in age, which justifies and is representative of his innocent and naïve narrative. Instead, like an adult, he is a worker, and essentially debunks the Romantic and indeed “natural” idea that “nature wants children to be children before being men” (Rousseau, 1979, p.90). It seems that the speaker has had no childhood, as clearly the young chimney sweep has been sold to slavery “while I was very young” (Blake, 1967, plate 12) after the death of his mother. The reader’s response to “The Chimney Sweeper” is consequently one of immense pity, and it seems that this is the reaction that Blake wants to provoke by bringing this poignant issue to the reader’s attention.
Rather than being a poem about children who encapsulate innocence, such as “Laughing Song”, “The Chimney Sweeper” is conversely concerned with innocence, or rather the loss of innocence. This notion of innocence is the central concern of the poem, a concept that Blake explores through the use of symbolic colours. This symbolism functions to highlight the tragedy of the young sweeps: black is used not only to represent the soot that covers the sweeps’ skin, but also to represent a loss of innocence. Similarly, white is used as a symbol for innocence, but an innocence that does not last for long, as soon it is tainted and penetrated by the black soot. The innocence of the child speaker is evident when he states to a fellow sweep “You know that soot cannot spoil your white hair” (Blake, 1967, plate 12). Thus, irony is apparent since the reader knows that soot will spoil the young sweep's “white hair”, and therefore this innocent viewpoint is in fact inaccurate. Similarly, this issue of innocence and purity is again addressed in “little Tom Dacre’s” dream, where “thousands of sweepers” “wash in a river and shine in the Sun”, after being locked up “in coffins of black” (Blake, 1967, plate 12). These lines are in-keeping with the idea of soot spoiling the skin, or spoiling a child’s innocence. The sweeper's washing in the river symbolises the cleansing of the skin and soul; an attempt of the boys to reclaim their (seemingly lost) innocence. After they bathe the boys also “shine in the sun”, and in this sense, the boys seem cleansed of the evils that spoiled their innocence. The speaker is, however, innocent in the sense that he believes in the Angel’s proverb: “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Blake, 1967, plate 12). This moral is representative of the times, signifying the work ethic that was so dominant. Little Tom, and indeed the speaker believe naively that their innocence will be preserved if they continue to work hard. Yet this is tragically ironic, as it is precisely the nature of their work that makes the boys less innocent. In this sense, the boys are being lured into a false sense of security, and could therefore be viewed as victims of innocence.
Blake also highlights the Romantic elevation of the rural, as in the dream the boys wash in the river after running “down a green plain leaping laughing” (Blake, 1967, plate 12). Again the connotations of rural purity and indeed moral purity are interplayed, whilst promoting the beauty of the countryside. The freedom of rural life is also emphasised in the dream as the boys run, laugh and leap, actions that are much more difficult to undertake in the city. Whilst Blake does highlight the benefits of country living, it is only in a horribly poignant contrast to city life, where children struggle to survive in an immoral reality - a harsh and indeed far cry from the idealised and innocent rural life previously portrayed. The fact that the boys only access this idyllic rural life in their dreams is also significant, highlighting the fact than in life they are trapped in the nightmare of the city, and their only chance of escape is in their dreams. The child sweeps experience a life that is far removed from Rousseau’s Romantic childhood, where children should experience a Romantic upbringing in actual life rather than in their dreams. Therefore, although Blake hints at the Romantic notion of childhood, it only serves to contrast and emphasise the difficult life in which these children struggle to survive.
In his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake presents often contrasting and conflicting visions of childhood. Poems such as “Laughing Song”, “Spring”, and “Nurse’s Song” (from Songs of Innocence) detail a highly idealistic, innocent and idyllic Romantic childhood. However, other poems such as “The Chimney Sweeper”, “London”, and “Infant Sorrow” portray a horrifying version of childhood, where children are corrupted and robbed of their innocence at an early age. “Laughing Song” conforms entirely to Rousseau’s Romantic childhood idealism in a number of ways. The elevation of the rural, the freedom of the children in their surroundings and the purity and innocence of the girls just being girls renders this as typically Romantic. Yet a very different experience of childhood is explored by Blake in “The Chimney Sweeper” where the speaker himself is still innocent in his views, but not in his experience of life. Sold to slavery, the young sweeps dream of an escape from the city to a better life, which ironically is the typical Romantic idea of a rural childhood. By exploring both aspects extensively in his poems the writer brings to the reader’s attention two very different childhood experiences: “Laughing Song” as quintessentially Romantic and “The Chimney Sweeper” which contrasts with this ideal. It can therefore be concluded that in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake presents two polarised representations of the Romantic nature of childhood.
Abrams, M.H. 1981, A Glossary of Literary Terms, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
Blake, William 1967, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Leitch, Vincent B. (ed.) 2001, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: W.W. Norton & Company
Rousseau, J. 1979, Emile, edited & translated by Allan Bloom, London: Basic Books
Wolfson, Susan and Peter Manning (eds.), 2003, The Longman Anthology of British Literature 2A: The Romantics and their Contemporaries, London: Addison-Wesley.
For further information about the Children's Literature class, please contact Dr Tom Furniss at email@example.com