Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blake's Imagery of Innocence

        In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience each poem is written on an illustrated engraving with vibrant colors and imagery. That bright imagery and use of color interacts with the poems to give them more meaning than with just the words alone. Sometimes the imagery and color can significantly alter how one reads the text that it accompanies. In Songs of Innocence the poem “The Blossom” provides an example of the imagery adding to and changing how the text could be read.
        “The Blossom” is a short, two stanza poem. The poem appears on a blue-grey background. It is surrounded by a twist of red and orange that looks like fire engulfing the page. Now, it could be an image of really tall, dry grass or a withered and dying tree of sorts. In any case, the image looks hot and dry. In the upper reaches of the flames there are angles prancing about. One in particular seems to be wearing clothes and looks to be clutching something tiny to its chest.
Both stanzas feature birds, a merry sparrow and a pretty robin, both “Under leaves so green”. The titular “Blossom” witnesses each bird doing things. The blossom sees the sparrow “swift as arrow” seeking its “cradle narrow”, whereas it hears the robin “sobbing sobbing”. Each stanza also ends with the line, “Near my Bosom”.
        Now, the lines “Under leaves so green/ A happy blossom” would, on their own, paint the picture of a thriving tree or forest with lots of green plant life and a single, happy flower. They are repeated in both stanzas as they are important to the scene. Looking at the imagery that surrounds the poem, however, the reader might notice a distinct lack of any green or plant life. There is only fire. Perhaps, then, the blossom that the poem is about is actually the flame. A small fire with tendrils reaching out and up could look like an exotic flower of sorts. The mental image of a calm and peaceful forest is replaced by a forest in flames.
        The fiery blossom witnesses the birds that used to live in the trees that it now engulfs. The sparrow and robin are described as merry and pretty respectively, as that is how one might normally describe them. You think of birds as happy, flying things with beautiful, vibrant feathers.
When it comes to the sparrow, the blossom “Sees you swift as arrow/ Seek your cradle narrow”. Without the image, the sparrow quickly looking for its cradle might just be racing home after a long day to go sleep for the night. A cradle is a place of rest and being described as narrow might mean it’s hard to find and require seeking or perhaps the rest is just a small one as the sparrow is clearly full of energy. One the other hand, if we view the image as being of fire, we might see that energetic sparrow as more frantic. A cradle is a place of rest, yes, but it is a place of rest made for infants. The sparrow would have to be swift in seeking its nest if it has babies at risk of being engulfed in an inferno.
        The other bird, the robin, is clearly distraught. The blossom “hears you sobbing sobbing”. The repetition of the word “sobbing” indicates just how upset the robin is, which may explain why the line “Pretty Pretty Robin” is also repeated. It’s as though the narrator is trying to comfort the robin by assuring it that it is beautiful. It is not initially clear why the robin is so upset, but the idea that its home is dead or destroyed by fire would really explain the bird’s distress.
        After reading about each bird, the very last line of each stanza is, “Near my Bosom”. The reader would normally have to wonder exactly whose bosom the poem is talking about. Is it just a random witness to the scene, a particularly involved bird enthusiast, or someone else? The image, however, seems to answer that question quite clearly. As was mentioned earlier, in the upper flames/branches there are a bunch of angles. The bosom, then, is a divine one. It either refers to the breast of the angel looking down or perhaps of God himself. The poems in Songs of Innocence heavily feature religious imagery and an ever watching, ever caring divine. One could go as far as to explain the dying of the forest as an act of God and say that the appearance of the angels is a signal that it is all okay in the large scheme of things.
        “The Blossom” can be described as a short poem about birds living out their lives under green leaves with a happy flower witnessing them, or it can be described as a short poem explaining a minor disaster in a more innocent way, using the divine as a form of comfort. It all depends on whether you incorporate the image that accompanies the poem into its meaning. Poetry utilizes connotation and metaphor so much that illustration can influence how each word is interpreted.


  1. Okay, I would like to comment and point one thing out. After writing this I was looking up a few of the poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I noticed something. The poems were reprinted in several different color schemes. Seeing as how the prompt was about how either color or image changes the reading of the poem, I realized this could be a bit of a problem. For example, in my copy "The Blossom" has a form that is colored bright orange and red, so I interpreted it as fire, but in another version it looks more like a dead, brown tree, in another it actually is bright green (I believe I mentioned in mine that there was a lack of green), and in yet another the tree/flame shape appears in a rainbow of colors. If anyone else had a different version of the prints, the essays that mention the use of color could end up being a bit confusing.

  2. Your first paragraph doesn't actually do anything - you don't even state your argument.

    However, I read the rest of the essay through without writing anything down. That's a good thing - it was engaging and focused enough that I wanted to read it first and respond after.

    What's good? You really, truly pay close attention to the details in the poem, the details in the image, and you open up the fundamental difficulty of analyzing the two together: they appear to be deeply in contrast.

    I have some minor criticisms. You are fairly wordy throughout - the first two paragraphs could have been greatly shortened, in particular. You are really fixated on the idea that the tree (if it's a tree) is literally aflame. While touching on that possibility is good, since the whole image is far from being literal or naturalistic, wouldn't you get more mileage out of seeing it as *metaphorically* in flames? You could have done better work in less space by asking what the *idea* or *metaphor* of fire means here, rather than being fixated on the literal flame.

    My version? The world, fallen from grace, is in flames. Suffering is universal. Even what seems like a simple pastoral scene is also a call for divine help. And honestly, you're making exactly that argument - you're just being a little wordy and indirect about it.

    If you revise, I'd like to see your language be clearer and more focused. Then what? Would you expand the idea to cover multiple poems, or would you delve deeper into Blake's warring *ideas* of divine bossom vs. the world aflame? Or both?

    Re: your comment. It's a point well taken, and could lead into a very different kind of revision (if you dealt with multiple versions). That problem was certainly beyond the scope of this prompt, though - you can only do so much. Blake is problematic in part because he is variable from printing to printing, which is something Blake scholars certainly worry about!