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 completely change how one reads the text that it accompanies. In fact, many of the poems in Songs of Innocence can be read with much more experience and many of the poems in Songs of Experience can be read quite innocently. Their respective places in the book become backward between innocence and experience. In Songs of Innocence the poem “The Blossom” can become much darker when read with the imagery in mind, and in Songs of Experience “THE FLY” can become much lighter.
Northrop Frye’s work Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake is often pointed to as one of the most significant studies of the works of William Blake. The hefty tome contains interpretations of many of Blake’s works, including some commentary on Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It delves into Blake’s personal beliefs and how they strongly permeated throughout his work. Frye mentions, “The same distinction between a contrary and a negation occurs in Blake’s theory of ideas. All real things have qualities in them, and qualities always have opposites. This is particularly true of moral qualities, as every virtue has its corresponding vice. All ‘good’ men by any standards may be ‘bad’ by other standards” (191). Blake was all about challenging the ethical standards of the time and breaking down that black vs white barrier between counterparts. Perhaps this blending of opposites occurs not just for good and evil, but for innocence and experience as well.
First, in Songs of Innocence, “The Blossom” appears to be a lighthearted poem about a couple of birds going about their lives, but those first impressions wither away when looking more closely. It becomes a poem about sinister happenings, but those events are explained in a more simple way, as one might explain to an innocent child.
“The Blossom” is a short poem. It’s surrounded by an image of really tall, dry grass or a withered tree of sorts. In some colorations the tree is brown and in others it is bright orange as though it were on fire. In any case, the image looks hot and dry. In the upper reaches of the tree there are angles prancing about. One in particular seems to be wearing clothes and looks to be clutching something tiny to its chest. The two 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 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 surrounding the poem, however, the reader might notice a distinct lack of any green. There is only the dead tree and angels. Perhaps, then, the blossom that the poem is about is actually sorrow. The mental image of a calm and peaceful forest is replaced by that of the tree in the image, dead and burnt.
The fiery blossom looks upon the birds. 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. On the other hand, if we view the poem as menacing, 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 killed.
The other bird, the robin, is clearly distraught, even without the picture. 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 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.
In the other book, Songs of Experience, the poems tend toward the darker side of life. Whereas in Innocence they feature God and angels watching and protecting, in Experience they feature God and angels neglecting and abandoning. Innocence has poetry about lambs and infant joy, but Experience has poetry about tigers and infant sorrow.
But, just as the first impressions of “The Blossom” crumble away to show an experienced event, the first impressions of “THE FLY” melt to reveal a more innocent event. The poem on its own seems to be about the heartless swatting of an insect and the carelessness of life, but the imagery that escorts it turns it into more of a poem about play and those moments in life where you can be carefree.
“THE FLY” is longer than “The Blossom”. The image on its plate is that of a woman with a young child’s hands in hers and an older child in the background playing badminton. The narrator talks of a fly and “Thy summers play”, and then compares themselves to the fly “For I dance/ And drink & sing”. Both of their fun ends when a “thoughtless” or “blind” hand brushes them. The fourth stanza also mentions “thought is life/ …/ And the want/ Of thought is death”.
The words of the poem extensively feature a fly, but there is not a single insect to be seen in the picture. All the image depicts is play. The poem talks about swatting a fly, but the only thing being swatted at in the image is a shuttlecock. Perhaps, then, the important part of the poem are not the lines about the fly and life and death, but the lines about summer’s play, the ending of it, and thought as life and death.
The first stanza observes that a fly seems to play in the summer until “My thoughtless hand/ Has brush’d [the play] away.” The narrator uses a fly as a metaphor for themselves, outright saying, “Am not I/ A fly like thee?/ Or art thou/ A man like me?” They then explain the metaphor with the third stanza, writing, “For I dance/ and drink & sing:/ Till some bind hand/ Shall brush my wing.”
Looking back at the image of the children playing, you can see that the woman has the smaller child’s arms in her hands. She seems to be leading the child somewhere away. Perhaps her hand is leading the child away from play, which the child may see as thoughtless. A child may only want to frolic and engage in “summers play”, but when this woman comes to end that play the child refers to her as a hand coming to swat at the fun.
The last two stanzas may provide a reason for the woman leading the child away. If the woman in the image is a nurse or schoolteacher, she might be pulling the child inside to study. The child protests,” If thought is life/ And strength & breath:/ And the want/ Of thought is death;// Then am I/ A happy fly,/ If I live,/ Or if I die.” Basically, If knowledge and thought is life and lack thereof is death, then the child is proclaiming that they don’t care whether they live (learn).
Choosing to read “THE FLY” in this manner makes it into a somewhat innocent poem. It’s just explained in a much harsher, more experienced way. Similarly, “The Blossom” can be read as a somewhat violent and experienced poem being explained in an innocent way. Going back to Frye, he writes some more specific things about Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Frye states, “The Songs of Experience are satires, but one of the things they satirize is the state of innocence... Conversely, the Songs of Innocence satirize the state of experience, as the contrast which they present to it makes its hypocrisies more obviously shameful. Hence the two sets of lyrics show two contrary states of the soul, and in their opposition there is a double-edged irony, cutting into both” (236). Blake uses innocence and experience to comment on each other as well as themselves. In these two poems one can even read them with either viewpoint in mind. The imagery aides in this, acting like hidden, extra stanzas that point to how you can flip the meanings of the poems upside down.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: The Orion Press, 1967. Print.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Ed. Nicholas Halmi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1947. Print.