Often time’s words are not enough to express an idea or show true emotion. In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake compensates for this in his use of pictures to accompany the poems. In fact his poetry is woven in with the art, rather than acting as a caption. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are separate sets of poems and the content shows. However, being that they were at one point published together the themes work in tandem by being clear opposites. Blake conveys to the reader with visual and verbal cues in Songs of Innocence and Experience that god, nature and human are one. The ways in which he expresses these ideas vary in tone and message through each poem and especially between the two sets.
Blake’s poetry in Songs of Innocence is written in nursery rhyme fashion. Nursery rhymes are especially powerful modes of communication. Many people can still recall “Mary had a Little Lamb” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” because of the clear melody that cause the words to resonate. This accentuates the power of music, which Wassily Kandinsky supports in saying “music has been for some centuries”…”the expression of the artist’s soul” (26). Kandinsky’s levels of artistic expression are present in Blake’s introduction to Songs of Innocence;
Piper pipe that song again
So I piped, he wept to hear
Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe,
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear
Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read
So he vanish’d from my sight:
This is the child/angel figure expressing that it finds immediate joy in the music and singing, while the writing seems to lack that instant gratification. Although he still finds it important that the happy songs are written so long as it can be expressed in its fullest power through the addition of lyrics and music. Since Blake could not place a sound box in each copy of his poems like modern birthday cards do, he wrote the poems in such a way that gave a distinct rhythm and melody, while also accompanying each poem with a hand engraved and later painted image to complete his expression.
The poems as a set work together to try and challenge liberal views. Blake seems to want to escape from reason and go back to the original holy humanity with God (Vines 121). To be clear, liberalism often seeks to keep many societal views in the context of a reasonable man and usually promote having all opinions shared. This is an ideal way of life for most people, however it threatens those of strong religious conviction because they seek to shut out any heretical views. Most of Blake’s poems in Songs of Innocence seem to show his ideal way of living, for example many depict the children as naked and free or adults in skin clad bright clothing. “Little Black Boy” emphasizes his views. Blake seeks for equality all around and feels that God loves all. The little boy complains how he is black and rejoices that his soul is white, meaning all of us no matter what’s outside are the same inside. Yet, he is upset in this verse because his the English boy is white as an angel while he is black as if bereaved of light. The boy is then taught by his mother that “on the rising sun: there God does live and gives his light and gives his heat away. And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive”, which means God does not discriminate against race or ethnicity or species, and all the world receives his warm touch. The poem being two pages has two separate engravings to show the change within his mind as the boy at first is naïve to the words of god clothed and in shade with his mother and then in the second with his new found love for god naked and stroking the white boys hair under the light god brings.
While “Little Black Boy” seems to encompass the ideals of God and how life should be to Blake. “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience seems to demonstrate his dislike of how society sets up its values. This poem also has a little black boy at the center, except the difference is that this boy is black from the soot and ash of cleaning chimneys. The image shows the stark contrast of the purely black boy and the white rooftops from the snow. Despite the apparent lack of nature, the text itself seems to be framed with a cloud and out of that cloud the suns raise are trying to leak out onto the world to little avail. The text tells the story of a boy crying over his parents focus on going to church and worrying little of his well-being, in fact his internal suffering is so great he begins to question God as if God makes “up a heaven of our misery”. Blake is being directly hypocritical of the child labor issues in England at the times, while also criticizing that this fall of societal morality is shaping the minds of his youth to even despise god. Much like in “The Little Vagabond” how the boy pleads for church to be like an alehouse, warm and fun instead of cold and strict.
Nature and life and love are also major themes that Blake tries to express and these are much more done through his use of images throughout the set. “Little Boy Lost” and “Little Boy Found” from Songs of Innocence illustrate that importance. In the first of the two poems, the boy is chasing a wisp of light and much like in Lynn Ward’s Vertigo the environment is tilted and suggesting that the world is askew. In this case, instead of lamp posts and mailboxes, it’s the trees that tilt, so instead of the State being in distress, it is Mother Nature who is burdened and yearning after the father. In the background “Little Boy Found” the trees, while still stripped bare of any leaves are now standing straight up. Around the characters it is brighter than in the last poem where the boy was lost. With the title and imagery, one can assume that the boy has now found something to replace his father that was lost previously and the Mother Nature, while still hurt is in better shape than before.
So far it has been shown how Blake uses the visual cues along with nature to express his views on society and god. However, his view on God does in fact seem to be a strange one. In lecture it was pointed out that Blake seems to find God both good and evil. In poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience respectively “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” show contrasting views on God. The lamb is soft and provides clothes and the little boy singing to the lamb cheers over how God brought such beauty and innocence to the world happily singing “Little Lamb God bless thee” while the tiger has eyes that burn, create a twisted heart, and a brain from a hammer and chain creating this fierce angry beast. The voice questions if this creature could even come from the one who made the lamb.
With the challenging of God’s parallel ways of creation, Blake also finds the church an issue. Specifically in the poem “The GARDEN of LOVE” which encompasses both his ideality for nature and the questioning of the Church. The Garden of Love has a chapel built where there was once green, and where once there were flowers, graves lay instead. The door to the Chapel was shut and the priests in black robes bound their joys and desires with briars. Blake seems to find distaste in the way the church controls and destroys, while keeping its doors closed to those who have sinned.
Appropriately the last poem in the series brings all these ideas titled “The Human Abstract”. Blake takes the voice of God and he seems to wrap up his ideas fully into what the world needs to be done, where it has come. Blake wants things to be simpler, forget economy and remember happiness. But then the reality of life hits hard. Cruelty of life begins its reign, bringing holy fear, sadness and humility is birthed from it. From there shade begins to block out the sun, growing the fruit of Deceit. This fruit must allude to the Apple of Eden because the next verse alludes to the search through nature to find the Tree, while all along the Tree grows in the Human Brain. The tree of knowledge is now in all of us. Blake must find experience the downfall of human society. He wishes us to go back to the innocent times without the knowledge that hinders society.
It is well known that the Songs of Innocence and Experience were published several years apart. It is also to be known that most of the time Blake also added the engravings and definitely painted the images much later in the process. This would imply the engravings might not be perfect and in Dr. F.W. Bateson’s edition of Selected Poems he adds commentary to the engravings and notes that the meaning of the engravings can be unhelpful and even misleading with regards to the understanding of the poem. He makes an example of “The Sick Rose” where the rose itself should be representing naked flesh as its color, although it is often painted red instead of white in some cases. Bateson also pointed out two other cases that seem to indicate error in these were “The Blossom” and “Little Girl Lost”. In his analysis Bateson finds it clear that the image of the Blossom “has been used to give the poem an elaborate phallic interpretation-which has been widely accepted-that would never occur to anyone who has only the words in front of him” (105). Yet, this is simply not true according to the majority and most specifically this argument against Bateson is addressed in A.M. Wilkinson’s journal entry “Illuminated: Or Not?: A Note on Blake's ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’”. It is clear that the poem speaks of a merry sparrow under leaves green-the male-seeking a cradle narrow-the woman. This surely backs up Blake’s use of imagery in the poem. Foolishly Bateson believes that “Blake had forgotten which song he was illustrating” when speaking of his drawing for the first plate of “Little Girl Lost” since the main character is a seven year old girl and the drawing is an adult woman. This at first glance would appear to be an error, conversely Blake drew it this way is purposeful and extremely beneficial to the understanding of the poem. The poem is of a girl growing and losing herself to the sexual desires that begin to build in her mind once mature, represented by animals.
Blake tells a full coherent story in his set of poems unlike any other. His poetry has strong mythological and historical connections which voice his opinion very strongly and sternly once analyzed properly. All of this though would be for naught if it were not for the images that accompanies each poem. The fact the images had hand engraved and then painted over, many times shows the significance of them, it is not simply a figure accompanying text like in a Biology class. The picture does not always illustrate the words to a tee and this is a purposeful act by Blake. The visual stimuli he provided was to give a fully coherent story and understanding of how he viewed society and how we wishes it to be.
Blake, William, and Frederick Wilse Bateson. Selected Poems of William Blake. London:
Heinemann, 1957. Print.
Vines, Timothy. AN ANALYSIS OF WILLIAM BLAKE’S SONGS OF 1 (2005): 115-22. Web. 5
Wilkinson, A. M. "Illuminated: Or Not?: A Note on Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of
Experience"" The Modern Language Review 57.3 (1962): 387-91. JSTOR. Web. 08 Oct.
"The William Blake Archive Homepage." Songs of Innocence and Experience. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N.
pag. The William Blake Archive Homepage. Web. 07 Oct. 2014.