Innocence` and ‘Experience` In Blake’s Poetry

William Blake was born on the 28th November 1757 and is considered one of the first ‘Romantic poets’. The Romantic era was a movement that began in the eighteenth century. Romantic poets who included Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge believed in rebelling against society’s values and the strict rules of poetry and art; these were the people who changed English poetry. At the end of the 1700’s Blake published a book titled ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience: The two contrary states of the human soul’ which contained poems on similar subjects but explored in the two states of innocence and experience.
I shall compare four of Blake’s poems in this essay: ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweep’ (which appears in both collections). ‘The Lamb’ asks us to relate the lamb’s image as the most innocent of God’s creation, to that of its maker, the ‘lamb of God’. It begins with a question made by a child, who asks the lamb how it came to be and who made ‘thee’. ‘Thee’ is the archaic form of the word ‘you’ and Blake used it throughout the poem, which gives it a religious tone as this was a word used in the Old Testament. These first two lines are a rhyming couplet in tetrameter.
When reading ‘The Lamb’ magnificent images spring to mind, especially half way through the first stanza: “… by the stream and o’er the mead” (meadow). This imagery is similar to descriptions made in the Old Testament book of Psalms. (Especially Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”) The second stanza starts in much the same way as the first, with two lines of tetrameter. This time, instead of a question, a statement is made, leading on to answer the query made in the first verse. Again, Blake uses the archaic form of ‘you’: ‘Little Lamb I’ll tell thee’, to re-enforce the religious side of the poem.

This stanza goes on to say that the lamb was created by the one ‘who calls himself lamb’, in other words, Jesus. Jesus is seen as the figure of innocence in the Bible. Like most of Blake’s work, God has been discussed about in this poem. Each stanza in ‘The Lamb’ contains five rhyming couplets and the repetition at the start and end of each verse makes the poem sound slightly like a nursery rhyme consequently reflecting the child-like innocent qualities of the poem. It appears almost devotional and the rhythm helps to give it ballad-like qualities. The poem generally has a repetitive structure and rhyme scheme.
Blake uses vocabulary similar to that of a pastoral poem. The answer to the question asked in the first stanza reveals the child’s innocence and faith. It indicates that he accepts anything he is told without question. The child associates himself and the lamb with Jesus, and in the Bible Jesus shows kindness towards children. Imagery in the first stanza is descriptive and rural, for example ‘By the stream and o’er the mead’. This forces the reader to think of the happiness and innocence connected with the countryside. This contrasts with the second, which is more spiritual and straightforward.
Although the question asked by the child in verse one is naive, it is also very significant. It is a simple question but one that can be thought about a little deeper. This quality is present in almost all of Blake’s work – his poems can be read on a number of levels. ‘The Lamb’ is a reminder of innocence in a time of war, revolution and industrial labour that was all taking place while Blake was writing. ‘The Tyger’ is the experience counterpart to ‘The Lamb’; it too begins with a question. The narrator is asking who created the tyger: ‘What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry’.
From then on each stanza contains more questions, which branch out from this first; the narrator suggests the creator of the tyger is like a blacksmith, using words such as ‘anvil’ and ‘furnace’ in his descriptions. He seems surprised that the creator of the lamb could also be able to create such an opposite character such as the tyger. Blake could be comparing the two sides of man; good and bad as well as innocence and experience. The poem is made up of six quatrains in rhyming couplets. It is in a regular, rhythmic tetrameter.
The beat is very prominent and if read in a certain way could start to sound like a chant or a spell, this makes the reader feel entranced and in touch with the poem. Blake builds on the idea of comparing nature and art, suggesting that although the tiger is beautiful it is also very violent and this could perhaps reflect it’s creator. An underlying question arises whilst reading ‘The Tyger’: ‘what type of God could create such a scary beast but also a sweet lamb’. By evolving this question further the poem could be seen to be asking why God lets bad things happen, when he can also let such good things occur.
It ends with a repetition of the first verse, but uses the word ‘dare’ instead of ‘could’. Blake is suggesting that because the tiger is such a terrifying beast, it would take great daring from God to create it. The central question in both poems is similar, but unlike ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Tyger’ finishes without an answer. This could suggest that because ‘The Lamb’ is in the innocence collection that the question more easily answered when thought about in a naive way. When thought about as it is in ‘The Tyger’, at a more in-depth level, the question becomes more complicated.
When ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Lamb’ are directly contrasted they give a clear comparison of human nature, this shows that nothing is without its bad side, for example, there cannot be heaven without hell. In both poems Blake emphasises his main point in the first and last lines. ‘The Tyger’ contains harsh verbs such as ‘grasp’ and ‘seize’ and also uses harsh sounding alliteration with the letters B, D and T: ‘Burning Bright,’ however, in ‘The Lamb’ Blake uses softer letters such as L and M: ‘Little Lamb’ to show the gentle nature of the poem and creature being described.
In both poems metaphors are used and reflect Blake’s view on religion and God. In ‘The Lamb’ Blake, through the eyes of a child, compares the creator, God, to the lamb itself: ‘For he calls himself a lamb. ‘ Here, Blake is describing Jesus, the ‘Lamb of God’. Blake often wrote about the same subjects in both collections, he sometimes named the poems identically, such as in ‘The Chimney Sweeper in ‘Songs of Innocence’. This poem deals with chimney sweepers and the effect being one takes on a young child’s life. It tells of two little boys and their suffering. One of the boys, the eldest, narrates.
On first glance, the poem seems full of joy and gives the illusion of ending happily. Looking deeper, it conveys a message of exploitation and child suffering. The poem in ‘Songs of Experience’ tells of a boy grieving and how he has to go to work, to almost certainly meet his death, while his mother and father think they are doing the right thing. In the first stanza of the innocence poem, the narrator tells of how his mother died and how young he was. The juxtaposition of the words ‘died’ and ‘young’ cause tension in the first lines because death and youth are not often associated.
The boy cries ‘weep, weep, weep’ which has two meanings. At first it seems to be the boy crying, but to be a chimneysweeper you must advertise by shouting ‘sweep, sweep, sweep’. So by including this in the poem; Blake has indicated that the boy is so young he can barely pronounce words properly, yet he must go to work. In the next line, a second person pronoun is used which directly implies that the reader is directly responsible for the underage dangerous work being done; making the reader feel responsible and guilty. The second stanza tells the beginning of a dream had by a younger boy, Tom.
He dreams that thousands of chimney sweepers are locked in coffins. The word ‘locked’ links directly with the word ‘key’ in the next stanza and causes tension between the two verses. Blake was said to have had many visions of various creatures and people. He claimed to experience them from early on. When he was nine years old he told his mother that he had seen “a tree filled with angels,” and not long after, in a field of workers gathering hay, a vision of “angelic figures walking”. He has incorporated his visions into this poem by using the idea of a dream. The third stanza contrasts with the second immensely.
While the second is full of misery and contains words such as ‘black’, ‘lock’d’ and ‘coffins’; the third tells of freedom and hope. The phrase ‘their bags left behind’ in line three is a metaphor for their troubles left behind on earth. Blake uses metaphors to conjure up imagery in the reader’s head. The fourth stanza contains the main message of the poem. Tom awakes to an angel telling him that if he works hard on earth he will be rewarded in heaven. This is Blake ironically criticising the hypocritical society of his time. The experience poem is narrated in third person and the first stanza contains the same phrase as the innocence poem.
The boy is crying ‘weep, weep’ which again indicates his young age. The first line of the poem, ‘A little black thing among the snow’, is a very significant one and brings to mind clear images of black against white. Again, Blake has used tension in the beginning of the poem to create strong imagery in the readers head at an early stage. In the second verse the child is speaking. He tells of how he was dressed in clothes of death and sent out to work as a chimneysweeper. Again, there is tension between the mention of ‘happiness’ in the first line and the word ‘death’ in the third.
Ironically, the parents are being ‘good’ by clothing the child, but on the other hand, they are clothing him in clothes of death to be a chimney sweep. The last verse is the boy telling of how he fools his parents. He dances and sings to make them think they are doing no wrong, when in fact they are sending their own child to his death. The last phrase, ‘heaven out of misery’ is a very significant one. The concept of heaven only works if there is suffering as well. There would not be a heaven if there were not a hell. Blake tells how children are being exploited by the promise of eternal happiness for work on earth.
Adult manipulation is very clear in this poem and Blake is being ironic by suggesting that suffering is the only path to happiness. Both poems contain clear messages. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in ‘Songs of Innocence’ shows that the children have a positive and naive outlook on life. They make the best of it and do not fear death; this is because they do not know the truth and are therefore innocent. An opposite message is conveyed in the poem of ‘Songs of Experience’ in which the child blames his parents for putting him in such a dangerous position.
He is less nai??ve and blames ‘God & his Priest & King’. This is different from the innocence poem because the little boy has been influenced by society and has an ‘experienced’ view. The theme of God runs throughout both poems. In the first, an angel appears and talks about heaven. The word ‘lamb’ in the second verse links with the ‘lamb of God’, representing Jesus and suffering. In the second poem, heaven is talked about and a church is mentioned in the beginning. Both poems play on the idea of how to get into heaven and the naivety of young children.
The poems that I have analysed in this essay have all included the theme of God, as did nearly all of Blake’s work. Blake hated organised religion, but on the other hand was a very spiritual and religious man. The times in which he lived forced church upon people, rather than leaving them to make up their own minds. Blake also had a hatred for formal education, which we can see in his poem from ‘Songs of Experience’ titled ‘The School Boy’. He felt school was unnecessary and not having attended school himself thought that it ‘oppressed the soul’s creative spirit’.
Blake wanted his current society’s attitude to change; he knew that sending innocent children out to work at such a young age was wrong. In some of his other poetry Blake concentrates on areas of society he would like to be changed, such as in ‘The Little Black Boy’. Blake thinks that the attitude white people have learnt to associate with black people is wrong and should be changed. Much of his inspiration came from the French and Industrial revolutions. In fact, he was so interested in the changes taking place in France, he wrote a poem ‘The French Revolution’ in 1791.
Blake was living in an ever-changing society, where traditional ideas and values were being questioned and new ones created – he wanted to be a part of it but in his own imaginative, visionary way. The ‘Innocence’ collection could represent the way that the society of Blake’s time thought and believed, and the experience collection, representing the way it really was. The people of Blake’s time would just ignore problems such as child employment and education, hoping it would go away, but Blake knew something had to be done, and he talked about this in his poetry.
Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ give comparative images of children, babies, religion and the general society. It shows how different everything seems when we are innocent. Although the two collections show ‘… the two contrary states of the human soul’, they seem to join together and weave the same themes throughout. Some of these ideas are included both collections of poems, but are talked about in contrasting ways, such as religion, children, education and death.

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