William Blake – Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience

Here is a recap on William Blake’s work. It aims at explaining his conception of the two notions: innocence and experience, and how he developed them in both volumes of songs. In a second part, this article presents different plates and possible interpretations, with as a constant element the notion of loss (cf. the titles of the poems).

Innocence v. Experience

World of Innocence

World of Experience

The Piper

The Bard

Past = primal unity

Past = innocence

Present = innocence

Present = experience

Future = experience

Future = higher innocence

Prevailingly happy tone

Mostly solemn and deeply resonant tone

Awareness of essential divinity and assurance of protection…

Gloomy memory of the high-pitched joy of innocence…

YET, elements of experience which bring sorrowful notes.

YET, ember that is likely to become flame at any moment to light the way to the higher innocence.

Source: Robert F. Gleckner, Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs, English Romantic Poets

« Blake created a system of which innocence and experience are vital parts… Without the system, Blake is the simplest of lyric poets and every child may joy to hear the songs. Yet with very little study the child of innocence can be seen to be radically different from the child of experience, and the mother of innocence scarcely recognizable in experience. The states are separate, the two contrary states of the human soul, and the songs were written not merely for our enjoyment, or our edification, but for our salvation. »

Source: Robert F. Gleckner, Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs, English Romantic Poets

Plate for «The Little Boy Lost» (S.o.I, 1789)

The Little Boy Lost

(supposedly the penultimate poem in Songs of Innocence)

The poem is composed of two quatrains. The first one sounds like a call, with the repetition of “speak” and “father”; the second quatrain’s rhythm is a bit different, with the reversal of long and short verses.

As a whole, the poem is very rhythmical, fitting both with the idea that it is a “song” and the idea of chasing for something. The boy is not wandering around; he is actively looking for something.

On the plate, we can see the little boy in a white gown in the middle of a gloomy forest in the background. He is chasing what looks like a light, a will-o’-the-wisp; it is what “vapour” refers to in the poem. Around the text, the angels and the swan convey the symbolism of purity.

The father that the child is looking for, seeking for, in the poem, might be understood as being his real father, but we can also understand it as being the spiritual father, God. The child lost sight of his spiritual father by being drawn to this will-o’-the-wisp, something that looked more attractive, but ended up being very deceitful. It could represent the material things in life that actually make people lose touch with the true core of spirituality.

 

 
 Plate for «The Little Boy Found» (S.o.I., 1789)

The Little Boy Found

(last poem of Songs of Innocence)

This poem as the same structure as the previous one and is actually its sequel. We still have this little boy, who, here, finally found his father. The rhythm is slower in this poem, maybe thus symbolizing appeasement.

On the plate, the little boy has met his father, who is depicted as a god-like figure, all dressed in white and with a sort of halo above his head. He is referred to in the poem as the “father in white”. If Blake’s intentions on the deeper meaning were not crystal clear in the first poem, here references are much less implicit.

We can notice that Blake has no problem with depicting a human-shaped God. In his conception of God and religion, God could appear among humans and was actually present in any human being. These two poems give a more precise perspective on Blake’s beliefs and conception of religion.

Plate for «The Little Girl Lost» (S.o.E., 1794)

The Little Girl Lost

(originally in Songs of Innocence)

This poem of thirteen quatrains is very rhythmical as well, with a lullaby-kind of rhythm provided by the repetition of the “sleep”/”weep” rhyme. It deals with the story of Lyca, a seven-year-old girl, who wanders in a “wild desert” and gets lost. She falls asleep towards the end of the poem, and it is when her mother eventually stops weeping. Then, she is taken to a cave by a lion and a lioness.

The first stanza sounds very prophetical; it is a feature that we can find in many of his poems.

The first plate depicts a naked couple on the right, with several vine-like designs on the left. There is a snake on a branch, just after the stanza evoking a garden; many elements convey the impression that the couple depicted, as well as the whole scene, represents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The second plate depicts Lyca in the middle of a forest-like background.

There is an omnipresence of Biblical references in this poem besides the representation of Adam and Eve, e.g. with the cave probably representing Heaven.

Plate for «The Little Girl Found» (S.o.E., 1794)

The Little Girl Found

This poem, as well as its prequel, is a rhythmical ballad in thirteen quatrains. The repetition of “sleep”/”weep” rhymes is lessened, for the ‘action’ has switched to the awakened world in which Lyca’s parents are actively looking for their daughter. They encounter the lion as well but are at first frightened. Then the lion smells them and recognizes Lyca’s smell, so it takes them to its cave.

On the first plate, we can see a tiger (“tyger” in Blake’s orthography) or the lioness under a naked, leafless tree. The second plate depicts nude characters who seem to be playing with – presumably – the lioness. Lyca is lying asleep on the ground; there are two other characters who look rather like cherubs than like Lyca’s parents. There is also a gigantic two-trunk tree, which takes on most the plate.

Again here, many elements seem to be references to the Bible: the lion can be interpreted as Jesus Christ*, the “palace” can be a reference to Heaven, etc.

*The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah, among other things.


WORKS CITED

H. Adams, A Reading of the Shorter Poems in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, University of Washington Press, 1963.

D. H. George, Blake and Freud, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

D. G. Gilham, Blake’s Contrary States, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Robert F. Gleckner, Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs, English Romantic Poets, Oxford University Press, 1975.

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