A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Recently I wrote a piece on that tiny, yet powerful, poem: The Sick Rose, a single poem in Blake’s Songs of Experience. I discussed the sexual symbolism, related it to the Adam and Eve story and talked about it in relation to the context of Blake’s own day where – due to the diseases that ravaged society and the high mortality rate caused by childbirth itself - sexuality and suffering often, sadly, went hand in hand.
As I happily sailed past the 2000 word mark (which, as a rule we try to keep shy of on this blog) I realised that there was some serious cutting to be done.
But the Songs of Innocence and Experience still represent a curious challenge to me and I have been itching to finish off those ideas I started in The Sick Rose post.
What are these peculiar, motley, apparently simplistic rhymes about? What does Blake MEAN by innocence and experience? It’s all too easy to say “oh yes, bit mad that Blake. Used to hallucinate, you know” but there is method to his madness. He isn’t called a crazy genius for nothing.
So back to this idea of innocence. What does Blake mean by innocence? What are the Songs of Innocence versus the Songs of Experience? What does the whole caboodle add up to?
It is easy to read many of the poems in Innocence quite naively as an advocation of innocence, childhood, goodness and purity and all the positive associations that go along with that. There is much reference to Jesus and lambs in Songs of Innocence, to curly-headed children, to gamboling in fields, to pastoral idylls.
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
“Pipe a song about a lamb!”
So I piped with merry cheer.
“Piper, pipe that song again.”
So I piped: he wept to hear.
…and so on.
Positive stuff, eh?
This is why I have never taken to the Songs of Innocence. Most – to my mind – do not even make for memorable ditties, let alone great poems in their own right. It is hard, from such a remove, to know exactly how to read them. Are they parodies of children’s rhymes and verses of the time? Some people interpret them as children’s voices, but most have more of a sense of instructive verses for children – echoing the kind of simplistic moral ditties that might have been popular in Blake’s day - interspersed with the longer, and – to my mind – more interesting, first person narratives like The Chimney Sweep and The Little Black Boy.
But whilst the poems start off gaily enough, it doesn’t take long for these ditties to take a more menacing turn. In The Echoing Green – what appears to be a cheerful poem about playing ends on a slightly downbeat, even ominous note: “And sport no more seen/ On the darkening green”.
In my view, there are not many great poems in Songs of Innocence. And nothing that compares to the multi-layered simple beauty of The Sick Rose. However, of them all, The Chimney Sweeper is probably the one I find most poetic, tuneful and powerful. So let’s repeat it in full!
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
If you look carefully you will find many examples of cruelty in Songs of Innocence – from the experience of the sweep sold by his father in drudgery, to The Little Black Boy – the victim of a wholesale system of slavery that was still legal in Blake’s day – to the peculiar little poem Little Boy Lost – which, whether an allegory for a soul without God, or a simple tale of a boy abandoned by his father – is strangely disturbing and upsetting whatever way you look at it. Despite the references to lambs and Jesus, despite the pastoral idyll – Songs of Innocence is full of children let down by their parents and society.
The characters and voice of Songs of Experience, on the other hand, question everything – religion and God included.
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep! ‘weep! in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother, say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
There can be no more damning indictment of the society Blake sees around him than those last two lines – the idea that those societal institutions of royalty and religion are built upon the suffering of the poor. And again, that theme, of parental indifference and callousness, yet here we see the hypocrisy of this society that praises authority yet feels no love or compassion or pity (associated with the lamb in Songs of Innocence) for their own children .
The difference between this pair of poems from innocence to experience is more to do with a difference of perception –rather than being about a better or a worse world as such. The chimney sweeper in Innocence does not live in a kind benevolent world. Nor is life happy and simple for this much abused child who casually tells us he was sold into virtual child slavery. Rather, it is the innocence of the child that allows him to cling on to the platitudes offered him by society (“So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”). You get a sense of anger, of real moral zeal from Blake, angry that the “innocent” are lead into believing such societally-bolstering myths.
I don’t believe these poems are about contrasting the innocence of childhood with the experience of old age, or the simple pleasures of being young with the wisdom of experience – although some of these things exist in some of the poems. For me, they are angrier than that. They are, in my mind, about society itself.
In my post about The Sick Rose, I looked at the poem in relation to The Fall: the Adam and Eve story – the eating from the Tree of knowledge, the gaining of knowledge and self-consciousness, their banishment from the Garden of Eden, and Eve’s subsequent punishment (childbirth)…It is the ultimate story of innocence and experience.
For me, the structure of the Songs of Innocence and Experience seems to reflect this idea of The Fall. But Blake is not necessarily talking of a Fall in the religious sense, but in the societal sense: that gaining of knowledge, of self-consciousness, and eyes opening to good and evil in our own society.
Whereas the chimney sweep in Songs of Innocence is abused but does not see it (or want to see it) , the chimney sweep in Experience not only sees it but also sees the hypocrisy of a world that treats him so, whilst praising “God and his Priest and King”.
This is what Innocence and Experience seem to mean to Blake. A difference of perception. Before and after the fall. In Blake, the innocent find comfort in certain ideas and are protected from the knowledge of their own misery, but they also do not protest at that misery. The experienced question the society they live in: its institutions and morals…but are still stuck in poverty and so this knowledge becomes both a freedom and a curse.
Blake writes in the book that it is “shewing two contrary states of the human soul”. Blake often seems interested in these divisions and perhaps a clue to his thinking can be found in his other great work , The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, Reason and energy, Love and Hate, are necessary
to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active
springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
The association between Heaven and control and unquestioning obedience is striking – particularly in relation to The Chimney Sweeper. And so is the link between hell and questioning, creativity and freedom. Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, Innocence and Experience. As always, things are not too cut and dried where Blake is concerned and these ideas have to be taken in more symbolic and complicated sense. But it is as though Blake sees a false schism that has been created between “the two contrary parts of the human soul”, created by society, institutions and religion.
This is what I believe Blake is trying to do with the Songs of Innocence and Experience. He is talking about the two states of the human soul before and after The Fall: *a* fall – from innocence to experience, in relation to society itself – that banishes us from comfort and joy, but allows us to see things for what they really are.
We need both ways of thinking. To survive and have hope. To have pity and to have anger.