Far from nursery rhymes: William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

At a glance, the poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience seem like nursery rhymes. Many of the poems featured in this collection are written in simple four-line stanzas with either alternating rhymes or rhyming couplets. The content of these poems also seems deceptively simple, often focusing on young children and nature. However, hidden within these poems are meditations on the great powers of God over the natural world, as well as scathing critiques on the government and the organised Church. It is Blake’s ability to fuse his appreciation of nature with his revolutionary spirit against those who ruled England which makes his poems so powerful, and why many herald him as having begun the movement of Romantic poetry.

When Songs of Innocence and Experience was published in 1794, Blake wrote that the collection was ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.’ Just as innocence is the opposite of experience, several of Blake’s poems in the first section of the collection, Songs of Innocence, have counterpart poems in the second section, Songs of Experience. The poem titled ‘The Lamb’ in Songs of Innocence links this animal, a common symbol of innocence, with young children but also with ‘Little Lamb God,’ representing Jesus or The Lamb of God. Through this, Blake paints a picture of a benevolent God who has the interests of children and animals at heart. This poem is contrasted in Songs of Experience with one of Blake’s most well-known poems, ‘The Tyger.’ The creature of the ‘Tyger’ is described as having ‘fearful symmetry’ and ‘fire’ in its eyes, while the speaker wonders ‘what immortal hand or eye’ could have made such a frightening creature. In contrast to the kind-hearted God who made the Lamb, Blake suggests that only someone terrifying and ruthless could have made the ‘Tyger,’ conjuring up an Old Testament portrayal of a God who could flood the world or destroy nations at will. In the last line of the poem, the speaker asks the ‘Tyger,’ ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ Here, Blake reflects on ‘The Two Contrary States’ of God: the benevolent New Testament version seen especially through Jesus, but also the all-powerful and terrifying God of the Old Testament who could make a creature as frightening as the ‘Tyger.’

Blake lived through the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a period which saw the rise of chimney sweeps. These were young children mostly under seven years old who were employed to climb up chimneys and sweep out the soot that was made by fires. Blake wrote two poems called ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ publishing one in Songs of Innocence and the other in Songs of Experience, both of which criticised the exploitation of these children. The poem in Songs of Innocence shows how the chimney sweeps’ only respite from their hard work is in their dreams at night, where they roam through the countryside that they will never see in real life. Blake adopts an ironic tone in the last line of the poem, ‘So if all do their duty they need not fear harm,’ since many chimney sweeps died at a young age due to respiratory illnesses caused by soot. The poem in Songs of Experience is explicitly critical of the institutions that exploited the chimney sweeps; the young chimney sweep in the poem talks about how their family ‘have gone to praise God & his Priest & King.’ The ampersands connecting ‘God’ with the ‘Priest’ and the ‘King’ show how those who worked for the organised Church and the monarchy had godlike powers yet did not pass motions to protect children from labouring at a young age, instead choosing to exploit them for profit and cause their premature deaths.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is crucial in developing the ideals which would become staples of forthcoming Romantic poetry. Blake’s focus on young children and nature in Songs of Innocence can be seen in much of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, while his critique of the government and institutional power in Songs of Experience echoes in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy.’ Although Wordsworth and Shelley’s poems are more well-known, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience was the spark that kindled the fire of Romantic poetry.

Featured image: Mike Marrah via Unsplash

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