In his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of children's poems written and illustrated by himself, William Blake explores human perception and the contemporary social milieu, focusing on the transience of opinion and the variability of fact in two contrary states of human nature. In England prior to and during the French Revolution, social opinion was under great pressure to remain loyal to tradition while still representing the best interests of Europe, resulting in schisms between social classes and religious sects, some of whom wished to maintain the status quo, while others wanted to see change that would equalize their countries. Blake delves into various aspects of London's social life, as well as England overall, especially the role of children in society, in relation to this struggle for power, money, and God's approval. While the aristocracy clung to its traditional power structure and monetary superiority, many children were sold or abandoned daily on the streets of London, either to be taken in as destitute charity cases, which could result in a variety of levels of treatment and care, or to be employed as chimney sweeps, the dirtiest, most abused population of children imaginable. Blake displays a multitude of images concerning children in these conditions and others, but his imaginative and vibrant poems offer more than clear-cut portraits of these unrepresented human beings. If the Songs appear to be simply opposing views upon the same subject matter, separated by the ebullient wonder of Innocence and the odious fact of Experience, one must look more closely to discover Blake's true purpose. That he often switched poems from one book to the other as he printed them by hand is evidence enough that there were no clearly defined divisions between the states of Innocence and Experience, and within the poems, the two contrary states often mingle, tincturing each other with memories of innocence or foreshadowings of experience. While Blake seems to offer us two differing viewpoints on the same subjects and images, the more we look, the more we see the complexity of his perception and his inability to differentiate completely between his two Songs.
[...] When Blake writes his pair of “Holy Thursday” poems, the effect is similar in that it shows two different sides of a single event, but once again the two sides are anything but clearly divided between innocence and experience. This moment, the one day of the year when all of the charity school children were marched down to St. Paul's for all to see, was a symbol of progress, that these many impoverished children were clean, clothed, fed and educated, but also a disgraceful reassertion that such a vast population of these children even existed. [...]
[...] Gleckner, “Into that joyous context [of Innocence] the elements of experience constantly insinuate themselves so that the note of sorrow is never completely absent from the piper's pipe.” Especially in Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday,” in which the social commentary is at its most severe, the varying points of view between one Song's version and the next require the closest of readings to catch the myriad ways Blake uses his two contrary states for and against each other, within and without each other. [...]
[...] Where Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence shows how even in the worst of situations and however much it might disturb the reader, Tom can find succor in a dream Angel's prophecy, the Experience version clearly shows Blake's disgust with the chimney sweeper practice. His very first words, little black thing among the snow express the subhuman status given to these helpless children. While the boy's parents are praying in church, he freezes outside. This narrator is not so accepting of his fate as either naïve Tom or his older mentor, and even seems to see his present woe as having a causal relationship to his happier past. [...]
[...] clearly defined divisions between the states of Innocence and Experience, and within the poems, the two contrary states often mingle, tincturing each other with memories of innocence or foreshadowings of experience. While Blake seems to offer us two differing viewpoints on the same subjects and images, the more we look, the more we see the complexity of his perception and his inability to differentiate completely between his two Songs. Following the emerging tradition of writing individually disseminated by such poets as Thomas Gray, who wrote about the solitude of private meditation in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Edward Young, who published his most personal thoughts on grief in his “Night Thoughts,” William Blake writes with a distinctly personal voice. [...]
[...] The Songs desperately try to alert their audience to the alarming facts of life, hoping to effect some positive change that might welcome the worldview of Innocence back into the world. Blake's insistence that only in a state of pure childhood can one truly embrace the joy of Innocence is also a plea to create a world in which Experience is not so crushing to the human spirit. Bibliography Primary Sources: 1. Duncan Wu, editor, Romanticism: An Anthology, 3rd Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) Secondary Sources: 1. [...]
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