Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as precursors of the Romantic Age.

Question: Critically examine Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as precursors of the Romantic Age.


Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience: Blake’s Songs of Innocence were first engraved in 1789. They were first published in one volume with Songs of Experience as Songs of Innocence and Experience. Songs of Innocence was original in its way of printing and undoubtedly exceptional in poetic value; but in form it is kind of chap-book of poems in the tradition of Isaac Watts’ Divine Sings for Children. Here Blake consistently talks about the freedom and joy and the life of a child. What should be noted here is the fact that there are differences between the overtones that only a sensible reader can detect and the simple meaning, which can be understood by normal or an average reader. Blake himself was of the same view. He published the Songs of Experience in which he made such overtones more explicit. One should not get confused by the bitterness of Songs of Experience and start doubting its sincerity.

The Songs of Innocence and Experience are different from other Romantic poems on many counts. But primarily because Blake was a professional engraver, an artisan, and a Londoner in a way that other Romantics were not. Unlike other poets of this era, Blake wrote London, it was a subject of his verses and also the world of experience.

Note on Songs of Innocence

Unlike the Songs of Experience, the Songs of Innocence are less somber. In these songs joy, happiness, laughter, light, son and shared activities predominate over the darkness that haunts its fringes as night, fierce animals and protective adults. It presents the picture of pastoral world but not a pastoral idyll. Many of the critics have suggested that the children of Innocence are contented because they are economically and emotionally secure. These children are not orphans, they do not have work to make their living, and even when their parents are not there, indulgent adults keep an eye on them and share their joy. In some of the songs of Innocence, namely The Chimney Sweeper Blake talks about the danger of Innocence when it is akin to naivety; in many of the poems innocence is like the goodness that Christ described to his listeners that if they are not like children their entrance in heaven will not be granted.

Note on Songs of Experience

In the Songs of Experience, Blake focuses on the material and temporal London so that it can be changed but only if people have righteous and cleansing anger that Jesus reflected against the moneychangers in the Temple. These songs were written when the church state were the enemies of the people, which makes church one of the tyrannising institutions in London. In such a situation which seems to be hopeless, Blake speaks about hope through revolt against all which creates despair. The dominant colors of the Songs of Experience are black and gray with occasional red which stands for revolution or the light of dawn. The dominant sounds are of weeping and grief; the dominant images of abandoned, starved, unhappy children, harsh adults, poison trees, thorns, and an infertile land without sunshine. It seems to be unequal worlds of victims and victimization.

Comments on Both the Collections

Many of the poems of both the collections are in many ways parallel to each other as they reflect issues and themes which are more like the two sides of the same coin. Poems like Holy Thursday and Nurse’s Song are in both collections but they are different in the themes they present. Understanding the shift from the real of innocence to the real of experience can be understood in term of shift from image of lamb to the image of tiger or from blossom to the sick rose or from the divine image to the human abstract. The world of experience is the world which shows the poet’s point of view about his contemporary society which is more about the hypocrisy and tyranny prevailing in the society, while the world of innocence is the world of children, a world which reflects the idea of Christ as child.

Songs of Innocence:

Study of Some Poems We will now look at the three poems of the Songs of Innocence in order to understand and get the idea of the Blake’s world of innocence.

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Gave thee life, and bid thee feed By the stream and o'er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight Softest clothing, wooly, bright; Gave thee such tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice? Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee, Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee, He is called by the name, For he calls himsefl a Lamb He is meek, & he is mild; He became a little child. I a child & thou a lamb, We are called by his name. Little Lamb, God bless thee ! Little Lamb, God bless thee ! The lamb is the poem which refers to the innocence of Christ and also talks about the mystery of the universe. The poem is about a child who is asking several rhetorical questions from a lamb about its birth and upbringing. In the first stanza of the poem we sense the child like quality of innocence. We see words like ‘delight’, ‘bright’, ‘rejoice’ coming up which indeed reflects the merriment in the environment. We have two figures here, the child and the lamb, and both of them are gentle and tender. In the second stanza the child himself tries to answer the question he asked. Though there isn’t any direct reference to Christ but child says that the creator calls himself a lamb, which in turn suggests that the reference is to Christ. The Christ has the quality of lamb as in he is meek and humble and tender, this reflect the image of Christ being a child, which further makes the suggestion that the child, the lamb and Christ are one. The vocabulary of poem is simple and seems that is spoken by a child. The rhythm suggests the lisping of a child.

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!" 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 quite and that very night As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight! That thousands so sweepers, Dickm, 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, adn shine in the Sun. Then naked and white, all theri bags left behind, They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind; And the Angle 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. This poem straddles Innocence and Experience, and tries to present what happens to a child in a fallen world. The inspiration and the acceleration of this song come from Blake’s anger at the world of experience, a thin disguise for the industrial London of his time. In his contemporary London, only the houses of wealthy people had chimneys and these included the houses of churchmen. These chimneys had to be cleaned of soot every now and then. Therefore the owners of these houses would keep children to clean the chimneys. Blake deplored this concept of child labour and also he makes the adults, including the parents of the children and the owners of the house and also other people who did not spoke against this, target of his satire. The poem opens with a heart-rending revelation of the pathetic condition of a child who was sold to sweep the chimney before he could speak the word ‘sweep’ correctly. We are further told that this child sleeps in soot and also has been shaved (children who worked as chimney sweepers were shaved). The implicit comparison can be with a lamb shorn off his wool. The comparison goes to the next level in the light of the fact that the lamb cannot protest and has to accept what is being done to him in the same way a child has to accept the fate. The bitter irony is evident in the line 8 when we are told that the soot of the chimney cannot spoil the curls if one has his head shaved. The sense of acceptance of the fate is evident in the Tom’s dream. Like other songs this too presupposes some awareness of social institution that no longer exist. Many of the lines of the poem were literally true. The situation of these children was really grave. And this poem is Blake’s voice against the condition.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, pity, Peace, and Love All pray in their distress; And to these virtues to delight Return their thankfulness. For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love Is God, our father dear, And Merch, Pity, Peace and Love Is Man, his child and care. For Mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress. Then every man, of every clime, That prays in his distress, Prays to the human form divine, Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace. And all must love human form, Is heathen, turk or jew; Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell There God is dwelling too.

This poem talks about love, pity, peace and mercy. Some of the quality of the poem is akin to the hymns of Isaac Watts and other hymn writers who influenced Blake, some of which would be the simplicity of the statements and the ballad metre used in the poem. The poem relates the four virtues with God and his child, man. God lies in men and that makes human form divine. Loving men is therefore like loving God.

Songs of Experience:

Study of Some Poems

The Sick Rose

O Rose, Thou art sick The invisible worm That flies in the night In the howling storm, Has found out the bed Of Crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy

In this poem Blake makes uses of symbols in order to connect sensual with emotional. Blake’s subtle use of symbols further defines his being a visionary poet. Such poems are difficult to understand. The physical level, emotional level and the moral level can be experienced at the same time. On the surface the poem seems to be about a rose and a worm but underneath the surface there are hidden meanings which are disguised in the symbols used by Blake. Not only the meanings and theme but also the situations and things are described symbolically. The poet makes use of contrast as a poetic devise to convey his meaning. Thus we have ‘rose’ and ‘worm’ as ‘joy’ and ‘destroy’ paired off. The symmetry of the meanings is to be noticed here. The second word of both the pairs suggests evil and the first beauty, and happiness. While the rose exists as a beautiful natural object that has become infected by a worm, it also exists as a literary rose, the conventional symbol of love. The image of the worm resonates with the Biblical serpent and also suggests a phallus. Worms are quintessentially earthbound, and symbolize death and decay. The “bed” into which the worm creeps denotes both the natural flowerbed and also the lovers’ bed. The rose is sick, and the poem implies that love is sick as well. Yet, the rose is unaware of its sickness. Of course, an actual rose could not know anything about its own condition, and so the emphasis falls on the allegorical suggestion that it is love that does not recognize its own ailing state. This results partly from the insidious secrecy with which the “worm” performs its work of corruption—not only is it invisible, it enters the bed at night. This secrecy indeed constitutes part of the infection itself. The “crimson joy” of the rose connotes both sexual pleasure and shame, thus joining the two concepts in a way that Blake thought was perverted and unhealthy. The rose’s joyful attitude toward love is tainted by the aura of shame and secrecy that our culture attaches to love.

The two quatrains of this poem rhyme abcb. The ominous rhythm of these short, two-beat lines contributes to the poem’s sense of foreboding or dread and complements the unflinching directness with which thespeaker tells the rose she is dying.


I wander thro' each charter’d street Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe. In every cry of every Man, In every Infant's cry of fear, In every voice, in every ban The mind-forged manacles I hear. How the Chimney-sweeper's cry Every black'ning Church appalls; And halpless soldier’s sigh? Runs in blood down Palace walls. But most thro' midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlot's curse Blasts the new born Infant's tear, And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

This poem is about how commerce and industrialization in the early 18th century damaged everything. The industrial England during that time was expanding its empire and was in immense need of the colonies for the raw materials to fuel up the new factories and also as market for manufactured products. During this whole process England and specifically London changed a lot. One of the important changes which occur due to industrialization was that the residential home became the home of commerce. A great deal of Blake’s anger in this poem originates from the consequence of wars between England and France. The French revolution created a kind of fear among the English elites that same can possibly happen in England as well which resulted in Pitt’s energy getting diverted toward the suppression any such happening in England. However, a lot of public feeling was in favor of radical changes. Prostitution was another change or consequence that erupted out of poverty. It was not a difficult thing to find a child prostitute between the ages of 7 to 10 years. In this poem Blake attempts to connect prostitution and marriage. Marriage in the middle and upper-classes were generally without any love or affection, in fact they were more like commercial transaction and this made them comparable to rape or prostitution or a violation of natural coupling. Blake’s shows his contempt about such relationships in this poem. For him such relations were deathlike.

In the poem it is the angry and solitary Bard who shows us the blindness and apathy of rich people. He makes us see more than the natural features man-made structures that he appears to be talking about. He first appeals to our sight and then to sound with words like cry, sigh, curse, which conveys the pervasiveness of misery more than that of the sight which is in a way restricted to what is before one whereas the sound comes from all around. As the poem proceeds the picture of London becomes both literally and metaphorically darker. We see evil culminating in the images of sexual sickness.

In Blake’s satiric list, streets, river, faces, cries of men, cries of infant, the cries of chimney-sweepers, voices, bans, soldier’s sigh, commercial houses, church, palaces are united as oppressor and oppressed; images of prison, of unnatural buildings, recur. The number of oppressed who are human (infants, man, chimney-sweeper, harlot, soldier) are greater than that of the oppressor.