William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience Essay

William Blake was a very influential and very talented poet, engraver and an artist, (though he was not influential to many people until the 20th century). He is the author of many well known poems that people in general will have heard of today. William Blake was born in London in 1757. He received no schooling after the age of ten and he was self taught to become a writer. He wrote his first poems at the young age of twelve. This is very impressive as he did not receive any schooling at that stage.

In 1789, William Blake published a book of poetry called ‘Songs of Innocence’. The ‘Songs of Innocence’ were based on William Blake’s views of an ideal world, the way that he would like the world to be. Unfortunately though, these works of poetry were never appreciated by the majority of people in those days. They were thought of as being too alternative which, of course, they were. He printed his works using his own, and unique method of etching the words and pictures into a copper plate, which he then used for printing copies.

This way he could hand colour his prints how he liked. Then in 1794 he published a new poetry book called ‘Songs of Experience’. The ‘Songs of Experience’ were based on the world as seen by Blake in the way that it was in his day. They talk about the suffering and the problems that people had in those days. The recurring themes in the ‘Songs of Experience’ seem to be the human trying to free himself from dominance, war, poverty and cruelty. These poems can be quite depressing. Like the ‘Songs of Innocence’, these too were printed using the same style of printing, by engraving them into a copper plate.

Blake was anti-authorities, e.g. he disliked the church. He did not believe in the church, but he was a religious man; he disagreed with the way in which the church seemed to rule people’s lives in those days. He believed in Jesus because he believed in the love and kindness that Jesus displayed, but he did not agree with the idea of God, as he was presented by the church. He saw God as the father figure of terror and tyranny. These views on religion gave many people a disrespectful view of William Blake, and made him many enemies.

By 1805 William Blake had finally come to accept that the general public did not understand him, and his views of how the country and society could be improved were thought of as ridiculous. A famous quotation of his is

‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s’

All his life he believed in this, and he tried hard to create his own system, and he had created a system that he saw as being much better than the current system that was in operation at that time. Unfortunately though, his system was never understood and he was thought of as a ‘mad man’. ‘Mad man’ was what he was titled when he died in 1827. Nowadays though, his works are greatly appreciated by many, and is now fully understood and his ideas are well respected among many people. This is true of many artists and poets who were never recognised for their talent until well after their death.

In this essay I will be talking about a few poems both from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and from the ‘Songs of Experience’. Explaining how they convey his views on all that he loved/hated, his view of an ideal world and his views on how the world was in his times.

I will begin by talking about my favourite of William Blake’s poems that I have studied; Infant Joy. Here is a picture of a print that William Blake made of Infant Joy, using the copper plate printing techniques.

This is the poem:

‘I have no name;

I am but two days old.’

What shall I call thee?

‘I happy am;

Joy is my name.’

Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty Joy!

Sweet Joy but two days old,

Sweet Joy I call thee.

Thou dost smile;

I sing the while.

Sweet joy befall thee.

This poem is a dialogue between a mother and her baby, though of course, a baby of two days old would definitely not be able to talk. The word ‘infant’ originated from the Latin word ‘infans’, meaning ‘non speaking’, so that is further evidence that the baby cannot talk because of the poem’s title, ‘Infant Joy’. So really then, it is the mother talking to herself in the poem and not to her baby, (though she is talking out loud to her baby). Her thoughts of what the baby is saying are based on what she thinks the baby is thinking. For instance, when the baby says, ‘I happy am’, this is just what the mother thinks the baby is feeling, happy. Firstly the baby says that it has no name and is only two days of age. The baby has no name because it is so young and not many babies are named within two days. In those days babies were usually baptized around this time (two days old). So the mother then is trying to think of a name for the baby.

So the mother replies to the baby saying ‘what shall I call thee?’ She is wondering what a suitable name for her child will be. Then the mother is thinking that her baby is happy and joyful, therefore joy would be a suitable name for her. Her mother hears this and she thinks that it is a lovely name, and she says ‘Sweet joy befall thee!’ This means that she is hoping for Joy’s life to be happy. The second stanza of the poem shows how happy the mother is because of the baby. She thinks that Joy is pretty. She says that when Joy smiles she sings, to express how much happiness that she’s feeling. It is clear from the second stanza that she cannot take her mind off joy, and that she is clearly in no doubt that she has chosen the right name for her, because Joy is happy and we know this because she smiles, and also because she is a joy to everyone, making them all happy too (especially Joy’s mother).

The poem makes you think that you are overhearing a conversation between the mother and her child, Joy. And it makes us think, in a way, that we are born knowing language, but that we just need to learn to understand it.

I chose to write about this poem because I think that it expresses Blake’s views on an ideal world strongly. I believe that Blake would love it if all babies were cared for and thought about so much by their mothers just after birth and throughout their lives. Blake wrote this poem to show its readers how much they should think about and care about their children. Although Blake and his wife never actually had children, I’m sure that if they had it would have been treated as well as possible, because Blake’s and his wife’s only regret was that they never had children.

I do not know for certain, but I think that possibly Blake had written ‘Infant Joy’ because of his love of children and to express how he felt about them. At that time in history people believed that children were born full of sin and because of that they were treated with a lot of discipline to work the sin out of them. Blake did not believe in this, he believed in treating children like the mother does in ‘Infant Joy’.

The second poem of William Blake’s from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ book that I will talk about is ‘The Lamb’. Blake has written this from the perspective of a little boy, who is rather confused but trying his hardest to write the poem properly. To show that the child is confused William Blake has made some words begin with capital letters where they should have been lower case and visa versa. The child that Blake is imitating to write the poem must be quite young because his writing skills are not up to a terribly high standard and the language is not very complex. By reading the poem you get the idea that the child writing the poem has been to Sunday school by the way that he knows about God and Jesus.

For instance how he knows of Jesus as the Lamb of God, although really, Jesus never called himself a lamb, but in all the poems and songs he was known as ‘the lamb of God’. The way in which the child is talking to the lamb is similar to the way in which a teacher would talk to a pupil. Asking him questions, more than once if he does not answer, and then answering them later on in the second stanza, always giving examples or facts that might help the pupil to remember or to learn. For instance when the child asks ‘Dost though know who made thee?’, and there is no answer from the pupil or lamb, he goes on to show what the person who is the answer to the question (God) has done for the pupil, or the lamb. Here is the poem:

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 a 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 thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

As you can see the poem is in two ten line stanzas, each with a regular pattern of syllables, six in the first and last two lines in each stanza and seven in the other lines. Also every couplet of lines rhymes in their last word except in the second stanza where ‘lamb’ and ‘name’ only rhyme very weakly. Another tactic that William Blake has used in this poem is repetition. He has repeated the first two and the last two lines in the second stanza. And in the first stanza, the first two lines and the last two lines are very similar, changing only a word or two in each.

By using repetition it makes the poem seem more like it has been written by a child. One of the lines in this poem was in a way stolen from another. A book called Wesley’s Hymns for children has a poem in it called ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. This is very similar to the line in ‘The Lamb’ where it says ‘He is meek and he is mild’. Anyone that had been to Sunday school would know of this poem which suggests that the child author of this poem did in-fact go to Sunday school.

I think that this poem expresses Blake’s view on how children are innocent. The language that the child uses, the subject about which the child is speaking, and the style of language that the child uses (how sweetly and gently he talks to the lamb) all represent the innocence of the child. And because Blake is showing these in his poems it outlines his thoughts that children are born without sin and are born innocent, and that children are innocent. It also shows more of Blake’s views on religion. The way that Jesus is mentioned in the poem as a lamb, shows that he was ‘meek and mild’, as the poem puts it, which means that he was gentle and calm, and of course loving, just like the lamb is in the poem. I really enjoy this poem, I like the way in which Blake has written it in a child’s persona. It makes it so much more interesting and enjoyable. It is a calm poem that is relaxing on the mind and easy to read, but there is also a lot below the surface, which you will see if you understand Blake’s views on life and religion.

Now I will talk about poems from ‘The Songs of Experience’, by William Blake. This is his poetry book written with poems about how life is and how sad and depressing it can be.

The first poem that I will talk about that is in ‘The Songs of Experience’ is ‘The Sick Rose’. The poem was written and printed in Blake’s unique way, by printing it on a copper plate. The poem is about a rose and a worm that is in it, destroying it. The worm symbolizes hatred, jealousy, deceit and many more evil or bad emotions.

Here is the poem how William Blake engraved it into the copper plate:

O rose, thou art sick;

The invisible worm

The flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

The rose symbolizes love, peace, humanity, imagination and life, and the invisible worm symbolizes hatred, jealousy, deceit, concealment, possessiveness, experience, Satan, rationalism, death and many more. Obviously the poem is not really talking about a sick plant, it goes much deeper than that. What the poem is saying is that this worm of hatred is burrowing into the love and the joy of the world, destroying it and spoiling it. It is difficult really to interpret this poem because it does not really mean much more than what I have said. I think that Blake wrote this poem to show his feelings about industry.

Blake hated industry, and I think that he believed that the invisible worm was industry, although invisible might not be the best way to describe it because industry is rather obvious and is difficult to miss. And I think that the rose represented the world how it was, Peaceful and harmonic. Because that is how Blake saw the industrial age, as a worm burrowing in deeper, deeper into the ground, using all the resources and then moving on for more destruction, with the rose’s love being the resources, and the worm taking it all through its jealousy and deceit. The lines in the poem;

‘Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,’

mean that before the industrial age began, where the rose lay, in its bed of crimson, meaning the earth, it had not yet been found and then along came the worm of industry, and discovered all the materials that were useful for industry, located in the earth, in the rose. The way in which William Blake describes the worm, the way it ‘flies in the night, in the howling storm’, shows how fast industry can move from not being there one day to being there the next, no matter how hard it might be, as the ‘in the howling storm’ part suggests. The ‘dark secret love’ part may have a double meaning. Firstly it could mean that industry loves and needs coal, which is dark, and of course industry loves it, because without it, industry would not happen. The second meaning brings us back to the worm of hatred, whose dark secret love is destroying love, ‘dark’ meaning evil and bad. The last line, ‘does thy life destroy’ is rather simple to understand, if the dark secret love is coal, as I mentioned, then by taking it, Blake’s life is being destroyed, because he really hates the idea of industry. If the dark secret is in destroying love, then Blake’s love is being eaten and destroyed by this worm, therefore destroying his life.

This is a very emotional poem that is quite sad, with way in which it shows how industry is destroying the beautiful earth. I think that this poem is very clever, and I enjoy it, but I most definitely do not find it a joyful poem, as Blake had intended me to feel about it. Because it is in ‘The Songs of Experience’ so therefore it is meant to show the bad things in the world and how life really was in those days for most people, hard and depressing.

The final poem that I will talk about is ‘Infant Sorrow’. This poem is the total opposite to ‘Infant Joy’, which is a nice happy poem. ‘Infant Sorrow’ on the other hand is depressing, as it does not talk about the parents love for the child, but of how the child is a problem and a nuisance to their lives. The picture below is of a coloured version of ‘Infant Sorrow’ by William Blake. It was first engraved into a copper plate and then it was coloured before being pressed into paper to make this colourful copy. Here is the poem:

My mother groaned, my father wept!

Into the dangerous world I leapt,

Helpless, naked, piping loud,

Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,

Striving against my swaddling bands,

Bound and weary, I thought best

To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

I decided to analyse this poem because it would be interesting to compare it with ‘Infant Joy’, which is mentioned earlier on in this essay. As you can see this poem is very similar in design to ‘Infant Joy’. It has two rather short stanzas, and both the illustrations have a mother and her baby in them, though in ‘Infant Sorrow’ the mother is not cuddling the baby and loving it, she is putting it down naked into its cot as it screams and struggles, whereas in ‘Infant Joy’ the mother is cuddling and loving the baby. The poem is written from the persona of the baby who has just been born. In ‘Infant Sorrow’ the baby is born, and the poem mentions how the mother groaned.

This could be because she is giving birth or because she is so unhappy about having a child that she does not want. It also mentions how the baby’s father wept. This could be because he is unhappy to have a child, or because he is so overwhelmed about having a child. I think that the father is probably upset because this poem is in the ‘Songs of Experience’ book, so the poems will be negative and there will not be love in them. Next it says, ‘Into the dangerous world I leapt’. This is true as a baby in the mother’s womb is safe but once it is born it must either be cared for very well or else it will die. When the baby is born it is described as being ‘helpless, naked and piping loud’.

This is true, as when babies are born they cannot do anything, and they are of course naked and usually piping loud, or screaming as we would usually put it, but what would you expect of a baby that had just been born, and this is exactly what Blake means to show us, that in this world, being happy the whole time is impossible, as you cannot be born happy. In an ideal world, babies would be born smiling and joyful, like in ‘Infant Joy’, as Blake would like it to be. The next line shows how the parents do not like the new baby. Blake describes the baby as ‘a fiend hid in a cloud’. This is how Blake thinks that the parents feel about the baby, as an evil creature that has been hiding, waiting for its chance to pounce and to ruin their lives.

This is a terrible thing to think once you have just had a new child. In a way this shows how people in those days believed that children were born full of sin. That they were little evil devils, that needed to be disciplined to make them good. Blake of course did not believe this. He believed that children were born totally innocent and that they became sinful on their journey through life. The next stanza talks about how the baby struggles in his father’s hands as he holds it, and of how the baby has been bound, and of how it is struggling to break free of these bonds but is too tired or ‘weary’ as the poem puts it to do so.

To finish off the poem, Blake says that the baby thought that all it could do was to sulk upon its mother’s breast. This seems rather sad that a brand new baby is feeling depressed and upset within the first few days of its life. This is what Blake did not believe in he believed that children should be loved and cherished from birth.

I find this poem quite upsetting, that such a young child could possibly get so upset so soon in its life. I find it interesting that Blake wrote two poems that are so similar yet so different, ‘Infant Joy’, and ‘Infant Sorrow’. Both are very good poems and are very effective. Although I think that ‘Infant Joy’ is obviously a much nicer poem to read because it is happy, ‘Infant Sorrow’ is the better poem for conveying the message that Blake hides inside his poems.

All in all, I have learnt to like Blake’s works very much. Now that I understand his perspectives his poems seem to make sense to me, and his ideal world is much the same as mine would be. Also I do like his art work, his unique style of printing is fantastic, and gives good results. So I find that William Blake was way ahead of his time, as today many of his ideas are in practice, and many people are thinking more like him.