William Blake (1757-1827) wrote Songs of Innocence in 1789. Five years later he wrote Songs of Experience perhaps as a sequel. The titles of these two series cannot escape the reader’s notice. The poems in both these series have the unique tone of rhymes. The transition from innocence to experience is obvious, even painstaking.
In Introduction to the Innocence series the poet reveals his inspiration:
“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry cheer.
“Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.
The lamb, the symbol of innocence comes back in the poem The Shepherd: “For he hears the lambs’ innocent call, And he hears the ewes’ tender reply.”
In Blake’s poems the lamb is associated with innocence, childhood and Christianity. This theme is fully developed in the poem The Lamb:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
God is the shepherd and all men are his lambs and so “round the tent of God like lambs we joy” (The Little Black Boy). A boy has a distorted head “That curled like a lamb’s back” (The Chimney Sweeper). The “innocent” chimney sweeper’s advice to the child who cries over his shaven head is:
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
The moral of the story is loud and clear, “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” (The Chimney Sweeper) The lamb’s image comes back again and again, in Holy Thursday, Night, Spring and The Tiger. In The Tiger Blake’s imperative question, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” has been discussed and debated over the years. If the answer to this question is yes, we have to accept that god made both the tiger and the lamb, terror and humility. If the answer is no, there must also be a Satan who created terror.
Innocence is shattered by experience in The sick Rose:
O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That 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.
Innocence is not just lost; it seems an illusion in My Pretty Rose Tree:
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.
Or remember bold assertion in The Little Vagabond:
Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Blake’s vision in The Human Abstract puts us face to face with charity, religion and morality. Man creates poverty and pity, fear and peace; otherwise how will he show the paradigm of virtues?
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
However, the bliss of innocence is not altogether lost in The Songs of Experience. The poet does not lose sight of the Divine Image in human form. We still hear the innocent child’s lesson in A Poison Tree:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
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