Comparison and Contrast of William Blake's Poems
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
"Pipe a song about a lamb!"
So I piped with merry chear.
"Piper, pipe that song again;"
So I piped, he wept to hear.
"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy chear:"
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.
"Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read."
So he vanish'd from my sight,
And I pluck'd a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
"O Earth, O Earth, return!
"Arise from out the dewy grass;
"Night is worn,
"And the morn
"Rises from the slumberous mass.
"Turn away no more;
"Why wilt thou turn away?
"The starry floor,
"The wat'ry shore,
"Is giv'n thee till the break of day."
The Chimney Sweeper (Innocence)
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry "'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl'd like a lamb's back, was shav'd: 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 quiet & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping , he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them free;
The down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon the clouds and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
The Chimney Sweeper (Experience)
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ''weep! 'weep!' in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father & mother? say?"
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
"Because I was happy upon the heath,
"And smil'd among the winter's snow,
"They clothed me in clothes of death,
"And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
"And because I am happy & dance & sing,
"They think they have done me no injury,
"And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
"Who make up a heaven of our misery."
Infant Joy (Innocence)
"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!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!
Infant Sorrow (Experience)
My mother groan'd! 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 swadling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.
The best-known work of the English poet and artist William Blake, Songs
of Innocence and of Experience employs the mediums of poetry and colored
engraving in a series of visionary poems "shewing the two contrary states of the
human soul." Songs of Innocence (1789) was followed by Songs of Experience
(1794), and the two were then combined. Written in simple lyrical form, as if
they were children's songs, the poems contrast an innocent view of life with a
more experienced and, in some instances, a jaded one. Each poem is illustrated,
and Blake occasionally pairs poems in the two groups by giving them the same
title. What do these paired poems have in common, or rather, what do these poems
lack in common to make them different; one poem is innocent, and one is
experienced. What, in Blake's mind makes the poem what it is?
William Blake was born on November 28, 1757. He was a complete artist: a
painter, sculptor, and a poet. In 1784, Blake wrote a novel entitled An Island
in the Moon. From this novel came the rough drafts, if you will, of what was to
be known as Songs of Innocence. Blake read over these poems, and selected
carefully the poems he felt best suited his upcoming book, Songs of Innocence.
In 1787, Blake's beloved brother, Robert, had fallen ill and died. Blake
completed and published Songs of Innocence in 1789. Soon afterwards, Blake and
his wife moved to a small house south of the Thames. It was here that Blake was
becoming more aware of the social injustices of his time, an increasing
awareness that led to a series of lyrical poems known as Songs of Experience.
There is no reason for thinking that when he composed the Songs of
Innocence that he had already envisioned a second set of opposed poems
Therefore, when reading the 'Innocence' poems, don't think that they
have a link to the 'Experience' poems. However, since the 'Experience' poems
were composed after the 'Innocence' poems, keep in mind while reading them that
they are twined with the 'Innocence' poems.
The 'Innocence' poems were Blake's perception of the products of a mind
in a state of innocence and of an imagination unspoiled by the stains of the
world. At the time in which he wrote about 'innocence', he had not yet been
exposed to the social injustices of his time. "Blake had an 'innocent' mind, at
least a mind that was in a more 'innocent' state of that mind that wrote the
'Experience' poems" (Dorrbecker, p.125). Therefore, he was writing about his
world, at the time, an innocent world. The Songs of Innocence, of course, are
not "children's poems." They are a picture of the soul's perfect existence, when
it is at one with itself- the condition which Blake mirrors as a state of
childhood. No experience of evil has yet come to draw the soul out of its Eden.
Blake expressed much pity for the suffering on the streets of London.
This pity resulted in the publishing of Songs of Experience in 1794. However,
Songs of Experience was never released by itself. It always had the accompanying
abridgment of Songs of Innocence.
In the Introduction to Songs of Innocence, Blake sets the scene for the
'Innocence' poems. Here the poet imagines himself as a shepherd wandering in a
valley and piping to his sheep. He pictures himself as a shepherd for
symbolistic reasons. With the vision of the child on a cloud, he is directed by
the child. He is told to drop his pipe and sing his songs, and finally to write
them in a book. The fact that this child on a cloud shows that the shepherd is
being asked by a higher force to do his bidding. This higher force is Jesus, the
ultimate symbol of innocence. The last line points to children as his audience,
though it is the innocent in heart, whether child or adult, that he means.
On the contrary, in the "Introduction" to Songs of Experience, the poet
sees himself as the bard, the prophet who heard God speaking to Adam, who has
just been exposed to 'Experience', in the garden. He calls to the fallen man to
regain control of the world, lost when he adopted 'reason' (the 'starry pole')
in place of 'imagination'. Earth is the symbol of the fallen man, who is jolted
from materialism and asked to go back to the life of innocence and the
imagination. "The 'starry floor' of Reason and the 'wat'ry shore' of the Sea of
Time and Space (The edge of materialism) are there only till the break of day if
Earth would consent to leave 'the slumberous mass' (Robinson, p.246)
In the "Introduction" to Innocence, a more carefree outlook is taken
than in that of the "Introduction" to Experience. In the Introduction to
Innocence, Blake uses such symbols as the lamb and child to express his view of
innocence. There are no cares in the world for the poet. It seems as if he does
as he pleases, and has no ties. So much so, that he drops everything to write
down his poems with materials that are close to him: a reed as a pen, and
stain'd water as ink. In the Introduction to Experience, the tone overall is
gloomy. Everything has already happened: Adam has taken the forbidden fruit. God
offers Adam a chance, to regain control of his lost world, but the damage is
done. Adam has seen 'reason' (the 'starry pole') and thus become experienced.
The flaws of life are now visible to him. All that once seemed pristine now
contain tarnishes. He can never go back, only forward, and here lies the tragedy
of life. The bard may ask him to 'return' but that simple act of 'returning'
will not erase his memory. He has seen the experience, the 'starry pole'. No
matter what happens, he will now always know experience.
The next poem, The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence, begins in
narrative form and ends with a seemingly general moral. It is somewhat related
to an earlier poem, 'The Little Black Boy', both being inspired by fury. In this
poem, The Chimney Sweeper, the inspiration is against the shameful use of small
boys for sweeping chimneys. Here the white boy is blackened by the soot of human
cruelty. The angel of Tom's dream unlocks the coffin of his unhappy
circumstances and sets his spirit free to float on the clouds of the imaginative
life. It is perhaps living this life that is the 'duty' of the last line. In the
last stanza, Tom awaken in the dark and cold, but since he knows his 'duty',
which is basically if he works hard, god will keep a place for him in heaven, he
stays warm, and 'need not fear harm.'
"This poem has an intensity, a distilled quality about it which derives
from the prophetic and visionary Blake. There is a touch of moral primness in
such lines as:
'Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.'
represents neither facile optimism nor smugness, but a half ironic, half
yearning vision of a world where, unlike this one, all men behave as Blake would
have them behave" (Daiches p. 863-4). This innocence is what Blake perceives. It
helps to prove the point that innocence is what you perceive to be innocent. In
this poem, Blake perceives the fact that Tom would put all faith into god as
innocent. From an atheist point of view, Tom would look rather unaware of the
truths of the world around him.
On the contrary, "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Experience, shows a
completely different side of the coin, the experienced side. In the
corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence, the little chimney sweeper appeared
completely miserable until the end of the poem, in which he was released by the
angel. In Experience the boy is only sometimes happy, but tells of his
exploitation by his parents, who imagine they are not wronging him because his
spirit is not completely restrained. The 'holy' parents are in church since the
Church condoned the society's infliction of such cruelty on this innocent child.
In the Innocence poem, Tom is given somewhat of a 'message of hope' that
if he does his work to his limit, he will go to heaven and be eternally happy.
Blake placed within it a moral: Do your best, no matter your situation, and you
will be rewarded by God. This somewhat 'ignorant' faith in god shows Tom's
innocence. In contrast, the Experience version of The Chimney Sweeper is a
dismal portrayal of a boy practically abandoned by his parents and left for the
church. The difference here is that the boy has come to a realization of the
evils of his parents and church, who are relentless at their attempt to corrupt
"Infant Joy" in Songs of Innocence is a very simple and delicate poem.
The 'innocence' of this poem is merely its simplicity. This poem should be taken
at face value. In the first stanza, the baby, only two days old tells of its
joy- It has no problems. At two days, one is hardly experienced, and has no
worries. This is innocence in its purist form.
S.T. Coleridge criticized this poem for its inaccuracy. "An infant two
days old cannot smile. But neither can it speak, as it does in the first stanza,
so that poetic license must be given full reign" (Coleridge p.836). I feel that
one must use their imagination in a poem such as this. Obviously a baby of two
days cannot speak or smile, but I don't feel that it is supposed to be taken
literally. I also don't think that Blake meant it to be taken literally. This
baby speaking, or what it is 'thinking', expresses innocence in its entirety.
Through the eyes of this baby we are brought to the realization of its world: it
hasn't seen anything; therefore, it has no problems. It has no name, and doesn't
care. It's when you start bringing the toils of society into this baby's world
that it become unhappy. (And experienced)
Infant Sorrow in Songs of Experience shows the dismal side of being an
infant. 'Infant Joy' in Innocence was a statement of the simple joy of a newly
conceived life. 'Infant Sorrow' shows the other side of the coin. The newly born
infant has been brought forth in pain and sorrow and soon becomes like a 'fiend'
hidden in a 'cloud' of earthly life and experience. The second stanza expresses
the human being's inevitable acceptance of his fate, though he can still ease
his feeling by moping.
In 'Infant Joy' a baby is seen with no problems in life, having nothing
to worry about, and is happy in its mother's arms. In 'Infant Sorrow' the baby
is seen as cold, naked, and crying. The connotation of nakedness can be seen as
a sense of vulnerability. This vulnerability was not seen in 'Infant Joy', why?
Simply because in 'Infant Joy', the baby is brought forth in love and comfort,
in 'Infant Sorrow' the baby is brought forth in pain and sorrow.
At the center of Blake's thought are two conceptions of innocence and
experience, 'the two contrary states of the human soul'. Innocence is the
characteristic of the child, experience is the characteristic of the adult.
(Characteristic, NOT the body)The Innocence poems deal with childhood as the
symbol of an untarnished innocence which ought to be, but which in modern
civilization cannot be. These poems all have a childlike directness and a sense
of controlled joy in the human and natural world that show none of the signs of
a grownup writing for children. In innocence, there are two factors. One is an
assumption that the world was made for the benefit of human beings, and the
other is ignorance to this world. As the child grows, his conscious mind accepts
'experience', or reality. His childhood innocence is forgotten and lost forever,
for innocence is not knowing experience. Blake can wrote his innocence books
before he had been exposed to the social injustices of his time. Also, one can
write abo ut innocence from remembering it. However, living innocence, and
writing about it are two different things.