Can You Innocently Experience Blake’s Songs Separately?
In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience readers venture into a world of binaries that are not as oppositional as they are similar, but just opposing enough to make you wonder what Blake, or the speaker of the poetry meant. On the surface, it is clear in black and white, the difference from the first set of poems (Innocence) and the second (Experience) is that Blake has lived and seen things between his writings. It deserves to be argued that Blake chose very intentionally which poems to revisit for Experience for not only reader response but for the sake of voice.
Take for example, The Chimney Sweeper. It can be inferred that the speaker of this poem is the little boy who was forced into the chimney sweep trade upon his mother’s death and his father’s inability to care for him. The youthful nature of the speaker capitalizes how from his own struggles he was able to help his friend Tom understand the way life was now, even if it was less than the ideal lifestyle for young boys. “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” (5-8) The speaker in this poem uses the example of a bright side for shaving Tom’s hair in order to show his peer that not all that happens to them is for the purpose of ‘bad’. In lines 19-24, we see another example of the speaker highlighting the bright side: “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 & brushes to work./Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;/So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” These lines are significant to the tone of innocence because the speaker is describing an enlightening experience Tom had one night in which he recognized that if he accepts his fate, eternity will be good to him. This is the speaker’s way of saying that if this is what it takes to more or less shut the whining new kid up, then so be it, because believing in something to get you through the worst days is better than believing in nothing except an ominous abysmal future.
The shift in tone of The Chimney Sweeper when we reach Songs of Experience goes from the melancholy attempt at hope to a realistic, bleak sadness. The poem opens instead of taking ownership like the previous poem, with “A little black thing among the snow/Crying ‘weep, ‘weep, in notes of woe!” (1-2). Blake continues in lines 5-8, “Because I was happy upon the heath/And smil’d among the winter’s snow/They clothed me in the clothes of death/And taught me to sing the notes of woe.” Immediately we can analyze the choice of the word ‘woe’ and its repetition in the first and second stanzas. In the first poem, the little boy speaker is the picture of optimism for his friend Tom, but in this second poem, readers are lead to believe that the “clothes of death” and “notes of woe” are the clothes the speaker/boy/chimney sweeper will be buried in and beyond that, the notes of woe can be interpreted to mean that he knows this is his fate because before, when he was optimistic, his smile became jaded.
In this video, we have a common analysis of the two Chimney Sweeper poems at a similar depth to that which we discussed in class. Is it possible that the innocence is synonymous to ignorance? Or is it just a part of growing up? Blake makes readers wonder where the line in the sand is drawn, without a doubt.
It is heartbreaking to look at this shift and to think about what must have happened to this poor chimney sweeping boy for his outlook to alter so drastically. Blake uses word choice and imagery in such a way that in his Innocence Poems the reader’s mind’s eye creates more positive visuals while his Experience poems paint a more realistic, sadly, also, bleak visual. Sadly, Blake’s other poems, when read side by side do not do much to change this inference about what separates his tellings of Innocence versus Experience as schools of thought.
Another prime example is Holy Thursday. In the first poem, Blake uses imagery and highly descriptive words to tell about children walking to what context clues would indicate to be church.”The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green/Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow/Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow” (1-4) The lines are long in each stanza and feel more like prose than poetry in this piece. Readers don’t gather much of a sense for the poem, in spite of its verbose nature, other than children were walking to church. The word choice as a device here is not necessarily aiding the poem’s story.
Revisiting the piece in Experience readers can right away notice the more “poetic” feeling of the structure. Each stanza is short in length and accomplishes more in the same number of lines. The biggest difference between the two is that the revisitation throws right out into the world the idea that these children are not living a good life although they are attending church. “And their sun does never shine/And their fields are bleak & bare/And their ways are fill’d with thorns/It is eternal winter there.” (9-12) These lines in comparison to the original are chilling and make readers think about society rather than envision these pretty children attending church. Again we see Blake capitalizing and highlighting on what the difference between the schools of thought of “innocence” and “experience” are.
Here we have an interesting take on Blake’s comparison and contrasting elements in Holy Thursday and what that means in terms of poetry, but also in terms of what society got from the poetry.
Blake, William. “The Slave Trade and the Literature of Abolition.” Norton Anthology English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York/ London: W. W. Norton, 2012. 118-28. Print. Romantic Period.
Priestley, Danielle. “Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (Both Poems – Innocence and Experience).” YouTube. YouTube, 24 June 2015. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDjrP5IItvE>.
Usharty, Robahq. “William Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday'” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-32bgi2csk>.