Saturday, April 30, 2016

William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.

What can one say about William Blake? That one of the greatest poets in English lived nearly unknown in his own age? True, but ultimately this matters not. That he was a man of contradictions, at once the creator of vast mythological schemes and names that boggle the mind of the common reader, as well as of poems so deceptively simple that they would be at home both in a child's nursery and a scientist's laboratory? It seems impossible to know where to start.

But Songs of Innocence and Experience is as good a place as any, and a perfect primer for Blakean method. Many of the poems (but not all) have their correspondent versions in both, one framed by "innocence" and one by "experience" (see especially The Chimney Sweeper and Nurse's Song). Some poems exist only in one or another, and each collection has its heraldic animal (the Lamb of Innocence and the Tyger of Experience). But whose innocence is this? And is innocence innocent? Blake of course revelled in the notion that the child's eye view disclosed the truths of a corrupted adult world; this was a common Romantic notion and is embodied in Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," among other works. And yet he knew, all too well, that in the world of early industrial Britain, where many children were born not into "sweet delight" but rather into "endless night," there was little or no time for innocence to take root.

Christianity, too, for Blake had these two aspects. In its righteous indignation, its distrust of authority, and its embrace of the humble and downtrodden, the early essence of Christianity was a fountain from which Blake often and gladly drank. And yet the institutional Christianity of his day repelled him, the one which declared that the suffering of the poor was no problem, since the good among them would have a heavenly reward, the one which offered only a dry husk of restraint and repression, "binding with briars my joys and desires."

So read -- and look! -- at this remarkable book. Far more than Wordsworth and Coleridge's too-self-conscious production of Lyrical Ballads, this marks the dawn of the Romantic age.


  1. It is extremely evident that William Blake finds the purest of innocence within the child. He believes that innocence is encompassed by the carefree, pure, and naïve life of a child with the ability to play and grow under God’s protection and love. Innocence is created by God, and passed on to children through teachings in their religion. Blake, who was extremely religious, often uses a lamb as the ultimate symbol of innocence, because it is pure and an animal God took direct care over. We often associate white with purity and innocence, making the lamb of God the perfect symbol to relate to it and pass on to the child. The lambs frolic around in the green hills the same way the children are playing until the sun goes down. Blake’s poems about innocence often spoke about the beauty of childhood and being surrounded by nature, which God created. In “The Echoing Green”, Old John is laughing as he looks at the joy of children playing all around him. In “The Shepard” lambs are shown as the ultimate symbols of purity and innocence, and the ultimate creation of God. The child is again compared to the lamb; they are ultimately one in the same.
    Blake’s poems about experience have a darker contrast in comparison to his poems about innocence. Blake truly seems to believe that as one gets older, life gets darker the more and more you truly experience the world. When you are a child, you are naïve and only see light all around you, because life is made up of care-free, positive experiences. Once you become an adult and begin working and maturing, you see the darkness and negatives of this world around you. Blake is very in tune with how the mindset of an adult is very different from the mindset of a child. Experience is offset by the innocence one once knew as a child. You compare your experiences to what you thought life was about when you were an innocent child. Blake uses these two very different sets of poems to provide a contrast for readers and to broadcast the major themes in his works. In his poem “The Sick Rose”, a worm sits upon a beautiful, pure rose and eats it, ultimately destroying it. This is symbolic for how life’s experiences take over the adult mind and eliminate all innocence and purity. In “The Garden of Love”, everything he once remembered about the Chapel and the place the narrator used to play looks completely different. The church is closed up, and there are graves in place of all the flowers he once remembered seeing as a child. Everything that seemed so beautiful and upbeat is now dull and negative. Finally, in his poem “London”, the narrator searches for all of the weaknesses and woes of the people he sees, such as the sadness in men and babies, hapless soldiers, and harlots cursing in the streets. These are just glimpses of Blake’s experiences as an adult. These poems have negative connotations, whereas his poems of innocence are upbeat and peaceful.
    I believe that Blake’s version of innocence really can be seen as the truest, purest form of innocence that there is. His innocence really does truly embody the definition of the word “innocent” as we know it. In his poem “Proverbs of Hell”, it is a contrast of both innocence and experience, illustrating the importance of gaining wisdom from all you learn in life, putting others before yourself, not having too much pride, the importance of faith and belief in God, and speaking your mind and being joyful. This puts experience in a better light, making it seem like there are good values and experiences that come out of losing your innocence and truly experiencing the world. His main message is that losing your innocence is a negative thing, and that we should embrace the innocence of children, along with their purity and naïve manner. However, if one just understands that all of life’s experiences are not positive, there is still the ability to gain wisdom and learn from all that you see in life, if you just have utmost faith in God.

    1. Alex, an excellent, thoughtful comment! Just to complicate things a bit, though, consider that not everyone gets to have an 'innocent' childhood (consider the Chimney Sweep). It's also worth noting that Blake, though indeed deeply religious, rejected much of the organized religion of the day, as you can see in "The Garden of Love," as well as in the phrase "mind-forged manacles" in "London."

      In any case, a great start!