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.