William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827) was an artist, printmaker, poet, philosopher, revolutionary and fierce social critic. He believed passionately in the importance of the imagination, and he called the new industrial England a “land of poverty”, described factories as “dark Satanic Mills”, and he denounced the exploitation, oppression and indoctrination of the poor by the ruling classes and the church. At 14 he was apprenticed as an engraver, and as a young man he worked as an engraver and illustrator. He published his poems as integrated works of poetic and visual art, etching words and drawings on copper plates, and colouring the individual prints by hand. He called this process “Illuminated Printing”. Many of Blake’s most popular and most accessible poems are found in two collections: Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). The complete 1794 collection was called Songs of Innocence and Experience and was subtitled “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. A number of poems in Songs of Experience are counterpart-pieces to poems in Songs of Innocence. Many images that illustrate the poems are available online in The Blake Archive: they vary in colour and appearance as they are photographs of the original plates in the various copies of the book.

 

william_blake  

Information about the author

This is a chart of some of the differences between Blake’s poems in The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience. The chart may be helpful when you work with Blake’s poems from The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience.

Songs of Innocence

  Songs of Experience

The innocent world of childhood

The adult world of fear, corruption and repression

 

Vision: And I wrote my happy songs,

Every child may joy to hear.”

 

 

Keywords: A world of harmonious unity, an ideal world.

The free life of the imagination

 

Keywords: Love, mercy, pity, affection, joy, delight

 

Language: Simple, no attempt at poetic effects.

 

Structure: Often simple narrative: first … and then … and then, or questions and answers

 

Speaker: Not concerned with larger moral issues, describes what he is seeing, doesn’t analyse or pass judgement.

 

Although Blake says he is writing “happy songs ,/ Every child may joy to hear”, many of the poems  such as “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday” are deeply equivocal. Behind the seemingly harmonious world described by the child, the adult reader sees a world of exploitation and cruelty that the child is too young to understand.

 

 

The contrary vision: Reveal an ugly, terrifying world of poverty, disease, war, prostitution, exploitation, social repression.

 

Keywords: A broken world, no unity

 

 

 

Keywords: Fear, hypocrisy, selfishness, cruelty

 

Language: Compressed metaphors and symbols

 

Structure: Questions not answered, or if answered the conclusion is negative.

 

Speaker: Chiefly concerned with interpreting what he sees. The poems are  often an indictment on

a religious and social level.

 

Love: Selfish desire for possession (“The Clod and the Pebble”) does not exist, is ‘killed’ by conventional morality: church versus love (“The Garden of Love”).

Religion: A negation of love, kills love, desires, etc. with prohibitions, the ‘thou-shalt-nots’, no natural play of the affections. Desires and pleasure killed when regulated.

Church: Religion is also a means of keeping people down. Poor people are told they will get compensation in Heaven. It conditions people’s minds, even children’s minds (“London”)