William Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience – Review

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

A fascinating collection, and an intriguing introduction to Blake’s ‘complex mythology’. The book takes us on a journey of discovery through the contrasting concepts of the title: from Innocence to Experience.

To Blake, Innocence seems to represent a childlike mind-state unspoiled by the corrupting influences of adolescence. The majority of these poems are decorated with simplistic religious images: The Shepherd, The Lamb, and The Tree of Life being recurring symbols throughout. The innocence of childhood is directly related to the pure and untouched beauty of the natural world in many of the poems in the first half of this collection.

However it is during the Songs of Experience where Blake’s true talent as a visionary poet becomes apparent. Blake’s visions of a holy world become blighted by his increasing awareness of the pain and poverty he sees in his depiction of modern London. His Christian spirituality grows ever more conflicted and his personal ideas on religious truth become starkly contrasted with those of Church. Poems such as Holy Thursday start to show show his increasing frustration:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

 

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

 

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.

 

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

Here we see that Blake is making a direct and powerful attack on the shameful presence of so much injustice in a supposedly ‘holy’ land with some commentators arguing that the reference to ‘Holy Thursday’ is a satire of the annual parade of charity children in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

However, the most damning critique of the Church perhaps comes in The GARDEN of LOVE:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

 

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

The imagery here is clear. The garden of Innocence in which he had once played is now occupied by a chapel surrounded by graves. The black priests may represent the death and burial of the innocent view of childish freedoms.

And yet, to Blake, Experience itself not seen as being wholly negative. With Experience comes the development of reason and the discovery of sexual desire, both of which are symbolised throughout many of the poems and are represented as dualistic in nature. To me, Blake’s Christianity has more in common with paganism and mysticism than it does with the damning, repressive institutional Christianity of the Church during Blake’s time.

Overall this was a fantastic and clearly revolutionary collection. The language is simple but the message is complex, and it seems like these poems are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mystical mythology that Blake constructed in his other works. I’m definitely looking forward to exploring more in the future.

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