William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience

Blake’s Life

Blake was born on November 28 1757 in London. His father sold gloves, stockings and haberdashery. Blake did not attend school but was allowed to wander freely in the city and the surrounding countryside. He began early on to have the visions of angels and other spiritual beings that he would later use in his illustrations. He was enrolled in one of London’s best drawing schools at the age of ten. Four years later he became an apprentice with a master engraver. He would go on to perfect a technique of copperplate that enabled him to produce both illustration and verse on a single page. He also studied at the Royal Academy. In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher with whom he had a long and happy but childless marriage. In 1790, the Blakes moved out of London to Lambeth, at that time a rural area, where he began work on Songs of Experience. In his lifetime, Blake was primarily known as an artist rather than as a poet. His illuminated texts were self-published and only had a very limited range of readership. Blake died on August 12 1827 while working on a set of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Blake and political rebellion

america_prophecyBlake lived during a time of political turmoil and challenges to established ideas about monarchy, hierarchy, human nature and human rights. He believed in equality and the ideals of a non-hierarchical democracy. His initial support of the French Revolution was later qualified by his dislike of the violence it involved. He was appalled to see that the revolutionaries quickly became tyrannical oppressors.

Blake and religion

black_crucifixBlake grew up in a family of Dissenters, Christians who had separated from the official Church of England. Dissenters opposed state interference in religious matters and founded their own churches, educational institutions and communities. They believed that government by royalty and the system of hereditary power was wrong. It divided people into classes, giving civil rights only to the few while keeping the majority poor.
He rejected formalised religion because it changed spirituality into a system of moral laws which bound people in shame and fear of punishment. He believed that conventional religion made people slavishly obedient to society’s laws and rules; it was an agent of social control, instead of a source of vitality and freedom. Blake rejected the Old Testament idea of a transcendent and punitive God. He felt people used this idea to justify their own desire for power. He was an antinomian: one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation. Blake believed that the principle of each person’s inner life and the reality of divine inspiration / imagination was part of Christ’s holy spirit.

Blake and the Age of Reason

black_dividersAccording to Blake, the emphasis on rationality at the centre of human life was a distortion of humanity. He believed that the imagination was vital because it allows humans to perceive, relate to, and express divine reality. According to Blake, people cannot understand anything fundamental about the world by observing, measuring or analysing it. Understanding, in Blake’s view, can only be achieved by employing the creative power of the imagination, since this enables people to see, as it were, through the eyes of the creative imagination responsible for the world (i.e. God).

The Relation Between Body and Soul

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”

 

The world, Blake believed, is a meeting-place of souls; the material body is only an intermediary in this interaction. Every living thing is shaped by its own spirit and unique character. Man has to liberate himself from a vision limited by material existence.

Songs of Innocence and Experience

title_pageThe Songs of Innocence and Experience, taken as a whole, describe the pattern of human consciousness as it moves in a cycle or spiral from simple innocence into and through experience and then onto a different and more complex state of innocence that transcends experience without rejecting it.

The production of the version of Songs of Innocence and Experience took place over a period of thirty-five years, with Blake acting as his own publisher. Its outward form is a collection of religious lyrics for children which celebrate the secure, unthreatened state of childhood. It is much more than this, though. The decades before the Songs saw the genre of short collections of devotional and moral poems for children emerge as a prolific literary form. Blake often parodies the moralistic tenor of these hymns. Many of the poems in the book are engaged with the lives of the marginalised. Most of the poems are dramatic lyrics: a poetic form in which the speaker operates within a particular dramatic situation, and addresses one or more silent auditors.

Innocence

“Innocence is a state in which the human faculties are perfectly integrated, in which no being can refuse full sympathy to another, and in which the harmony of Man, God and Nature is … complete” (David Lindsay).

Children for Blake embody innocence because they seek joy without concern for good or evil, and with unrestrained enthusiasm. Each child is divine, a manifestation of the imagination of God in the human world. While the state of innocence is associated with childhood, it is not restricted to it.

Innocence is a capacity for freshness of vision, for joy and for celebration. But it is vulnerable since it is ignorant of the negative aspects of life and, in Blake’s eyes, therefore lacks wisdom. Innocence is not a complete vision of reality because it is unaware of the realities of the fallen world. By its very nature, innocence is vulnerable to exploitation.

Experience

A. Songs of ExperienceThe state of experience is entered when the growing individual is increasingly influenced by society and ideology. Individuals and groups gain power in the world of experience by labelling some things as good and others as evil, eg. purity as opposed to sin. In human life ‘the fall’ into separate selfhood means that experience overwhelms innocence and becomes the dominant mode of existence. Instead of existing alongside innocence, experience destroys it. This leads to humanity having a limited perspective of both the world and the divine.

Blake’s Philosophy of Contraries

Blake describes the entire sequence of Songs of Innocence and Experience as ‘the two contrary states of the soul’. Innocence and experience are not states which necessarily follow one another, but co-exist. The struggle between contrary forces is necessary to human existence. Out of this contest comes human advancement or “progression”. One should not deny experience, therefore, in order to preserve innocence.

marriage_of_heaven_hellBlake believed that humanity labours under a false division between body and soul, energy and reason: the body and energy are regarded as ‘evil’ while the soul and reason are seen as ‘good’. Sorrow and trouble come to people because they persist in creating such oppositions. Neither experience nor innocence are adequate visions of the world in themselves. Power and energy must be allowed to exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Humans falsify their understanding of the creator and of the human beings made ‘in his image’ when one of these dimensions is excluded from the picture. The powerful energies within the world and human instincts are necessary and beautiful. They only become destructive when they are either denied or seen as the sole factor in life.

God in man’s image

Blake felt that limited human understanding creates a limited vision of the creator, a projection of human qualities. Those who see only gentleness in nature and in themselves produce an image of a gentle creator who lacks energy and power. Those, on the other hand, who have fallen into divided selfhood, see the creator only in terms of their own capacity for jealousy, cruelty and possessiveness. They create an image of God as a tyrannical ruler who must be placated.

Children

Blake saw children as symbols of the imagination and artistic creativity and of innocence and gentleness. They are also vulnerable to exploitation though. Blake believed that a young child can clearly see God. He is critical of the way in which social institutions, such as the school system, the church and parental authority crush the child’s capacity for imaginative vision.
In Blake’s work, parents and others in a position of care are often perceived as inhibiting children. Their own fears and shame are communicated to the next generation through the desire to ‘protect’ children from their desires and their sexuality. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care’ to repress children and bind them to themselves, rather than setting children free by rejoicing in and nurturing their capacity for play and imagination.

Sexuality

coupleBlake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind. He opposed conventional morality because it confined the natural instincts of humanity. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. Blake believed that humans are essentially spiritual beings and that sexuality was an expression of a person’s spiritual nature.