title_page
The girl and boy learning to read at the lap of their nurse or mother announce a recurrent concern with education in Songs.

Introduction to Songs of Innocence (1789)

intro_pagePiping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry cheer.
“Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.

“Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer!”
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

“Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.”
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

Summary

The poem traces the movement from pure sound to writing.
This poem sets the tone for the entire sequence of Songs of Innocence:
It establishes the poet as a visionary who is divinely inspired.
It also establishes the voice of the poems as being that of a child and/or accessible to children.
It locates the Songs of Innocence within the context of the pastoral poem. This genre evokes an ideal world of innocence and simplicity while recognising that such a state does not exist unalloyed in the present world.

Speaker

Who are the speakers in this poem?

The simple vocabulary establishes the voice as that of a child.
Innocence here is presented as a state of happiness and obedience. The piper is happy to do whatever he is told. He has no fear or suspicion regarding the voice he hears and no reluctance to do its bidding. He acts as one child responding to another.

Language and tone

valleyThe tone is joyous and childlike. Identify the words that create this effect.
How does Blake suggests a child’s way of speaking in the poem?

Valleys wild – This reference establishes the context as rustic and suggests that the poem will be pastoral, evoking an idealised world of simplicity and innocence.

Glee: In Blake’s time, especially with the popular “Glee Club” movement, “glee” was familiar as a song scored for three or more voices to make up a series of interwoven melodies — a meaning applicable throughout these “songs of pleasant glee.”

Oppositions

stain’d the water clear

Critics have argued over the implications of this:
Does it refer simply to the colouring of the water to make ink or does it mark a movement towards experience: the piper is destroying the clear purity of the water in making ink to write

Structure and texture

  • The metre is trochaic (stressed, unstressed) and ends with a stressed syllable. This gives it a positive-sounding tone; this reflects the positive nature of children and also of the prophetic truth-telling poet. This sort of metre is common in children’s verse.
  • The pattern of repeated ‘So’ and then ‘And’ suggests the child-like simplicity of the piper
    Imagery and symbolism

Greek and Roman mythological resonances

panpan2Piping – The presence of a piper, especially in this rural setting, suggests the Greek god Pan, god of rustic music. This reinforces the idea of simple, unsophisticated songs, ‘songs of innocence’.

Behind Pan lies the image of the great Greek god of music Orpheus who could charm nature with the power of his music. He represented, for the Romantics, the poet as an inspired singer, possessed by a power or ‘genius’ beyond himself. Blake, remember, saw his poems as the work the divinely inspired imagination.

Christian and biblical imagery

lamb_stained_glassBlake’s audience was Christian and were familiar with the Christian bible. Blake, though, often uses Christian imagery in unconventional ways.
a lamb: Jesus Christ is identified with the lamb in Christian tradition; the lamb was also used in sacrifices in the Old testament. Lambs represent innocence and gentleness but are also a reminder of the vulnerability that goes along with it. Lambs, after all, are raised to be eaten.

a child – Blake saw children as symbols of the imagination and artistic creativity. They also represent innocence and gentleness. Blake was also influenced by Jesus’ contention that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility.

Nelson Hilton — “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience” in The Blackwell Companion to Romanticism, ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998).

Themes

  • The nature of the artist
  • Blake is asserting that the artist does not speak with his or her own voice but is under the influence of a guiding spirit, the imagination. He says it is this which provides the true vision of reality.
  • The nature of innocence
  • Innocence here is presented as a state of happiness and obedience. The piper is happy to do whatever he is told. He has no fear or suspicion regarding the voice he hears and no reluctance to do its bidding. He is one child responding to another.

Nelson Hilton writes in “William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience” in The Blackwell Companion to Romanticism, ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). That:

Many readers have found the ballad-like “Introduction” to Innocence a commentary on individual and cultural artistic development, which moves from (“pipes down”) pre-verbal, pure sound inspiration to sung words to written text — and, simultaneously, from a state of presence and mutual participation to one of absence and emphatic separateness (the penultimate four lines which begin “And I”). This process also foregrounds Blake’s ongoing concern with identity (repetition, sameness) and difference, as elsewhere in the focus on “echoing”: in what sense is a song “the same again” if it is rendered in words rather than sound? In Blake’s time, especially with the popular “Glee Club” movement, “glee” was familiar as a song scored for three or more voices to make up a series of interwoven melodies — a meaning applicable throughout to these “songs of pleasant glee.”

The poem’s closing sets up the paradoxical realization that the only way “every child may joy to hear” the song is through its being sung by one who has learned to read. So we return to the issue of inspiration and transmission, of the “pipe,” the conduit, the I (to represent it typographically). The engendering spring of the song-stream comes to readers via the “hollow reed” of the pipe and the pen, but for hearers requires that readers reinspire (literally, blow into again) the otherwise “hollow read” of the text.

The child asks the piper to pipe then to sing about “a Lamb,” and while “The Lamb” follows in one copy, “The Shepherd” comes next in most. These pastoral references, as well as the term “innocence” itself, indicate the Christian imagery and themes which saturate Songs.