Songs of Innocence and of Experience; Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul
Songs of Innocence and of Experience; Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul
Songs of Innocence and of Experience; Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of engraved poems set mainly in England during the late eighteenth century, but also in timeless mythical places; Songs of Innocence was printed in 1789 and combined with Songs of Experience in 1794.
Two complementary collections of lyric poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience depict a state of joyous engagement with the world and a bitter detachment from the world.
William Blake was born in 1757 in London, a place that would leave its mark on all his work. His father, a tradesman who sold hosiery, handed down to Blake a heritage of religious and political dissent. Disdainful of the restrictions of school, Blake was self-educated, until he began drawing lessons at the age of 10. After a seven-year apprenticeship as an engraver, Blake supported himself by engraving while he attended the Royal Academy. His study here, however, was short-lived because his iconoclasm conflicted with the academy’s orthodoxy. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, forming an artistic partnership with her that would last a lifetime; two years later he opened his own printing business. Blake’s distinctive style, the product of his visionary imagination and his varied artistic influences, was set with Songs of Innocence, the first of his books to interweave poetry and etchings. That only a few copies could be painstakingly produced was compensated for by the complete control that Blake exercised. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake describes society both as he sees it and as he believes it should be. He laments the alienation of the large city in “London,” condemns child labor in two poems called “The Chimney Sweeper,” and looks with sorrow on the subjection of Africans in “The Little Black Boy.”
A revolutionary era
Revolutions—political, economic, and social—marked the second half of the eighteenth century. The French Revolution, which began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, sent shock waves across the English Channel. At least initially, it inspired the liberal-minded because of its roots in Enlightenment thought, while frightening conservatives, who worried about the stability of English society and the rule of law. Rumblings of discontent had, in fact, been heard throughout the 1780s in England. William Blake was never an ideological follower, but as a young man in the 1780s he had associated with political radicals in London, who were critical of the British government. Two events in 1780 indicate the political turbulence of the times. During the Gordon Riots (named for Lord George Gordon, the leader), the volatile populace, ostensibly protesting the extension of property rights to Roman Catholics, went on a burning spree in London, attacking not only the
THE POET AS REVOLUTIONARY: FROM BLAKE’S “PREFACE” TO HIS POEM MILTON
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of god,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
(Blake in Johnson and Grant,
“Preface” to Milton, lines 1-16)
homes of supposed Catholic sympathizers but also symbols of authority such as the Bank of England. Blake himself was swept along by a mob and witnessed the burning of London’s infamous prison, Newgate. The same year, Blake and two companions, out on a sketching expedition, were briefly taken prisoner by British soldiers who accused them of being spies for the French. Britain, intermittently at war with France throughout the eighteenth century, was in the midst of conflict with the French that ended temporarily with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. When the French Revolution began, Blake, like many of his class in London, was a republican sympathizer with pro-revolutionary sentiments. He began, though never finished or published, a lengthy epic poem entitled The French Revolution, in which monarchical France is depicted as sick and slumbering.
Revolution was not confined to politics, however. What we now call the “Industrial Revolution” steamed ahead in the second half of the eighteenth century, building on such inventions as Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1766), Ark-wright’s spinning frame (1768), and Cartwright’s power loom (1785-90), all of which contributed to mechanizing the cotton industry; new technologies for making iron and steel also multiplied. Increased profits and urbanization resulted as industries moved into factories, and people moved to the cities to work in them. Standards of living rose and England became a great exporter of goods, but alongside this increased wealth came increased crowding and pollution. Workers afraid of being displaced by technology protested, and sometimes destroyed, new equipment. Blake despised the mills; it is possible to see in Blake’s own laborious method of printing a model of unalienated labor.
Eighteenth-century London seethed with energy. Crime and high culture coexisted as every class and occupation jostled together on the city’s crowded streets. By the time Blake was born, the metropolis stretched far beyond the original Roman walls dating from the first century c.e. The fashionable moved to the rapidly developing West End; the poor lived in the East End; artisans continued to live in and adjacent to the old city. Blake himself was born above his parent’s hosiery shop in Soho (the West End), a respectable neighborhood of craftsmen and merchants that would decline during his lifetime.
London was the United Kingdom’s center of government, of commercial and colonial expansion, and of national mythology. As Samuel Johnson wrote in 1777, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Johnson in Porter, p. 165). On its way to becoming the world’s largest city, London dominated the nation: a tenth of the English and Welsh lived in London. It is no surprise that such a city was both celebrated and denounced. To Blake, London was Babylon and also Jerusalem—a place of confusion and conflict, but also of spiritual potential. The independent nature of its populace provided fruitful grounds for all types of political expression, from riots to reform. Blake’s “London” in Songs of Experience focuses on the city’s institutional power and the victims of that power: children forced to clean chimneys while even churches averted their gaze, soldiers assigned to control London’s mobs or fight against revolutionary France, prostitutes (there were 50,000 in London) suffering under a society’s hypocrisy.
Reform—the child chimney sweep
No one kept track of the number of London’s destitute children. Arguably the worst off were those who, as young as four years old, cleaned the narrow chimneys that spat coal smoke into the London sky. These “climbing boys” crawled into flues measuring only seven inches square—flues that might contain still-burning soot. The master sweep who controlled them “encouraged” the boys to climb higher by pricking their feet, or lighting fires beneath them. Some were permitted the luxury of a wash once a year; some every five years. Sweeps often died from burns or suffocation; cancer and deformity shortened their unhappy lives.
Where did these children come from? Desperate parents apprenticed their children to master sweeps for 20 to 30 shillings. Parishes sold dependent orphaned children. Sympathy, when it existed, conflicted with self-interest. Londoners, with their narrow chimney flues, demanded the services of the tiny sweeps. Furthermore, there was no general sentiment against child labor at the time. Children were regarded as the possessions of their parents and as contributors to the family income.
Tireless reformers, however, pressed their cause. The most notable, Jonas Hanway, kept up a barrage of writing and committee forming. “These poor black urchins,” he wrote, “have no protectors and are treated worse than a humane person would treat a dog” (Hanway in Cunningham, p. 53). Hanway’s efforts culminated in the Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and their Apprentices, passed in 1788, the year before Blake’s first published poem on the chimney sweep. Designed to combat some abuses by raising the minimum age for sweeps to eight years old and adding a primitive licensing system, Hanway’s Act was often circumvented. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century would regulations be properly enforced.
Reformers, appealing to the English belief in fairness and liberty, used the image of the black slave to forward their cause. Both sweeps and slaves were black, in bondage, and working in horrific conditions. The chimney sweepers, though, were slaves on English soil, their presence an everyday affront to the values of their country.
Slavery and the abolition movement
During the late eighteenth century, the largest slave trading country in the world was the United Kingdom. In the 1790s, the British trafficked in 45,000 slaves per year. The public had an insatiable appetite for the products of slave labor (especially sugar) from Britain’s holdings in the West Indies and Caribbean. It also appreciated the wealth that accrued from slavery, both to English plantation owners and port cities, including London. Slave labor produced raw materials that could be refined in England and shipped to Britain’s growing empire.
During the decade of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, slavery and the slave trade were matters of constant debate. Religious forces combined to press the charge that England could not be a moral leader if it continued to traffic in human beings. Several prominent cases put the issue squarely in the public eye, the most sensational of which was that of the slave-carrying ship, the Zong. Fearing a shortage of water, and believing he would not collect insurance if slaves died on board, the shipmaster ordered 133 people thrown into the sea. The ship’s owners then attempted to claim insurance for their lost property—each slave that had been murdered. The case galvanized and unified reformers. In 1787, Thomas Clarkson founded, in London, the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This association turned the abolitionist movement into a national cause.
No doubt Blake would have been familiar with the situation of former slaves, 15,000 of whom made their home in London. One of them, Ottobah Cugoano, published his successful Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery in 1787. Blake’s knowledge dramatically increased, when, in the early 1790s, he worked on the engravings for John Stedman’s Narrative of Surinam, which describes some of the horrors of slavery. Though Stedman’s book ultimately supports the existence of the slave trade, Blake’s plates display a frightening brutality. Several engravers worked on Stedman’s book, but Blake’s three engravings of tortured slaves, “A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows,” “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” and “The Execution of Breaking on the Rack,” are the most graphic and moving. Stedman’s Narrative provided Blake with extraordinary images that fueled his conceptions of liberty and enslavement in such poems as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) and America: A Prophecy (1793).
ENGLISH ABOLITION MOVEMENT: A CHRONOLOGY
|1730||From this time until 1807, the United Kingdom is the world’s largest slave trader|
|1772||Mansfield decision holds that slavery is not legal within England|
|1781||Murder of 133 slaves (thrown overboard) on the Zong|
|1783||Insurance claim for the Zong slaves|
|1783||First anti-slavery petition to Parliament|
|1787||Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade founded by Quakers in London; publication of Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery|
|1788||Dolberf’s Act limits number of slaves transported on ships|
|1792||Blake’s first engravings for Stedman’s Narrative of Surinam|
|1807||Slave trading abolished in British Empire|
|1833||Emancipation Act frees slaves (with conditions) in the West Indies|
|1838||Full freedom for slaves in the British Colonies|
|1840||First International Anti-Slavery Convention (London)|
Songs of Innocence and of Experience are “poem-pictures,” engraved poems always meant to be read with their surrounding illustrations (Keynes, p. 10). When Songs of Innocence was first issued in 1789, it consisted of 23 engraved poems. Songs of Experience, which was issued together with Songs of Innocence in 1794, would eventually contain 26 engraved poems, including four (“The Little Girl Lost,” “The Little Girl Found,” “The School Boy,” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard”) transferred there from Songs of Innocence because of their darker mood. Blake’s poems portray and complicate the meanings of “innocence” and “experience,” linking them not only to stages of life, but also to place and perspective.
The keynotes of Songs of Innocence are presented in the first poem, or “Introduction.” The lyric speaker, “piping down the valleys wild,” is implored by an angelic child to “pipe a song about a Lamb” (Blake, “Introduction,” Innocence, lines 1,5). With its pastoral imagery, “valleys wild,” and Pan-like speaker, this first poem also locates the ideal setting for innocence (Pan, the Greek god of flocks and shepherds, invented the musical reed pipe). Many of the poems in Songs of Innocence are pastoral, and take place among green hills and spring meadows in the company of lambs and shepherds. Those that are not set in the countryside often invoke it, so that little Tom in “The Chimney Sweeper” dreams of the country and the orphans of “Holy Thursday” are “flowers of London town” (“Holy Thursday,” Innocence, line 5). In Songs of Innocence children are usually protected by caring adults, and God himself is incarnate and concerned. Just as a mother cannot “sit and hear / An infant groan, an infant fear,” so God, who “becomes an infant small” mourns along with humans (“On Another’s Sorrow,” Innocence, lines 10-11, 26). The reigning image once again is of shepherd and sheep, and of God as both shepherd and lamb.
In the fallen world of Songs of Experience, even children have lost their innocence, and it is far less certain that the adult or even God is interested in the plight of the weak. Selfishness and cynicism have replaced concern and belief. Even virtue is questioned, as in the social critique of “The Human Abstract”:
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
(Blake, “The Human Abstract,” Experience,
In the world of Songs of Experience, the idealized pastoral landscape appears far less often. The companion piece to Songs of Innocence’s “Holy Thursday,” for example, tells us that for poor children, “their sun does never shine. / And their fields are bleak & bare” (“Holy Thursday,” Experience, lines 9-10). When the setting is the countryside, as in Experience’s “Nurse’s Song,” corruption and jealousy have replaced laughter and joy.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience are linked by similar stylistic devices that initially may suggest that children are the poems’ intended readers. Blake’s use of a paratactic syntax, such as the “And” … “And”… “And” of his first poem, contributes to the seeming simplicity of his work. Blake often employs both repetition and trochaic meter (a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable), both of which are standard in children’s verse. Alongside these techniques, however, Blake employs such sophisticated devices as paradox and irony, even within the “Introduction” to Innocence. “And 1 stain’d the water clear,” states the speaker (“Introduction,” Innocence, line 18). The writer dips his pen in ink, but he also uses his writing to make matters clear. Or, perhaps, he muddies the seeming clarity of the water, showing his readers the folly in what had only appeared true. Blake is a master of the paradoxical aphorism. “Without Contraries,” he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (Blake in Johnson and Grant, The Marriage oj Heaven and Hell, Plate 3). To these we might add “innocence” and “experience,” what Blake calls in his subtitle, “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” His intended readers, therefore, are certainly not just children.
The narrator of “London” (Songs of Experience) wanders through the streets of the city, telling us what he sees and hears. He encounters regulation, prohibition, suffering, and oppression. The streets and the river Thames he describes as “charter’d,” a word that signifies the city’s ancient liberties, codified in documents like the Magna Carta, as well as the restrictions imposed by city government and corporations, both of which are established by charter (“London,” Experience, line 2). The denizens of the city feel only the restrictions. As he walks, the narrator passes other individuals who, like him, are alienated and sorrowful, marked, like so many wandering Cains, by “weakness” and “woe” (“London,” Experience, line 4).
The speaker blames this condition on matters both internal and external that lead to people’s imprisonment in “mind-forg’d manacles” (“London,” Experience, line 8). The oppressors are institutions—the Church, the government, the legal institution of marriage. In each case, the voices of the victims become visible to the narrator: the chimney sweeper’s cry changes the church, which implicitly condones child labor, from a refuge into a tomb; the sigh of the soldier turns to blood; the curse of the prostitute becomes the venereal disease that destroys marriages and blinds infants.
The narrator’s terrifying vision presents us with a city far removed from the pastoral idylls found in Songs of Innocence. In this view of London, we are left with hypocrisy and a “hearse” (“London,” Experience, line 16). The experienced speaker can generalize about social misery. Yet he is both horrified by and detached from a world that seems inescapable.
The top third of Blake’s engraved poem “London” shows a young boy leading an old crippled man past a closed door. Further down the page, the young boy, alone, warms his hands at a fire.
“AUTHOR & PRINTER”
Blake signed his works “Author & Printer.” integral to the Songs of Innocence and Experience is their medium, “illuminated printing.” John Thomas Smith gave the following account in 1828 of Blake’s mystical discovery of this labor-intensive method of engraving:
Blake, after deeply perplexing himself as to the mode of accomplishing the publication of his illustrated songs, without their being subject to the expense of letter-press, his brother Robert stood before him in one of his visionary imaginations, and so decidedly directed him in the way in which he ought to proceed, that he immediately followed his advice, by writing his poetry, and drawing his marginal subjects of embellishments in outline upon the copper-plate with an impervious liquid, and then eating the plain parts or lights away with aquafortis considerably below them, so that the outlines were left as a stereotype. The plates in this state were then printed in any tint that he wished, to enable him or Mrs. Blake to colour the marginal figures up by hand in an imitation of drawings.
(Smith in Johnson and Grant, pp. 485-86)
These two homeless wanderers are shut out of indoor comfort and warmth. Perhaps, the old man, decrepit and helpless, incarnates London itself (Thompson in Wolfreys, p. 46).
“The Chimney Sweeper.”
Blake wrote two poems on the plight of the chimney sweeps; one for Songs of Innocence, the other for Songs of Experience. In both cases, he gives us the perspective of the child sweep. The little boy in Songs of Innocence is cheerful and resigned. He presents his
POETIC COUNTERPARTS IN SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE
The following Songs illuminate each other:
|“The Lamb”||“The Tyger”|
|“The Chimney Sweeper”||“The Chimney Sweeper”|
|“The Divine Image”||“The Human Abstract”|
|“Holy Thursday”||“Holy Thursday”|
|“Nurse’s Song”||“Nurse’s Song”|
|“infant Joy”||“Infant Sorrow”|
situation forthrightly. His mother is dead, and his father sold him to a master sweep while he was a tiny boy. He was so young that he could barely say “weep weep weep weep,” a lisping version of the sweep’s street call (“sweep sweep”), but also a touching indication of the sorrow within the labor (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence, line 3). (See verse on next page.)
The poem shifts from harsh reality to the dream vision of a fellow sweep. In Tom’s dream, all the sweeps are released from their “coffins of black,” the narrow death chutes of the chimneys, and find themselves in heaven (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence, line 12). In a pastoral landscape, they wash themselves and run naked. It is this part of the poem that forms Blake’s accompanying illustration. We see Christ releasing a boy from his coffin to a green countryside full of naked playing children. Just before Tom wakes, an angel tells him that “if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for a father & never want joy” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence, lines 19-20). Tom awakes in the dark and, sustained by his vision, returns to work. The poem ends with the speaker saying that “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence, line 24).
“The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience contains no comforting vision. The tone is not resignation but resentment. This little boy knows that he has been mistreated. Soliciting work on the Sabbath, the boy speaks with contempt of his guardians. The poem trades on the contrast between the boy’s past and present life, his appearance and thoughts, and his life and that of his parents. Once he had been happy, but then his parents conscripted him to a life of woe. Outwardly he may still “dance & sing,” but inwardly, he has been corrupted. While he works on Sunday, his parents sit in church. As in “London,” this poem condemns a trinity of institutions, here “God & his Priest & King” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Experience, line 11), who encourage the downtrodden to wait for a better life in heaven. State and Church collude in the practice of child labor. The official message is similar to that in Tom Dacre’s vision. But now the child sees the hypocrisy and understands that only some have to wait for their happiness.
Blake’s illustration reinforces the contrasts found in the verse. The sweep is described as “a little black thing among the snow” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Experience, line 1). He used to take delight in the snow, but then was “clothed … in the clothes of death” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Experience, line 6). The engraving itself is almost no more than black and white. The dark sweep stands out, an incongruous being in the white snowstorm. His blackness marks him as a type of slave.
“The Little Black Boy.”
The black child who speaks in “The Little Black Boy” (Songs of Innocence) was born in “the southern wild” (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, line 1). Addressing the English people, he declares that although he is black, “as if bereav’d of light,” his “soul is white” (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, lines 2,4). His mother has taught him that his black body protects him from the strength of God’s shining love, and that eventually souls are freed from their bodies to stand directly in God’s presence. The little black boy then tells the little white boy that one day they both will play “round the tent of God like lambs” (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, line 24). In fact, the black child offers to shade the white one until he too can bear the heat.
The text and the images link whiteness with souls, angels, and Christ himself. But these ideas coexist with the mother’s positive reading of the black body—that it provides protection from the sun. Eventually, she says, bodies will not matter. In the boy’s imagination, he becomes a teacher of the white child, repeating and expanding on his mother’s lesson. Both will eventually part from their bodies—“I from black and he from white cloud free” (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, line 23). When the two are alike, the English boy will love the black boy: “And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me” (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, lines 27-28).
In the pastoral heaven that Blake engraved with the poem, the white child stands in supplication before Christ, with the black child behind the white. The white boy and Christ look into each other’s eyes, while the little black boy stands slightly to the side, as if he were a servant. Blake changed his coloring of this plate. Originally, the black child was depicted as white; later, he was colored black. Black or white, as David Bindman states, this child is removed from the loving pair of Christ and the white child (Bindman, p. 377).
Blake and the Romantic child
Blake’s poetic children form part of a newly evolving Romantic discourse of the child as spiritually wise, and of childhood as a phase that should be protected, nurtured, and revered. In a 1799 letter, Blake proclaimed his belief in the wisdom of childhood:
But I am Happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate My Visions, & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped. Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity. Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men. But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation. (Blake in Keynes, The Letters of William Blake, p. 30)
Prior to the seventeenth century, children were commonly seen as little adults, creatures
“THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER” (SONGS OF INNOCENCE)
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d, so I said,
“Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have Cod for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
“THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER” (SONGS OF EXPERIENCE)
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father & mother” say
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow;
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
“And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury;
And are gone to praise Cod & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
who needed to be civilized, weaned from their base instincts, and led to God. They were also expected to contribute to the family income. For poor children, little changed in the eighteenth century. Starting at the age of four or five, these children worked long hours on farms and in cottage industries and the new factories. If they ran afoul of the law and were older than seven, they could furthermore be charged as adults and hung or transported to a colony.
Life, in short, was difficult for the majority of children. But the eighteenth century saw efforts to contest child labor and to provide schooling for the poor. Criticism of child labor in cotton mills began in the 1780s, and, as mentioned above, a bill to regulate the employment of chimney sweeps passed in 1788. Charitable schools for the poor, many set up by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (established in 1699), multiplied in the eighteenth century. Yet, despite these attempts, two-thirds of poor children received no schooling whatever. Those schools that did exist were intent on producing obedient workers, and so often combined education and employment. All the attempts at reform notwithstanding, it would be another 100 years before child labor was effectively controlled in England.
THE CRITICAL VOICE BEHIND “THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER”
“The Chimney Sweeper” relies on an adult reader, who I feels the condemnation not of the boy, but of the poet. “Your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep,” says the boy, implicating the reader in his fate. (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence, line 4, italics added). Little Tom Dacre’s last name indicates that he was sold by the poorhouse (Lady Dacre Almshouse) that had taken him in (Ackroyd, p. 126). Not only the sweep but the reader should weep, and it is the reader who should feel the irony of the poem’s moralism. The “angel” tells the child to obey authority; the speaker repeats pat phrases about “duty.” Yet Tom, with his lamblike curls, signifies that children are as innocent as lambs, and created in God’s image. The dereliction of duty on the part of adults has condemned these children to a painful and shortened existence.
Even in Blake’s day, though, one could see the perception of the child beginning to change. From the seventeenth century onward, in the middle and upper classes, adults showed signs of an increased attention to children and how their minds worked (see Essay on Human Understanding by John Locke, also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). More mothers breastfed their babies instead of sending them to wet nurses. Children’s toys and books multiplied. Especially for boys, childhood became a stage marked by schooling, and some parents took great interest in the emerging field of childhood development. One of the most popular texts in England was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile: or, On Education (1762), which advocates that children be allowed to develop “naturally,” through their contact with the natural world and in accord with their own instincts.
Blake’s poems promote and extend these new attitudes to children. The frontispiece to Songs of Innocence, in which two children study at the lap of their nurse or mother and the title forms itself from the bending branches of a tree, suggests that the education of children should take place in nature. The proper activity of the child, Songs of Innocence shows, is outdoor play: “the little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d / And all the hills ecchoed” (“Nurse’s Song,” Innocence, lines 15-16). Most importantly, innocence is not ignorance, but responsiveness and optimism. Children, moreover, possess an instinctive spirituality.
He [Christ] is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
(“The Lamb,” Innocence, lines 15-18)
The problem with the children in Songs of Experience is that they have grown up too soon. The babe of Experience, who struggles and sulks after being born into “the dangerous world” is already weary and petulant (“Infant Sorrow,” Experience, line 2). The cynicism and despair of such children condemns the adult world, which has exploited rather than protected its young. The child chimney sweep is the most flagrant example, but also critiqued is the curbing of children’s natural thoughts and desires, the imposition of orthodoxy. In “A Little Boy Lost,” the child who speaks his mind and says that it is impossible to love anyone else more than the self, is martyred by the priest, “bound … in an iron chain,” and “burn’d” (“A Little Boy Lost,” Experience, lines 20, 21). In “The School-Boy,” a young boy pleads to spend his time outdoors instead of in the prison of a schoolroom. The poem compares him to a bird born for joy but forced to sit in a cage. His incarceration, because it robs his childhood of pleasure, will stunt his adulthood. Through such charges Blake complicates the contemporary dialog on children.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience revise the traditionally didactic songs for children that were popular in the eighteenth century, such as Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs for the Use of Children (1715), John Newberry’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), and Anna Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). Watts’s Divine Songs, which went through many editions, are overtly didactic. Alongside songs glorifying God are many that illustrate the consequences of bad behavior. Watts’s famous “Against Idleness and Mischief,” with its ever busy bee, counsels children not to waste time, “for Satan finds some mischief still / For idle hands to do” (Watts, “Against Idleness and Mischief,” lines 11-12). Blake’s poems, by contrast, extol the virtues of play.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience also holds a central place in the emerging Romantic literature. As with William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798; also in WLAJT3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), Blake’s Songs represent a democratization of poetry’s subject matter. In his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes that he wants to represent “incidents of common life” in a language “near to the language of men” (Wordsworth in Mellor, pp. 574, 576). Like Blake, Wordsworth found in children an innate spirituality, best articulated in his “Ode” of 1807, when he declared that “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” (Wordsworth in Mellor, “Ode,” p. 604).
Because of Blake’s labor-intensive method of printing, few copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience were circulated during his lifetime. This illuminated book was his most successful, yet only 28 copies of the combined Songs exist. Blake’s work was not completely unknown, however. “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence were anthologized while he lived. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb all appreciated the Songs; of the three, Lamb paid Blake the highest praise, referring to him in 1824 as one of the most extraordinary persons of his time. At his death in 1827, Blake was considered primarily an artist (and a mad artist at that), not a poet. Children especially appreciated his “visions,” a development that delighted him.
Blake’s reputation was resuscitated in the midnineteenth century by Alexander Gilchrist’s biography (1863), by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were also painter-poets, and later by W. B. Yeats, who, like Blake, was a poet-mythmaker.
READING RACE IN “THE LITTLE BLACK BOY”
As with the Songs of Innocence’s chimney sweep, the little black boy is a figure of innocence in part because he has imbibed conventional thought, in this case, European racism. The black boy’s statement, therefore, that he is black “as if bereav’d of light” reflects the perceptions of the “civilizing” nations (“The Little Black Boy,” Innocence, line 4), The boy’s naive desire for reconciliation also comments upon the intransigent racism of the English mind: the black boy cannot be loved as himself, but only when he resembles the white English boy. The black child has assumed a position of inferiority, even in his vision of heaven. Perhaps his “mind forg’d manacles” reflect missionary Christianity (“London,” Experience, line 8). D. L. Mac donald claims that “a poem on such a subject, issued in such a year, must be interpreted in the light of the abolition movement” (Macdonald, p. 166). Blake implies that those “bereav’d of light” or reason are not the mother and child in the poem, but the proponents of slavery who continued to deny humanity to Africans.
—Danielle E. Price
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Bindman, David. “Blake’s Vision of Slavery Revisited.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58, nos. 3 & 4 (1996): 373-382.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 1979.
Cunningham, Hugh. The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood Since the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Johnson, Mary Lynn and John E. Grant, eds. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. New York: Norton, 1979.
Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. “Introduction.” Songs of Innocence and of Experience, by William Blake. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.
____. The Letters of William Blake. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Macdonald, D. L. “Pre-Romantic and Romantic Abolitionism: Cowper and Blake.” European Romantic Review 4 (1994): 163-82.
Mellor, Anne K., and Richard E. Matlak. British Literature 1780-1830. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt, 1996.
Watts, Isaac. “Divine Songs for Children.” In The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts and Henry Kirke White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910.
Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens. London: Macmillan, 1998.