The following won first place in the Humanities/Literature division of the Walter Spara Writing Contest sponsored by the Department of English and Communications in the spring semester, 2012.
By Lauren Massey
Blake’s Implications of “Innocence” and “Experience”
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience~ is a collection of poems divided into the categories mentioned in its title. To attempt to fully understand each poem, one must take into account the section in which it is found within the collection, and one must speculate Blake’s intended meanings of the words “innocence” and
“experience” as he applies them. While it is impossible to know conclusively, it can be argued that (in general) Blake’s “innocence” is a broad term for naiveté, and his “experience” is a broad term for disillusionment.
Although the subject matter addressed within many of the poems is the same in both sections (some poems even have the same title in both sections), the poems found in Blake’s Songs of Innocence section appropriately exude a more child-like tone. The intention for “innocence” to mean naiveté can clearly be seen throughout this section, particularly in the poems “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday.” “The Chimney Sweeper” features characters who, in spite of leading the danger-filled and presumably miserable lives of very young children forced into the hard labor of chimney sweeping, remain relatively happy because of the prospect of heaven. Tom, a young central character in the poem, eventually ingenuously disregards the ever-present threat of mortality, as well as the overwhelming urge to act as a child does (to play, laugh, and “sport in the wind”), because an angel in his dream told him that “if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father & never want joy”– that he would be eternally rewarded for his servitude (lines 19-20). This idea is reiterated with the poem’s final line: “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (24). Blake utilizes Tom’s disturbingly naïve attitude toward his pitiable condition to cause readers to question the morality of a society/Church that would overlook the cruelties of child labor and help instill such a grim outlook in a child.
“Holy Thursday” also exemplifies the implied naiveté of “innocence”; Blake purposefully uses positive, affirmative language to describe a scene that could otherwise be considered ethically objectionable– the parading of thousands of impoverished children who are collectively cared for on only this one day, presumably so the Church can save face. The children are depicted as clean, radiant “flowers” and “lambs” who “raise to heaven the voice of song,” while the clergymen overseeing them are called “wise guardians of the poor” (5-7, 10); in its naïve gushing, the poem fails to mention the fact that the children must return to poverty and squalor the next day. In his blatant omission of the harsh reality of the situation, Blake yet again causes readers to question the morality of the Church.
The poems of the Songs of Experience section of the collection feature a darker, colder, and more directly accusatory treatment of subject matter. While their Innocence counterparts exemplify Blake’s definition of “innocence” as naiveté, the Experience versions of the poems “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday” demonstrate his intention for “experience” to mean disillusionment– an bitter awareness of the realities and evils of the world. In the Experience version of “The Chimney Sweeper,” gone are the references to child’s play, to joy, and to taking comfort in the promise of heaven; these are replaced by disillusioned references to death and woe, and an obvious resentfulness toward condoners of child labor. An adult narrator (presumably Blake) happens upon a young chimney sweeper, whose existence is reduced to that of “A little black thing among the snow” (the reference is bitterly reminiscent of the objectification of children in these situations) (2). The sweeper says that his parents are praying at the church, and are not concerned with the risks he faces: “because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury” (9-10); here, Blake uses the word “think” to raise the likely possibility that they have actually done harm to the boy, and he purposefully makes the neglect of their son coincide with their devotion to the Church (again, to reprimand those who would write off the plight of the impoverished as righteous servitude). Even the setting of the poem suggests disillusionment; the harsh conditions of winter parallel the newfound transition from innocence to the awareness of the harsh tendencies of life.
The Experience version of “Holy Thursday” also demonstrates the implied disillusionment of “experience.” Clearly indicative of the transition from the wonder of innocence to the disenchantment of experience, the poem is completely devoid of the joyous, affirming language of its Innocence counterpart (the “flowers” and “lambs” of the previous version become simply “poor children,” the “wise guardians of the poor” become “cold and usurious,” and the “song raised to heaven” becomes a mere “trembling cry”), and is instead composed of incriminating rhetorical questions and bleak closing statements (4,5,7). Blake does not require readers to guess with this poem; he literally questions the morality of the Holy Thursday festivities, asking “Is this a holy thing to see,! In a rich and fruitful land,! Babes reduced to misery?” (1-3). Outraged, Blake spends the last half of the poem claiming that England is surely a “land of poverty!” (8). The complete shift in tone and literal message from the Innocence version of the poem calls to mind the anger and confusion one feels when the ideal is torn down by the real—the disillusionment that comes with growing up, with experience.
William Blake discusses the serious issues of child labor and poverty (among others) in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience collection, juxtaposing the opposite perspectives of the two sections. The Innocence poems are guileless, yet endearing, while the Experience poems are informed, yet cynical– evocative of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the obstacles involved with each stage. In this context, it is clear that Blake intended “innocence” to mean naiveté, and “experience” to mean disillusionment, and when one reads the collection with those implications in mind, one can achieve a deeper understanding and appreciation of Blake’s efforts.
Blake, William. Songs of Experience: “Holy Thursday.” 1794. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. By Carol T. Christ, Catherine Robson, Stephen Greenblatt, and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 90. Print.
Blake, William. Songs of Experience: “The Chimney Sweeper.” 1794. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. By Carol T. Christ, Catherine Robson, Stephen Greenblatt, and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 90. Print.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence: “Holy Thursday.” 1794. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. By Carol T. Christ, Catherine Robson, Stephen Greenblatt, and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 86. Print.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence: “The Chimney Sweeper.” 1794. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. By Carol T. Christ, Catherine Robson, Stephen Greenblatt, and M.H. Abrams. gth ed. Vol. D. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 85. Print.