Category: Experience, Earth, and Adulthood (9/11)

At first, the twin poems “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” seem to present contrary understandings of childhood. The infant in “Infant Joy” knows only happiness, presumably because he is just two days old and has no experience of the world. Indeed, the child’s separation from earthly reality is conveyed by the illustration, which suggests the child is closer to heaven than earth. The child, its mother and an angel are all cradled inside a flower, which represents the natural world. It is notable that trees, which are so prominent in Songs of Innocence, are absent from every illustration Blake made for “Infant Joy”. This suggests that the child has not yet gained knowledge of good and evil and instead exists in a state of prelapsarian harmony with the natural and divine worlds.

The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is depicted in an entirely human world. Like the infant in “Infant Joy,” it is with its mother, but there is no obviously divine element in the illustration. The real difference is what this infant is saying and how. It knows that the world is dangerous and painful. Its description of itself as “like a fiend hid in a cloud” suggests both that it is more cunning and self-aware than the baby in Infant Joy, who simply says: “I happy am/ Joy is my name.”

However, given the infants are roughly of the same age (as infants were both named and swaddled early), how can we explain why the child in “Infant Sorrow” has such a negative self-image? Experience is an unsatisfactory answer because while does explain the child’s knowledge of pain and danger, it is difficult to cite experience as the cause of the infant’s resignation (“I thought it best”) and self-perception this early on. The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is like a little adult to the extent that it comprehends and speaks like an adult, whilst the child in “Infant Joy” says how it feels directly and simply. It’s no coincidence that first infant is given simple words and the second infant complex ones.  Although the poems seem to present one innocent and one knowledgeable infant, the way these two depictions work together eventually suggests that our preconceived ideas of childhood are what Blake is really getting at.

In both images the child is with its mother and both are contained, just one by the swaddling bands and one by the flower. The swaddling bands and the flower represent different contemporary attitudes towards children. The flower suggests that children need to grow up as themselves, which was the philosophy Rousseau espoused when he wrote that “Nature wants children to be children before being men.”  On the contrary, swaddling forces the child to conform to the adults’ wishes. Blake also puts adults’ words in the infant’s mouth in “Infant Sorrow.” It seems nonsensical that an infant could view itself as a fiend, but it was also a contemporary position that children were born in sin and had to be disciplined. Both infants are framed by societal attitudes, so it is only with knowledge of them that we can guess at why the infants in both poems express themselves as they do. Although “Infant Joy” seems more simple and charming at first, when we look at it with “Infant Sorrow,” we can seethe the two poems acknowledge the mysteriousness of childhood and that we can only interpret it in relation to ourselves as experienced adults. As infants cannot speak as clearly as the infants in these poems, we are left wondering whose thoughts Blake’s infants are expressing. And as we cannot remember infanthood as we remember other parts of our lives, it is harder to draw on as a form of experience. The poems suggest that we imagine childhood more than we experience it. The two representations can be so fundamentally different because there are some aspects of life that experience cannot fully help us to understand.


A prominent sinister undertone runs through Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence as the reader sees the Sweep’s exploitation.  Though he is forced to work, Tom Dacre remains in a state of innocence, and his imagination allows him to find hope.  Without a known identity from his parents, the idea of a heavenly father easily diverts Tom’s eyes from the hardship before him to the alternative reality he longs.  Innocence is then a state of the mind when dreams hold more power than reality.

The Chimney Sweeper of Songs of Experience is not so easily distracted.  Experience has chipped away at his readiness to believe the religious rhetoric.  Instead, religion has become a cause of neglect and pain as his parents abandon him to go to prayers.  While his outward behavior corresponds with what is expected of a child, his experience as a Sweep has brought his imaginative innocence to a premature end.  He now sees religion and hope as hollow and cannot see past the immediate reality of his circumstances.  Experience exposes false hope.

By connecting the two stories of the Chimney Sweep, Blake creates a continuous narrative of the decay of innocence.  These accounts then present complementary attacks on religion as an institution exploiting the innocent and bringing suffering to the experienced.  While at first religion and imagination can distract the sweep, experience makes him aware of harsher reality.

I was intrigued to see Blake included a poem titled “Infant Sorrow” in Songs of Experience. Although I knew that Songs of Experience offered contrary poems to Songs of Innocence, “Infant Joy” was not a poem I expected to have a contrary poem. An infant is the epitome of innocence—he has absolutely no worldly experience, and he is not old enough to know of the sorrows and corruption of the world. For this reason, I expected “Infant Joy” to be a standalone poem—for Blake to utilize it as a way of showing “true innocence,” especially when compared to Songs of Experience.

By including “Infant Sorrow” in Songs of Experience, I think that Blake is making a very poignant statement. The infant itself has no worldly experience; therefore this poem can hardly be considered a song of “experience.” What does this say about human nature? Can it be assumed that infants are truly the only joyous humans because of their lack of knowledge and corruption, as Songs of Innocence would have you believe? “Infant Sorrow” paints a much darker picture of humanity, beginning as early as birth. The baby’s unhappiness seems to imply that sorrow is an inherent human trait, and that it is not experience that corrupts human nature, but the very natures that we are born with. This problematizes our reading of “Infant Joy”—is the baby actually happy, or is it a fleeting joy that will soon be lost to a life of sorrow? And is there anything that can preserve that joy, or is humanity destined for sorrow, regardless of experience?

The Contrary States

For next Wednesday (9/11), students will analyze a poem from The Songs of Experience that has a “contrary” or negative twin poem in The Songs of Innocence.  How do these contrary poems/designs mutually inform, interrupt, or revise each other in a manner that is not apparent when these poems are read in isolation?

Alternatively, students can analyze a poem in The Songs of Experience that lacks a “contrary” in The Songs of Innocence.  Why are these non-contrarian poems significant in the context of the larger collection of songs?  How do these poems call into question Blake’s interpretive approach to opposition, negation, and dissonance?

Please focus on a pair of poems or one poem.  Categorize this post under “Experience, Earth, and Adulthood” and don’t forget to create interesting tags.

Expereince’s Place in Infant Joy

Blake spends a lot of energy in his “Songs of Experience” trying to articulate exactly what experience is.  So it is somewhat ironic to think that the poem where experience is most clearly defined comes in the “Songs of Innocence.”  As a matter of fact “Infant Joy,” Blake’s poem about the state of a freshly born child, builds a clear definition of experience.  In the poem we hear the voice of a child who is “but two days old.”  The poem is extensively concerned with the child’s name.  At first the child has no name, but then later in the poem the child states “Joy is my name.”  By the end of the poem we know only three things about the child: it is two days old, it is named Joy, and it is happy.  (Recall the significance of naming which we discussed in class.  Once the child has a name it is initiated into the system of the Church.)

These elements are important because they define the infant at this specific point in time.  Considering this a reader is forced to wonder what the difference is between an infant and any other human being.  The only difference that we can consistently point to, is experience.  In five years the only thing that will change about the child is that it will have five more years of experience.  Knowing this, it seems logical to think that the things the author uses to define the infant are elements that can only define those who have no experience.  As the infant gains more experience, it will in turn lose these qualities that defined it’s infancy.  Infancy is the opposite of experience.  Knowing this we can use the poem as a kind of negative definition of experience.  What is experience?  It is the opposite of happiness, it is the opposite of youth, and it is the opposite of not having a name.

In “Songs of Innocence and Experience”, Blake, of course, employs natural imagery and themes throughout. In “Blossom” and “My Pretty Rose Tree”, he goes so far as to personify individual plants and place them in the context of very different manifestations of love. As one is inclined to guess, the joyous love the blossom has for the birds in the first poem reflects the blissful ignorance of innocence praised in those songs. Though the quick-flying sparrow seems to ignore the blossom (in what I read as a brief shift of voice in the final two lines of each stanza), the little sprout just wants the bird “Near [its] Bosom”. In the second stanza of the poem, the “Pretty Pretty Robin,” though sad, is again offered a place of comfort near the bosom of the “happy blossom.” The blossom, therefore, must signify the joyous and free-flowing love of the innocent. Often, among the precocious Don Juans one will find the common trait of a certain eagerness to bestow their attention upon any fleeting fancy.

This haphazard allotment of the naïve individual’s emotional investment has its response in “Songs of Experience”, where “My Pretty Rose Tree” introduces those aspects of love and the relationship that are so often looked over by the young lovers described in “Blossom.” In this poem, the speaker is presented with a flower “as May never bore” in the first line, but in his loyalty to his rose tree, he declines. When the speaker returns home to his “Pretty Rose-tree” after this exchange “To tend her by day and by night” (as one does in a healthy relationship) to find the Rose’s love to be soured. It turns away “with jealousy” and the speaker’s only delight is her thorns. The rose tree should be understood as the ‘experience’d manifestation of love. For reasons left to the imagination, the rose has come to embody jealousy, bitterness,  and malcontent, three common descriptions for the kind of love one sees described on Springer. Is Blake saying that one gains worldly experience to the detriment of pure love? I’d have to say that that certainly seems to be the precise direction he’s heading towards when one considers these two poems together. Thoughts?

Reading Songs of Experience, a major theme encountered is the pervading sadness and misconduct associated with Experience, a state of being marked by the loss of childhood vitality, by fear and inhibition, by social and political corruption, and by the oppression of State, Church, and the ruling classes.  For Blake, who was an English Dissenter opposing the rules of the Anglican Church, the human spirit slowly withers when suppressed by the doctrines of society and in consequence, a corruption of the soul directly induces corruption of action and society at large.

London is a key example of Experience’s pervading sadness and its resulting corruption, where “every face I meet marks of weakness, marks of woe.”  The speaker, walking the streets of London, discerns tension and angst in each face he passes realizing all people are entrenched in sorrow, a defining characteristic of the human condition.  Blake acknowledges sorrow as a habitual human phenomenon. “In every voice…the mind-forg’d manacles I hear.”  From Songs of Innocence, where the human spirit blossoms with joy and freedom, Songs of Experience depicts Innocence’s contrary state, a shackled soul.

Through London, it’s understood the imposition of social and political morality is what stifles the goodness and love inherent in every human spirit for “every blackning Church appalls/And the hapless Soldiers sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace Walls.  The Church and the State, for Blake, force people to restrain feeling with reason or religious and state doctrine.  Blake, in London’s last stanza, displays the immediate effect of such  restriction, where “the youthful Harlots curse…blights with plagues the marriage hearse.”  Here, an impoverished young girl is lured into the sex trade, social immorality, contracting gonorrhea and harming her newborn with blindness because, well, one reason is her soul, restricted by reason (due to Church and State) is stifled out of goodness and love and therefore, her decisions are able to bring vile outcomes.

 The Garden of Love as well expresses the imposition of Church on human sensibility.  “A chapel was built in the midst” of Love says the speaker; where Love and “so many sweet flowers bore” is replaced “with graves”.  In Blake’s opinion, as the Church stifles free-flowing feelings of the spirit, “binding with briars, my joys & desires”  it does.  Life is lived less well when bound by social rules and regulations and Blake is making a revolutionary argument in Songs of Experience, to eliminate the Church, because it thoroughly hinders the teaching of Christ (to love) rather than promote it.

William Blake is a hopeful poet though believing aspects of innocence can be regained.  In The Voice of the Ancient Bard, Blake seems to be advocating that an exceptional and peaceful future is possible.  When “Youth of delight come hither…Image of truth new born.”  Man harnessing delight, an important defining characteristic of the state of Innocence, can douse himself in realizations and the poetic genius revealing essential truths and in doing so, “stumble all night over the bones of the dead” or people trapped in the state of Experience.  Individuals, through delight, have the ability to access aspects of Innocence, which is the path to right action and improving social condition.  Both “doubt is fled & clouds of reason” meaning that the aspects of Experience which sadden and corrupt have dispersed leaving the individual to a state of increased freedom.  For Blake, this freedom is both subjective (freeing a sickened soul) and from the disbanding of institution, Church and State, those other “clouds of reason.”  With the Church and State breaking up, the soul is free to explore its joys without it continuously being restricted by precepts.  Songs of Experience is calling to alleviate “the clouds of reason” that the soul may be freed and only then Blake says will one “know not what but care,” or actual goodness.  Below is Blake’s physical description of our possible and hopeful future and collectivized community when institutionalized doctrine loses its reign and the soul can boundlessly explore.

The Introduction

The Ancient Bard’s call to Earth to “Turn away no more” is an attempt to reverse all of the wrongs occurring while the Earth continues to orbit. This prophetic call from the Ancient Bard (presumably Blake) lays the groundwork for a greater foundation for the fact that Blake may actually be grasping at straws to attempt to correct the wrongs of the world–and he realizes this.

The Bard makes the request to the Earth in what would appear to be a question, but the punctuation terminating the statement renders it a command–“Why wilt thou turn away/ The starry floor/ The watry shore/ Is given thee till the break of day.” The Earth then interprets this as a call from a “Father of ancient men/ Selfish father of men”–the commanding father of the Ten Commandments. Blake’s Bard makes a request to basically stop nature, to do something unnatural in order to halt what appears to be a paradoxical nature (“In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduced to misery”). Blake recognizes these unnatural instances and wishes to put an end to them–to erase the class boundaries and the frames that “does freeze…bones around/Selfish! vain!”

However this is where Blake begins to waiver, and I believe that he himself recognizes his inability as a man and a poet to reverse the natural order. Blake’s request–originally framed as a question–is left ambiguously due to what appears to be faulty punctuation. He, as a poet, is unable to produce the request that would stop the Earth, stop nature, and ultimately cure all of the problems (we think…Blake thinks). The last stanza of the Introduction is the most powerful, but Blake cannot muster up the poetic power to produce it fully and ultimately fails in his mission as the Ancient Bard.

It seems that only divine intervention will be able to reverse the natural order–to stop the Earth from turning. In one sense, I feel that Blake recognizes this and attempts to channel some form of power through the Poetic Genius, which comes from the Divine. But he ultimately fails because it is channeled through a mortal man. Blake sees this in his placement of the period as the closing punctuation mark to his statement: he recognizes his limits as a mortal being and sees that he is bound to the natural order; that being a creation of nature, he cannot rebel against what created him.

This frontispiece by Wale exemplifies many of the discernible themes in Blake’s Songs of Experience. Blake begins his Songs with the voice of the Bard–a voice that serves as a seeming contrary to that of the piper, the speaker in Songs of Innocence. A bard, though more generally defined as a reciting poet, also has more traditional roots in the Scottish Gaelic tradition that was romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. This association immediately called to mind Wale’s frontispiece and, when considered more closely, even more similarities arose.

This engraving marked a dual alteration in the literary and authorial culture during the mid-eighteenth century. Firstly, it symbolized the necessary transition from aural to written work. Without this transition, the record of poetry from that time would have been lost. By segueing from mere song to engraving, the work of poets was enabled to endure, emphatically emphasized and legitimatized by the Latin phrase “durat opus vatum.” Secondly, it suggests the re-imagination of poetry as the ballad form and themes of chivalric romance were recovered and remade in original forms.

As Blake’s work “The Tyger” suggests, Blake valorized natural, organic elements by referencing “distant deeps, skies….forests of the night.” In a self-referential fashion, Blake reveals the paradox of utilizing the Poetic Genius to conjure images and poetic stanzas while constricting them to a fixed frame through the mechanized process of engraving. Such a paradox is visually and metaphorically manifested in his engraving of a tiger that takes on the appearance of a docile, domestic feline. Wale’s frontispiece vignette similarly manifests contraries and paradoxes with its traditional Gaelic images coalesced with Gothic iconography, classical components, and allusions to the Enlightenment period. The harp, both a classical and Gaelic image, seems to be surrendering to a new, budding tradition, as symbolized by the growing tree. Coupled together, these images serve as a metaphor for the transition from the aural tradition of song. The Gothic arches are a testament to Romantic culture as is the glorification of nature espoused by the upright, central tree. The Latin phrase represents intellect and the act of logically translating it to an understood language recalls the Enlightment’s emphasis on reasoning. (This component of the frontispiece would have been derided by Blake as a product of Urizen and institutionalization.) Thus, the work of Blake and Wale can be deemed “sister works” questioning the ability of an artist to truly express his Poetic Genius.


In Songs of Experience, Blake narrates a debate about love between two natural elements in the poem “The CLOD and the PEBBLE.” Divided into three four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, the poem first opines the perspective that love is selfless and capable of creating “a Heaven in Hells despair” (4). Functioning as a transition, the second stanza identifies the previous speaker as the clod of clay, which is described as little, trodden, and singing—all images associated with innocence (think, “Little Lamb who made thee…Gave thee such a tender voice…He is meek”). At the exact middle of the poem, Blake shifts to the second natural element, a “Pebble of the brook,” marking the departure with a colon at the end of line 6. Presented as a direct contrary to the clod, the pebble asserts in stanza three that love is selfish, defiantly building “a Hell in Heavens despite” (12).

Although Blake strictly separates the clod and the pebble through poetic form, he refuses to accept their complete animosity and emphasizes their natural origins. The definer “clay” is meaningful to Blake (it appeared in his first draft of “The Tyger” as well) because it connotes malleability and incompleteness, much like an impressionable child. Though the pebble has been hardened by the constant bombardment of the brook, it is near enough to the clod to hear its song, indicating the imaged locales of Heaven and Hell exist in the same physical space. Blake also uses the same rhyme of “please” and “ease” in the first and third stanzas, undermining disparate opinions through diction. By binding together the seemingly apparent oppositions of the clod and the pebble, Blake questions the absoluteness of the divides between innocence and experience, youth and adulthood, Heaven and Hell, by highlighting characteristics shared by each pair.