Category: Innocence, Eden, and Childhood (1/27)

The LambHoly ThursdayThe Divine Image

The three images above all deal with some dimension of the likeness between God and mankind. I have arranged them in this order, moving from “The Lamb” to “Holy Thursday” and finishing with “The Divine Image” because I saw a natural sequential development of the course of the three plates. Beginning in “The Lamb,” Blake explores the likeness  between three triangulated figures, Jesus, a lamb, and a child. As part of “Songs of Innocence,” this poem explores the innocence of all three creatures. The innocence of children is what I found to be the most important theme or motif running throughout the plates in “Songs of Innocence.”  The similarities between children and lambs continues into the second plate “Holy Thursday.” Through the change in perspective from a child in “The Lamb” to a speaker that seems decidedly separate from the innocence of children and almost nostalgic for that lost innocence, the development that occurs over the course of these plates begins. The speaker is an observer of their innocence and is so moved by their presence and purity that he elevates these children, too often shunned by society, to angels. With “The Divine Image,” a final expansion of the original likeness explored in “The Lamb” occurs in “The Divine Image.” Here Blake departs from the innocence of children and explores the divine attributes of mankind in general. “Songs of Experience” deals with the capability adulthood has of destroying the innocence found in childhood. Blake offers some hope for a connection with the divine past childhood by reminding readers that all men have the qualities of Mercy, Pity, and Peace inside him.



This is a story about a lost child’s desire for a home. A little boy is abandoned by his father in a dark wet wood. He is very frightened because he knows he cannot find his own way home.


The same little boy is then found and apprenticed to a chimney sweep. As he is too young to know who he is, he is given the name Tom Dacre. In a new dangerous environment, the little boy wants a family of chimney sweeps around him. He fantasizes that an angel has come down from Heaven to give him other apprentice sweeps to play with. He fantasizes that the angel tells him God is his father, and an older sweep reassures him that he will be well looked after if he does his duty.


So the little boy remains a sweep. One night, he dreams about an ant who has lost her family. In the dream, the ant’s story has a happy ending. Other insects, which are possibly God in disguise, show the mother ant the way back home to her children. The little boy takes comfort from the idea that he might one day be reunited with his mother in Heaven.


I chose these three plates because they all concern the importance of child-parent relationships. Separating “The Little Boy Lost” from “The Little Boy Found” makes it a much darker poem in which the action of the father can be interpreted in the worst possible way and the child is clearly deeply distressed by it. As the Songs of Innocence poems include many young children, it was easy to imagine that the little boys in “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Chimney Sweeper” were the same. In both, young boys with no father deeply desire to find one but the only way the chimney sweep can have one is from a dream. This dream may be intended as more than a pure fantasy, but I would suggest that the boy is coping with his hard situation in the only way he can, by using his imagination. Earthly fathers seem to be inadequate if not downright dangerous in Songs of Innocence, but children still long for them and the security and comfort a family brings. Placing “The Dream” after “The Chimney Sweep,” I hoped to make it sound more like just a dream and a way the chimney sweep has of coping. “The Chimney Sweep” shows the power of the imagination in children, but also how their imaginative lives can become more important to them than their real lives. Although their imaginative lives help them cope with their real lives, they also give them false hope. In reality, the little boy is probably going to be abandoned again as soon as he grows too big to climb a chimney. Together the poems conceptualize home as a state of being with loved ones rather than a place.




the a posteriori becomes the a priori concretely and not merely in the general”  –Theodor Adorno, from “The Essay as Form”

This tale, like any good Bildungsroman, begins with a tutelary image—halcyon and filled with heavy promise. Adulthood sacrifices security for its affinity with open intellectual experience, but childhood need not make such trade-offs. In childhood, intellectual experience is radically open as it is not preconditioned and the child operates under the aegis of necessary naiveté and parental protection. As such, the child need not construct consolations; the world appears unified and docile, welcoming, mystified. The force behind the framework in which we must learn to operate is as yet unknown and so the world remains idyllic. Yet, as the contorted tree suggests in the first image, the nivellating and ossifying iron cage of rationalization, the bitter fruit from Eden’s tree—our means of later reconciling ourselves to the world—waits at the wings, and, as the foliage that grades into flame implies, such beauty as innocence is but a brusque flare. The foreboding skies above the young boy in the second suggest as much, as well, even though now, he engages his world without mediation, does not reify or reduce the object of his contemplation to something other than itself.

william_blake_title_page_songs_of_innocence               lamb

As a matter of course, the idyllic lapses and the child is sent out into the world, which is the bugbear and blessing of the burgeoning self-awareness that attends aging. One cannot learn from repose alone and asylum quickly stagnates—such is our lot. Individual experience is consciousness’s point of departure, its necessary divergence from original harmony and the accompanying assurance of solid footing.


You are what’s fallen from those fatal boughs.

Where will we go when they send us away from here?


Unpreventably, the child loses their way—Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita. Though in life’s journey “the straight way” is lost, we might still come to ourselves, not in spite of, but because of the “dark wood” in which we find ourselves. Fear and vulnerability leads to self-discovery—i.e., the bright light in the dark forest, in the image. However, we generally clothe it in the sordid assuagements of cynicism and the like. We begin to construct the benign illusions that domesticate our terror and/or aid us in our daily grind, our itch and algos.


The old salves all begin to smack of mendaciousness, elan, and caprice, as adulthood dawns, and new ones are conceived or concocted, picked up for a song or at heavy cost. Times prior, the grown child’s fond memories, seem to speak of another affection, but did they promise such? The child, now an adult, returns to the originary, seeks the beginning to know their end. Something like a conversion experience, like Saul on the road to Damascus, occurs. Innocence is not truly noticed or known until one has lapsed from it and self-consciousness is not gained unless one has done so. Value is learned in loss. Memory—here, the hovering cherub or imp—affords reflection, acts as the articulation between innocence and awareness. Conversion necessitates a continuity as well as a discontinuity with the life that is and the life that was, but this, at the close, is not so much a conversion as a homecoming—a prodigal son returning.

And I stain’d the water clear

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “The Essay as Form.” Notes to Literature. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. N. pag. Print. (pg. 10)

Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. Trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Print.  (pg.3)

Ferry, David. “In Eden.” ‘In Eden’ by David Ferry :. The Poetry Foundation, July-Aug. 2011. Web. 03 Sept. 2013. <;.


A little boy freely sings.  He spends his days running and playing, until his mother calls him back.  He sits at her feet as she tells him of his calling, responsibility and obligation.  Each day he returns to her for these lessons, listening more but thinking less.  As he grows older it becomes harder to remain imaginative.  He begins working as a shepherd, falling into the pattern of monotony of spending each day with the sheep.  One day he seems to hear a voice calling, “Shepherd, Piper, play for me.”  He glances around and sees no one.  After hearing the voice again, he looks up to see the figure of a child beckoning him, calling him to perform.  It’s been too many years, he thinks.  I have nothing to sing, he reasons.  But still the voice continues and finally he begins.  As he sings the child dances above him, spurring him on in mutual enjoyment.  Soon the child fades away, but the piper and shepherd’s song continues.  If only for his sheep, he will carry on playing.

In the opening image of the woman and child beneath the tree, Blake visualizes education as the children listen to their mother.  However, the dark tree branches appear to choke out the celestial Songs of Innocence, gradually building a barrier between the children and this imaginative space.  In this way indoctrination and education choke out imagination, transforming each child from an individual to one of a number thinking and acting the same way.  As the child begins to work, he falls into a slow monotony that again dulls his freethinking.  The return of the child is the return of innocence and imagination.  Despite the physical monotony of his work as a shepherd, his mind can still think and create.  In this way Blake communicates that innocence can be reclaimed; the creative genius is not dead but merely dormant.






This version of Songs of Innocence tells a story about religious education and its effect on children. In “Nurse’s Song,” the nurse watches a group of children play outside. The sounds of their games and general happiness mesh with nature, and she feels an overwhelming sense of peace at the scene. The children seem to be young—they are described as “little ones” and are still being cared for by a nurse (Blake 25). They probably have not begun learning about Christianity from their mother, so they play peacefully outside together, seemingly one with nature. The image depicted on this particular page reminds me of a statue found on Vanderbilt’s campus called “Come Play,” which depicts a group of children motioning for another child to come join in their game. This inclusiveness suggests nativity and innocence, both in Blake’s work and in the statue found here in modern day (Haven).


The second song, “The Lamb,” again sounds peaceful, but there are major discrepancies between the tone and the content of the song. The young child begins by innocently asking a lamb, “Little Lamb who made thee?” He then goes on to answer his own question, stating that “He is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb” (Blake 15). This appears to be a direct link to Jesus and Christianity. However, the little child cannot decide whether the lamb he is directing his question to is a lamb or a Lamb, indicating some confusion about the religious symbol of the lamb. It seems as if the child does not understand whether Jesus was a literal lamb, a figurative lamb, or the very lamb in front of him. This reflects the general ambiguous nature of religion in the purest way possible—the little boy is confused, but are people ever not confused about religion?

Blake 1

The third song, “The Little Black Boy,” transitions from Christian ambiguity and confusion to twisting Christianity to explain or justify racism. The little black boy is told by his mother that his blackness “is but a cloud” that will disappear when he goes to Heaven. A picture of equality in Heaven is created—both “clouds” of black and white will disappear, and the little black boy “will be like [the English boy]” and will be loved by the English boy as an equal. He also claims that he will “shade [the English boy] from the heat [of God] till he can bear” (Blake16). This implies that being black is an extra hardship that will prepare the little black boy for Heaven better than the little English boy—as if God intended for blacks to face more trials than whites. This explanation twists Christianity until it justifies racism as a construct intended by God.  Although this song seems comforting on the surface—after all, the little black boy accepts himself and believes one day he will be equal with the English boy—he has still ultimately accepted racism as a Christian construct.

Blake 3

Throughout these three songs, we see Christianity and religious education slowly confusing and even corrupting the children in question. In the first song, the children are innocent and young—they know nothing of religion, only of playing outside. In the second song, the little child is beginning to learn about his religion, but his understanding is muddled and confused—something that is unlikely to change as he gets older. In the third song, the little black boy utilizes Christian teachings to accept himself, but at the same time he accepts racism as a part of Christianity. These songs, when read in this order, tell the story of the corruption of Christian teachings—while each child means well in his understanding and application of religion, ultimately the happiest children are the ones with no knowledge of Christianity.

Works Cited

Haven, Katharine. Come Play. 1985. University General Sculpture Collection, Vanderbilt University, Nashville. University General Sculpture Collection. Web. 3 September 2013. <;

For the post next Wednesday (9/4), students will choose 3-4 plate designs from The Songs of Innocence (from any of the editions accessible in the Blake Archive, listed under “Friends & Links” below) to create your own story about this compilation of “songs.”  You will arrange these plates in any order that helps illustrate your specific narrative, and this order need not follow any of the arrangements found in the various copies of The Songs of Innocence.  In other words, set your imagination free and become a true Genius!

Insert these designs into your post and then write a short paragraph or two that interprets the embedded narrative that threads your arrangement and justifies your particular ordering.  Ideally, your story should address the larger themes, images, and motifs that define The Songs of Innocence as a whole.  Place the post under the category “Innocence, Eden, and Childhood” and don’t forget to create specific and engaging tags.  And most importantly, please HAVE FUN!


You can get a sense of how meanings shift depending on the rearrangement of text designs in the online Blake Digital Text Project, which includes various edition of The Songs (you are free to use these images as well, although they appear only in black and white). Here’s the web address:



Instructions on inserting images into your blog post:

1. Find the image you want on the Blake Archive under “Works in the Archive.”  Feel free to use “The Songs of Innocence” or the joint “The Songs of Innocence & Experience,” or both, of whatever edition (or combination thereof) you choose.

2. Right click on the image and go to “Save picture as.”  Save it in your laptop or PC.

3.  In your post, click on “Add Media” (in the upper right), then “upload files,” and then “select files.”  Choose the desired image from your picture files.  Under the “Attachment Details” side window you will select your specifications (make sure your images are large and viewable) and then click “insert into post” once you are done.

Lambs and lambs

In the Songs of Innocence and Experience Blake makes frequent references to lambs and to Lambs.  He manipulates the capitalization here to achieve a variety of effects, but on one distinct level he uses the difference to refer to the Biblical Lamb of God.  The lamb is frequently used in the Bible as a sacrifice offered to the Lord.   The idea of comparing human beings to the sacrificial lamb takes it’s root in Genesis when Abraham tells his son that ‘God will provide the lamb for the offering.’  (For those not familiar with the story, Abraham has been instructed by God not to sacrifice a lamb but to sacrifice his own son.)  From here the image of the sacrificial lamb takes on new meaning when it becomes one of the epithets given to Jesus in the gospel.  In John’s gospel Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb of God,” now with a capital L.  This image is meant to emphasize Jesus’ status as a necessary offering to the Lord.  The lamb makes for a good sacrifice because it is pure and innocent.  By Old Testament standards the lamb is among the pure, clean animals that are worthy to be sacrificed.  In a way there is a paradox here, that the lamb’s innocence and purity are the reason it is used for the sacrifice.

Blake’s audience would have understood the meaning of this epithet as it is used in the Songs of Innocence.  In poems like “The Lamb” the speaker keys in on the Lamb’s lack of knowledge and understanding.  The speaker here adopts the same tone one would use when talking to a small child who lacks education.  The Lamb does not even know it’s creator.  But this lack of understanding serves to justify the use of the capital L here.  The Lamb is actually connected to the Lamb of God by this extreme innocence.  Because the lamb lacks any understanding of the world, he embodies those qualities that are sought after in the Lambs.

          Songs of Innocence express Blake’s belief in the contrary nature of the human soul; joyous freedom and restriction.  For Blake, childhood is a state of innocence, a state of freedom that is lost as we age into adulthood and the faculties of reason.  Because of this, the Songs of Innocence poems are childlike filled with nursery rhymes, observation, and little meaning.

Sound the flute!

Now it’s mute.

Birds delight

Day and Night.


In the dale

Lark in Sky


          These lines taken from “Spring” represent freedom because they illustrate a state absent of reason.  As mentioned during class, Blake believed adults were always confounded to a state of experience.  Innocence is not a faculty adults express.

For Blake, a child is introduced to experience through defining realizations and labor.  In the picture of “The Shepherd Below” (below)  the boy is “watchful while they are in peace.”  The boy’s head is looking downward in a state of contemplation.  It is his responsibility, or lack of freed action, that makes him begin to question life and his role as a living person and reason, being developed through labor, is his continuing restriction to freedom.  In this way, Songs of Innocence is also protesting the industrial revolution because of its effect on the human mind.  The darker colors expressed in “The Shepherd” indicate the darkness of experience, or the way it influences the soul through taking away innocence, joy, and a divine presence.

“The Shepherd”  contrasts “The Echhoing Green”  because in “The Echhoing Green,”  the children are dancing freely and joyous while the adults are left under the tree of experience because of their dedication to reason and responsibility.  Innocence is synonymous with joy, the divine nature of the lamb (Jesus Christ), the divine heat in “The Little Black Boy,” and also natural landscape.  The innocent is appreciative of nature and engrained in the freedoms and joy of natural landscape while experience, in Songs of Innocence, is more associated with labor (The Shepherd), questioning (The Lamb), or sadness (The Little Black Boy, whose logical faculties are developed because he is an outcast of society).


Now, although Blake believes innocence is a state only had in childhood, he points throughout Songs of Innocence ways  one can access aspects of innocence or in other words, the poetic genius.  Through the appreciation of natural landscape, one is able to further engrain oneself in the joy received from it.  Contacting divine nature like hearing “the lambs innocent call” and being watchful of this peace or “To Mercy Pity Peace and Love, all pray” will bring the soul further toward innocence, a state resembling the poetic genius.  Blake is calling for both adults and children to harness those ideals which make a child innocent.

In this way, this book is not only for educating children but also adults.  This books is to teach about the human condition, or contrary nature of the soul, and in turn, foster its “better” aspects.  Although Blake believes experience is the status quo of all adults, in Songs of Innocence, he is advocating self-betterment and a way to lessen the detriments of experience.  For Blake, this process can lead to many realizations.  A switch of soul may bring differing feelings about the monarchy, the industrial revolution, the royal academy, and the origins of art (the divine imagination), all those issues which Blake has strong opinions on.  Although seemingly simple in structure, design, and poetical strategy, Songs of Innocence is actually promoting radical beliefs and attempting to alter how a child grows into experience.

In Songs of Innocence, Blake integrates text and image to express his understanding of the dichotomy of Adam and Eve’s fall told in the book of Genesis. By representing trees and foliage around the poems themselves, Blake manipulates the evident theme of the text, undermining the establishment of any one conclusion. On the title page, the tree grows from the right side of the page, engulfing the words “Songs” and “of” while only circling the word “Innocence,” indicating there was a state of innocence before the Fall. In the opening poems,  however, the tree (assumed here to represent the biblical Tree of Knowledge) becomes less upright as on the title page and instead looms heavily over the figures—a physical reminder of the burden of knowledge and experience. In “The Little Black Boy,” two trees sprout from each side of the composition, so even as the mother comforts the worries of her enslaved son, the branches reach toward the pair, omnipresent and dark foreshadows of reality. By analyzing the progression of the foliage from the cover page onward in Songs of Innocence, one can see how Blake imagines the progression of experience—first from a visible temptation to an interactive and inescapable part of human existence.

"The Little Black Boy"

Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” appears, on face, to be a kindly demonstration of how race doesn’t really matter since one day all    Christians will be free from the “cloud” of skin color and equal in the eyes of God. However, upon further examination, the poem contains statements about race and how it affects both our mortal and immortal lives that do not quite jive with the idea that race is a temporary burden.

In the first stanza, the black child who is the narrator of the poem cries, “I am black but O! my soul is white” and “I am black as if bereav’d of light.” Blake immediately associates whiteness with goodness and innocence, and even if he is correct in asserting that outward skin color doesn’t matter in light of the state of a person’s soul, it is a rather hard judgment upon a small child to inform him that his skin color is associated with evil and judgment.

Blake continues to develop the idea of “light,” as the boy recounts his mother’s instructions: “Look on the rising sun: there God does live / And gives his light, and gives his heat away. / And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive / Comfort in morning joy in the noon day.” Here God is associated with heat, light, and the Sun – physical entities that all convey the presence of God to man. The mother instructs her child to “receive comfort” from the rising of the Sun  (which is the verbal equal of Son, or Christ) when he is tiring from his work in the “noon day.” When we compare this stanza to the first, in which whiteness has been set up as the opposite of blackness’s being “bereav’d of light,” then light and white emerge as the same thing. In other words, the boy’s white masters become symbols of God. Thus he is to obey them and even rejoice in serving them, despite their enforcing difficult labor in the “noon day.” Moreover, the mother says, light (or whiteness) is a gift from God – which seems to imply that God has chosen to give the “gift” of whiteness to the boy’s masters and withhold it from him.

Blake continues: “And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love, / And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” Though Blake seems to innocently connect warmth and light with God, this stanza supports the symbolism of the above paragraph, noting that the “beams of love” (the prosecutions of the white master) are to be borne, rather than joyfully received as they might be if they were from God. The mother argues that black skin and the heritage with which it is associated, “like a shady grove,” enable the little boy and others of his race to withstand their earthly trials and comforts him by telling him that their outward appearance “is but a cloud.”

 Following his mother’s lead in anticipating the joy of eternal life, the boy contemplates what heaven will be like, discussing his position in relation to that of a white boy: “When I from black and he from white cloud free, / And round the tent of God like lambs we joy: / Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. / And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.” The irony in this childlike contemplation is twofold. First, even in heaven, the black boy is subservient to the white, “shad[ing] him from the heat” that in this sense appears to stand for the heat of God. If the boy’s “white cloud” has not prepared him to stand in the presence of God, then how is it good or innocent or pure? Blake’s point is that yes, perhaps outward appearances are misleading – but that is because often the white man’s soul is the most corrupt. Second, Blake presents the futility of the black boy’s subservience throughout his life on earth and in heaven: it will never be good enough to earn the white boy’s acceptance. Even in heaven, where race is apparently nonexistent, the little boy suggests that he will be distinct from the white boy by the appearance of their souls. And even if the black boy’s is purer than that of the white, he will still be forced into a position of submissiveness to his former master. Though the black boy anticipates that “he will then love me,” why should his efforts in heaven gain any more acceptance than those he put forth upon earth? Contrary to the initial perception of Blake’s point here, his argument is that race is more than skin-deep and encompasses actions, beliefs, and behaviors that will not disappear upon the removal of skin color. Carried to its logical conclusion, Blake’s poem might urge a revolution of sorts, as his work usually does, though in this case it is one of the black slaves against their white suppressors. This is a prime example of the religious Blake rejecting the popular notions of his faith (that endurance and good work lead to a reward in heaven) in favor of supporting human actions to redeem the human condition.