Tag Archive: innocence


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?

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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 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).

Blake 2 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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. <http://cpc-fis.vanderbilt.edu/view.php?label=3&gt;

In William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” innocence is not ignorance.  Rather, Blake’s songs suggest that innocence is a system of institutionalized knowledge taught to children to help them cope with the miseries of experience.  Blake juxtaposes a set of songs about early childhood education, the songs of innocence, with songs about the miseries of human experience, the songs of experience, in order to emphasize the cause-effect nature of this education; the teachings of childhood education define and perpetuate the corrupt social and political systems which make experience so miserable.  In “The Little Black Boy,” a young black child uses the religious stories told to him by his mother to rationalize his existence as an inferior being in a racist world.  The black boy’s explanation of his identity highlights the problematic nature of his mother’s teachings; the black boy unquestioningly accepts his role as a servant to white men as part of God’s unique plan.  According to this plan, which the boy repeats to the English boy at the end of the song, the binaries of black and white that define social roles on Earth will be dissolved in heaven.  Thus, racial disparities on Earth are resolved through a promise of equality in heaven.  Ironically, the black boy’s repetition of his mother’s teachings perpetuates the very belief system that enchains him.  The black boy is enslaved by his corrupt education.

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.