Tag Archive: Songs of experience


Holy Thursdays

Last week, I explored “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence. In considering which two poems to examine as contraries, I immediately became interested in expanding my exploration of the original “Holy Thursday” by comparing it to its twin of the same name in Songs of Experience. The first difference I noted is the lack of a illustration associated with the “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience. I believe this is indicative of the fact that the children discussed in each version are one and the same. In Songs of Innocence, these children were singing to their benefactors. While I initially saw these children as another example, like that found in “The Lamb,” of joyful childhood innocence, upon further examination, I began to see the dark undertones associated with their performance. Instead of being ideal images of the lamb, these children are a herd of lambs blindly following their leaders, leaders who can teach falsehoods. Thus, Blake uses the second “Holy Thursday” to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that these children are indicative of a much darker part of childhood, a childhood robbed of its innocence. In “Holy Thursday,” the reader is reintroduced to these children. Here, instead of participating in a lavish and false show, the children are living their everyday lives, lives that their benefactors hope to shield themselves from. Blake urges the benefactors and all of humanity to confront the ugly truth of the lives of these children in Songs of Innocence. In Songs of Experience, he forces them to confront the reality by conveying it through his poem.

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.

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?

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.

Blake’s Songs of Experience, especially Holy Thursday and The Human Abstract, shares a same spirit with one of China’s oldest philosophical work, Laotse’s Tao Te Ching. They both advocate that the society should follow nature. Furthermore, they both condemn the process of categorization, and the proposers of it, the institutions and industrialization in Blake’s version and the society and the ruler in Laotse’s version.

As we discussed in class today, Blake views charity and all forms of institutions to be hypocritical and the existence of poverty as sins, not matter what they do to relieve poverty. This inclination becomes more obvious in 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” (42). In these sentences, Blake challenges the common categorization of noble and inferiority. To him, pity would be unnecessary if we don’t invent the concept of poverty. And the present of mercy is a hypocritical means because it grows on the misfortune of other.

Blake’s theory reminds me of Laotse immediately. Laotse, who views nature as only proper way, dislikes the categorization of good and bad at his time either. In his Tao Te Ching, he expresses similar opinions: “When knowledge and cleverness appeared, Great hypocrisy followed in its wake. When the six relationships no longer lived at peace, [T]here was (praise of) “kind parents” and “filial sons.”” He believes that all good features, which are praised by the society at his time, exist because the gap and inequality makes contrary possible.

Though both of them are viewed as geniuses who speak to the later generations, their theories appeared in time of change. Blake’s resentment towards all forms of institutions was accelerated and magnified by the outstanding effect of Britain’s industrialization. The coming to power of capitalism and industrialization caused a huge income gap. Similarly, Laotse’s time, around 5th to 4th century BCE, was characterized by the emerging centralized state power and social hierarchy, first time in Chinese history.  However, the future developments of these two theories are quite different. Blake’s poetry, though has the characteristics of religion, is studied more in English class. On the contrary, developing from Tao Te Ching, Laotse’s theory transforms into one of China’s major religions, Taoism.

The translation of Tao Te Ching is from Yutang Lin’s The Wisdom of Laotse. Most of the theories of Laotse are from my high school History and Chinese class.