Tag Archive: Songs of Innocence and Experience

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.

“The Clod & the Pebble” lacks an obvious contrary in the Songs of Innocence, itself containing its own internal dissonance and not requiring a counterpoint. The tension is that between the malleable and the rigid, self-abnegation and assertion of the will, acquiescence and defiance.  The clod is flexible and yielding and thereby subsumed into a greater than singular experience, i.e. mashed back into the earth by hooves; the pebble is intransigent, stalwart in the midst of flux, i.e. the brook, and, as such, retains its singularity. The two become representative of the dialectical tension between self-effacing (“seeketh not Itself to please”) and egocentric love (“seeketh only Self to please, / To bind another to its delight”). In the latter, love can only regard the beloved as object, something to be possessed; in the former, all obligation to the self and identity apart from the beloved is dispensed with. Each is given equal heft in the poem, with the first and third stanzas nearly mirror opposites of each other syntactically as well as in message. “The Clod & the Pebble” seeks to reconcile antimony by way way of a negotiated dialectic–operating in a manner synecdochic for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience proper–and irony. That a dirt clod and a pebble are taken as metaphors for differing types of affection is something of a comic undercutting for such a traditionally loftily-treated subject. The usual rhetoric trappings are cast aside in favor for simple particulars. The pastoral Songs of Innocence satirize the more tragic Songs of Experience and vice versa, illustrating what are, for Blake, the contrary, inevitably interwoven states of the soul. This is not deadlock, rather more akin to cross-pollination, as the poetic spirit unfurls itself in fighting, in reconciling such tensions.

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.

And the EARTH said, “No”

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.