Tag Archive: Songs of Innocence


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.

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.

songsie.z.p13.100

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.

songsie.z.p12.100

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.

songsie.z.p26.100

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.

Blake_echoing_green

You are what’s fallen from those fatal boughs.

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

Blake_Little_Boy_lost

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.

william_blake_frontispiece_songs_of_innocence

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. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242300&gt;.

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:

http://www.english.uga.edu/wblake/SONGS/begin/begin1.html

 

 

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.

Blake and Wonderland

Rifle through Songs of Innocence and you’ll discern both a literary and artistic analog in the well-known children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Though written some tens of years apart, the former in 1785 and the latter in 1865, one encounters undeniable parallels in both works. These similarities vary from the more obvious, such as each texts’ accompaniment by engraved fascimiles or illustrations—the inclusion of which is necessary in making the work comprehensible and less cryptic—to the more complex, entering the commentative realm. Carroll, based on his incorporation of the imaginative, particular thematic elements, and critical analysis and allegory, is unarguably a contemporary of William Blake and, by Blakean definition, an exhibitor of Poetic Genius. Carroll evidently turned to Blake as a source of inspiration and possibly even reinforcement as he embarked on a seemingly controversial and unorthodox literary and artistic journey, weaving the vividly eccentric, or at least seemingly so, account of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

 

Moravian Motherhood

I find it quite ironic that Moravian spirituality centralized sexual experimentation, most especially during the Sifting Time, while simultaneously placing much emphasis on female figures, principally the mother,and “aiming to become ever more childlike and simple” (Podmore, 132). While it is obvious that sexual desire and passion precede motherhood and that these two feelings enter the vein of childhood during the end stages of innocence, it baffles me that these wholly divergent facets are upheld and revered so equitably. Herein lies an intermingling of contraries that perhaps aims to reach followers at different stages of development, maturity, and, dare I say, corruption (i.e. experience). Perhaps this is the Moravian Church’s goal: to provide such a broad and accepting platform and appeal to a larger audience that otherwise may have been ousted or stigmatized by other churches whose dogmas were strict and were what we may in modern times deem “stringently conservative.” I’d like to focus for a moment more intently on the importance of female figures and the influence of the mother. Blake’s very upbringing echoes this aspect of the Moravian religion in that his mother, Catherine Wright Armitage, was a faithful Moravian along with her first husband, Thomas Armitage. Blake’s connection to the religion and its values is tied to the fact that a devout Moravian reared him. The mimetic quality of a child’s religious and moral beliefs during the period of innocence definitely exposed Blake to the sexually explicit and viscerally energetic Moravian religion. His transition to form his own religion or, arguably, a religion-less world in which each individual seeks his/ own Poetic Genius through artistic expression and self exploration, fastens Blake firmly in the world of Experience described in his “Songs.”

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?

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.