Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake

Source of book: I own a pocket-sized Folio Society hardback of this book, a delightful gift from my thoughtful wife.

For me, Blake is indelibly associated with images. Images created both by words and by illustration. In addition to his poetry, Blake was also a master of the the visual arts. I am fond of his illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which grace my shelves. I also was thrilled when the Huntington Library exhibited his exceptional artwork for Paradise Lost. His drawings have an unmistakable style, ethereal, fantastic, and deeply disconcerting - like his poetry. Perhaps no work of his is more integrally connected in this way than the matched pair, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

These works were originally published with Blake’s illustrations and handwriting, with each version slightly different, essentially a unique work of art. My book reproduces the copy owned by King’s College, Cambridge.

In form, and on their surface, the Songs are essentially children’s poetry. Simple, childlike, and firmly in the tradition of earlier works of their sort. However, like all things Blake, they subvert the genre, and are, like the old fairy tales, full of meaning for adults.

Blake was one of the English Romantic poets, a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and shared some of their concerns with the injustice of society, the hypocrisy of the established church, and a reverence for the “natural.” Blake was particularly focused on social ills much the same way that Charles Dickens would be a generation later.

Although some of his poems are often interpreted as advocating for “free love,” he was rather devoted to his wife, despite the inauspicious start to their marriage. Blake was on the rebound from a failed relationship. (The lady in question refused his proposal.) Blake asked Catherine, who was smitten with him, if she pitied him. When she responded in the affirmative, he stated that, “then I love you.” Their marriage lasted 45 years until his death. She was illiterate at marriage, signing her name to the certificate with an “x,” but she eventually became his creative partner and vital assistant.

While some of his beliefs were a bit unorthodox, and he has a reputation in certain circles of being hostile to religion, he actually held the Bible in reverence, and was devout in his own way. His objection was to what he saw as the wrong focus of organized religion on the suppression of desire and love and its excusal of oppression of the poor. I am hard pressed to say he was entirely wrong in this. Rather, he adeptly identifies a constant temptation of the church throughout history to support the status quo and those in power regardless of any true sense of right and wrong.

Blake conceived Innocence and Experience as two “contrary states of the human soul.” Thus, each is meant to complement the other. I decided to read them together for that reason.

The introductions to each set forth Blake’s vision:

Introduction to Songs of Innocence (aka Piping Down the Valleys Wild)

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

'Pipe a song about a lamb!'
So I piped with merry cheer.
'Piper, pipe that song again.'
So I piped: he wept to hear.

'Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer.'
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

'Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.'
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

I loved this one from the first time I read it in a children’s collection of poems.

The introduction to Experience has a completely different mood:

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

"O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

"Turn away no more;
Why wilt thout turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day."   

Innocence, despite its seemingly optimistic mood, is filled with poems that, like this one, have a surface innocence and happiness, but that have a nagging undercurrent that is just a slight bit dark. For example, one of my favorites from Innocence, The Echoing Green, reads as follows:

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.’

Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.

The image of the village green recurs later in the volume in the Nurse’s Song, which as a direct parallel in Experience by the same name. In the former, the children resist the call to come to bed, but in the latter, the nurse herself reflects bitterly on her loss of youth. The cavorting itself loses its luster in its very meaninglessness.

Like these, many of the poems have direct parallels in the companion volume. The most famous, perhaps, is Little Boy Lost and Little Boy Found from Innocence, which are paired with Little Girl Lost and Little Girl Found in Experience. The contrast of mood is striking, with the boy simply lost in the wood and aided by an angel. The girl, however, is surrounded by lions and tigers, which both protect and menace her.

Blake doubles down the imagery in a further pair with the concept of the lost children. However, both of these poems are found in Experience, and both demonstrate Blake’s vision of what the organized church believes are the ultimate in being “lost” in the spiritual sense. A “little boy” dares to question religious orthodoxy, and is burned at the stake. A “little girl” has a (vaguely implied) sexual encounter with her love, and faces the scorn of her father. I couldn’t help but find a parallel in our modern times in certain circles, where there is no worse crime for a young man than to question authority, and certainly no worse crime for a young woman than to sully her “virtue.” The values of the Nineteenth Century are alive and well in some places.

Another disturbing parallel is The Chimney Sweep from Innocence and its companion in Experience. Robert Pinsky wrote an interesting analysis of these poems on a while back, and also let an illuminating discussion in the comments. I found it interesting that the version in Innocence is one of the most disturbing poems I have ever read. Blake exposes all of the trite homilies we spout about injustice to the light, showing the utter hollowness of the promise of “just be good and everything will be fine.”

From Innocence:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

And from Experience:

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! 'weep! weep!' in notes of woe!
'Where are thy father and mother? Say!' -
'They are both gone up to the church to pray.

'Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

'And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.'

Another pair that is telling is The Divine Image and its counterpart The Human Abstract. The former portrays the common grace poured out on all men, the image of God that remains in fallen humanity.

    The Divine Image (from Innocence)

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

The latter cites the same virtues, Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love; but they are all twisted and torn by human envy, fear, and cruelty.

The Human Abstract (from Experience)

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.

And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the grounds with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.                        

Blake puts an uncomfortable finger on a sore spot with so many of these poems, which still seem relevant today.    

Not all of the poems are in matched sets. The Tyger is sufficiently well known, although it is not always associated with its location in Experience. If anything, the image of the tiger runs throughout that latter collection, sometimes as a source of fear, sometimes as a source of wonder, but always mysterious and non-tame.

Likewise, the contrast and connection of self-focused love and other-focused love run throughout the collection. Blake is an early modernist in his idea that one cannot love others and loathe one’s self, but he also acknowledges that self-love is empty by itself. Both self-loathing and self-obsession begin and end at the same place. Love must look outward.

The Clod and the Pebble (from Experience)

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

I will close with a couple of favorites that stand alone rather than in combination. Or perhaps, they are a combination with each other, contrasting yet again the good of love and empathy with the empty results of self-focused anger and revenge.    

A Poison Tree (from Experience)

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
On Another’s Sorrow (from Innocence)

Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird's grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear --

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant's tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

1 comment:

  1. This is making me want to read some more Blake. And maybe read some more to the ducklings. Dash was obsessed with "The Tyger" when he was two. Then he wanted me to explain it to him. Literary symbolism and two-year-olds don't mix.