I included William Blake’s poem sequence, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, for how powerful these poems are.
While his poetry may have a nursery–song like quality about them, his subject matter – the exploitation of children by a cruel, industrial society – is for adults. Now, if you haven’t done so, read pages 1221-1222 in The Norton Anthology, which give an overview of how Blake structured Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
In this post I want to focus on the introductory poems for each section of Blake’s poem sequence. (Later posts will explore the characters that Blake introduces to us, such as the chimney sweep, the lamb, and the tyger.)
These opening poems illustrate what Blake refers to as the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”: each sets forth the tone of their respective section of the poem sequence. The theme that unites both of The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is that childhood, which offers a great entrance into exploring Blake’s work.
“On a cloud I saw a child”
Blake is often grouped with the poetic movement known as Romanticism , which included such literary giants as William Wordsworth, Samuel T. Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Shelley. For the sake of our discussion of Blake’s work, I want to focus on how childhood was seen by the Romantics as a sacred, pure, and innocence moment in one’s life.
Wordsworth writes about the superiority of the child’s innocence over the worldliness of the adult: “Oh dearest, dearest Boy! My heart/ For better lore could seldom yearn/ Could I but teach the hundredth part/ Of what from thee I learn” (“Anecdote for Father”). As Wordsworth captures here, it is the world that must learn from the child. Part of this praise of childhood was a rejection of society. That is, when the Romantics look at the civilized world around them they saw greed, cruelty, perversion, and the destruction of nature. (The period that most Romantic poets wrote during was 1750-1830, which corresponds to the rise of Industrial Europe.)
Now most Romantic poets wrote about escaping from society into the natural, wild world. Again, Wordsworth captures this sentiment of Romanticism in his poem “The World is too much with us” (page 1363 in The Norton): here Wordsworth finds our mundane lives spent at earning money and spending it on material possessions as draining our spiritual energies (“The world is too much with us, late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” [1-2]). (By the way, can you identify what type of poem “The World” is?) Like most Romantics, Wordsworth wanted to flee from the corruption he saw surrounding him.
(Wordsworth is know for taking very long walking tours of the Welsh countryside.)
Here’s where Blake departs from other Romantic poets. Rather than ignoring the corruption he saw in London and focusing on the beauty of Nature, Blake made the subject of his poems the destruction of innocence he witnessed on the streets of his city.Rather than simply idealize childhood as a sacred moment, Blake wrote about how children were losing their innocence at the hands of the adult world. Blake gives the reader the voice of a child abandoned and sold by his father to work, and presumable suffer an early death, as a chimney sweep. The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience forces the reader to see the inhumanity that is part of society.
The Piper vs. The Bard
In his poem sequence, Blake offers two contrasting roles he takes on as a poet – that of the Piper and that of the Bard. Let’s start with the Piper. In the introduction to Songs of Innocence, Blake gives us the voice of the Piper.
The character of the Piper is one common to pastoral poetry, which stretches back to ancient Greece and often dealt with idealized, care-free country life. From the first line of the poem, Blake associates the Piper with nature, for we find him in “valleys wild.” As he walks through the valleys “piping songs of pleasant glee,” the Piper sees a child in a cloud who asks him to “pipe a song about a Lamb.”(Blake might seem here a bit heavy-handed with his use of the Lamb, the Christian symbol of purity and innocence but also sacrifice.) Notably, the poem presents God not as a stern father-figure looking down in harsh judgement but rather as a child asking for a song.
The poem conveys the theme of childhood and its innocence through its simplicity. The wording of the poem seems like that of a child’s: words are often repeated, such as pipe, sing, happy, and hear; and the description of the Piper’s song is fundamental – it’s a “happy” song. In the second to last stanza of the poem, the child tells the Piper to write down his songs “that all may read.” The Piper then plucks a “hollow reed” and with it “made a rural pen.” Blake’s referring to the reed as a “rural pen” suggests his poetry to be natural, to be linked to the innocence of a child. Even the intended readers for these poems are children (“And I wrote happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.” [19-20])
In stark contrast to the child-like quality of the Piper’s voice, Blake opens Songs of Experience with the voice of the Bard, an archaic word meaning poet. The poem opens with the Bard commanding all to take heed: “Hear the voice of the Bard!”
Unlike the Piper who gently writes his songs so that all may read, the Bard appears much more authoritative, demanding the Earth rise “from the slumberous mass.” Notice that like the Piper, the Bard is also Divinely inspired for his “ears have heard,/ The Holy Word” (3-4). However, whereas the “child in the cloud” ask for the Piper for “happy songs” about innocence, the mission of the Bard is to threaten the “the lapsed Soul” “weeping in the evening dew” to pay attention to his message.
Another significant point of contrast between the Piper and the Bard is that of their audience. Now I mentioned that the Piper’s songs are intended for children, who are in a state of innocence. However, the Bard’s audience that of a humanity in a fallen or corrupt state. The entire poem develops the metaphor of the Bard’s voice acting as the sun rising and waking humanity from its sinful condition. The Bard is not here to offer comfort but rather announces a warning to humanity and to present a picture of its sins. There is an threatening quality to the Bard’s message. His is the voice that will speak about the iniquity of the world.