Contrary States In Blake

’s “Songs Of Innocenc Essay, Research Paper

William Blake s Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a unique collection of poetry in which the poet looks at similar events or situations from the viewpoints of both the innocent (I) and experienced (E) individual. Through these poems, Blake examines how a person s experiences shape the way he/she sees the world and reacts to various situations. These contrasting states are reflected in The Chimney Sweeper (I and E), and the Nurse s Song (I and E). In order to attempt to understand what Blake is trying to achieve through these poems it is necessary to look at what he meant by innocence and experience. Innocence is often misunderstood as merely a lack of knowledge. The innocent point of view does lack some of the worldly knowledge that is present in the Songs of Experience but it should not be confused with ignorance. While ignorance tends to be synonymous with stupidity, innocence tends to be associated with a child-like outlook on life. The innocent person is unspoiled by the cruelties and harshness of the world although definitely not immune to them, and often sees the beauty in things and events that an experienced person may find depressing and corrupt. Perhaps one of the main characteristics is the innocent character s hope, sometimes even in times of great difficulty. This may take the form of bearing hardships by looking forward to a future reward as in The Chimney Sweeper (I). The experienced point of view is that of an individual who has a more educated and generally disenchanted view of the world and in particular of the situation in which they exist. Blake does not label this view as right or wrong, or even good or bad it is merely a different outlook on life. Experienced characters tend to be more aware of social injustices and their causes: Is this a holy thing to see, / In a rich and fruitful land, / Babes reducd to misery, / Fed with cold and usurous hand? (E Holy Thursday 3-4). As the state of innocence generally contains a sense of hope, the state of experience is generally devoid of all hope and idealism.The Chimney Sweeper (E) opens with a pitiful image of a weeping young boy. The narrator sees hypocrisy in his parents going to church and making a claim to Christianity and goodness when they have abandoned him to live a short life of poverty and misery. His parents are portrayed as cruel people for having placed him in his job and for thinking it an all right thing to do because he doesn t always appear to be depressed and melancholy: because I am happy, & dance & sing, /They think they have done me no harm. (9-10) The Chimney Sweeper (I) is based upon the same situation as the experience poem, but with a different approach. This poem is a little bit different from the other songs of innocence in that the narrator is speaking from the experienced point of view. The innocence is in the younger boy, Tom Dacre. Tom had been crying because he had his curled hair shaved off for his job. He is comforted when the narrator tells him not to be upset over it because when your head s bare, / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair. (7-8). While this explanation does not make a whole lot of sense, it does have a calming effect on Tom who is quite young and not very logically sound at this point in his life. This calming effect carries him on to nighttime when he has his dream of heaven. The dream is about being released from the death that he lives as a chimneysweeper into the eternal joy and abundant life that is found in the after-life. The last line of the poem: So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (24), is both a message of hope in keeping with the innocent perspective, and a bold statement that is meant to make the reader think about the motives behind writing this line. The narrator seems to be stepping outside of himself to deliver this little proverb-like lesson. It is most likely a line he has heard over and over again from others to keep him from complaining about the horrendous working conditions. The reader can not help feeling sympathetic for the boy because it is obvious that although the idea of heaven is definitely a note of hope for the future, it certainly does not do anything to improve his working conditions and the burdens he faces each day.

Both versions of The Chimney Sweeper deal with the same issue of the terrible conditions in which these children lived. They do it in different ways however, by using the two different states of innocence and experience to invoke different responses and feelings from the reader. The innocent version develops more personality in the characters to accentuate the child-like attributes of the children, most notably Tom. The experience poem plays upon pathetic and pitiful images to disturb the reader and appeal to the emotions.While the two chimneysweeper poems shared similar themes, the Nurse s Song poems are told from two very different perspectives which cause dramatic contrasts in the way they each see the same event, i.e. nurse calls in children who were playing outside – children want to play longer. Blake reveals through the nurse that innocence is not reserved for children alone although the children in this poem are meant to be innocent as well. One can not help seeing the nurse as a kind, caring, mother figure. She has a very peaceful attitude: My heart is at rest within my breast (3), and she obviously cares a lot for the children, even calling them her own: Then come home my children (5). She allows them to play outside a bit longer because she enjoys their laughter, and probably wishes she could be out playing as well. The nurse from Songs of Experience reacts quite differently. She seems to be obsessed with growing older and her wasted youth. Whether she had a particularly terrible childhood or she regrets not accomplishing more in her youth, she does not seem to approve of the children playing: Your spring & your day, are wasted in play (7). Most likely her bitterness is a result of her realizing the briefness of life, and facing the fear of death. In the last line of the poem she talks about the children s winter and night in disguise (8). By this she means that old age and death are not even something they think about or expect to happen, but that it is not too far away. William Blake s Songs of Innocence and of Experience are effective in showing how similar people, things, or situations can be viewed in an entirely different way by two different people. While most people probably prefer the innocent state of mind, it is not Blake s intention to morally judge innocence and experience. They are written instead as a study into the struggle that exists in the human soul to reconcile these two states and to study the influence that these states have on how we see our world. He has definitely succeeded in portraying these contrary states. THE CONTRARY STATES IN BLAKE S SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE By Thomas HickeyEng. 231.6University of Saskatchewan For Prof. A.J. HardingOct. 9/98


Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Matlak, Mellor 277-304 Matlak, Richard E., Anne K. Mellor, eds. British Literature 1780-1830. Toronto, Ont.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996


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