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Innocence and Experience: William Blake’s Concept of Contraries

In his attempt to communicate his essential divine vision, William Blake created a poetic world where images are realized in their individual contexts and the contexts are realized in the unique Imagination of the poet. Blake’s philosophy asserts, more than anything else, the contrariety of systems with regard to human soul and other objects of creation. In claiming “without contraries is no progression”, Blake anticipates the duality in human condition that the Twentieth Century philosopher Nietzsche conceptualizes as the Apollonean and the Dionysian aspects of existence. Nowhere is this conception more vividly realized than in Blake’s Songs of Innocence followed by Songs of Experience. Such an intention is clear from his title page that describes the songs as “showing the two contrary states of the human soul”.

The two books present contrary elements in a single design. The first part sets out an imaginative vision of the state of Innocence; the second shows how life challenges and corrupts it. To show the extent of this destruction, Blake places in the Songs of Experience certain poems which have their counterparts (often bearing same or related titles) in the “Songs of Innocence”. The “Songs of Innocence” does not define the simplicity of incomplete experience but symbolizes a state of “no experience”, something that Man could have possessed only prior to hi s Fall. The images william blakeare therefore, seen in a vision, “within a moment”. There is even a unique absence of metaphor which is, instead of being any poetic drawback, a clue to the unique structure of the songs. “Metaphor is not needed”, observes critic S. F. Bolt, “because there is no web of correspondence to be established and secured.”

In “The Introduction” to the Songs of Innocence the poet derives a spiritual inspiration from the “child on a cloud.

This simplicity of the heart pervades the whole of Songs of Innocence. However, in the “Introduction” to Songs of Experience, the setting is not so simple. Here an intellectual prophetic bard is presented as the speaking voice who envisions the post-lapsed earth in all her unpleasantness. The poems in the Songs of Experience are more powerful in being born of a deeper anguish. However, Blake sought some ultimate synthesis in which innocence might be wedded to experience, and goodness to knowledge. He reveals the possibility of such a state in the first poem of Songs of Experience, where he speaks with the voice of the bard and summons the fallen soul of Earth to some vast apocalypse:

O Earth, O Earth, return!

Arise from out the dewy grass…


The “break of day” is Blake’s symbol for the new life in which both innocence and experience are transformed, and the soul passes in its cycle to a fuller, more active life. Blake says in a note written on a page of The Four Zoas:

Unorganized Innocence: An Impossibility

Innocence dwells with wisdom, but never with Ignorance.

innocence and experience
[Infant Joy (Songs of innocence)]

In the poems “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” this awareness of contraries achieves a wider dimension. In the first poem, the scene of enunciation is correlated to the Biblical story of the angel’s prophesies of Chirst’s birth or even that of John the Baptist. A connection can also be made with the Old Testament tale of Abraham’s wife Sara who received such angelic visits. The simple joy of inception, together with that of creation is held in sharp contrast in the complimentary poem “infant Sorrow” in the Songs of Experience:

Into the dangerous world I leapt

…Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

The child is born out of its mother’s pain, accentuated by the misery that the father’s tears suggest. It is energetic enough to leap into the world, and though helpless and naked, it still has enough primal vitality to be fiendish, while the clouds refer to the swaddling bands that the child struggles against.

For Blake, therefore, the “good” is a passive quality which obeys reason whereas “evil” is an active agent of disruption. In Songs of Innocence, God is seen as the merciful father, and human beings are seen to enjoy equal rights and privileges. Blake did not restrict himself to matters of soul and divinity but extended his Imagination to include social life of man. The poem “The Chimney Sweeper” conveys an indictment of a society which throws the children into physical and spiritual slavery. Yet, when Tom, the chimney sweeper dreams of emancipation, he is comforted by the warmth of the angelic vision: “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm.” However, in the counterpart poem from Songs of Experience, there is no such reassurance. What startles as well as melts the reader’s heart is the realistic conclusion of the sweeper who says:chimney sweeper, blake's original illustration

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 make up a heaven of our misery.

This “God” is not the benevolent merciful Father but the wrathful Jehovah whom Blake conceives as Urizen. This contrast is clearly evident in the two poems “A Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract”. The former equates human potential with divinity with reference to the four virtues of “mercy”, “pity”, “peace” and “love”. On the other hand, “The Human Abstract” establishes the corruption which distorts these virtues. In the state of Innocence, life is governed by these powers rendering a secured completeness. In “The Human Abstract”, Blake shows in a bitter irony how these virtues can be distorted through hypocrisy and ignorance:

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor…

Blake recreates the myth of the tree of knowledge which is fashioned by man’s reason. It can only propagate falsehood and death instead of eternity.

The horror of experience is accentuated by the parallelism thus created. In “Nurse’s Song” in Songs of Innocence, Blake presents a symbolic image of carefree play when it is not spoiled by restrictive dictates. A magical world of playful mirth followed by peaceful sleep is presented. However, in its counterpart poem belonging to the Songs of Experience, the realm of experience is seen to encroach upon the freedom of the playful children, disrupting their innocent world of unbridled joy:

Your spring and your day are wasted in play

And your winter and night in disguise

The voice that now speaks does not belong to a caring heart but to a heart turned sour by age, envious of happiness which it can feel no more, eager to point out the menaces of the dark.

The first and the most fearful thing about experience is, therefore, the confinement of the free life of Imagination. Blake knew that experience is bought at a bitter price. In “The Echoing Green”, he tells how the children are happy and contented at play but in “The Garden of Love”, despite the similarity of setting and rhythm, he presents an ugly antithesis. The green is still there, but on it is a chapel with “Thou Shalt not” written over the door and the garden itself has changed: “And I saw it was filled with graves.” Blake conceives true innocence as something which has gained knowledge from such ugliness of life and has found an expanding strength in the unfettered life of the creative soul. He foresees this consummation beyond experience, possible only through passionate energy. The wrath which Blake found in Christ (a figure presented both as a “Tyger” and “Lamb”) symbolizes his concept of the divine spirit which breaks the bonds of restrictions and asserts itself against established conventions. This was how he envisioned to unite Innocence and Experience in some powerful synthesis. The images in “The Tyger” are presented as a sharp contrast to the corresponding poem “The Lamb” and leave an immediate overwhelming impression of an awful power lurking in darkness (of ignorance, repression and superstition). The question asked in the poem “The Lamb” (Who made thee?) is set against the ultimate realization “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

It is as if, when the lamb is threatened by experience, the tiger is needed to restore the world. However, the poem “The Tyger” is also a series of questions posed in anthropomorphic terms (shoulder, art, dread hand, hammer, chain, and anvil). The cumulative effect of this is to suggest the poetic conception of divinity in terms of doubtful interrogation. However, the ultimate impact is a recognition of the Tyger’s restorative potential. The pastoral charm of the valley of innocence must be set against a morbid graveyard, a dangerous wilderness or even the din and chaos of a city like London, to finally realize the contrariety and correlation of opposites. Only then can an attempt at synthesis be made which Blake so vehemently professed.

tyger and lamb

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