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The Essence of Childhood in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

by Mallory Sweeney

Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee

-William Blake, Songs of Innocence, “Infant Joy”

When faced with a screaming child, or more specifically, when holding one on your hip–one might resort to perhaps some of the most ridiculous (however, creative) measures of pacification.  I was in this situation not that long ago, but even more memorably, one particularly chilly spring evening as a sophomore in high school.  The tot in question: my music teacher’s little girl.  The crying had lasted for about three hours straight.  I, being the ever resourceful babysitter, had tried a myriad of calming methods; hot bath, stuffed animals, even a little singing bolstered by some mediocre piano.  But the bawls continued, until I, in a moment of desperation, grabbed the first book I saw strewn across my neglected homework.  It was a volume of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience–I was supposed to write an essay comparing “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”–an assignment familiar to many budding young English scholars.  Ironically, I began with “Infant Joy,” and more surprisingly, after a few more poems, the tears stopped and she was lulled to sleep, looking, in those moments, like a perfect angel.  Blake’s verses had transcended time to save my sanity.

I more recently encountered the collection in a children’s literature class which blended the works of several authors with concepts of child psychology and developmental studies.  I learned that what had been my last hope that unforgettable night, were Blake’s exploration and expression of the duality of childhood.  It was a true portrayal of both the innocence and experience of a child’s psyche–the idea of the child screaming at one moment and then being the epitome of sweetness the next.  Even today, we can see in the verses a reflection of the little hands that cover the walls with crayon graffiti, but are still eager for apologetic hugs.  Blake accomplishes this through Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience –not only by often writing in a child-like voice, but also by fashioning the verses so they specifically speak to the child and the child’s situation–namely, the experience of growing up.

Writing in London at the end of the eighteenth century into the beginning of the nineteenth, Blake’s ideas and conceptions were not always popular with his contemporaries.  Strongly opposed to organized religion, Blake tended to favor the cultivation of one’s personal spirituality–a thought which permeates his poetry.  Blake’s vision of good and evil could be understood that there was a world in which God and the Devil could co-exist and that which is often construed as ” evil” is more of a creative forcean impulse.  From this, Blake split the child conscience into two grounds: the “Apollonian” and the ” Dionysian,” deriving from the respective Olympian patrons of light and knowledge and wine and chaos.  But all scholarly interpretation aside, the poems can be viewed as an almost, sophisticated collection of nursery rhymes–accessible to children and entertaining at the same time.  In “Nurse’s Song” for example, a caregiver expresses her delight at her well-behaved children, exhausted from a day of play:

  When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And every thing else is still

The lines are cheerful and a child easily can recognize the positivism–laughter, images of greenery, and a beating heart.  Yet the message is a bit more complex: kids, be safe–someone is almost always worrying about you in some capacity.

Although often published and read as a collection, the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were actually composed five years apart, the former in 1789 with the latter following in 1794.  The parallels between the connections are undeniable, with the most famous being “The Lamb” of innocence and “The Tyger” in experience.  In “The Tyger” we see the violent undertones of one of God’s more potent creations, and Blake even asks:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

There are both curiosities in the staccato lines as well as apprehension at the fearful symmetry of the perfection of creation.  This idea connects to Blake’s belief that all human life begins happy and free, but society eventually channels us into a form and puts restrictions on us–more specifically on children.    Any child naturally gravitates toward the pleasurable, but in order to fit into the construct of society we have created we must put restrictions on them: “Don’t hit! You must walk! No talking, Not now, You can’t. . .” and so on.  It is thus that the darker elements emerge in Blake’s poetry, especially through religion’s failure to account for the consistent presence of suffering and evil in the world.  It is perhaps these poems which I, to this day, find the most interesting and would potentially argue are not entirely for children.  In “London” from Songs of Experience Blake paints the city’s crowded streets full of hunger, prostitution, and with the degradation of a bleak human condition.  Even in poem “The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Innocence) we see a child forgotten by society, literally sold into a dangerous profession, as was sometimes the case in Blake’s lifetime:

  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, and in soot I sleep

The dark, tainted world of this child evokes pathos in the reader and from a modern vantage point, brings images of children today starving and living as refugees to mind.  Blake’s moral in the poem turns out to be the promise of a good after-life if one serves well in his (potentially short) present life: “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” ” The Chimney Sweeper” serves as an eternal reminder then, that there is real danger and the world can be cruel even to its innocents.

Not all of Blake’s poems included in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience would be suitable to be read directly to children, but many do have a lullaby-like quality with a lullaby message: the promise of a better tomorrow when you awake.  I have found the poems endearing on many occasionsand not just when I am using them to calm the children I am babysitting.  Blake speaks to the restlessness of human nature–the idea of growing-up but not growing-old–and the constant desire of a “want” that extends beyond the basics of human survival.  Perhaps this is why I, as a soon-to-graduate college senior, have once again found comfort in the Songs, as they will forever sing of a future, even to those most imbued with uncertainty.