Songs of Innocence and of Experience contain William Blake’s best-known and most widely read works, including what is perhaps his most famous poem, The Tyger. The book, beautifully and delicately illustrated by Blake, has been vastly influential, determining, for example, the opening poems in William Butler Yeats’s book The Rose (1893), which contrasts “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” with “The Sad Shepherd:” (The second Song of Innocence is called “The Shepherd.”) The contrast, and the very idea of the song, harkens back to Blake.
The title itself has had an enormous effect on ways of thinking about poetry. Songs of Innocence—the title of the first part, which appeared by itself in 1789— might seem a fairly innocuous title, like the famous Songs and Sonnets which begin the full title of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557; Shakespeare has Falstaff refer to it that way). But the idea of Songs of Experience (added to the Songs of Innocence in a new volume in 1794) was peculiarly modern; it led eventually to such titles as Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballad of ill-gotten gains” in The Threepenny Opera (1928), but it is more radical still because of the difficulty of understanding the idea that there should be such things as songs of experience. The idea of the songs is something like the idea of innocence. Experience does not sing (although sorrow might), since the idea of experience might be that it no longer believes in song.
But for Blake there is more than irony in the title. That all things should be in some sense poetic—should long for poetic expression, long to sing—is one of his central tenets. The songs of experience also indicate the possibility that in experience there is still some fundamentally saving innocence that may not recognize itself but is still there, still attracted toward the love and life which for Blake constituted holiness. Conversely, the idea of Songs of Experience might mean that songs themselves are not the sure symptom and symbol and expression of incorruptibility we might wish them to be, so that the songs of innocence do not protect or immunize their singers from corruption as we would wish them to do.
Another way to put this point is to say that the Songs of Innocence, even when they appeared alone, are far from being expressions of naïveté, later corrected by an older Blake with the Songs of Experience. The very idea of songs of innocence is an idea that comes from a no longer-innocent perspective. This is clear throughout the Songs of Innocence, for example in “The Nurse’s Song” and “The Little Black Boy.” As these poems indicate, the truly innocent do not recognize their innocence because, by the very nature of that innocence, they have had no experience to the contrary. But the title alone of the volume is enough to make the point. Songs of Innocence as a title means, in one respect, “songs of those still innocent,” though innocence will never last long. To recognize innocence, as the title and entitler does, is to recognize that it is fleeting.
This can be seen in the introductory poem. Some of the poems in “Innocence” and “Experience” form obvious diptyches, and we consider other paired poems in the two parts of the book elsewhere (see the pairings of the two versions of “The Nurse’s Song,” “The Chimney-Sweeper,” “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”). Here we will take the inaugural poems as exemplary. Songs of Innocence opens with this subtle introductory verse:
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 a merry chear.
“Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.
“Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy chear:”
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 vanish’d from my sight,
And I pluck’d a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs,
Every child may joy to hear.
The speaker meets the laughing angelic child, and both the songs he pipes—“songs of pleasant glee”— and the child’s response seem to speak for purity and innocence. The child wants to hear more from the piper and then weeps to hear the song. Why does he weep? The piper believes that it is “with joy,” but even if it is, the joy seems to be the joy of relief or return to innocence from a more experienced, bleaker perspective, not the simple, innocent joy that one would expect a child in the Songs of Innocence to exemplify.
The child asks the piper to write the songs down, and then he vanishes. Why? Partly perhaps because he grows up; at any rate, he cannot sustain the presence of eternal innocence. He asks the piper to write the songs down in order to record what otherwise would not last: childhood glee is ephemeral. Writing the songs down requires something other than the innocent piping that the speaker delights in. It requires the hollow reed and, as well, that the clear water be stained. Every child may hear these songs read aloud—the children cannot read, but the piper can, and so, too, can those the child considers: “sit thee down and write / In a book, that all may read . . .” Those who read will therefore read aloud to those who can only hear but will rejoice to hear these songs. But their hearing, like the piper’s writing, is mediated by the less-innocent position of the writers and performers of the song. Those who can read or write are no longer innocent, since the innocent children hear the songs, rather than reading them. And the angelic child who vanishes is the most knowledgeable of all: What he knows is that a child’s form is no guarantor of protection from experience. The weeping child shows both the value and the fragility of innocence.
This introductory song has a pendant, or counterweight, in the introductory song to the Songs of Experience. There the singer is not the piper but the “bard / Who present, past, & future sees.” He has seen God walking in the Garden of Eden after the Fall of humanity, and therefore the Songs of Experience begin with an account of the end of innocence with the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The bard is the one who calls upon the fallen earth to return to what she was before she fell. That return is not a return to ignorance but to hope and assurance of life, rather than the perpetual fear she now lives under. The beautiful last stanza assimilates experience (represented as nighttime) to the possibilities of a transcendent innocence that understands, accepts, and transmutes sin, sorrow, and experience itself:
“Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat’ry shore,
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.’
The simplest way to read this, and one consonant with those interpretations of Blake that see the “starry floor” and “wat’ry shore” as cause for regret and as symbols of psychic and spiritual oppression, is to take them instead as beautiful forerunners of the day that is coming. It is night, perhaps, but at night the stars and waters are a token of the coming of the morning.
“Earth’s Answer” (to this appeal) in the next poem in the Songs of Experience shows the grim reading of the starry floor as a place of “starry jealousy,” and the “wat’ry shore” as a prison. But even that idea of them can be read in the more properly Blakean style: that even jealousy and prison can be transmogrified in the imagination into something beautiful, starlike and shorelike. Earth’s answer shows the extent to which the soul is oppressed by experience. But the very fact that she must make an answer—that the introduction to the Songs of Experience by itself does not offset the introduction to the Songs of Innocence—shows both the deeper, more ubiquitous nature of experience and the fact that the negativity of experience is in some sense false and contrived, preserved by the earth’s insistent fearfulness rather than overcome through the spirit of hope.
Bloom, Harold. Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.
———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
Damrosch, Leopold. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Erdmann, David V. Blake, Prophet against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Fry, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake, with Selections from His Poems and Other Writings. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Desire Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 16 (1982–83): 156–165.
Raine, Kathleen. Blake and Antiquity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Thompson, E. P. Witness against the Beast: William Blake and The Moral Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.