Songs of Innocence and Experience incapsulate Blake as visionary, revolutionary and Romantic. Often his peers regarded him as madman and yet now he is read as surprisingly modern, accepted widely on university and school courses as a crucial poet of the Romantic period. Often the poems in this work come in pairs, so that innocence and experience can be compared. The accompanying printed colour designs from Blake’s few original copies use his complex system of symbolism to suggest further readings of the poems in an unusual pairing of visual and poetic art.
Blake idealises a state of innocence, and finds it in early childhood (see his influence from Rousseau ‘everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Creator’) but also wants to find a state of innocence out of and after experience. Innocence, for Blake, is therefore a state of mind rather than a period of life.
Read on for the poems.
Holy Thursday (Songs of Innocence)
‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green,
Grey headed beadles walk’d before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.
Oh what a multitude they seem’d, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience)
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.
For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
Blake’s criticisms of an institutional, repressive church that are implicit in the first Innocence poem become explicit in the Experience one. The ‘wise guardians of the poor’ is an ironic description of benefactors who forced their dependents into gratitude and who provided very basic education. The regimented pairs of children in the first poem (emphasised by repetition in the illustration), far from the freedoms of a true state of innocence, are reduced to misery in the second; unlike the eternal spring of Paradise Lost in Eden (a traditional pastoral site of innocence, in its pre-lapsarian state) they now suffer an ‘eternal winter’. The absence of sun, a symbol of heavenly power linked to the seasonal imagery, shows a lack of spiritual warmth in the children’s lives.
The last line of the Innocence poem makes reference to Hebrews 13.2:
‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.’