Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Analysis of poetry is hard, not because of the difficulty of interpretation, but because of the amount of different interpretations that can be gained from a single poem. Blake’s poetry is no different in this regard: while we can make some assumptions on his purpose with reference to his known life and religious faith, it’s impossible to be 100% sure of the meaning of his poetry. And this is exactly why I do enjoy analyzing poetry – it’s very interesting to see the different interpretations and perspectives each person may have for a single piece of writing.

Infant Joy, painting and poem by William Blake (1789). In the public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Innocence, and experience – two supposed opposites of the human state, yet so interwoven. Innocence is the lack of experience, and thus cannot exist without it; if there is no distinction in levels of experience, then innocence would not be possible. On the other hand, innocence is the base standard, the comparison level to which the different levels of  experience are held to. Although Blake separates the two sections of his book with a clear distinction, there are many parallels and explicit similarities between poems of both sections. Take for example, the two poems, “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” – while both are very different in form and structure, there is a clear parallel between them, up to the point where even the colours of the art surrounding the poems share close links and draw from the same basic shades. “The Chimney Sweeper in the Songs of Innocence section shares the exact same name with its counterpart in the Songs of Experience section, and both share the same themes of despair and suffering (though the former does end on a much more optimistic note). Finally, there is “A Divine Image” near the end of Experience, which although was likely a later addition, is quite possibly meant to contrast with “The Divine Image” from Innocence.

The constant reference to children is interesting. Interesting not because of their presence in every poem (since they’re about innocence anyways, so it’s not surprising), but because of their portrayal in both the visual art and the poetry. Throughout Innocence, children are often painted with bright colours amidst fantasy-like settings: in “Infant Joy”, the titular infant is shown surrounded by family members inside the flower of a giant twisted plant. In contrast, “Infant Sorrow” shows a child in a much more believable place – a well-furnished indoors room, adorned with many artificial drapes and cloths. This is seen in other areas as well – the cover art of Songs of Innocence shows a woman and several children under a mesmerizing sky and a towering tree, while the art for Songs of Experience is painted with drab, urban colours and features the indoor area of a building reminiscent of a mortuary. Innocence equals fantasy, and therefore in a way, fake, and experience, the suffering, pain, and grief is the true reality of the world. It does not seem as though Blake is painting innocence and experience as contrary states of the human soul – instead, it seems like he is showing the falseness of innocence and the harsh reality that is experience.

One thought on “Songs of Innocence and of Experience

  1. I definitely agree with the first sentence of this blog post; poetry is hard because it can be interpreted in so many different ways! I also apologize for commenting on this post only now….Anyhow, I thought that your interpretation of these poems was very insightful and thought provoking. Before the seminar, I didn’t notice that the colour scheme for the plates of “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” were the same. You also mentioned in seminar that the colours used in “Infant Joy” were brighter and more colourful, making the picture seem more happy and dream-like in quality. In the plate for “Infant Sorrow”, on the other hand, you said the colours were more dreary, lacking the warm highlights present in the companion poem’s plate, making the picture seem more harsh, more bounded by the limits of our reality. Thus, I can see how it is possible to say that, in Blake’s poems, innocence seems more imaginary, like something that gradually fades over time as one comes to accept the ever present experience in their lives. After all, in the image for “Infant Sorrow”in Songs of Experience, shows an infant in a room, with a bed, drapes, and other mundane things that we see everyday, whereas, the poem in Songs of Innocence, “Infant Joy”, features an image of a child, their mother, and another person sitting inside a flower. Hence, experience seems more connected to reality and things that are continually present in our lives, whereas innocence seems to be something more farfetched and imaginary.
    However, by replacing the flowers and vines in the image for “Infant Joy” with clothes and drapes in the picture for “Infant Sorrow”, it seems as though nature is being replaced by that which is artificial and man-made. Thus, if this is the case, then innocence would be natural and experience would be fake. This seems to be supported by “The Human Abstract” and “The School-Boy” in Songs of Experience. In the “Human Abstract”, is seems as though Blake is describing a state of reason or experience that grows in people like a tree. The last stanza of this poem, Blake writes: “The Gods of the earth and sea, / Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree / But their search was in vain; / There grows one in the Human Brain” (21-24). So, it seems as though this tree of experience was not something created by the Gods (I mean, if they created this tree, then why would they have to search for it?), nor does it seem to be something that can be found in nature. Instead, it is something that “grows…in the Human Brain” (24), something created by humans alone. Hence, in this way, it seems as though experience and reason are things that are artificial. Then, in the poem “The School-Boy”, Blake writes: “But to go to school in a summer morn / O! it drives all joy away / Under a cruel eye outworn, / The little ones spend the day, / In sighing and dismay” (6-10). Here, Blake seems to be depicting school, which develops reason and gives students knowledge and experience, is depicted as something that is awful and boring. The poem then goes on to ask how “can the bird that is born for joy, / Sit in a cage and sing. / How can a child…/ But droop his tender wing, / And forget his youthful spring”? Hence, it seems as thought the poem is expressing the fact that it is natural for children to be innocent and play and enjoy the spring of their youth instead of going to school and letting themselves be caged by rules and experience. This is further supported by the image for this poem, which depicts children playing outside in nature. Thus, I am wondering how you think these two poems could be interpreted to support the idea that innocence is fake and experience is the harsh reality of the world. After all, I do think that it is a very cool interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *