Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1789-1794)

Author: William Blake  |  Page Count: approx 50 

Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care, but for another gives its ease, and builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.” 

The book, as it’s collected here, was originally written in two parts: Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, with Songs of Experience following in full five years later.  The first is closely tied with the conventions of Romanticism; the second is dependent upon the same but for very different reasons.

It’s unknown if Blake always planned to have Experience follow Innocence, or if it was a result of Innocence failing to sufficiently shake the system, heightening his need to push further buttons.  Either way, the two books work in tandem to express an opposition to each other and to cement an idea.

The relationship between the unity and harmony that’s evident in Innocence is contrasted with a breaking away from unity in Experience.  The resultant fall from grace and abandonment of harmony giving rise to the social inequalities and human injustices of the day.  The contrast is evident not just in the poems’ titles but also in the imagery depicted within them and the illustrations that accompany each one.*  A reader wanting to attempt an understanding of the work needs to appreciate all of those aspects, and be aware that it'll require repeated readings before you're versed enough in the antithetical devices to give a proper critique.

The poet remarks on the things that used to connect us, saying they've become the very tools that others use in order to control us.  In that respect, you can’t fail to notice the political stance he took in regards to work practices of the era, highlighted by his use of children, themselves often cited in literature as an enduring epitome of innocence.   Indeed, the concerns of the first book seem initially childlike, the presentation simplified, but within it are darker moments telling what could happen should the state be abandoned.  Likewise, the second book has moments of beauty reminding us of what we've lost.

You could argue that Innocence is nothing but idealism and self-sustaining naivety; its opposite being Experience, with the woollen blanket pulled back the harsh truth of the world is revealed.  You're free to make that choice.

It seems there are some benefits to being perceived as a madman.  You can give a voice to a way of thinking that others fear to even admit to, lest they attract the attention of the very men responsible for the cruelty that Blake condemns.

4 immortal hands out of 5

*If you want an example, The Ecchoing Green (sic) is positioned third in Innocence, whereas The Clod and the Pebble takes that same spot in Experience.  There are many, many more examples with varying degrees of opacity.  Discovering them for yourself is part of the fun.

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