William Blake’s Songs of Innocence is often thought of as the lighter, happier of the two collections of poems known as the Songs, the other of course being its polar opposite—the Songs of Experience. Upon the first reading of the text this proves to be superficially true, in that the Innocence songs are more uplifting. Upon further inspection however, there is undeniably a dark cloud of foreshadowing hanging over the work. Almost no poem in the collection is completely free from darkness, even if the characters inside the text do not outwardly recognize it. The introduction seems happy enough, with a fanciful cherub figure instructing the narrator to write his song down on paper so that it might be preserved forever and “all may read.” The underlying acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of man-made creations boasts of an unusual maturity for a so-called “Song of Innocence.”
Soon after this, the verses of “The Ecchoing Green” subtlety speak of the process of aging and the passage of time by portraying a group of “old folk” reminiscing about their younger days when they played sports on the Green, which is now “darkening,” literally and figuratively. This disturbing trend continues with “The Blossom,” which contrasts contention with existence, personified in the happy sparrow, with suffering, personified by the sobbing robin. At the same time this depicts the two opposing views of society—the classes who benefit from it and those that suffer from it. The most infamous examples of this are “The Chimney Sweeper,” in which child laborers are comforted by the bourgeois idea “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” and “Holy Thursday,” in which Blake uses negative imagery of angels and metaphor to ridicule the pious idea of pity as a virtue. Class consciousness is considered to be a facet of “experience,” but the reader should remember that children are also aware of injustice, which Blake is aware of and shows to be so.
Fittingly, because of the hidden and gradual growth of righteous anger within the Songs of Innocence, the transition into the Songs of Experience does not feel like a sudden change from white to black, but rather a stage of natural progression—doubtlessly the author’s intention, as this concept of mental stages reflects accurately the actual stages of a person’s perception. Also like the Songs of Innocence, the Songs of Experience blend beautiful and haunting images from Blake’s imagination with references to the external world. More importantly, when taken together the pair acts as a united entity, at once showing the wonderfulness of innocence and the reality that if it is not cast off when experience and action is needed one can never reach their full development. The constant foreshadowing of the Songs of Innocence only maintains the notion that whether a people are innocent or not objective reality continues in all its injustice and he must eventually come to experience in order to bring about social change and revolution. The mention of social injustice by the characters within the Songs of Innocence only prove that their urges to fight injustice exist even in states of youth and that they will eventually recognize the need for maturity.
In the meantime, the transition can be painful for those experiencing—in the poem “Earth’s Answer” and preceding introduction, a bard calls to the earth to return, only to be greeted by a planet with “locks covered in grey despair.” This illustrates the natural longing for a return to a more innocent time once one has reached the age of experience and at the same time tears asunder the idea that the earth, and not our own vision, was fundamentally different before. In “The Clod and the Pebble,” Blake examines the enormous duality of love, first by showing the almost altruist feelings of affection, the idea of love “for another [giving] its ease,” and making “a Heaven in Hell’s despair,” then by showing the individualist perception of affection by saying that “love seeketh only self to please/ to bind another to its delight.” The speaker is interested in the realities of love, not the fantasies of it.
The recognition of institutionalized wickedness reappears stronger than ever in the second “Holy Thursday.” Blake rants and rages in blunt terms about poverty and class division, the fields of the poor “bleak and bare” and England portrayed as “eternal winter.” Another sequel comes later in the form of “The Chimney Sweeper,” in which another child chimney sweeper has been abandoned in the cold by his mother and father, who have gone to worship and pray in a church—a bitter and brutal portrayal of the passivity instilled in people of modern religion, who ignore actually social ills in favor of the “God is in heaven and all is right with the world attitude.” Despite the apparent division of the opposing titles, William Blake’s Songs both communicate the same thing, the only difference being a variation in subtlety.