William Blake’s “Nurse’s Songs”

In order to grasp their meanings, the two versions of the “Nurse’s Song” in both William Blake’s the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience are to be read not through what they show literally, nor even what they appear to mean (the obvious “red herring” interpretation), but rather what they hide. At their joined ideological base, both works reveal a stunning critique of the bourgeois and feudal culture. Ultimately Blake resists the dominant ideology, first by opposing it, albeit unintentionally, then by strongly affirming it in a satirical manner. All of this is accomplished through the actions and the shifts in perspective of the unnamed nurse character, which in the end reveal the true purpose of the two works.

Much like the two volumes in which they are contained, the two “Nurse’s Songs” seem at first to be examinations of human development and mental stages of life. The poem features children at play in the hills while their elder nurse watches over them. Eventually she bids them to come back inside when the daylight begins to die. The youths, of course, then plead for the right to stay out for as long as the smallest amount of light exists. Immediately, a few subtleties jump out at the reader.

Firstly, though it seems to be chiefly told from the nurse’s perspective, the poem itself takes the form of a dialogue between the children and the nurse, implying a close relationship between the two. Despite their age difference and different status in life, they have one common goal-the search for innocent happiness away from the consequences of the outside world. Much like “The Echoing Green,” the Innocence version contains adults sympathetic to youths who feel alienated from the world and culture of the time and seek to escape by reestablishing connection not only with other humans, but nature itself. This is shown when the children protest that they should be allowed to stay out because “In the sky, the little birds fly/ And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.” The children want to be closer to the animals, closer to nature, and desire to be as free as the wild animals they see in the fields. At the conclusion, the children’s voices are even said to be “echoing” through the landscape, showing that their animal sounds of joy have been blended with the surrounding nature as they would have wished.

Fittingly, the nurse then allows them the freedom to continue playing and singing outside, saying “Well well go & play/ till the light fades away.” The “light” here represents the light and energy of youth and the purity of children from the affairs of the world, which the nurse is nostalgic and happy to see in others, and which she most likely retains in part herself.

Meanwhile, in the Experience version, the nurse character within undergoes as much of a transformation as the poem itself does, becoming overtly bitter and resentful of the progeny’s youth. She reveals this when she exclaims upon hearing their playing noises: “The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind, / my face turns green and pale.” Green is used here as the color of jealousy-the nurse is jealous of the children’s freedom and youth, neither of which she possesses due to her implied advanced age and social position. Significantly, whereas in Innocence the nurse and youth’s dialogue was joined together as one, here the story is told exclusively from the point of view of the stern nurse. There is no room for any other point of view in her mind since she has become so caught up in the ideology of the dominant class.

She has now tragically come to see little value in experiencing life, since for her it is all drudgery. She says of the children: “Your spring and your day are wasted in play, /
and your winter and night in disguise,” thereby claiming that they shouldn’t be wasting their valuable time with such pointless activities. Even more important, “spring,” “day,” “winter” and “night” are here used to represent different ages, while the “disguise” in question is the same one that the nurse has been wearing for so long-the disguise of her role in social production!

The speaker has now begun to doubt her own place in the proper order of things now that she has been reminded of the temporary nature of all things corporeal. The nameless nurse thus becomes a psychological construct, a symbol of the mental stages of human development. In the Innocence version she is known to fulfill the historical role of women as the nurturers and protectors of children against grief, experience and “darkness,” but here she is more interested in scolding them from a moral standpoint. Blake’s criticism of the moralist thinking of the ruling ideology of the time becomes clear here. In the Experience version there is no differentiation between play and idleness, and it is important to realize that in the religious fundamentalist and moralist view “idle hands” were seen as sinful. In these times it is the older, more traditionalist people like the nurse who uphold such values.

But here is where readings of the texts diverge-is it possible that his dual-sided poem is even more telling and subtle than Blake intended? Is it possible that this very apparent and esoteric “meaning” of the text as an allegory of human mental stages is merely a distraction, a convenient set-aside for contemporary readers? Yes, the text is most likely an analysis of aging and growth, but clearly has a political subtext that is seditious to say the least! Whether Blake intended this layered reading is beside the point, since even if he did not, his own subconscious would compel him to write such rebellious words. The text suggests that the values of his audiences, particularly the royals, were not ready to handle an overt message, and was thus hidden beneath layers of language and double and triple-meanings.

The historical perspective of the economic standings of the characters is essential to understanding the underlying subtext presented. As is usual of Blake’s works, the lower economic groups and/or “ignored” social groups get the major focus. The children are most likely the sons and daughters of the ruling classes, and the nurse’s skills (whether these be as a wet-nurse or as a slave caretaker of children) make her a valuable commodity for those same classes. Indeed, upon the expenditure of small effort at further reading, one can easily see a mockery of Blake’s own class society.

For example, while it is true that her age is most likely a source of jealousy for the Experience nurse, more than anything her bitterness shows she has become alienated with her subservient role in society and is envious of the youth’s freedom. In capitalist society the traditional family unit-the nuclear family model including that of the wife and child-is a byproduct of a society based on property, accumulation and competition in which constant groups of people prevent excessive alienation and find themselves practical units for work and socialization. The nurse’s role as a surrogate and a slave is held in a very unquestioning manner in the Innocence version, where she instead chooses to focus on more cheerful facets of life. The world outside has become too commercial and too alienating, and her slave status in life has left her with a passionate desire for a return to the utopian past of her youth, personified in his poems by the frolicking children.

The nurse in Innocence is the hired and voluntary protector of the children from the horrors of the “night” of innocence, which will result in the children being exploited the same way she is. On some level she realizes this and tries to protect them from awful reality-the refuge taken by the nurse thus becomes a safe haven, a paradise of intimate human connection and happiness, making the economy of the objective situation easier for her to handle. The innocence of the children does not so much show methods of specific play (none are listed) rather than a certain kind of natural human interaction-one of harmony, attacking the capitalist idea of colonialist man as the “natural state” of humanity in general. This would be especially risky to say in the eighteenth century, when wealth and status was gained exclusively by colonialist methods between nations, classes and people alike. Blake puts forward a vision in Innocence of social interaction based on openness, not domination.

In the “red herring” interpretation of the text, the children become a symbol of development and the progress of the individual, “moving beyond” the alternating libertarian or strict and conservative nurse. While this can be applied to the nurse’s age group, this could be said also for the social relations of old, the very exploitive and feudal ones the nurse is used to and the children will someday reject and fight against. Thus Blake forms a “thesis-within-a-thesis” for his work, enabling him to communicate with the reader on both a psychological and revolutionary front.

Published by Victor Vaughn

Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist, National Secretary of the American Party of Labor (APL).

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