Notes on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience
The romantic poets lived through a “crisis of authority” that stemmed from great social and political change—their work surely responds in part to the French Revolution that began in 1789, but also to the rapidly progressing scientific and commercial transformation of what had once been a mostly agrarian civilization. Romantic literature examines the human consequences of such events and alterations in the rhythm of life. Imagination is the central power in British romantic literature: great claims are made for it as an almost godlike agent of creation, of remaking the world anew and uniting the broken shards of self and community. We may find the Victorians more circumspect about such radical claims for imagination and the individual, but the romantics do not necessarily set them forth naively. Nothing shows the complexity of romantic poetics more fully than reading William Blake. Those interested in more detailed political and historical commentary on 19 th Century may want to read my Introduction to C19 British Literature.
Blake On God and Free Expression:
1) In Blake’s view, we shouldn’t assume rigidly either that God is a powerful authority figure outside of us, or that God “resides [only] in the human breast.” Both of these positions have negative consequences, intended or otherwise. We either cringe before a mysterious external authority, or we become arrogant and turn “Imagination” into a God with all the baggage of Blake’s white-bearded old God, “Nobodaddy” (a cipher who nevertheless wields the power of collective human barbarity). Instead, it would be best to say that “God” has to do with imaginative process—that the emphasis should lie on the necessity to externalize God in image and text and, even as we do so, to be constantly tearing our constructions down so they don’t become abstractions, parts of a rigid system of oppression. The building up and tearing down are one and the same act—look at the many stratagems Blake invents to keep his texts from sounding like the last word about anything: outrageous comic-book-style parodic humor, self-parody, nearly constant self-referentiality with regard to the creative process, workings-out of the impossibility of beginning or ending texts, character-voices that seem to be privileged (like the Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) and then turn out to be just as flawed as other voices.
2) Blake believes in free expression of all kinds, but the point of such expression isn’t to shore up a conception of the self as isolated from others. Expression should bring people together, not keep them apart. Blake may be eccentric, but he isn’t a “cowboy.” So the charge of solipsism (being wrapped up in one’s own head) would not make sense with regard to Blake.
Songs of Innocence & of Experience
Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The Songs of Experience came out in 1794. They are separate but related works. Blake’s philosophy developed into what we see in Experience. But there is already a kind of “experienced” quality to the Songs of Innocence, as the ambivalent preposition “of” suggests. They are not childish or simple.
The title of Blake’s poems, Songs of Innocence & of Experience, reminds us of the Christian Fall and its notion of prelapsarian and postlapsarian states. But Blake’s terms are not the same because he isn’t setting forth a vision of the human condition before the Fall and then the human condition after the Fall. You can’t get back to prelapsarian innocence; you can, however, regard the concepts of innocence and experience as being in dynamic tension, with each commenting on the other. Even at birth, I think Blake would say, we have already entered into a state of experience. The important thing is not be subsumed and hardened by our awareness of that fact into cynicism and barren systemic thought.
Much of the action in Blake’s poetry has to do with what happens when characters get trapped by the production of their own minds or the productions of other people’s minds, right up to the level of society-wide practices and beliefs (religion, political economy, monarchism, etc.). As one of his characters says, “I must create my own system” to avoid being enslaved by anyone else’s. This does not mean that one should set up one’s own system and live by it as a rigid code—when Blake makes his characters address the creation of idea-systems, I believe we should understand him to mean that we are always simultaneously building up and destroying these “systems” of thought. The critical thing is that the imaginative process of creation and destruction seem to be one and the same act—they are not separate and successive acts, but one.
Why is that so? Well, I think it is because Blake has an uncanny insight into the way any product of human imagination, any practice, quickly becomes a trap—something that comes from us but that seems to have been imposed by some external authority figure, call it “God” or whatever you will. But further, it isn’t enough just to say, as a character says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that “all deities reside in the human breast.” That kind of statement quickly leads to arrogant solipsism (as in, “I am God” or “I need not regard the ideas and needs of others”) or outright nihilism (“why believe anything if there are no external absolutes and everything is only a product of the imagination?”). Such a state of affairs is just as bad as setting up an external authority figure and then cowering under its dread pronouncements, its endless litany of “Thou shalt nots.” A tyrant in the human breast is just as bad as one on Mount Olympus or anywhere else. A central image in Blake is the human figure who has created an image or an idea from which he or she then shrinks back in mystified horror or awe.
Blake is profoundly spiritual and seems to have known the Bible almost by heart, but he clearly is not comfortable with the linear time scheme of Christian narrative. For Blake, the Fall is always happening, and so is Redemption, and his vision of Heaven is something he calls “intellectual conversation,” which is not lamb-like bliss but rather intellect and emotion, reason and energy, existing together. That view is fully articulated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I think that in Blake’s view, to posit a one-time Fall that occurred some thousands of years ago in a certain garden would be a profound mistake—just the kind of narratival trap he wants to avoid.
Romantic Imagination and Childhood: So in Songs, while we are tempted to view childhood as pristine innocence, we should be careful. The Fall is essentially a drop into material reality, and since children are creatures of material reality, they are in the world of experience, too. Still, perhaps they can offer a perspective that will help adults break out of the stalest, deadened perceptions of themselves and the world in which they live, lest those perceptions become a trap. Children possess an abundance of imagination, and they seem less aware than are adults of the limitations placed upon them by physical reality, cultural strictures, repression of various kinds—fetters upon the human mind. In his poem “ London ,” Blake uses the apt phrase “mind-forged manacles.” Children at least trust that they can find a way out, and they are able to offer a spiritual, even optimistic, perspective on the fallen reality into which they have been cast. But this childlike state of optimism must pass through the fires of experience—the world will not leave it alone; purification is fiery, energy is vital. “Without contraries is no progression”: terms like body and soul, reason and energy, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, we must put them into dynamic conversation. Otherwise, we end up “negating” both instead of marrying them in a fruitful union that moves the human spirit forward. We must put innocence and experience together as a married pair of states. Blake never “gets around” intellectual difficulties—he confronts them head-on, putting seemingly contradictory terms right alongside each other and dealing with the implications and potentialities of such “marriages.”
Purpose of Songs of Innocence: the purpose of these poems isn’t to tell us that we can simply become innocent again. Still, Blake will not violate Christ’s claim that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven , one must become “like a little child.” We must remain open to the possibility of redemption, of the eternal and the infinite. We must be able to interpret the physical reality around us in a spiritual way. For Blake, Jesus is the Principle of Imagination and his is the most perfectly realized imaginative existence. The philosophies of the adult world, Blake finds, are French rationalism, with its arrogant reliance on the self-sufficient power of Reason, and British empiricism, with its insistence that the mind is a passive recipient of sensory data and therefore mechanically “bound” to the natural world. Such philosophies lead us only to atheism and barren cynicism. The world of harsh reality and repression will become the grave of the adult’s spirit. I recall an idea from Jewish theology: the philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that for Jews, each moment is a portal through which the Messiah may enter. I find Blake’s view of redemption similar. Perhaps openness to that possibility is what Blake finds attractive about childhood: the capacity to imagine and feel one’s way out of the mind’s and the world’s snares. A child is at least in part capable of “looking thro’ the eye and not with it.” We are not reducible to fallen material reality, and not confinable to fallen temporal schemes—we are more than they allow us, and we must understand that fact. “Here and now” is our fallen medium; we must look into it through the eye and perceive the infinite and the eternal. To be in a fallen condition and not interpret our condition spiritually is to compound and perpetuate human error.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The Fall. The Fall of Satan and then of Adam and Eve should not simply be condemned, much less considered one-time events. Just as you can’t return to a state of innocence prior to experience, so you can’t return to some mythic state of prelapsarian (“before the fall”) life in the earthly paradise or (in Satan’s case) heaven. Heaven and Hell are contraries—they are perspective-states that require each other. The Angels tend to be creatures of reason, and the devils creatures of passion or energy—notice how Blake’s Devil describes the intimate relationship between the two qualities: “reason is the outward bound or circumference of energy.”
Emanuel Swedenborg. Delightful as his Memorable Relations are, Swedenborg the mystic resorts to mutually exclusive opposites in dealing with the eternal realms, and doesn’t grasp Blake’s notion of “contraries.” (A contrary like reason/energy is what it is because both sides of the term have something going for them and can be put in a meaningful relationship with their partner term. The interaction or marriage of contraries poses a challenge to the mind and works against passivity.) Blake’s narrator says that Swedenborg talked only to angels, so his visions came out one-sided. Blake, by contrast, doesn’t turn away from thoughts of Hell or conversations with “Satans” as Swedenborg does. But Swedenborg still has the right idea—he seeks to engage in conversation about the fundamental things, even if he comes up short. I think Blake makes his narrator underestimate Swedenborg somewhat; the narrator seems cocky in saying that Swedenborg talked second-rate rubbish. Blake’s own view probably differs—after all, why honor one’s predecessor with such parody? Any press is good press, we might say, and the C18 prophet is in good company, with the Unholy Trinity of Bacon, Newton & Locke, and, of course, Milton .
Digression. Blake dislikes Bacon and Newton because of their scientific mindset, and Locke because of his mechanical tabula rasa or blank slate conception of the mind. Locke, that is, says we get our ideas from sensory perception; simple perceptions are combined into ever more complex and abstract clusters called ideas and concepts, and finally these are used to grind out whole philosophical systems and world views. To Blake, this seems like atheism and a complete failure to understand the power of human imagination. And as for poor old John Milton, he has real genius but has somehow managed to turn the Bible upside down—his God is a vacuous, nattering patriarch, and his Devil has the self-respect to try to take him down. (Shelley reads Milton much the same way—see his “Essay on the Devil and Devils.” This is on the most obvious level a misreading of Paradise Lost, but it is what Harold Bloom would call a “strong misreading”—a misinterpretation that is necessary to overcome the “anxiety of influence” besetting romantic poets writing in the wake of such a towering pre-romantic godfather as Milton.)
Emanuel Swedenborg. One thing that Blake must have liked about Swedenborg is the exuberance of this religious enthusiast—see, for example, the outrageous snorts and declarations of the satan or adversary in Swedenborg’s Fifth Memorable Relation. The Devil sends up pious views about heaven and hell—well, so do Blake’s narrator and his own devils. Swedenborg’s methods and perspective may be limited, but at times the attitude of characters in his visions is right on target. Moreover, characters in Swedenborg—at least the satans—keep being reminded of things and then forgetting them because the things they are told don’t suit their nature. They just can’t retain the corrected perspective offered them by the angels and the narrator. Again, this is insightful on Swedenborg’s part, and I suppose Blake adapts the back-and-forth motions of intellect and spirit we find in Swedenborgian devils and in his visions’ very structure. What might be interpreted as a flaw in perspective—the fact that Swedenborg’s satans can’t arrive at a “true” contrarian view with which to oppose his angels—must be turned into a strength, a display of the need for contraries and perpetual conversation.
Swedenborg’s characters are too facile and fall too easily back into their erroneous views, which are something like “default buttons” for them. They confront and are confronted, but the results don’t really stick, so they go back to square one. Swedenborg’s devils and angels do not come together in genuine conversation; there is no play of contrary perspectives, and thus “no progression.”
Blake a True Poet and Therefore of the Devil’s Party? Anyhow, Blake reads the dialogue in Swedenborg and sees that while the Angels say the universe is spiritual and comes from God, and the Devils that it is reducible to nature (nature is its own author), we should accept neither of these positions as they stand—they must be put into conflict, “married,” as it were. The one side overemphasizes spirit at the expense of the body and nature, while the other makes the same mistake in reverse. But to make matters more complex, I should think that we are not to accept even the Blakean Devil’s view that “there is no spirit distinct from body.” It’s easy to see that he’s against simple-minded dualism (body/soul; mind/matter, etc.), but it’s also possible to see that assertions like “spirit and body are the same” can be set forth too easily. Wouldn’t getting rid of one of the terms put an end to the very idea that there must be conflict and not just reconciliation? You can’t have “contraries” without terms that don’t simply amount to the same thing. Blake knows this, but I’m not sure his devil does. The trick is not to let the terms wander off into mutually exclusive territory—saying body and soul are an undifferentiated unity might not be any better than privileging soul over body or body over soul. Either way, we would be letting abstract concepts tyrannize over us and paralyze us—”name your poison,” as they say.
In general, Blake’s Devil must think himself dreadfully clever with his Proverbs of Hell—it’s a kind of wisdom literature as in the Old Testament. But the Devil is perhaps too fond of having the last well-rounded word. He offers something like paradox, which certainly challenges the mind, but I’m not sure we are to trust his motives in challenging us. Blake’s narrator may be too close to him—I don’t know.
Infernal Suggestion. The way to read Blake is to “argue” with him, not to accept his words as making up a system of thought. If you’re not challenging his “diabolical” readings, then you’re probably going to arrive at mistaken views. I think the Devil’s voice has a certain priority in MHH, but it isn’t the last word. There isn’t any last word, so far as I can understand. For example, isn’t the idea of “corroding fires” that reveal the infinite contradictory? How can you invoke a medium (writing) and then say it opens out like a “cleansed” door of perception to the infinite? I think Blake knew well that the concept of a medium—even a clear one—always entails barriers to perception of the infinite and absolute. He struggles against this, but to say you can ever do away with the struggle would be simplistic. So we can’t entirely trust his narrator when he pictures himself propounding the Bible of Hell as if it were the genuine new article and the way to read everything. We have to realize that Blake is not his narrator—there are affinities between the Devils and narrator and Blake, but they don’t reduce to one another. The ending of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell goes against this reconciliation—Jesus, the principle of imagination, thrives on perpetual intellectual conflict—not reconciliation into undifferentiated unity and spineless agreement.
Writing with Corroding Fires. (See the interesting web article An Inquiry into Blake’s Method of Color Printing.) Since Blake comments on his own medium in MHH, we should realize that he never really trusted to any one medium. He is not strictly a writer, but a visionary who worked was apprenticed as an engraver—engraving or etching is a highly skilled endeavor that is sort of like painting on metal and sort of like writing. The word isn’t just “a word on paper,” but something etched with the assistance of acid, etc. This isn’t to say Blake believed he was transcending the very concept of “a necessary medium.” In fact, the communication between his figures and the etched words adds another dimension of complexity to what only appears as a “poem” when it’s printed in something like the Norton Anthology. What we really have is an argument between various media—not reconciliation into a perfect and transparent medium. Blake has that strange capacity to be both exuberant and cautious at the same time: as he is when he says “I stain’d the water clear” in the opening plate of Innocence. Does that mean that he is staining with his pen-reed something that was clear, though still an opaque medium as water is? Is writing not only revelation but also at the same time pollution? Those who dismiss such media-related problems and put all their eggs in one basket are fooling themselves, Blake would probably insist. The question is, what is the relationship between thought, language (written or spoken), image, and imagination?
Consider the relationship between engraved text and the accompanying images. The very first plate of MHH shows that the images can’t simply be “explanations” of the words. Otherwise, I suppose we would be treated to an image of Rintrah and the hungry clouds “swagging” on the deep, or successive images showing the developmental stages to which the words refer. (to swag = to sway from side to side, sink down, vacillate, etc.) But we don’t get that at all.