Innocence and Experience as it emerges in Blake’s poetry

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

“Without Contraries is no progression”
– Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)[1]

 The above statement by poet William Blake captures the essence of his central philosophy – that of the acceptance and reconciliation of the binaries that exist in nature – which emerges rather profoundly in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794)[2]. Through his Songs, Blake brings to the foreground the idea that innocence and experience are contraries, and an even closer reading of the poems reveals a world view which supposes that one inevitably progresses from a state of innocence to one of experience and vice versa. These binaries are described in Blake’s poetry through an amalgam of symbols, myths and metaphors inspired by nature, typical of the Romantics who attempted to use these imaginative symbols and images to reject the “mechanistic world picture” and establish an “idealistic epistemology”, as critic Rene Wellek[3] posits. In Blake’s vision, man occupies either a state of innocence or one of experience. And being a nature poet, he expresses this vision out loud in his Songs by using animals as symbols to represent his complex philosophy. Blake, like all other poets from the age of Romanticism, seeks to be connected to nature on a spiritual level and believes that there lies a possibility of transcendence through one’s communion with nature. His poem Auguries of Innocence (1803) is a prime example of the emphasis he places on the need for mankind to appreciate and respect all forms of nature. According to Blake, if one wishes to see the “World in a Grain of Sand” and “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, to hold “Infinity in the palm of your hand” and “Eternity in an hour”, one needs to be able to recognize and cherish nature’s offerings – the glow-worm, the beetle, the wild birds, the sparrow, the robin, the skylark and thrush, the lamb, which are representative of innocence; and the wolf, the lion, the tyger, the caterpillar and fly, the raven, which are representative of experience.[4] As critic David Punter points out, Blake’s poems are “locations where the passions, represented as animals, return to the world.”[5]

The Lamb and the Tyger are Blake’s most popular symbols for innocence and experience respectively. The Lamb from Songs of Innocence is written from the perspective of a young child who speaks to a little lamb and asks him if he knows who his creator is. Almost immediately upon putting across the question, the child proceeds to provide the lamb with an answer:

“He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.”

Here, the child makes a direct reference to Jesus Christ who is also known as the “Lamb of God” in the Bible. By saying that the Creator is known by the lamb’s name, he dismisses any hierarchy between the Creator and the Creation. He later also goes onto say:

“He became a little child:
[…] We are called by his name.”

The child and the lamb, both symbols of innocence are put on the same plane as God himself, thereby creating a new holy trinity – Man, Nature and God, as opposed to the traditional trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost which institutionalised religion uses to establish domination and fear. Blake, for whom humanity and divinity are interchangeable, shuns the corrupted figureheads of religion who have falsified the original pristine form of Christianity and who posit God as a malevolent figure.  Blake’s God is a more forgiving, benevolent spirit. Also, for him, God, Man and Nature are fused, morphed into a single entity. We may then assume that the child and the lamb are figures of innocence precisely because they have discovered the existence of God within their own selves. There is a sense of certainty in the bold and confident manner in which the child undoubtedly claims to know the Creator. And this is because he understands that the Creator resides within him. It is this vision of Blake that has led to scholars like Martin K. Nurmi claiming him to be “the most extreme humanist of all time”.[6] A direct communion with God, with Nature is what then, according to Blake, allows us to exist in a state of innocence, of purity.

Blake’s illustration of Songs of Innocence

On the other hand, experience is known through a void, or an absence of divinity. All characters in Blake’s Songs of Experience, for instance the Chimney Sweeper, the Little Boy Lost, the Little Girl Lost, suffer from abandonment and lack of a protective figure. The view of the Romantics was that the new mechanised world which had come up as a result of the industrial revolution was devoid of faith and spirituality. Man was deserted from his faith and tried to conquer nature. Experience therefore meant a loss of innocence, a loss of contact with one’s soul. And this experience is emblemised by Blake in the figure of the tyger. While the lamb’s “tender voice” makes all the “vales rejoice”, the tyger’s “fearful symmetry” is associated with “forests of the night” and “distant deeps and skies”, all signalling towards a dark, gloomy state of being. Critics like Harold Bloom have noted that experience in Blake’s view is something to be fearful of.[7] The speaker of The Tyger cannot initially fathom how the tyger came to be created. This violent, majestic, predatory creature in whose eyes a hellish fire burns represents the omnipotent, all-consuming experience which corrupts mankind. We may suppose that, given Blake’s (and all other Romanticists’) opposition to the emerging capitalist set up, the tools which are described as being used to create the tyger – anvil, hammer and chain – could represent the ‘experience’ or the harsh working conditions of the proletariat class and its struggles. And in this sense, the tyger is almost a monster which represents the fear that accompanies the rise of industrial capitalism. One can speculate that Blake’s fears of attaining experience manifested in the tyger are similar to Mary Shelley’s (who also wrote during the age of Romanticism) fears of the unpredictable future of capitalism manifested in Frankenstein’s monster.[8] The fire which burns in the tyger’s eyes could also be a reference to the fire which burns in the chimneys of industrial towns – the same chimneys which become the cause for young boys’ doom, as Blake explains in The Chimney Sweeper. Just as lamb and child are interchangeable in The Lamb, tyger and man can be seen as interchangeable in The Tyger for man has a tendency to commit ravages and prey on the helpless.

Blake’s illustration of Songs of Experience

These analyses of The Lamb and The Tyger bring us back to the question of contraries. The two poems are perhaps Blake’s way of acknowledging human being’s two dispositions – the tendency to perform good, and the tendency to perform evil. The two forces of good and evil are contraries which exist in every individual, and one’s character is determined by which force ultimately takes on a dominant form. It is through an acknowledgement of these binaries that human beings then progress forward. One needs to acknowledge the evil in order to promote the good. Innocence and experience are therefore contraries which are needed for man to progress to a state of prophetic vision, where he is able to use his imaginative capability and perceive the world with absolute clarity.

Apart from the perspective which places the tyger in a negative light, critics and scholars have suggested that the tyger could also be used to signify and reaffirm belief in the powers of the almighty. As Harold Bloom points out, “Blake’s ‘Tyger’ takes on a terrifying form. […] Its creator must also have similar traits: strong shoulders to bear the responsibility of such an animal; a big heart to survive the tests of dread and fear; and a strong spirit to look into its fiery eyes and to master ‘The Tyger’.” Others like Harold Pagliaro have also suggested that the poem is Blake’s appreciation of all life forms[9]. The line “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” accepts that the creator of both is one. And therefore, the poem may be read as a salute to the tyger’s prowess and also an admiration of the diversity of nature, something which all the Romantic poets celebrated. Viewed from a different lens, experience could be seen as something valuable. While the lamb follows the flock, the tyger has learned from experience and is assertive in its environment. Knowledge or experience has given the tyger its power. The Tyger allows room for multiple interpretations as the poem is constituted of no less than thirteen questions pondering on the origins of the beast, as opposed to the fixed certainty of The Lamb where the reader and the speaker know exactly who created the lamb.

Innocence and experience, though binaries to each other, also appear to overlap in Blake’s poetry. The beautiful form of the tyger directly reflects the power of its creator and the versatility of nature. The tyger is otherwise ‘innocent’ as it, too, is a child of God, created with love and care. The lamb sounds a note of tragedy because it alludes to the sacrifice of Christ. It is therefore associated with the ‘experience’ of having committed sinful acts from which only sacrifice can redeem you. As literary historian S. Foster Damon points out, the symbols of the lamb and the tyger both may be used to refer to Christ – “The Lamb symbolizes the Loving God; The Tyger, the Angry God”[10]. Jesus Christ, as described in the Biblical book of Revelations has a docile and loving side, The Lamb of God, and also a wrathful and vengeful side that seeks revenge through punishment against those who were against Him (usually described as the “Lion of Judah”, but Blake took a creative license and used “Tyger”).

What Blake has achieved is a skilled portrayal of nature’s binaries through the two animal images. His work seems to resonate with what P.B. Shelley, a proponent of the Romantic tradition, claimed – “I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object”.[11] Clearly, Blake’s work proves that he sees the metaphysical reflected in tangible objects in nature. For him, understanding the contraries of nature brings one closer to the different facets of God and hence closer to spiritual progress.

[1] Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1790. Online.

[2] Blake, William. Songs of Innocence. 1789. Online.

  Blake, William. Songs of Experience. 1794. Online.

[3] Wellek, Rene. “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History”. Ed. Nichols Jr., S.G.Concepts of Criticism. Yale:     Yale University Press, 1963. Print.

[4] Blake, William. Auguries of Innocence. 1803. Online.

[5] Punter, David. “Blake: His Shadowy Animals”. Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 227-238. Boston University.

[6] Nurmi, Martin k. William Blake. London: Hutchinson, 1975. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Critical Study. New York: Haskell House, 1972.

[7] Bloom, Harold. “Critical Analysis of The Tyger”. Bloom’s Major Poets: William Blake. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2003. 17-19.

[8] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818.

[9] Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood & Redemption in Blake’s Songs College Station: Penn State University Press, 1987

[10] Damon, Foster S. “The Initial Eden”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

[11] Shelley, Percy Bysshe. LETTERS FROM ITALY. from VOL. II. of the 1840 edition of Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, By Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Mary Shelley.

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