The Songs of Innocence poems first appeared in Blake's 1784 novel, An Island in the Moon. In 1788, Blake began to compile in earnest, the collection of Songs of Innocence. And by 1789, this original volume of plates was complete. These poems are the products of the human mind in a state of innocence, imagination, and joy; natural euphoric feelings uninhibited or tainted by the outside world. Following the completion of the Songs of Innocence plates, Blake wrote "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and it is through this dilemma of good and evil and the suffering that he witnesses on the streets of London, that he begins composing Songs of Experience. This second volume serves as a response to Songs of Innocence in that Blake is demonstrating the two polar or contrary states of the human soul and in the world that he sees around him. The images, engravings, and lyrics in Songs of Experience are much more severe, excruciating, and intense in comparison to the lighter tones of Songs of Innocence.
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When we look at the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, we see that while Blake reveals both the light and dark aspects of the human existence, we also see that this dichotomy is not always a finite, black and white generalization. That is, Blake emphasizes that both the innocent and experienced states of the human soul are achievable at any moment, regardless of age, past actions, or station in life. This reinforces the idea that Blake's conception of God is the power of illumination in each one of us and it is through the poetic genius that we make this discovery throughout the ongoing process of life. A comparison between poems from each volume illustrates these ideas and serves to demonstrate what Blake is doing throughout the entire work.
Songs of Innocence reflect the purity of man in his natural and virtuous state. For example, in "Infant Joy," Blake demonstrates the child's eye and sense of wonder that we find in the incorruptibility of infants. Blake presents a truly pure creature in the first stanza: "I have no name. /I am but two days old- /What shall I call thee? /I happy am /Joy is my name-/Sweet joy befall thee! (1-6)"
The tone in this poem is one of pure happiness and innocence. In this state of joy, the infant is unaware of the world in which he lives and that awaits him. In these opening lines, we see Blake revealing the everyday modeling and structure that categorizes the world, but is absent in the simplicity and purity of childhood. The child has no name because joy needs no other name. Labeling and classification are products of organization and arrangement that the world uses to assimilate innocence into experience. Blake demonstrates that it is through this transition, that the virtue of child's play is destroyed. Blake utilizes specific emotions such as "happy," "joy," "sweet," "pretty," "sing," and "smile" to describe this uncorrupted state of being. There is no danger, darkness, or struggle for the infant. Instead, he exists in a care free state, free of guilt, temptation, and darkness. The birth of a child is celebrated by Blake and it stirs in us powerful emotions of peace, love, and hope.
Conversely, in Songs of Experience, "Infant Sorrow" serves as the counterpart of "Infant Joy." In this poem, we see the corrupting affect that experience has on man's innocence. In the first stanza, we have lines containing speech and descriptions that severely differ from the preceding poem: "My mother groand! /My father wept. / Into the dangerous world I leapt:/Helpless naked piping loud:/Like a fiend hid in a cloud. (1-4)"
We find darkness and emotional anguish with this infant where as his counterpart from Songs of Innocence enjoyed an untroubled reality. The blissful infant saw only joy in his existence, where as he now recognizes the danger in the world and sees suffering in his relationship with the universe. Unbeknownst to the infant, in the same moment in which he finds infinite joy, his parents who are experienced, have emotions of hardship. The poem ends with the infant, bound and depleted through exhaustion, deciding finally to "sulk" upon his mother's breast. In the first poem, the infant was free of all worries, but here, he is confronted with real life decision making in a moment of injury. Blake spreads menacing ideas throughout the second stanza with images such as "struggling," "striving," "bound, and "weary," which serve to foreshadow the pain and turmoil that await this young child in his future endeavors. Thus, Blake offers a description of the same newborn child from two very different perspectives.
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Yet, Blake demonstrates how joy and suffering go hand in hand. Blake juxtaposes the joy and livelihood of a new life coming into the world with the inevitable pain and suffering that accompanies child birth. So while the labor of childbirth is excruciating, it enables us to feel the joy of a newborn infant. The first and last lines of the second stanza of "Infant Sorrow" contain the phrases "Struggling in my fathers hands" and "To sulk upon my mothers breast." These are initially pain evoking images of suffering. However, the images simultaneously reinforce the need that human beings have of one another. Though the infant struggles with his father, it is the father that the child will model himself after, and who shall protect him. And through the breast of the mother, the child will receive sustenance and care. Thus, the newborn child is no doubt, helpless. However, this helplessness is abided by the compassion of parents. And it is through the union of his parents that the conception of new life was made possible. As the child naturally comes into the world a naked and helpless creature, Blake reveals the innate order and process of life that contains equal levels of innocence and experience. Through suffering and adversity, we realize peace and tranquility.
Similar to other poems from this work, "Infant Joy" and "Infant Sorrow" are very closely worded titles and reflect the transition from innocence to experience. Other selections from Songs of Innocence include "Echoing Green," "The Lamb," "Holy Thursday," "Nurse's Song," and "The Divine Image." And in Songs of Experience, we see pieces such as "The Fly," "The Tyger," "The Sick Rose, "and "The Poison Tree" which draw stark contrasts found in the natural world. Through this juxtaposing of disparaging images, Blake exemplifies the vast difference between innocence and experience. Yet, many titles from the first volume such as "Holy Thursday," "The Chimney Sweeper," and "The Divine Image," are repeated in Songs of Experience. Blake's repetition of language and imagery speak to the constant accessibility of either state of existence.
If we bring all of these ideas together, we see that while Songs of Innocence do indeed portray the joy of the human existence and Songs of Experience in turn reveal the darker side of the soul that arises from the adverse affects on that existence through worldly affairs; we also see that each person is capable of reaching either state at any given time. "Infant Joy" and "Infant Sorrow" compliment the relationship between other related selections, which also reveal these ideas of innocence and experience in the same state of being. If we put that into a larger context, each of us can come to know God and understand our relationship with the universe through the discovery of our poetic genius. Blake's methodology of channeling his spiritual energy through his work is accomplished through the combination of poetry, song, and visual art. This provides the reader with a full aesthetic experience that universally encourages the illumination of the human soul. Through his poems which identify various types of people and situations, Blake adds that this religious experience is not limited to the creative arts. In fact, he suggests that the poetic genius is attainable through focused manual labor, intellectual conversation, and philosophical reflection, among other activities. Man's universal ability to find God through his poetic genius is Blake's inspiration, philosophy, and theological message in Songs of Innocence and Experience.