Songs of Experience by William Blake | Summary and Analysis

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Summary and Analysis

Summary :

      When Blake composed the collection of Songs of Experience, he seems to have passed through a spiritual crisis. He who was in many ways the healthiest of men, wrote in 1793: "I say I shan't live for five years, and it Iive one it will be a wonder." Something had shaken his trust in himself and in life. What this was we can only guess, and such clues as are available point to a combination of different causes. The trouble was already there in 1788 when he wrote Tiriel, but, it seems to have grown and preyed more insistently on his mind in the following years. It did not in the least interfere with his creative powers. Indeed, at this time he did an astonishing amount of work both as a poet and as an artist, most of which is as good as anything that he ever did afterwards. But Blake's genius was not discouraged by trouble and anxiety though that he had these in full measure is beyond dispute.

When Blake composed the collection of Songs of Experience, he seems to have passed through a spiritual crisis. He who was in many ways the healthiest of men, wrote in 1793: "I say I shan't live for five years, and it Iive one it will be a wonder." Something had shaken his trust in himself and in life. What this was we can only guess, and such clues as are available point to a combination of different causes. The trouble was already there in 1788 when he wrote Tiriel, but, it seems to have grown and preyed more insistently on his mind in the following years. It did not in the least interfere with his creative powers. Indeed, at this time he did an astonishing amount of work both as a poet and as an artist, most of which is as good as anything that he ever did afterwards. But Blake's genius was not discouraged by trouble and anxiety though that he had these in full measure is beyond dispute.
Songs of Experience

      The Songs of Experience are poems belonging to that period of man's development which just follows the merry state of innocence and takes its form in stark disillusion, brought about by moral conventions and sordid realities. The happy and confident child becomes the faded adult, the happy bride becomes the hard-worked house-wife, the idealistic youth becomes a man of the material world. The poems of innocence and experience reflect the poet's mental conflicts too. As a journey-man engraver when he travelled a good deal, Blake might have come face to face with the poor people, their sufferings and the evils of industrialisation. Thus, for every poem depicting idealistic innocence he may have experienced a contrast from his own social environment. That may be why Blake has incorporated, in a majority of the cases, poems as antitypes to what he believed idealistic and natural.

Blake's Symbols :

      Blake's method in both the series, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is basically simple, its roots lying in his concept of states and their symbols. Like many other artists Blake employed a central group of related symbols to form a dominant symbolic pattern - these are the child, the Father, and Christ, representing the states of innocence, experience and higher innocence. These major symbols provide the context for all the minor contributory symbols in the songs. A method of approach that is applicable to all of them and thus to all the songs is possible. Each of Blake's two-song series (or states or major symbols) comprises a number of smaller units (or states or symbols) so that the relationship of each unit to the series as a whole might be stated as a kind of progression; from the states of innocence and experience to the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, to each individual song within the series, to the symbols within each song, to the words that give the symbols their existence. Conceivably ignorance of, or indifference to, one word prohibits the imaginative perception and understanding of the whole structure. As Blake wrote in the preface to Jerusalem, every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place; the terrific numbers are reserved for terrific parts, the mild and gentle for the mild and gentle parts, and prosaic for inferior parts; all of them necessary to one other.

The Theme :

      The two sections of Blake's book, the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are contrasted elements in a single design. The first part sets out an imaginative vision of the state of innocence : the second shows how life challenges and corrupts and destroys it. What Blake intended by this scheme can be seen from the motto which he wrote for the book but did not include in it:

The Good are attracted by Men's perceptions,
And think not for themselves
Till experience teaches them to catch
And to cage the Fairios and Elves;
And then the Knave begins to snarl
and the Hypocrite to howl,
And all is good friends shew their private ends.
And the Eagle is known from the Owl

      In the world of experience what we find is not the stainless atmosphere of heart felt joy and innocence; instead, it obscures the state of childlike innocence and sets up many detrimental forces in its place. To show the measure of this harassment Blake has incorporated in the Songs of Experience some poems which furnish utter contrast to their counterparts which are in the Songs of Innocence. To quote instances in the first 'Nurse's Songs' occurring in the Songs of Innocence the poet recounts how children play and are permitted to go on playing until it is almost night and time to go to bed. The symbolic significance of this piece becomes more and more curious when we come to know that by this Blake means the care-free play of human imagination when it is not spoilded by senseless imagination. But it is strikingly the opposite in the realm of the Songs of Experience. The voice that now speaks is not that of pure affection, nor is it attuned to any endearing tone. rather we hear of sour and bitter age, envious of festivities and freedom which it can no more share. It teases the children, hinting at the closing darkness and sees play as a whiling away of time. The first and most fearful thing about experience is that it scatters and deranges the imaginative life and puts in its place a dark, cold and deterring frightful concern and anxiety. In a majority of the casca repression. jealousy, cruelty, restraints and lovelessness are the dominant elements. But we must necessarily avoid the misapprchension that in all these poems Blake is hurling defiance at the contrary states of human soul. Actually Blake approves of this unavoidable duality of human nature with its contrariness which are manifested by the 'lamb' of Innocence and the 'tiger' of Experience for "without contraries there is no progression."

Shades of the Prison-house in Experience :

      Blake's terms Experience is intelligibly identifiable with Wordsworth's "Shades of prison-house which "begin to close upon the growing boy." In Experience we notice guilt, misery, tyranny in lieu of joy, security and the air of innocence in Innocence. Here the mood is one of total disillusionment. The beatific vision of the angels and guardians is no more since they are replaced by mighty tyrants like Urizen or Jehovah. We discuss here some of the aspects of experience.

      (i) Jealousy and Cruelty : In Blake Urizen is the symbol of the arch-tyrant: and his ministers are those in authority on earth - the king, the priest, the parent, the nurse and so on. In fact Urizen has been mentioned specifically only in three poems, namely, "Earth's Answer, Human Abstract, and A Divine Image. but his sable shadow broods over most of the other songs. He is 'Starry jealousy' or 'Cruelty.' He loaths life and joy and has brought the world under his iron law of prohibition: Thou shalt not.. This imagery conveys to us the hostility to life. In Experience Earth's vital vigour is benumbed and the buds that represent growth or generation are nipped and consequently the "blossoms blown away." There the invisible worm gnaws the rose and joins hands with the caterpillar and the fly in the destruction of the sick rose.

      (ii) Restriction and Deterioration in Images : When the buds are nipped there grow tombstones and graves amidst the garden of flowers. Along with them sprout up the Tree of Mystery and the Poison Tree which are characteristically rooted in the human brain. The springtime sunny days of the world of innocence is substituted by an unpleasant dry winter which is eternal, full of darkness and howling storm: however, the dominant images are those of bettering, binding and crippling. Earth is 'prisoned' by the 'Starry jealousy' chained in night and frozen, "free-love is with bondage bound", the priests bind with briars, the school boy is caged like a bird, a little boy lost is bound "with an iron chain", the infant with swaddling-bands manacles."

      (iii) Lack of Love and Affection : In Experience even the parents seem to be indifferent to the sufferings of their children. They sell them for a few pennies and leave them to work as chimney sweepers. In a similar way the boy that is de livered into this world is felt as a burden by its parents. In the sphere of Experience the human heart becomes a "pebble of the brook", and turns love into an insincere and selfish desire of lust of possession. The withering of affection begins early, when the elders repress and frighten children.

Satire and Irony :

      The Songs of Experience is, to a great measure, tinged in the poet's pious indignation against the manacles of the society that make the children poorer and unhealthy (as in 'Holy Thursday') , ban the free love of youth ('A little Girl Lost') and degenerate the sacred marriage-bed into a hearse. In his beautiful allegorical poem, 'The Garden of Love'. Blake denounces the conventional codes of religion that tightens its stranglehold on desires and love. Against these inhumane approaches of the society Blake tilts his quill and through the poignant medium of his poetry he pillories the institutions that are responsible for these evil practices. The poet's righteous indignation is all the greater in 'Holy Thursday' where the humbugs of, the contemporary society show false charity towards the children of the Sunday school. Irony is visible in London's being a 'Charactered' city as Blake mentions it in the first stanza of the poem because when the poem comes to a close we see the streets of the city echoing with the curses of the harlots and infecting venereal diseases: The most bitter anger of the poet mixed with a slight colour of scoffing is evidently met in the last stanza of 'The Chimney Sweeper' where the poet relates how the parents of the chimney sweeper abandon him to the hell of suffering and go to praise the king, God and the priest.

Typical Poems from 'Songs of Experience' :

      In Innocence it is quite natural that the Piper is well aware and conscious of the child's essential divinity and assured of his present protection. But into that joyous context the elements of experience constantly insinuate themselves so that the note of sorrow is never completely absent from the Piper's pipe. In Experience, on the other hand, the Bard's voice is solemn and more deeply resonant, for the high-pitched joy of innocence is now only a memory. Within this gloom, though, lies the ember which can leap into flame at any moment to light the way to the higher innocence. Yet, despite this difference in direction of their vision, both singers are imaginative, or what Blake called the poetic or prophetic characters. And though one singer uses "mild and gentle numbers and the other more 'territic' tones both see the imaginative (and symbolic) significance of all the activities in the songs. Innocence the Piper (associated with the pastoral elements) derives inspiration from an innocent angel whereas in Experience the Bard (representing intellectual maturity, divine power and prophetic abilities) is already vested with the power of seeing and forecasting. The Eden-like beauty of 'Introduction' to Songs of Innocence has undergone wild and undesirable changes when it comes to Experience Here what we see is the fallen state of man on earth, ousted from Eden and subjected to senility and vigourlessness. The Bard calls Earth to wake and pull up. But how can a creative or procreative impulse fulfil itself when suppressed Earth is bound with a heavy chain of Reason or repressive Moral Law or the flesh it self. She asks him to break off the chain that binds her and sets her free.

      Blake's The Angel is an allegory on chastity. The girl who is over-conscious of her own chastity checks the advances of her lover-angel and is destined to live a solitary life of barrenness.

      The greatest masterpiece of Blake is, no doubt 'The Tiger', It is based on the prophetic Sentence of Marriage Heaven and Hell :The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. "Echoes from Dante are audible in forests of the night." The Dark woods of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Comus represent Nature. Both contain beasts which symbolise the dangerous passions. Blake's tiger is God's wrath, as the lamb is His love: a ruthless natural predator, man's own 'burning' passion shut in his natural body. The questioner throughout the poem can not understand how such things come to be. He is surprised at its symmetry, fiery eyes (fire itself, before it was seized and used for eyes), sinews and the forge in which such a splendid creation was carried out. The tiger is not worldly, it is the prototype of the primordial energy.

      Blake's 'The Human Abstract' has a universal relevance and it is indeed the most bitter truth and a grim contrast to 'The Divine Image' of Innocence. For the sake of pity and mercy the poor are ever destined to be poor or poorer, for otherwise none can exercise these virtues. Pretending to be in peace and friendship with his opponents the hollow man sets his snare to fell him. Blake says that the conventional codes as well as the conventional religion are the products of man's evil thought. It has no true origin. Blake's viewpoint on religion is exemplified through this work of excellent philosophical nature. Blake supports the God (Christ) who loves and does not punish and looks at Jehovah (tyrant) - the God of the Old Testament inflicting punishments and demanding sacrifices - with contempt and hatred.

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