“The Songs of Innocence” was originally printed in 1789 by William Blake. There are nineteen poems and it is engraved with original artwork by William Blake. The poems are mostly happy and religious. They are mostly pastoral with children and lambs. Some of the poems do have dark undertones with stabs at the church and its strict laws. Some also have child endangerment and disregard in the form of the “Chimney Sweeper” and the obsequious distaste of slavery in “The Little Black Boy.”
“The Songs of Experience” take a darker tone. These were published in 1794, and depict cynicism, hate, and death. William Blake also uses the poems to point out what he saw as a corrupt and constraining church. He felt that instead of teaching love the church was teaching fear, narrow-mindedness and prejudice.
In two of the last poems in the book, “Little Girl Lost” and “Little Girl Found” William Blake seems to hope for a better future. He hopes that the people will rise up against the unfair doctrine of the church and teach love, acceptance and forgiveness.
Poems from the two books have been set to music numerous times since their publication. And many artists have created the pastoral scenes from the various poems. In 1984 composer William Bolcom put the entire collection to music. This music was then performed in 2005 by Leonard Slatkin, the Michigan State Children Choir and the University of Michigan. They won four Grammy’s, including Best Classical Contemporary Composition and Best Producer for the Year in the classical section.
The first poem in the collection tells of an angelic child sitting on a cloud asking the author to play a tune about a Lamb. The child asks for a happy tune yet whenever he plays the child weeps. Then he asks the author to sing the songs and the tears he weeps are of joy. The child tells the author to write the songs so other children can hear and feel the joy.
In this poem, the author thinks the shepherd has an idyllic life. Instead of feeling it might be a lonely life, he feels that the shepherd can spend his time worshiping God. The shepherd listens to the mother sheep calling to their children and finds the innocence relaxing and joyful. The sheep feel safe because he is there to keep them safe.
This poem is about a new born child. The innocence of the child who hasn’t been given a name. So when the mother asks the baby what name it wants the baby says Joy. The child knows nothing but joy. The author seems to want to show that if people are allowed to choose their own path they will choose joy instead of the guilt usually taught by the church.
On Another’s Sorrow
This poem is about empathy. When a child is in pain the father and mother will feel empathy not just pity. They feel they must do something to ease the child’s pain. The author thinks that God would feel the same way. He would be empathetic to the pain his children feel and want to do something to alleviate it. If nothing else, God would share the tears of any creature from the smallest wren.
The School Boy
A little boy sits inside studying his books. But, it’s a beautiful sunny day and he wants to play outdoors. This poem is his pleas to his parents to allow him to run and play outside. He says he is young for such a short time and doesn’t want to waste the time with duties, because the winter will come soon and the days of play will end with adulthood.
This poem seems to be about young children about eight or nine years old. On Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day the children are walking sedately is pairs to church. They are scrubbed and dressed in clean uniforms. The children are being led by “grey-headed beadles” or older men who are church officials. They act as ushers. During the time of this poem every Ascension Day in England, six thousand orphans would be led two by two to the Saint Paul’s Cathedral. They would be dressed in coats of distinctive colors. This poem has its contrast in “Holy Thursday” in Songs of Experience.
The children, represented by lambs, again, are raising their hands in praise. They begin to sing and the song is loud from so many voices. While they sing a group of older men guard them. He points out that pity is not always bad and can be cherished when it is used to care for the children, who are like angels sent by God.
There are three stanzas in this poem. Each stanza has two couplets that rhyme. The lines are long to typify the long chains of children. They are compared to the Thames, which is a long river flowing near London.
The nurse of the children is watching them play in the sun and feeling the contentment that comes with it. But the sun begins to set, the day is coming to a close, and she calls the children in from their play. They, of course, still want to play and beg for more time. The birds are still out, and the sheep have not been brought in. She finally gives in and allows them to play until the sun completely sets. This poem has four stanzas that give the feeling of unbridled joy with a benevolent guardian.
This poem is about laughter around the world. The laughter of nature; woods, streams, hills, and air. Then the grasshopper laughs followed by three little girls. The girls do not laugh with giggles but with loud unbridled laughter. Then the birds laugh, and the author calls for the reader to join in the laughter. The poem is in three stanzas and has a feeling of eager joy.
The Little Black Boy
Written in the late 1700’s this poem would not have seemed as racially disagreeable as it does in the twenty-first century. This poem is about a little African boy sitting on his mother’s lap and discussing souls, angels, God and an “English child.” He asks his warm and comforting mother why he is black, but his soul is white. Since the English child is white, he must be more angelic. His mother shows him the rising son and tells him that is where God lives. All the sun touches feels the love of God. Their black skin is shade, but the sun’s beams still reach their souls.
The child takes this to devote himself to the care of the white child, sheltering him until he is old. Then he will help the white child on his trip to heaven, “to lean in joy upon our father’s knee.” Then the white child will love him, and they will be equal. The stanzas in this poem have a more noble feel. It is more of a ballad than the preceding poems.
The Voice of the Ancient Bard
In this poem, the author speaks to young men. He compares them to the early day and tells them to clear their minds of the doubt. But, to keep clear of the folly of women. He warns they can snare a young man, especially the manipulating women. He warns them to take care not to stumble over the bones of those who have been beaten by trying to lead instead of being led by those with more experience.
The Ecchoing Green
This poem is told through the voice of a young person who is playing a sport on the Ecchoing Green. The older people are watching the game and cheering them on. They remember when they played the sports and the joy of the game. Then evening comes, and the mothers take them home to bed.
The Chimney Sweeper
“The Chimney Sweeper” is about a young boy who is sold into the trade very young after the death of his mother. Boys as young as four were put to work as chimney sweepers. They were kept thin so they could climb down the flues. Many boys died of suffocation or fire, and since the soot was a carcinogen, they were in danger of Chimney Sweeps Cancer. This kept up until 1875.
The boy in the poem has a friend who cries when they shave his head, so he won’t be attacked by mice or have lice. He tries to calm his friend and that night Tom Dacre, the little friend, has a dream about thousands of young chimney sweepers who are taken by an Angel after they die. He takes them to the river so they can finally get clean and play in the sunshine. The Angel tells him he is a good boy and God loves him.
The next morning the boys pick up their bags and go back to work. Even though the weather is cold, young Tom is warm because he knows what is waiting for him at the end of his life.
The Divine Image
This poem is about a prayer. All people pray to Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, thinking they are part of God. Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love are all part of God, but also part of man and child. The poem adds that every person whether they are “heathen, Turk or jew” have God living in them if they practice mercy, love, and pity.
The poem is separated in five stanzas. Each line has three or four beats. This is the kind of poetic form commonly used in songs. This form was chosen to make the song like a hymn for the religious tone.
The author has a dream about a mother emmet or ant. She gets lost and wonders if her children are missing her. The author begins to weep with the lost mother and her fears for her orphaned children. The beetle, the “watchmen of the night” uses its light to show her the way home.
The Little Girl Lost
This poem is about a little girl that is carried away by animals. They keep her safe because she is pure and innocent. The poem has a funereal tone as the girls sleep that the mother weeps over seems to be her death. The animals gently carry her soul away as if they were the innocent angels.
The Little Girl Found
In this poem, the parents of the little girl are devastated without her. The wander the world that is empty since she is gone. Their health fails, and the first to fall is the mother. The father carries her until they meet the lion who is the representation of Jesus. Unlike the little girl, the parents must be checked to see if they are good enough to join their daughter, “Then he stalk’d around, Smelling to his prey.” Then he licks their hands and tells them they can join their daughter in his palace. The family spends the rest of eternity in happiness without fears.
The Little Boy Lost
The little boy loses his father in this poem. As opposed to the Little Girl poems, the little boy is deserted by his father who leaves him. The poem has a lonely feel of the abandoned child.
The Little Boy Found
In this poem, the little boy is found by God and led back to his mother. This poem has a bit of a feeling of the abandoned boy whose soul is taken to his dead mother in Heaven. Both this poem and the one prior have two stanzas.
A Cradle Song
This poem seems to be a lullaby. The mother is singing a song for the new baby. In it, the baby’s smiles have the power to bring peace to heaven and earth. The poem likens the baby to the baby Jesus.
The joy of Spring celebrated with music from the birds and the animals. The beginning of the year. Happy boys and girls. Sweet, happy babies. The author says the reader will crow with happiness as the crow does. Then he praises the Lamb (Jesus) comforts the author, and they welcome the year together.
This poem is a short two stanzas of a song to a tree with flowers and the sparrow who is sitting on the branches and singing a sad song.
This is a child’s poem. Spoken in words with a child’s voice. It has a feeling of a very young child or toddler. The Child is questioning a lamb about it’s origins and place in the universe. The Lamb, of course, symbolizes Jesus and the scriptures of the Sermon to the Children. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Isa 11:6.
In “The Lamb” the child questions if the lamb knows who made him and who provides its food and clothing. After asking the questions, he answers them by saying the one who made him is like a child, innocent and meek. He calls himself a Lamb. This links Jesus with the lamb and the child into a bond. Then he ends by blessing the Lamb (Jesus), lamb and child in God’s name.
There are two stanzas in the poem. Each stanza has five couplets. The last two lines repeat which it makes feel like a song.
The last poem in the “Songs of Innocence.” This poem has the angels keeping sleepers safe from the wild animals and dangers of the night. Then the lion (man) accepts the Lamb (Jesus) and is “wash’d in life’s river” (baptized) and its bright mane shines like gold (halo) and it will “guard o’er the fold,” taking care of the weak.
Songs of Experience
This poem is in four stanzas. It begins by calling for the reader to pay attention to the author’s words. A warning from someone who has heard the word of God. The author calls for the reader to repent before the break of day and the Resurrection of Jesus.
In this poem, the Earth is answering the author. It begs the author to release the chains that have held it down from seeking Love. The chains of ignorance and jealousy by the “Selfish father of men.”
The Clod and the Pebble
This is a poem of love in three stanzas. “Love seeketh not Itself to please,” is one of the most used quotes from Blake and the words are from a clod of clay. Then the Pebble disagrees and says that love is selfish. The clod thinks that love builds a Heaven in Hell and the pebble thinks that love builds a Hell in Heaven.
As opposed to the “Holy Thursday” poem in Songs of Innocence this one takes a different look at the fresh young faces who raise their voices in songs of praise on Holy Thursday at St. Paul’s Cathedral. With this poem, the author points out the suffering of the poor children. That they starve until they die and go to a place where the sun shines, and the babies are never hungry.
The Chimney Sweeper
The young chimney sweeper in this poem is black with ash. While his parents are clean and attend church, he is still working. He hides his sadness and pain from his parents, so they think he is happy with his job. The people close their eyes to his suffering and praise the church and king.
The nurse in this poem has a very different viewpoint than the nurse in the Songs of Innocence. This nurse admonishes the children for playing in the sun and warns them to prepare for winter. She tells them not to waste their time with play.
The Sick Rose
Two stanzas of a poem to a sick flower. A worm has made it’s way into the flower and is killing it. It could also be a poem to an ill woman, Rose, who has been hurt by the worm that came into her bed and led to her death.
This is a five stanza poem to a fly. The author brushes the fly off his sleeve and then compares himself to the fly. They both dance, drink and sing. They live their lives as best they can until a Higher Power brushes him off as he did the fly. So until then, he can be happy. Life and death are in God’s hands.
An old man is dreaming of an Angel who comes the first time when he is young. At that time the Angel guards him and watches over him while he is strong. Then when he is old the Angel comes to take him away.
This is a poem of six stanzas with the first and last stanzas the same. The poem extols the majesty and the fearsome beauty of the tiger. The author asks if the same Hand that formed the frightening tiger formed the peaceful Lamb. Could the same Hand that created evil have created Jesus?
My Pretty Rose Tree
Although this poem is to a rose tree, it has the tones of an unhappy love affair or marriage. The author is offered love from a young woman but turns away from her for the “Pretty Rose Tree” he has at home. Then jealousy makes love at home turn away from him. “And her thorns were my only delight.”
Two stanzas about a sun-flower. But it has the poetic feel of the passing of days until the Resurrection of Christ. The sun-flower counts the days following the sun until the “traveler’s journey is done.” Then the dead rise from their graves and go to heaven which is where the “sun-flower wishes to go.”
This is four lines to a Lily. It praises the lily above the Rose with its thorns, and the Sheep has a horn. There is nothing to stain its beauty.
The Garden of Love
The author goes back to visit a garden he played in as a child. Now a forbidding chapel has been built in the chapel with the gates closed. The garden is covered in tombstones. Instead of love and happiness, the garden is now scorn and judgment. There are priests who wear black and use their strict rules to bind joy and desire.
The Little Vagabond
This is a poem that says if a church were more fun more people would go. The little vagabond, who is a shiftless traveler, tells his mother that the ale house is warmer than the church. If the church served beer, everyone would be happier, and there would be more of a congregation. Everyone would get along, and God would be happy to see his children happy.
Not an ode to the beauty of London. This is more of a real look at the ugly parts. The author points out the despair in faces, the fear in voices and the sad cry of the chimney sweepers. Then he points to the stains of blood from a soldier on the King’s home and the criticisms of the church. At night there are the curses of the Harlot’s that the children hear. And the harlots causing the ends of marriages.
The Human Abstract
With this poem, there is a closer look at mercy, pity, peace, and love. It is taking the same concepts of “The Divine Image” and delving deeper into them. The author says that there would be no pity without poverty. No need of mercy if everyone is happy. Without fear, you wouldn’t notice peace. All of these things lead to a more selfish love. Cruelty spreads itself into the human brain using humility and deceit.
Two stanzas about the birth of a child. The father cries, the mother cries and the infant cries. The poem feels like the baby doesn’t want to face the world and the parents are worried.
A Poison Tree
This poem is about anger. The author has two different ways to handle anger. He can discuss his anger with his friend and let it go, or keep it to himself and let it fester. Then he envisions the anger growing into a tree and the friend eating fruit from it and dying.
A Little Boy Lost
This poem is heartbreaking. A little boy thinks that God is love and the priests bound him in chains and burn him. His parents weep but can do nothing to stop it. This is relating to the Crucifixion of Christ. The author asks if such things could be done on Albion’s (Britain’s) shore.
A Little Girl Lost
This poem begins with a message to future generations. Once love was thought crime. A young man and woman meet in the garden. The girl is afraid to tell her father because he will see her as lost to God and condemned to hell because she had sex without marriage.
The last poem in the book. It closes with an admonishment to those who would pass judgments and stop Love from blossoming. The author says that he doesn’t fear the cruelty and judgments of the church and people because he knows Jesus died for his sins and forgave him. Whatever they do doesn’t matter.
William Blake Biography
William Blake was born in London in 1757 to James and Catherine Blake. His father was a hosier and William attended school until he was ten years old. After that, he was taught by his mother, enrolled in a drawing class and read on the subjects that interested him. Although the family disagreed with the church, they were quite religious. Most of William’s poetry has religious undertones.
At fifteen William was apprenticed to an engraver where he stayed for the next seven years. After that, he became a professional engraver. But, instead of practicing that profession, he enrolled in the Royal Academy to study art.
In 1782 at the age of twenty-five, William met and married Catherine. At the time of their marriage, she was illiterate. He taught her to read and write and how to engrave. She was invaluable in his career. She boosted him when his was low and helped with his work.
Shortly after his marriage, William opened a print shop. He began working with radical people of the time, including feminists, dissidents, artists, philosophers, and revolutionaries. He supported the American and French revolutions.
William Blake was a poet, a painter, and a printmaker, as well as an engraver. During his own lifetime, he was mostly unrecognized but is now considered to be one of the foremost leaders in poetry and art of the Romantic Age. In 2002 the BBC ran a poll, and the people of Briton voted him number thirty-eight of the one hundred greatest Britons of all time.
William’s art was almost all of a religious slant. Especially after he seemed to have experienced visions of Christ and his Apostles along with hearing a chant from monks and priests in a procession while praying and studying art in the Westminster Abbey in his early twenties.
Later in life William finally managed to sell some of his art. It was mostly his Bible illustrations. Before his death, William was at work on watercolors for Dante Inferno commissioned by his friend, John Linnell. He was so devoted to finishing it that he left his sick bed and worked on it the day he died. He is said to have spent his last bit of money on a pencil to continue the work.
His wife, Catherine was by his bedside, and when she, in tears, started to leave, he told her to stay and said he would draw her because she was his angel. The drawing has never been lost. After singing hymns and assuring his wife he would be with her, he died on August 12, 1827.
His friend Linnell paid for his funeral and Catherine went to work as a housekeeper. She spent the rest of her life talking to him as if he was in the room. When someone wanted to buy some of his art, she would say she had to check with him first.
When she died four years later, she was cheerful. Catherine called out to William as if he was in the next room and said she was coming to him. They share a grave in Borough of Islington, London.