How does William Blake develops the concepts of Innocence and Experience in his poetry?

William Blake described innocence and experience as “the two Contrary States of the human soul.” His theory of Contraries is summarised in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” A longer passage in the same work develops this concept of necessary opposition in terms of a “Prolific” force and a “Devouring” force.

The essence of Blake’s theory is that, in some paradoxical way, it is possible for the contraries of innocence and experience to co-exist within a human being. The crime of “religion” was its attempt “to destroy existence” by ignoring or minimising the essential oppositions in human nature. Religion tried to follow a process that meant the reduction of the rational faculty to arithmetic and the emotions to sentimentality. The morality that based itself on such reductions—the morality of “Thou shalt not”-seemed to Blake nothing less than conscious or unconscious hypocrisy.

A study of the poems in the two groups shows the emotional tensions between the two contrary states. In the “Songs of Innocence”, Blake expresses the happiness and innocence of a child’s first thoughts about life. To the child, the world is one of happiness, beauty, and love. At that stage of life, the sunshine of love is so radiant that human suffering appears only temporary and fleeting. The “Songs of Experience” are poles apart from the child-like mind of the “Songs of Innocence”. Some of them were written in intentional contrast, and have identical titles in the two series. The poems in the second group record the wounds and cruelties of the civilized world. Some of them are bitter comments on the restraints forged by custom and law. Here Blake deplores the dominance of reason, religion, law, and morality, and he deplores the suppression of natural impulses, and more especially the suppression of the sexual impulse.

In the Introduction to the first series, Blake represents a laughing child as his inspiration for his poems. And in the poems that follow in this series, Blake gives us his vision of the world as it appears to the child or as it affects the child. And this world is one of purity, joy, and security. The children are themselves pure, whether their skin is black or white. They are compared to lambs “whose innocent call” they hear. Both “child” and “lamb” serve as symbols for Christ. Joy is everywhere in the “Joy but two days old”; in the leaping and shouting of the little ones; in the sun, in the bells, in the voices of security. There is hardly a poem in which a symbol of protection, a guardian figure of some kind, does not occur. In The Echoing Green, the old folk are close by, while the children play. Elsewhere there is the shepherd watching over his sheep’; there is the mother, the nurse, the lion, the angels, and, most important of all, God Himself. In A Dream, there are the glow-worm and the beetle to guide an ant.

In the “Songs of Experience”, Blake’s mood is one of disillusionment. Instead of innocence, joy, and security, Blake finds guilt, misery, and tyranny in the world. The protective guardians have disappeared and in their place are the tyrants. Chief among the tyrants is the fearful god, Urizen (though he is nowhere named in these poems). Urizen’s deputies on earth are those who occupy positions of authority—the king, the priest, the parents, the nurse. A specific reference to Urizen is made only in three poems. In Earth’s Answer, he is described as “Starry Jealousy” and “Selfish Father of Men”. In The Human Abstract, he is represented by such personifications as “Cruelty” and “Mystery”. In A Divine Image, we again have such personifications as “Cruelty”, “Jealousy”, “Terror”, and “Secrecy”. But Urizen’s dark shadow hovers over most of the other poems in this group. Urizen hates life and joy, and has bound the world in his iron law of prohibition.

In The Garden of Love a chapel has been built on the green, and the prohibition “Thou shalt not” is written on the door. A Little Boy Lost depicts the cruelty of the church and its priests, a little boy being burnt to death because he dared to think for himself. The Little Vagabond is critical of the church for its unnecessary austerities. The Schoolboy shows the schoolmaster as a tyrannical influence.  London shows us the misery of the blackened chimney-sweepers and the thoughtless cruelty of the king under whose orders the hapless soldier bleeds to death. The poem also makes a reference to the loveless marriages which compel men to beget illegitimate children in the homes of prostitutes. In the same poem, we have the oft-quoted phrase “mind-forged manacles” which conveys the restraints that society imposes upon its members.

The rigours of sexual morality are depicted in A Little Girl Lost, The Sick Rose, The Angel, and Ah, Sunflower. The Sick Rose shows the destructive effects of sexual repression. In The Angel, the maiden realises too late what she has missed. Ah, Sunflower shows the youth “pining away with desire”, and the “pale virgin shrouded in snow”, because both of them were denied sexual fulfilment.

In the “Songs of Innocence”, the prevailing symbol is the lamb, which is an innocent creature of God and which also symbolises the child Christ. In the “Songs of Experience”, the chief symbol is the tiger “burning bright in the forests of the night.” The tiger burns metaphorically with rage and quickly becomes for some a symbol of anger and passion. The poet asks a crucial question here. Did God who made the lamb also make the tiger ? The lamb, innocent and pretty, seems the work of a kindly, comprehensible Creator. The splendid but terrifying tiger makes us realise that God’s purposes are not so easily understood. The tiger represents the created universe in its violent and terrifying aspects. It also symbolises violent and terrifying forces within the individual man, and these terrifying forces have to be faced and fully recognised. The two poems called The Lamb and The Tiger do, indeed, represent two contrary states of the human soul. No contrast could have been more vivid and more striking.

There are a number of poems in the two groups which may be considered in pairs because they have identical titles. In the first series, for instance, The Chimney-Sweeper, while conveying the misery of the little victims of society, emphasises the contentment and sense of security of the soot-covered boys. An angel comes and tells Tom that, if he would be a good boy, he would have God for his father and that he would never lack joy. But, in the second group, the poem with the same title The Chimney Sweeper emphasises the misery of the chimney-sweeper and the cruelty not only of priests and kings but also of his parents. The wretched chimney-sweeper here is clothed in “the clothes of death”, while in the first poem the chimney-sweeper went leaping and laughing to bathe in a river.

In the first Holy Thursday, poor children sit “with radiance of their own”; while in the second Holy Thursday, the poet deplores the fact that there should be so many poor and hungry children depending on charity in a country which is otherwise rich and fruitful. The second poem is very moving, as it was intended to be. We thus have pictures of contrary states.

Then there are two poems having the title Nurse’s Song. In the first of these, the nurse is a kind-hearted, indulgent woman who gladly allows the children more time to play, with the result that the little ones leap and shout and laugh. In the second of these poems, the face of the nurse “turns green and pale”; she thinks play to be a waste of time; she speaks of the “dews of night” which will soon arise: and she speaks of the coming mature years of the children as a sham and a deceit. The voice that speaks in this poem is not that of loving care but of sour age. The most fearful thing about experience is that it breaks the free life of the imagination and gives a deadly blow to the cheerful human spirit.

Infant Sorrow provides an antithesis to both Infant Joy and Introduction(to the first series). In Infant Sorrow, Blake shows that even in the very beginning of childhood there is a spirit of unrest and revolt. The child is shown as struggling and striving in his father’s hands, and is compared to “a fiend hid in a cloud”, whereas the child in the Introduction is like an angel sitting on a cloud and laughing. In Infant Sorrow, the human creature feels itself a prisoner at the start of its existence and, after its first efforts to resist, angrily gives up the struggle.

Then there are the two poems called The Human Abstract and A Divine Image, both of which provide a contrast to The Divine Image of the first group. In The Divine Image, mercy, pity, peace, and love are human as well as divine attributes. In The Human Abstract, the poet shows how the same virtues can be distorted and used as a cover for base or cowardly motives. Speaking through the hypocrite’s lips, the poet goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing how hypocrisy claims to observe these cardinal virtues. The Divine Image depicts human nature in ugly colours.

But, while there is evil and misery in many of the songs of experience, the note of hope and optimism is not wanting. As the prevailing mood and atmosphere of the “Songs of Experience” is one of depression and desolation, just as the prevailing mood and atmosphere of the “Songs of Innocence” is one of freedom and joy.