Songs of Innocence
First, etymology. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge; the gnostics were a quasi-Christian sect who believed that the path to heaven was through learning secret spiritual knowledge. One of the founders of gnosticism was traditionally held to be Simon Magus, a magician who confronted St Peter (Acts 8) and lost. Thus gnosis is often held to be bad in Christian tradition and alchemists and those who summon demons such as Faustus are, um, demonised. After all, the devil was released when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The words innocence and ignorance both mean not-gnosis; thus if gnosis is bad innocence is necessarily good. (Bizarrely the word 'nice' which derives from gnosis means exact and has only recently been made equivalent to its opposite, innocence.)
Blake himself believed that "Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance".
Gothic literature, such as The Monk, is predicated on the idea that the secret knowledge that Matilda uses to summon demons is inherently evil (and that virginity, lacking carnal knowledge, is inherently good).
So there is a poetic predisposition to assume that a Song of Innocence is about something that is nice and Blake plays on this. For example The Echoing Green depicts a rural village green with sun, church bells, singing birds and children playing while the old folks look on. But when the sunset comes (is this a metaphor for old age and death?) we find "sport no more seen / On the darkening green." Rural innocence and pastoral pleasures. Where is Baudelaire when you need him? He would add the counterpoint of rural poverty, of peasants fighting to make the sullen soil productive, of the essential insecurity of agricultural life as the vagaries of the weather take the community on the rollercoaster between plenty and famine, of cold and hunger and disease and old people struggling against arthritis to keep ploughing and planting and harvesting.
The Little Black Boy is a poem that raises interesting questions: is it racist? On the one hand, lines such as:
- "And I am black, but O my soul is white!"
- "But I am black, as if bereaved of light."
sit uncomfortably with today's political correctness as does the ending in which the black boy offers to shade the white boy from excessive heat and stroke the white boy's hair "And be like him, and he will than love me."
On the other hand, Blake's intention was probably to suggest that black boys and white boys were equally alike, a sentiment borne out later in The Divine Form "And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew". In fact, Blake is probably a political radical and these poems are intended to be progressive.
So the next question is: is a text racist because of what it says to us or should we fonsider the intention of the author? And this is complicated by the assertion by some that the meaning of a text is what it says to the reader no matter what the author intended.
Furthermore, the definition of racism arrived after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry suggested whether something was racist or not depended upon the perception of the victim.
But the western tradition is that whether and action is sinful or not (or criminal or not) depends upon the intention of the actor. These are difficult questions.
Blake's choice of metre is always interesting. Holy Thursday is written in iambic heptameters although 6th and 8th lines start with trochees. This can be used to emphasise a line, as can a missed beat (as in line one, after the word 'Thursday') and added syllables (for example, 'innocent' in line one needs to be pronounced inn'cent to keep in with the metre). Such variation of an overall metre can be used to great creative effect or can just be there to prevent the metre of the poem overpowering the words and the sense. However, in this poem it is difficult to see why Blake should be emphasising these particular words or lines; one is left to conclude that he was a little cavalier about the metre. I always think the poet has a choice: if it is going to be free verse fine but if you are using metre either use it all the time or, if you do alter it, do so for a purpose.
For example, in the next poem, Night, Blake sets up a kind of call and response effect by having two different metre schemes within each verse. The first four lines are the argument, the second the counterpoint; the first four set the scene and the second four comment on the scene. This poem works well because of the metre.
Blake seeks simplicity. He rarely uses a difficult or complicated word, preferring the multiple repetition of simple words. In Infant Joy the poet uses the simplest of language to create a conversation between a narrator and a two-day-old baby!
Personally, I prefer it when Blake explores his vocabulary:
Troubled, wildered and forlorn,Dark, benighted, travel-wornin The Dream describes an 'emmet' (an ant) who has lost her way in the grass.
It is often difficult to judge whether a rhyme is good or bad because the pronunciation of vowel sounds can change with time, region and class. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Blake is as cavalier with rhyme as he is with metre. For example, Nurse's Song has internal rhymes between 'children' and both 'green' and 'down'; A Dream rhymes 'shade' and 'bed'.
The Problem of Evil
On Another's Sorrow suggests that God cannot watch someone suffer or be sad without sympathising. Was Blake really not aware of the theological Problem of Evil which asks why a supposedly good God can watch, for example, an innocent baby suffer without doing anything about it?
Some of the images Blake uses seem to be plain wrong. Although 'the starry floor' in the Introduction to Songs of Experience could refer to dewy grass, to suggest that 'into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames water flow' in Holy Thursday (the Songs of Innocence version) seems to confuse up with down.
Songs of Experience
Many of these poems have the same titles as in the Songs of Innocence and thus, presumably, are intended to be reflections of counterpoints or commentaries on the previous poems.
Suddenly, however, we are into territory that I at least understand better and, perhaps because of this, I can start to appreciate the poetry more. In Earth's Answer, Blake asks:
It is a strong image and the first two lines break the rhyming scheme of the rest of the poem making them stand out.
Does the sower
Sow by night,Or the ploughman in darkness plough?
There is another nice image in The Sick Rose in which a worm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroywhich seems to suggest that the serpent of sexual love is also the worm of death.
Blake seems to have had a bit of a thing about roses and their thorns. In My Pretty Rose Tree Blake describes how he resists temptation only to be punished by jealousy:
A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said, 'I've a pretty rose tree,'
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.
Then I went to my pretty rose tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.
There is a clever little conceit in The Clod and the Pebble. The clod says:
'Love seeketh not itself to please
Nor for itself has any carer,But for another gives its ease,And builds a heaven in hell's despair.'
To which the pebble replies:
'Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite'Two sides of the coin!
And then, suddenly, wham! We are into politics. Blake, for his time, is astoundingly radical:
The Holy Thursday in Songs of Experience starts by asking:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land, -
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?We might ask David Cameron and George Osborne that question.
And The Chimney-Sweeper blames his father and mother who are praying in the church:
'And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me on injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.'
The Garden of Love makes the point so sharply that it is worth quoting in its entirety:
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou Shalt Not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars my joys and desires.This, incidentally, makes my point about rhyme and metre. The final two lines of the poem adopt a different, internal, rhyming scheme and a different scansion. This makes them stand out like a sore thumb. They also seem to require another line, so that the poem feels unfinished, which adds to the edgy atmosphere. It is a tremendous poem.
His next poem, The Little Vagabond, has the delightful idea that if churches were alehouses not only would attendance be a lot better but God would be a rather more jovial (OK, wrong god) character:
And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him and give him both drink and apparel.
The comes London, the final stanza of which was deemed too revolutionary to make its way from Blake's notebook into print. Again, I give it in full:
I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hearI adore the mind-forged manacles!
How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.Wow! That is revolutionary.
But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before
Songs of Experience includes the famous Tiger poem which is deservedly classic but more people should know about the radical politics that this slim volume espouses. It scarcely seems credible that the song Jerusalem, whose lyrics are by Blake, should be adored by the establishment to the extent that many people would like to see it as a national anthem for England. Are they aware of Blake's politics?