William Blake was so central to the British Romanticism period that the dates of his birth and death mark the beginning and end of this important era (1757-1827). The documentary explained much of what you need to know about the period and writers important to this lesson.
As you read through the poems, try to go beyond the feeling that they are cute children’s rhymes. Blake was a radical thinker, who was even at one point arrested and put on trial for sedition. He was a great supporter of Rousseau and the ideals of the French revolution and wanted the same equality, egalitarianism and liberty for the people of England. He was a champion of the working class, who abhorred organized religion and the pains it inflicts on children. Songs of Innocence was published first on its own. Songs of Experience was published later and presents a companion poem to each song in Songs of Innocence. The differences between the two (or more) versions of each poem does not represent perspectives of different people or the difference between a child’s and adult’s perspectives. Each pair of poems shows the same event or situation presented through the eyes of the same person. Innocence version shows the situation through the “rose colored glasses” of propaganda, while Experience version shows the reality of the situation.
It is key to think about what the words “innocence” and “Experience” mean. How do we apply it differently to children or adults? Blake uses ALL these definitions in these songs simultaneously. This is his greatest contribution to the genre of children’s literature. Blake realized the true potential of writing for children: using the same exact words and tone (Dual Tone), Blake was able to relate different messages to different audiences. He was able to criticize King and Church without getting arrested for treason.
Without being condescending to children and without appearing “childish” to adults, Blake radicalized children’s literature by inserting subversive political layers of meaning that were meant to provide a lesson to adults. These books were too expensive to produce. They were not meant for children. Blake uses children, their perspective, their predicaments, as a way for adults to see the injustices and hypocrisies they create. In Songs of Innocence, Blake presents a “rose colored glasses” reality that on the surface seems “positive.” But look deeper, in Experience where the songs reveal the sad and often violent reality.
The treatment of children in “The Chimney Sweep” and “Little Boy Lost” songs, for example. The lesson was not directed towards children because, as we have seen in the video, according to the Romantics, children were perfect as they are. The lessons were directed to the grown-ups who the Romantics believed were corrupt. They were the ones who were really ignorant. Both the chimney sweeper and the little boy lost are given hope. The same hope Christian was given. But Both children die (as Christian died) to gain peace and relief from their hard life. “The Nurse’s Song” is thought to be about Barbauld, whom Blake knew and did not very much like. “Holy Thursday” is about Sunday Schools, which he despised. What were the issues most important to Romantics and how do they show in Blake’s poems? Look at the “School Boy” and explain how did Blake think children should be educated?
The period between the publication of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience was a time when the noble ideals of the French Revolution gave way to one of the bloodiest periods in French history known as The Reign of Terror and the Great Terror. Blake and other British Radicals, who saw the original ideas of the revolution as a hope for the world, became disillusioned and disappointed. Songs of Experience is very much a reaction to this disappointment. In the book, in every song, Blake tears off the veil of “innocence” to reveal the true, ugly, violent, horrific face of the world as it is.
In “Holy Thursday” the Experience version the children are the same ones at the same church as in The Innocence version. But the person describing the scene, the speaker, sees it for what it really is: forcing poor, starving children to pray at a church that doesn’t really care for them but only cares for the “show” of it. Blake believes that in a country as rich as England there should not be ANY starving chimney sweepers. The song is angry and realistic, unlike the Innocence version which paints an unrealistic “pretty” picture.
“The Tyger” is the counter part for “The Lamb.” In “The Tyger” the same child who questions the lamb is questioning the Tyger, also God’s creation. The tiger is a predator, a violent, killing machine. The little child asks how is it possible for the same God that created the lamb, the child, and Jesus, to also have created the tiger and other “evils” in the world. It is a poem that asks, “how can God allow such horrible things to happen in the world He created?” The fact that the question is asked by a child who, according to writers like Barbauld, was supposed to be incapable of deep thought and not allowed to question the wisdom of God, makes this poem SUPER radical. It shows a child questioning God and everyone who believes in his “works.” It is blasphemous. Hidden behind the facade of a children’s book, Blake is able to criticize adult society with impunity.
In your comments, identify some of the other realities Blake exposes.
This poetry, among many others by the Romantic poets and thinkers, paved the way to reforms and legal protections for children and other poor and disadvantaged people. But as you know, we still struggle with all these issues today.
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