Blake’s Dialectic in the Songs of Innocence and Experience

2 February 2017

Blake’s dialectic is to be found everywhere in the Songs of Innocence and Experience – night and day, winter and spring, wilderness and Eden, etc. As Mitchell writes (1989:46), ‘dialogue and dialectic of contraries constitute the master code of Blake’s text’.

Bass (1970:209) adds, ‘The total effect of Innocence and Experience is one of balanced opposites, each fulfilling and completing the other’.Moreover, according to John Beer, the ‘contrary states’ of the human soul are dialectic in themselves. Blake intended for his reader to come into a space where he/she could encounter the two contraries in dialogue, within the imagination, and come to a sense of resolution. The most important contrary relationship in the Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), of course, is that between Innocence and Experience.For Blake, as a quick glance of the Songs will show, Innocence was largely associated with childhood, and Experience with adulthood; but, as a more methodical analysis will show, these associations are not absolute, for instance, while such poems as ‘The Lamb’ represent a meek virtue, poems like ‘The Tyger’ exhibit opposing, darker forces. As Marsh (2001:30) notes, ‘It would be wrong to think of Experience as any wiser than Innocence’ or any more cynical or world-weary; it would be equally wrong to think of Innocence as more joyful. There are elements of both in each.

Blake’s Dialectic in the Songs of Innocence and Experience Essay Example

For Blake, these were virtual time-spaces or mind-states, with portals from one to the other appearing in either world. And it was not the road to or from one or the other that concerned Blake, but rather the road between them which eventually led beyond all dualities. As Marsh (2001:30) notes, for Blake ‘it appears that the route towards wholeness and a ‘true’ vision lies through combination of the two, not rejection of either of them. ’ However, the collection as a whole explores the value and limitations of two different perspectives on the world.Many of the poems fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience, for instance, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’, ‘Holy Thursday’, etc. Blake does not identify himself wholly with either view; he stands outside innocence and experience, in a distanced position from which he hopes to be able to recognise and correct the fallacies of both. In particular, he pits himself against despotic authority, restrictive morality, and institutionalised religion; his great insight is into the way these separate modes of control work together to quash what is most holy in human beings.

The style of the Songs of Innocence and Experience is simple and direct, but the language and the rhythms are meticulously crafted, and the ideas they explore are often deceptively complex. Nicholas Marsh is particularly good at parsing out the metre of the Songs, showing their inherent musicality, a musicality that differs depending on where the song is placed along Blake’s Innocence-Experience textual range.For instance, ‘The Shepherd’ in The Songs of Innocence, Marsh (2001:16) points out ‘is written in regular anapaests, a metre which gives it a more bouncy and tripping rhythm,’ thus presenting a ‘carefree and uncomplicated style [that] enhances the simple and positive picture presented’. In contrast, the songs of Experience often combine a ‘lumpy and irregular rhythm’ that ‘adds to [a] destabilising effect of metrical irregularity’ (Marsh 2001:18-24).He shows this in his metrical analysis of the ‘Introduction’ to The Songs of Experience, which has a much more complex rhyme-scheme than The Songs of Innocence, reducing the ‘chiming sing-song effect of rhyme’ in the Innocence version, and introducing us ‘to a more complicated relationships between sounds,’ and between poems, and books of poems, in the combined Songs (Marsh 2001:18). Many of the poems are narrative in style, for example, ‘The Little Boy Lost’ and ‘The Little Boy Found’; others, like ‘The Sick Rose’ and ‘The Divine Image,’ make their arguments through symbolism or by means of abstract concepts.Some of Blake’s favourite rhetorical techniques are personification and the reworking of Biblical symbolism and language, such as in ‘A Poison Tree’ from the Songs of Experience.

Blake frequently employs the familiar meters of ballads, nursery rhymes, and hymns. ‘The Lamb’, by William Blake is a poem written in 1789. It is about a physical object, an animal, but it addresses the much grander topics of God and creation. ‘The Lamb’ has two stanzas, each containing five rhymed couplets.Repetition in the first and last couplet of each stanza makes these lines into a refrain, and helps to give the poem its song-like quality. The soft vowel sounds contribute to this effect, and also suggest the bleating of a lamb or the lisping character of a child’s chant. The poem is a child’s song, in the form of a question and answer.

The first stanza is rural and descriptive, while the second focuses on abstract spiritual matters and contains explanation and analogy. The poem begins with the child’s question, which is both naive and profound, ‘Little Lamb, who made thee? (l. 1) The speaker, a child, asks the lamb about its origins: how it came into being, how it acquired its particular manner of feeding, its ‘softest clothing’ of wool, and its ‘tender voice. ’ (ll. 6-7) It is a simple question, and yet the child is also tapping into the deep and timeless questions that all human beings have, about their own origins and the nature of creation. The poem’s apostrophic form contributes to the effect of innocence, since the situation of a child talking to an animal is a believable one, and not simply a literary contrivance.By answering his own question in the next stanza, the child converts it into a rhetorical one, thus counteracting the initial spontaneous sense of the poem.

The answer is presented as a riddle, and even though it is an easy one—child’s play—this also contributes to an underlying sense of ironic knowingness in the poem. The child’s answer, however, reveals his confidence in his simple Christian faith and his innocent acceptance of its teachings. He attempts a riddling answer to his own question: the lamb was made by one who ‘calls himself a Lamb. ’ (l. 4) The lamb of course symbolises Jesus. The traditional image of Jesus as a lamb underscores the Christian values of gentleness, meekness, and peace. The image of the child is also associated with Jesus: in the Gospel, Jesus displays a special solicitude for children, and the Bible’s depiction of Jesus in his childhood shows him as pure and innocent.

These are also the characteristics from which the child-speaker approaches the ideas of nature and of God. This poem, like many of the Songs of Innocence, accepts what Blake saw as the more positive aspects of conventional Christian belief.But it does not provide a completely adequate doctrine, because it fails to account for the presence of suffering and evil in the world. The companion poem to the previously discussed one, found in the Songs of Experience, is ‘The Tyger’. It is clear, since the Lamb is mentioned in the Tyger, that these two poems are intended to be paired and compared. No more obvious contrast can be imagined than that of the fearsome Tyger and the gentle Lamb. Taken together, the two poems give a perspective that includes the good and clear as well as the terrible and impenetrable.

These poems complement each other to produce a fuller account than either offers independently. In the first stanza, the speaker introduces the tiger, describing it as ‘fearful. ’ (l. 4) He presents a question to the reader by asking what kind of immortal being could conceive and create such a creature as a tiger, whose superficial beauty belies its deadly, ferocious appetite: ‘What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry? ’(ll. 3-4) In the next three stanzas, the speaker explores the possible answers.Perhaps the frightful creature was formed by a winged being closely associated with fire – Lucifer. Stanza four makes allusions to a smith by mentioning ‘hammer’, ‘furnace’, and ‘anvil’.

(ll. 13-15) The poem’s pounding trochaic rhythm seems like that hammer ringing on that anvil. Stanza five proposes that perhaps God himself created the tiger, and delves into the ubiquitous theme of good vs. evil. ‘When the stars threw down their spears…

’ (l. 17) refers to Lucifer and his band of dark angels being banished from Heaven. ‘Did he smile his work to see?Did he who made the lamb make thee? ’ (ll. 19-20) The speaker’s address consists of a series of rhetorical questions about the Divinity or other immortal being who could create the Tyger and if that power is also the creator of the Lamb. He is questioning how could the same God who made a gentle creature like a lamb also be capable of creating an animal like a tiger. The last stanza echoes the first, with one simple word change. Instead of ‘Could frame thy fearful symmetry,’ (l.

4) the speaker asks ‘Dare frame thy fearful symmetry. ’ (l. 4) In other words, the final question asks if an immortal creator would dare to create on earth and in the soul of mankind a tiger symbolising the fear and hate without which there would not exist the contrarieties of trust and love. The tiger, of course, represents many symbols. It could stand for evil, in general, or it could allude to the powerful forces of Nature, which was one of the key elements in Romanticism. For example, a tiger is beautiful, powerful, and agile, but at the same time, it is a terrifying animal capable of creating profound fear and death.

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