Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

by William Blake
Publisher: Dover Publications
Trade Paperback, 64 pages
Price: $3.00

Often called the greatest literary artist of British Romanticism, William Blake couched intensely political and social statements in near-spiritual verse. Readers often mistake his most famous work, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, as primarily for children, but close attention to the poems reveals a dark sobriety only appropriate in a work for adults. Issues close to Blake's heart—justice, care for the young, social hypocrisy—find voice in these brilliant poems that are philosophical and breathtaking.

The 1794 subtitle clarified that the purpose of these two sets of poems was for "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." The young may be innocent, but a dark reality awaits them in maturity—though as the famous poem "The Tyger" illustrates, good and bad do coexist and are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the most interesting poems in the collection are two with the same name ("The Chimney Sweeper") that appear in both the Innocence and Experience portions of the book.

Both chimney sweeper poems are bleak. However, in the first one, though the lives of the young sweepers are miserable, they still hope for better circumstances in the next life. This optimism helps them cope with hellish conditions, as they imagine what life will be like with God for their father.

The poem is turned on its head in the second section—here the chimney sweepers see only the hypocrisy of their oppressors, and embrace disbelief as their superiors worship in church, their superiors "Who make up a heaven of our misery." The order of the poems isn't intended simply to end on a bleak note, but to serve as a progression from innocence (which Blake believed all men are born into) to experience, or evil (which he believed all capable of attaining).

Deceptively simple lines hint at a childish voice, but Blake's poems are the expression of a deeply thoughtful man and artist devoted to truth. While not orthodox in his religious beliefs, his work is nevertheless profoundly moving and hauntingly beautiful.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Summary: A series of deceptively simple poems compares the dark and light sides of life, mainly through the eyes of children.

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