Part 4: Contrary States of the Soul

When Blake issued Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794, he added a title page with the additional heading, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Although Songs of Innocence had been intended as a complete and discrete work (and he continued to issue that work as a separate book), it was clear that from the 1790s onwards Blake now conceived many of the songs from the two volumes to be read in conjunction, neither one alone capable of offering a holistic view of mankind.

As examples of Blake’s contrarian reading, this final chapter will consider three sets of poems: the two versions of “Holy Thursday”, “The Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract”, and “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”.

Holy Thursday

In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871 (Spink 2005). As Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor” (Gardner 226), and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door (E13)

While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most” (2002, 535), and Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax” (1991 161), it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall. (E19-20)

The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is false and superficial–sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.” (Lincoln 1991 176)

The Divine Image/ The Human Abstract

While Blake used many apparently familiar motifs of children’s literature in his poems and illustrations, such as shepherds, the mother watching her baby, or children at play, the aim and tone of Songs of Innocence was radically different, sometimes deceptively so as in a poem such as “The Divine Image”:

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too (E12-13)

At first reading, this poem may seem very familiar from generations of Christian verse, its pronouncement that God is love seeming no different to those hymns such as Charles Wesley’s “Stupendous love of God most high!”, first published in 1780. However, as Lincoln and others have pointed out, the difference between Blake’s poem and the hymns of his contemporaries is clearest when considering the following lines from Isaac Watts’s “Praise for the Gospel”:

Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace
And not to Chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian Race,
And not a Heathen, or a Jew. (Cited in Lincoln 159)

Watts published his Divine and Moral Songs in 1720, and many of the hymns promise justice and retribution for those who fail to follow the message of God’s word. “Praise for the Gospel” ends with the promise that Gentiles and Jews will “in judgement rise” against the speaker if he does not keep God’s law. In “The Divine Image”, by contrast, there is no mention of God’s anger or retribution (just or otherwise), only the constant refrain that God is mercy, pity, peace and love.

Lincoln believes that Blake’s hymn asserts that all religions have the same emotional basis, but also that all religions are essentially Christian. There is no reason to doubt that Blake may have believed this, but the poem does not state this quite as clearly as Lincoln does. It ascribes, rather, the simple belief that God is Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, nothing more than this, and it is easy to see how this Song could be adapted by certain types (though by no means all) of Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or various other creeds. In All Religions are One (1788), Blake had written that “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.” (E1) There is no innate superiority of Christianity in this view: it is but the one response of one group of people to the divine that Blake believed intrinsic to the human condition.

And this is where Blake’s poem reveals its radicalism. God is not something separate to man, but revealed entirely within and through man: it is the human face and human heart which demonstrates to us the reality of divinity. Rather than a metaphysical presence behind this world, we encounter God whenever we experience (or, indeed, demonstrate) the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. While these are familiar Christian virtues, their choice is significant: it would be very easy to conceive a God based on righteousness, or obedience, but these are far from Blake’s conception of the human form divine. In his later works, particularly the epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, Blake was to identify this tendency to self-righteousness as the Moral Law, and to ascribe it as a spiritual condition closer to Satan than to Christ.

Blake’s critique of conventional Christianity (and, indeed, organised religion more generally), was made explicitly in the accompanying poem from Songs of Experience, “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain (e27)

The first observation to be made about “The Human Abstract” is that it works much less effectively as a poem than “The Divine Image”. While the later Prophetic Books frequently display irregular and confusing metres, this is rarely the case in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, yet here the rhythm frequently staggers from line to line – it frequently feels as though Blake is presenting an exposition on Enlightenment ideas of religion rather than demonstrating any real feeling for his subject. Nonetheless, the underlying themes of this poem, on the hypocrisy of much that passes for conventional religion and also – in the final stanza – the resolutely human origins of religion, are powerfully made. The poem works by directly paralleling the motifs of “The Divine Image”, demonstrating how, from the perspective of experience, the virtues celebrated in the earlier song can equally function of vice in terms of a hermeneutic of suspicion.

That Blake struggled with “The Human Abstract” is also indicated by the fact that he wrote another contrary to “The Divine Image”, “A Divine Image”, which is only found in one copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Copy BB). Erdman dates “A Divine Image” to 1790-1, and it was obviously intended as a direct antithesis to the earlier poem before being replaced by the subtler “The Human Abstract”:

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge. (E32)

The Lamb/The Tyger

These two poems, from Innocence and Experience respectively, are frequently taken together in critical writings, although “The Tyger” is much better known, and much more popular, than the earlier poem. Indeed, “The Lamb” is rarely discussed on its own and certainly its spiritual vision is much less startling than that of the later song. Despite it being overshadowed by “The Tyger”, however, in many ways “The Lamb” is an archetypal song of innocence:

    Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

    Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee. (E8-9)

The apparently conventional imagery that links child, lamb and Christ is handled with what Marsh points out is a beautiful simplicity (2001 81), and while even he complicates the poem slightly by observing that the child is deducing the existence of God from the world around him, for me the child’s reaction is an instinctive one rather than rational and inductive one. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the conversation that takes place here between child and lamb: the child is talking to the lamb, asking the question (“who made thee”) before providing an answer in the second stanza. Significantly, while the poem could be read as an example of anthropomorphism, strictly speaking this is not entirely the case: Christ becomes both child and lamb, Godhead entering into all things. Blake’s own view of divine humanism probably would find little to object in the anthropomorphism of the natural world, but as we have seen in “The Little Black Boy”, he is also happy to see divinity infused throughout that world: it is, in later works particularly, the removal of God as a divine cause operating externally from creation that Blake rejects and despises as Deism.

The nature of that divinity is approached much more ambiguously in “The Tyger”, rightfully one of Blake’s best known works:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? (E24-5)

The popularity of “The Tyger” was not solely a twentieth-century phenomenon in contrast to much of Blake’s other work. The poem was reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811), and appeared in Alan Cunningham’s Life shortly after Blake’s death. Charles Lamb thought it “glorious” (Bentley 394), and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem along with several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen “from the walls of bedlam” (Bentley 571). Many readers have been perplexed by the poem, despite the fact that it is often anthologised in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children. Plenty of critics have drawn attention to the incongruities between the forceful, sublime text and the rather domestic example of a tiger included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy.

The metre of the poem is largely the same as that of “The Lamb”, seven syllables of headless iambic metre, although without the caesura that is found in the opening and closing refrains of “The Lamb”. As such, the rhythm of the “The Tyger” is relentless, and the constant repetition of words such as “what” function as the drone of a hammer, pounding away at the stanzas in an act of ruthless creation. The question of who is responsible for this creation is one of the fundamental reasons for the perplexity of the poem, and Stanley Fish (1980) took great pleasure in providing two equally forceful, equally clear examples of readings of the text by Kathleen Raine and E. D. Hirsch that demonstrated completely opposing answers to the question “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Ronald Paulson (1987) believed, by contrast, that this question was only superficially to do with the act of creation, and of God’s justice and mercy: on a deeper level, it was concerned with the conflicting experiences of the French Revolution. Certainly the events of the Revolution, especially the Terror, appear to have influenced Blake’s verse, but the lines that precede the question are an allusion to the Book of Job (“Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together”, cited in Marsh 87) and Book VI of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Blake reacts strongly to the political situation of his day, but for him to reflect on the world about us is not to choose between “real” and “spiritual” life – rather, that real world reveals itself as simultaneously one of the spirit when viewed with imagination.

This does not, however, answer Blake’s question – and to fix in orthodoxy Blake’s vision of God as sublime majesty or hellish demiurge is to diminish “The Tyger” in particular. The beauty of “The Lamb” is its simplicity, and I would resist any effort to complicate it as counter to Blake’s sometimes profoundly untroubled theology: at the same time, his mind was capable of easily exploring theological complexities and, in contrast to the rationalist philosophers and theologians of his day, holding such antimonies within his imagination. This vision, after all, is why both innocence and experience are necessary for Blake to show the contrary states of the human soul.