Part 3: Songs of Experience

When Blake began etching the plates of Songs of Experience he and Catherine had moved south of the river Thames to Lambeth, beginning one of the most productive periods in his life for his illuminated poetry. As well as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake produced the “Continental Prophecies” of America, Europe and The Song of Los, and was to continue with the strange and disturbing series of Urizen books that would detail the titanic struggles between Urizen, Orc, Los and Enitharmon.

Northrop Frye once made the astute remark that it was foolish to see the relationship between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as reflecting a transformation in the author’s own sensibilities, “for when Blake engraved the latter he was no longer a child of thirty-two but a grown man of thirty-seven.” (Frye 4) Nonetheless, if it was not Blake who had transformed, then London and the world around him certainly had. In 1789, many liberals in England had looked optimistically to the early events of the French Revolution, but on February 1, 1793, France declared war on Britain, a conflict that was to last twenty-two years, and between the summers of 1793 and 1794 Paris ran red with the blood of the Terror.

Revolution & Reaction

After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout 1790 and 1791. Factions in the French National Assembly were also beginning to form, between those who supported a constitutional monarchy along the lines of that in Britain, and a radical group known as the Jacobins who spread their ideas throughout the country. It was against the backdrop of these conditions that Louis XVI attempted to flee the country, being arrested at Varennes on July 21, 1791. As France declared war on Austria, Prussia and then Britain, waves of violence and massacres shook the French capital in September 1792. Attempts to find a constitutional compromise failed and, on January 21, 1793, Louis Capet, no longer King of France, was executed in Paris and the country became a republic.

Many features of government had now passed to the Committee of Public Safety, dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, and for a year the Terror was instituted in an attempt to suppress counter-revolutionaries at home and ensure support for the war abroad. The Jacobins were able to avoid defeat and expand the military capabilities of France, but Robespierre was now accusing many former companions of being counter-revolutionaries and, on July 27, 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction saw his arrest and execution.

Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland a series of sensational trials for seditious libel took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. Historians are divided about the extent of the British government’s reaction, figures such as Boyd Hilton (2007) seeing this period as an extension of the coercive powers of the state while Edward Royle (2000) has argued that it was a reasonable reaction to a genuine threat. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. The radical Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for those with radical sympathies.

It was against these events of 1792-4 that Blake composed and published one of his most famous poems, “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I heart

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse (E26-7)

For E. P. Thompson, “London” is “among the most lucid and instantly available of the Songs of Experience” (Thompson 174). As he and several critics have pointed out, the drafts of the poem in the Notebook show how Blake was responding very directly to the events of his day. Thus the “mind-forg’d manacles” were originally “german forged links”, a reference to the Hanoverian dynasty of George III and the billeting of Hessian mercenaries in London to maintain order in the capital. Similarly, the change of “dirty street” and “dirty Thames” to “charter’d” was a direct allusion to Paine who, in The Rights of Man, had argued that charters granting liberties actually worked by taking away intrinsic rights of the people so that they could be permitted only by those in power.

Babes Reduced to Misery

While the first three stanzas of “London” allude to the fierce conflicts and political situations created by the French Revolution, the “youthful Harlot’s curse” of the final stanza refers to the blight of child prostitution that had existed (and was to exist) in London for a much longer period. Stanley Gardner observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” (Gardner 128) The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

It is this condition of the young that provides part of the strong sense of anger in Songs of Experience and contrasts so clearly with the state of childhood in Innocence. If the earlier collection had been a golden, Arcadian vision, Experience depicts the city of dreadful night that London could become at the turn of the nineteenth century. The line “Babes reduced to misery” is taken from “Holy Thursday”, and the contrast between this and the earlier poem in Innocence will be considered in the next chapter. What is significant about the later volume, however, is how it depicts innocence corrupted by those who should be its protectors.

In some cases, that corruption was already implicit in Songs of Innocence. Thus, for example, the version of “The Chimney Sweeper” that appears in Experience makes explicit the sense of anger at injustice that had been left unsaid in the song included in Innocence. It could be argued that the clarity of this wrath removes some of the complexities of the earlier poem, replacing it with more straightforward denunciation that exemplifies Blake’s outrage towards his contemporary society:

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery. (E23)

Chimney sweeping as an apprenticeship was increasingly rejected during the late eighteenth century, and in 1788 the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed restricting the ability to recruit apprentices. However, professional sweeps continued to use their own children to climb the narrow chimneys, made even dirtier by the increased use of coal, and the practice of sending children up chimneys was only made illegal in 1875 (Nurmi 1964). As such, while the poem ends with a general denunciation of God, priest and king who allow such atrocities, the origins of the degradation lie with those parents who seek to exploit, rather than protect, their own children.

The theme of adults conspiring in the abuse of their wards is a familiar one throughout Experience. In the second version of “Nurses Song”, for example, the supposed protector of the young is motivated rather by a sense of envy that results in repression of those in her care:

When the voices of children, are heard on the green
And whisprings are in the dale:
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise
Your spring & your day, are wasted in play
And your winter and night in disguise. (E23)

There is a subtler evil at play here rather than the outright degradation of the young presented in “London”, “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweeper”. Rather than crimes such as prostitution, immiseration and slavery, the narrator of this short lyric insinuates her way into the children’s consciousness, working against their simple desire to play and, instead, deviously implanting suggestions of guilt that will become mind-forg’d manacles to bind their joys.

If Blake had a very clear idea of the evils that adults do against their children, he could also present in Experience a view of innocence that could confuse his early readers, most notably in “The Little Vagabond”:

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use’d well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray[.] (E26)

Coleridge was one of the first to express his disquiet at the vagabond’s satisfaction with base natural conditions, as did later critics such as Swinburne and the Rossettis. Deborah Dorfman suggested that Blake’s own attack was on both institutions, church and alehouse, where the “ossifying” merges with the “stupefying” (1969 22), but it is hard not to smile at the comical vision presented in the final stanza:

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 & give him both drink and apparel. (E26)

There is hardly any glory to this sodden deity, and yet while I believe that Blake was angry with a world that produced any vagabonds there is something in these lines that conjures up the old, antinomian visions of seventeenth-century ranters such as Abiezer Coppe, who preferred to drink and be merry rather than kill for king or parliament in the name of righteousness.

The Garden of Love

If sex is absent from Songs of Innocence, it is very much present in the later Songs. Nowhere, however, in this collection does Blake evince the pleasantly pastoral delights of sexual love: the sexuality of experience is, rather, that of loss, rape, restriction and fear. This is not to say that Blake saw sex as something intrinsically sinful: rather, from his early poetry onwards, desire when freely expressed was an essential part of our humanity. “A Little Girl Lost” begins with the lines:

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time.
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime. (E29)

As with several of his contemporaries, notably William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Blake believed that it was the treatment of sexuality as a crime and its repression that led to future perversions. One of his Proverbs of Hell made the point pithily: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” (E35) While the causes of such repression were manifold, including social, familial and political power relations, unsurprisingly Blake identified religion as the main root of this distortion of human desire, as in “The Garden of Love”:

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 turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires. (E26)

The poem uses an anapaestic metre, modulating this with a headless foot at the beginning which cuts short the line: the first ten lines are written in trimester, with the final two lines extended to tetrameter, this extension adding a finality to the entire poem – an interruption into the garden of love of alien figures who “bind with briars” the flowers of the narrator’s desire. The contrast with the Songs of Innocence is a powerful one: play, love and the green are all elements of a past that has not been superseded as a natural consequence of development and growth. They have, rather, been vandalised, suppressed by the grim command “Thou shalt not” (which also, significantly, breaks the rhythm of the poem). If it is sometimes possible to read Songs of Experience as a necessary corrective to the ignorance of Songs of Innocence, that is not at all the case here: the destruction of the Garden of Love is, rather, its own form of wilful ignorance and there is nothing but a sense of lament for what has been lost.

The consequences of repression finding expression in perversity is the theme of one of Blake’s most powerful, and most famous, lyrics, “The Sick Rose”:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. (E25)

These two short stanzas have attracted considerable critical comment. Jon Mee (1998), following Northrop Frye’s observation that the poem was one of those few lyrics that was popular because it provides a direct key to poetic experience for educated and uneducated alike, notes that it is a poem that appeals to generations of readers in an intensely personal way. Critics such as Michael Srigley (1992) have pointed out that the sickness caused by the “invisible worm” is that of the transmission of disease, but Elizabeth Langland warns against traditions of prescribing how the poem should be read, taking Harold Bloom to task, for example, for seeing pity in the opening line where the tone may even be condemnation of the rose. Langland draws attention to the ambiguity of the words of the poem, which do not clearly express where guilt lies (with the rose or the worm). Yet the illustration that accompanies the text does, it seems to me, evoke something of the pity that Bloom expresses, with images of women falling, many of them pursued by this invisible, rapacious power.

That sex so often brought with it death at the time Blake was writing, whether the plagues of sexually transmitted diseases referred to in “London”, or even, as Tristanne Connolly (2002) the more mundane, but no less terrible, mortality associated with childbirth that made pregnancy so dangerous for Catherine Blake and did kill Mary Wollstonecraft, is an unfortunate commonplace. What is so effective about these later Songs, however, is that rather than simply adopt another commonplace, on the sinfulness of sexuality, Blake addressed rather the terrible, sad and angry wisdom which experience brought.