Part 2: Songs of Innocence

When Blake decided to compose Songs of Innocence, he had already been involved in the market for children’s books as an engraver, making reproductions of designs for a children’s anthology The Speaker (1780) and Laetitia Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). As Andrew Lincoln observes, he “probably had little sympathy with the education aims of these books, or indeed with much of the children’s literature written for the polite market. But he seems to have known the market well.” (Lincoln 14).

Such books were often illustrated with engravings or woodcuts, some even being coloured, their designs often demonstrating a familiar vocabulary of images: sheep and shepherds, children playing, mothers with their young children. These children’s titles almost inevitably emphasised the religious and moral nature of their compositions, being designed to improve the character of their young readers as well as their education, but Alexander Gilchrist was one of the first to draw attention to the special nature of Songs of Innocence as presenting us instead with childhood as a “Golden Age” (Gilchrist 61).

Visions of Childhood

Frontispiece to Innocence
Frontispiece to Innocence, 1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The poems presented in Songs of Innocence are some of the simplest and clearest poems that Blake ever wrote. Many commentators have remarked that this simplicity masks often considerable irony and complexities of thought. While this is true, particularly when the poems are considered against those in Songs of Experience, the reader should not rush too quickly to look for hidden depths and subtleties of meaning beyond their gentle, pastoral depictions. Throughout life we are encouraged to view the world through the eyes of experience, and Blake (as he later indicated) understood the importance of this; yet his radicalism as a writer at the end of the eighteenth century was also due to his belief in the power and importance of innocence as a fundamental perspective of humanity.

Blake’s ideas on the nature of childhood were not restricted to him alone. In his 1762 novel Émile, or On Education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered an opinion on raising children that ran counter to many of the ideals of the eighteenth century, arguing that they are ready to learn from their surroundings but prevented from doing so by the malign influence of a corrupt society that wishes to distort their natural values to its own ends. Although Blake was later to show himself very hostile to many elements of Rousseau’s philosophy and religion, “The School Boy” indicated considerable sympathy to the Swiss philosopher’s educational values:

How can the bird that is born for joy,
Sit in a cage and sing.
How can a child when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring. (E31)

Nelson Hilton has suggested that Songs of Innocence may be “imagined as a series of vignettes concerning the psyche’s birth into language” (Hilton 198). This is complicated, as he points out himself, by the varying order of poems in different copies, so any clear pattern of a child’s growth and development must be inferred rather than being explicitly stated, but certainly some poems such as “Infant Joy”, “The Lamb” and “The Chimney Sweeper” can be seen as moving us from child as incapable of speech (from the Latin infans, non-speaking) to the more ambivalent realisation that while children may be innocent, that is not necessarily the case of their supposed guardians.

One of the most astonishing effects of these early Songs, and one that appealed to Blake’s contemporaries such as William Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as Victorian commentators such as Gilchrist and Algernon Swinburne, is the sheer delight taken in musicality for its own sake, for example in the poem “Spring”.

Sound the Flute!
Now it’s mute.
Birds delight
Day and Night.
In the dale
Lark in Sky
Merrily merrily to welcome in the Year (E15)

“Spring” has attracted less attention from critics than many of the other Songs, perhaps because it is concerned less with those semantic and symbolic complexities found in other poems than the much simpler pleasures of rhythm, capturing song and dance in its evocation – both textually and visually – of a rejuvenated natural world.

Pastoral Traditions

The natural world has an important part to play in Songs of Innocence, which can sometimes appear strange to experienced readers of Blake considering his constant inveighing against Nature in the later works. Kevin Hutchings has criticised the commonplace view that Blake is the poetic adversary of nature. The lines and illustrations of these songs (as well as many more of Blake’s illuminated books) burst with living creatures and natural settings: it was the abstract conception of Nature as iron law, which he saw in the philosophy of Bacon, Locke and Newton, to which Blake was opposed (Hutchings 4-5).

Even the most cursory reading of Songs of Innocence cannot fail to draw attention the pastoral nature of this poetry. Although (as Hutchings remarks), Blake only lived properly in the English countryside at one period during his lifetime, from 1800-1803 when he and Catherine resided at Felpham, the London of the 1780s and 1790s was very different to the vast metropolis that it was to become in the later nineteenth century. Though north London could be a dirty and ill-favoured place, south of the Thames was still largely rural and much less developed and, according to Stanley Gardner, Blake often took long walks to Peckham, Dulwich and Camberwell: “From Golden Square, Westminster Bridge led into the country” (Gardner 43).

The Shepherd
The Shepherd, 1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The pastoral, then, while a popular poetic form in the eighteenth century, was not simply a literary experience for Blake but one that he was easily able to encounter even in London. That Blake was influenced by pastoral poetry, however, is not to be doubted. Pastoral poetry in western literature began with the Idylls of Theocritus in the third century BC, and was established as a classical genre via the highly influential Eclogues of Virgil. Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) and John Milton’s Lycidas (1637) transferred this poetry to England and, in the eighteenth century, many writers invoked the ideal and romanticised imagery of pastoral poetry, most notably in Alexander Pope’s Pastorals (1709) and James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730), a collection which had greatly affected some of Blake’s verse published in the Poetical Sketches (1783).

Thus the familiar motifs of shepherd and flock, Arcadian fields and a leisurely ideal, all find a place in Songs of Innocence, as, for example, in “The Shepherd”:

How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot,
From the morn to the evening he strays:
He shall follow his sheep all the day
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

For he hears the lambs innocent call,
And he hears the ewes tender reply,
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh. (E7)

This simple verse, written in a lilting, anapaestic metre, emphasises the peaceful calm and joy of the pastoral ideal. Nicholas Marsh suggests that there is some uncertainty in the poem, for example that the sheep may be terrified at night when the shepherd is not there (Marsh 15-16). While this undoubtedly may be true, Marsh, like many critics in my opinion, is seeking complexity and ambivalence because radical simplicity is too challenging to the status of many readers, particularly professional readers. If the meaning of such a poem is, after all, open to all, whether children or the uneducated, then what role do critics have to determine – and thus control – meaning?

What cannot be denied is the Christian symbolism contained in this poem. The role of the shepherd reminds us of that of Christ as the good shepherd, who “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), and the implicit religious symbolism of “The Shepherd” is made explicit in “The Lamb”:

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. (E9)

Mother and Child

Significantly, Blake does not call upon another important tradition of pastoral poetry in Songs of Innocence, that of sexual love. The Songs are full of love, but it is the love between parent and child, or child and the natural world, that is more important than that between lovers. In “The Lamb”, as in “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found”, as well as “The Divine Image”, it is the love of the father for his children that is most clearly expressed, following the convention of Christian love from God the Father towards his creation.

And yet, throughout Songs of Innocence, it is the love of the mother that is more often given primacy. The Little Boy poems, as we have already seen, were later transferred to Songs of Experience, and – unlike “The Shepherd” and “The Lamb” – it is impossible to miss the anxiety and ambivalence caused by the father’s love, even when they are read as texts of innocence. By contrast, in Innocence at least, there is no such ambivalence between a mother and her child, even though that position may be complicated by the later addition of Songs of Experience.

Little Black Boy
The Little Black Boy, 1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In “The Little Black Boy”, the poem begins with the relation of the speaker to his mother:

My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noon day.  (E9)

At the end of the poem, this mother’s tender concern is replaced by that of God the Father, and there may indeed be some hint of anxiety here, for the illustration to that poem shows Christ gazing intently at the little white, rather than little black, boy. In the mother’s words, however, there is no doubt that her child, like all flowers, trees and beasts, receives God’s love equally and without discrimination.

The protective, nurturing role of mothers is evident in many other poems in the collection. The “Chimney Sweeper” begins, “When my mother died I was very young, \ And my father sold me while yet my tongue, \ Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.” (E10) Paternal love can be fickle but the maternal is constant and needs no explanation for its existence in Innocence, as when a mother sings “A Cradle Song” to her baby:

Sweet dreams form a shade,
O’er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams. (E11)

The importance of this relationship between mother and child, and Blake’s recognition of it, cannot be overstressed. Keri Davies (2006) has drawn attention to some of the female collectors of Blake who were attracted to this feminine strain in his early work, while Helen Bruder (1997) argues that it is in books such as Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel that we see most strongly the influence of women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft on Blake’s ideas with regard to proto-feminism.

The sustained role of maternal love in Songs of Innocence may be complicated in Songs of Experience, and critics may be correct to see a mother’s love as restrictive as well as protective, but to race towards this conclusion too quickly, as with the desire to problematise simplicity is, in my opinion, a serious error. Love may sometimes be a cover for exploitation and the will to power, and innocence may frequently be no more than gullibility, but to assume that both love and innocence have no reality in their own terms is to give too much power to the world of experience the demands for which, as we shall see, Blake fully understood.


Page created 8 April, 2018. Page updated 15 April, 2018.