By profession Blake was an engraver and an artist. Only his first volume of poems, "Poetical Sketches" (1783), was printed and published by a bookseller in the ordinary way. Blake's usual method of publication was an artistic process which he invented himself and which he called "illuminated printing".The "Songs of Innocence" and the "Songs of Experience" were a product of this process. The process was quite an elaborate one. Blake wrote on copper plates the text of his poems in reverse, and embellished each page with pictorial decorations. The text of his poems was neatly written, the letters being sometimes separate, sometimes joined, in a script which resembles Roman and sometimes italic types. Perhaps he wrote and drew in some acid-resisting ink, such as engraver's varnish, and then reduced the surface of the rest of the plate by immersion in a bath of aquafortis until the text and design stood out in relief.
The plate was dried, and inked; and then from the inked plate an impress was made on a sheet of paper which became one page of the volume in preparation. After printing, the pages were coloured by Blake and his wife in delicate water-colours, and were then bound in a slim volume by Mrs. Blake.
Thus each copy of Blake's "Songs" had its own individuality. As the process was laborious and necessarily slow, the volumes were produced for each client as required, and few have survived.
The "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" are all illustrated. Blake's purpose was that both poem and picture should contribute to the reader's appreciation and enjoyment. Sometimes the illustrations merely create an atmosphere, but sometimes they also reinforce the poem by reference to something outside it, or help to explain it by a significant detail or symbol. It should be noted also that some of the illustrations were made five or six years after the corresponding poems were written, so that the pictures do not always accurately represent Blake's emotions and attitudes at the time of composition.
Illustrations to some of the "Songs" are described below to give the reader some idea of the purpose which they were intended to serve:
Introduction (to the "Songs of Innocence")
The illustration represents the poet as a shepherd-boy dressed in blue, bare-footed, and carrying a shepherd's pipe. Behind him, his flock of woolly sheep are grazing upon the grass. He stands between two trees, gazing upwards to a golden-haired cherub who is floating on a cloud with his arms outstretched, as if urging the shepherd-lad to "pipe that song again".
The picture which decorates this poem represents the cherub or child of the Introduction speaking to a lamb, whilst the rest of the flock are either grazing or lying down.
The picture here is once again the blue-clad shepherd-boy, standing under a pine tree, crook in hand, watching the grazing of his flock.
In the illustration, a stem curves round the text up to a large open flower with flame-like petals, within which sits a mother with a baby upon her knee, receiving the blessing of an angel.
Holy Thursday (Innocence)
The design of the poem is like a sampler. At the head over the title, Holy Thursday, the boys walk two and two, preceded by two beadles. At the foot, the girls in caps and aprons walk in pairs behind one matron.
The decoration to this poem represents a tree of the flame of divine love, on a branch of which sits an angel. Smaller spirits sport around her. One, which perhaps represents the merry Sparrow, flies joyfully towards her; whilst another, perhaps the pretty Robin, crouches near the angel as if in grief. It is difficult to see clearly whether the angel is nursing a baby, or whether the angel is really a fairy.
The Divine Image
The emblem which illuminates the poem represents, at the foot, God raising fallen man and woman; and from these figures rises a tree of the flame of divine love which curls and rises to the top of the page where angels guard two praying figures.
Two pictures accompany this poem. The first is a night-scene by moonlight with angels visiting the earth. In the second, radiant human forms walk as in a garden by night.
Introduction (to the "Songs of Experience")
The frontispiece to the "Song of Experience" represents the shepherd of the first Introduction once again with his flock of sheep. But now the shepherd has put away his pipe, and carries the cherub upon his head. The poet is no longer a shepherd-boy piping, songs; he is a visionary and inspired
Bard calling Earth to rise and free itself from its chains. In the illustration, Earth is represented as a woman, lying with her back turned .
Nurse's Song (Experience)
The illustration depicts not the white-capped nurse of the first Nurse's Song, but a young and rather stern-looking governess who is scolding a sad-looking boy with long hair.
The illustration represents a young queen attended by a winged Cupid, who seeks in vain to attract her attention away from her excessive modesty and shyness.
The Chimney Sweeper (Experience)
The illustration represents a sweep's boy, black with soot, walking the street in driving snow and sleet, carrying a brush in his right hand and a bag of soot on his left shoulder.