Sunday, December 12, 2010

Songs of Innocence

The Spontaneous Happiness of Childhood
Blake was thirty years of age when he began to write the "Songs of Innocence". This is an astounding fact, for the "Songs of Innocence" express for the first time in English literature the spontaneous happiness of childhood. Now nothing in the whole world of emotion is of lighter texture than the happiness of a child. Like the dew, it vanishes with the first rays of the sun, and its essential quality, spontaneity, is a thing never to be recalled.

The Universal Quality of these Poems
The spontaneity of these songs is the spontaneity of art, not of nature, of imagination and not of experience. Nothing but the purest imagination could give so stainless an image. The pure expression of spontaneity has never been made before or since. Compare the "Songs of Innocence" with Stevenson's "Child's Garden of Verses", and we are at once conscious of an immense difference. Stevenson writes of his own childhood, making the reminiscent efforts and fanciful condescensions of a grown man. Blake recaptures the child mind. He does not merely write about childish happiness; he becomes the happy child. He does not speak of, or for, the child; he lets the child speak its own delight and, what is most marvellous, there are no false tones in his voice.
Stevenson is particular: he writes memoirs of his own childhood: he expresses what he remembers of his own wonder or fancy, his childish hopes and fears. Blake is universal; he expresses the natural delight in the life of every happy child in the world. The cry of his "Little Boy Lost" is the cry of every child at the first discovery of loneliness.
Their Symbolic Character
All this has been recognized. But what is not so widely recognized is the fact that these songs are all symbolic. The Lamb is a symbol of "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world."
The Echoing Green is not only the record of a happy day; it is a symbolic presentation of the Day of Innocence from sunrise to sunset. Infant Joy, The Little Black Boy, and Laughing Song symbolize the three ages of Innocence: infancy, childhood, and youth. A Cradle Song, Nurse's Song, and Holy Thursday are symbolic of the same three ages of man, this time in relation to society; and the remaining poems, which image the human soul in its quest of self-realization, are all of even deeper symbolic import. Reading them in the order Blake once decided they should be placed, we pass through consecutive stages of growth from infancy to self-consciousness. It is a mistake to say that the symbolism of these poems is so unobtrusive that it can well be neglected. Without that symbolism, these poems could not have been written, and to ignore this fact is not the best way to appreciate them.
Blake's Theme
Blake's theme was the soul of man. His aim was to reveal the nature of the soul. This is ultimately the concern of every true poet. Blake differs from others in that it was his whole concern. His aim being clear to him, how was he to attain it ? Symbols, as Freud has shown, are the only language of the soul. When Blake realized exactly what he wanted to write about he could employ no other means but symbols. How else could the immaterial adventures of the soul find sensible means of expression?
Technical Faults and Merits
Blake was in assured possession of the Golden Age within the chambers of his own mind. As we read these poems, fugitive glimpses open of our buried childhood; we are given a new spiritual sight. We encounter familiar objects, in unfamiliar, transfigured aspects, simple expression and deep meanings, type and anti-type.
True, there are palpable irregularities, metrical licence, lapse of grammar; but often the sweetest melody, most daring eloquence of rhythm, and appropriate rhythm. They are unfinished poems; yet would "finish" have bettered their bold and careless freedom? Would it not have brushed away the delicate bloom?
Would it not have destroyed that visible spontaneity, so rare and great a charm, the eloquent attribute of the old English, ballads and of the early songs of all nations. The form of these poems is a transparent medium of the spiritual thought, not an opaque body.
Divine Afflatus
There is in these poems the same divine afflatus as in Blake's Poetical Sketches, but now it is fuller: a maturity of expression, despite the persisting negligences; and a maturity of thought and motive. These poems have also a unity and a mutual relationship, the influence of which is much weakened if the poems be read otherwise than as a whole.
"Holy Thursday"
Who but Blake, with his pure heart, his simple exalted character, could have transfigured a common-place meeting of charity children at St. Paul's, as he has done in the Holy Thursday ? It is a picture at once tender and grand. The bold images, by a wise instinct resorted to at the close of the first and second stanzas and the opening of the third, are in the highest degree imaginative; they are true as only poetry can be.
Other Poems
How vocal is the poem Spring, despite imperfect rhymes! From addressing the child, the poet, by a transition infrequent with him; passes out of himself into the child's person, showing a wide-ranging sympathy; with childlike feelings. We are made to see the little three-year-old prattler stroking the white lamb, her feelings made articulate for her. Even more remarkable is the poem called The Lamb. It is a sweet hymn of tender infantine sentiment appropriate to that perennial image of meekness. To this poem the fierce eloquence of The Tiger in the "Songs of Experience" is an anti-type. In The Lamb the poet again changes person to that of a child. Of lyrical beauty, The Laughing Song is a good specimen, with its happy ring of merry innocent voices. This and the Nurse's Song are more in the style of his early poems but of far maturer execution. The little pastoral poem The Shepherd has a delicate simplicity. Noteworthy also is The Echoing Green with its picturesqueness in a warmer hue, its delightful domesticity, and its expressive melody. The touching Cradle Song is irradiated by a lovely sympathy and piety. More enchanting still is the air of fancy and sympathy which animates The Dream; that
Did weave a shade o'er my angel-guarded bed;
of an emmet that had lost her way,
Where on grass methought I lay.
Few are the readers who can fail to appreciate the symbolic grandeur of The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found, or the enigmatic tenderness of The Blossom and The Divine Image. The verses, On Another's Sorrow express some of Blake's favourite religious ideas, his abiding notions on the subject of the Godhead, which surely suggest the kernel of Christian feeling. A similar tinge of the divine colours the lines called Night with its revelation of angelic guardians, believed in with unquestioning piety by Blake. The poet here makes us conscious, as we read, of the noiseless steps of the angels. For nobler depth of religious beauty, with a grandeur of sentiment and language to suit, there is no parallel or hint elsewhere of such a poem as The Little Black Boy:
My mother bore me in the southern wild.
We may read these poems again and again, and they continue fresh as at first. There is something in them which does not become stale, a perfume as of a growing violet, which renews itself as fast as it is inhaled.
"The Chimney Sweeper"
One poem, The Chimney Sweeper, still calls for special notice. This and Holy Thursday are remarkable as an anticipation of the daring choice homely subject, of the yet more daringly familiar manner, of the very metre and trick of style adopted by Wordsworth in such poems as The Reverie of Poor Susan, The Star-Gazers, and The Power of Music. The little chimney sweeper's dream has the spiritual touch peculiar to Blake's hand.
The tender loveliness of these poems will hardly re-appear in Blake's subsequent writing. Darker phases of feeling, more sombre colours, profounder meanings, ruder eloquence, characterize the "Songs of Experience" five years later.
[The designs, simultaneous offspring with the poems, which in the most literal sense illuminate the "Songs of Innocence", consist of poetized domestic scenes. The drawing and draperies are as grand in style, as graceful, though covering few inches' space; the colour pure, delicate, yet in effect rich and full. The mere tinting of the text and of the free ornamental border often makes a refined picture. The costumes of the period are idealized, the landscape given in pastoral and symbolic hints. Sometimes these drawings almost suffer from being looked at as a book and held close, instead of at due distance as pictures, where they become more effective. In composition, colour, pervading feeling, they are lyrical to the eye, as the Songs are to the ear. On the whole, the designs to the "Songs of Innocence" are finer as well as more pertinent to the poems; more closely interwoven with them, than those which accompany the "Songs of Experience".]
The Renascence of Wonder
Blake's "Songs of Innocence" carried his own peculiar blend of the earthly and the unearthly. The first stanza of the first poem has a lilt and an imaginative naivete that belong to no one else:
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me………     
It is Blake's lyrics which most completely fulfil the definition of romanticism as "the renascence of wonder". The world of Nature and man is the world of love and beauty and innocence enjoyed by a happy child, or rather by a poet who miraculously retains an unspoiled and inspired vision. But in the "Songs of Experience" the serpent has corrupted Eden, and themes that before had the radiance of spontaneous purity and joy are darkened by a knowledge of age and evil and suffering and oppressive authority. The most striking, if not the most typical contrast is that between The Lamb and The Tiger, between a primitive painting of the innocent child, lamb, and Christ, and a fiery incantation, a symbolic hymn of wonder and terror and power. In The Tiger Blake celebrates the untamed forces in man and Nature that must shatter unnatural ethical restraints and mechanistic philosophies.
Gilchrist's Comment
This is how Alexander Gilchrist, who wrote an exhaustive biography of Blake, commented on the "Songs of Innocence":
"As we read, fugitive glimpses open, clear as brief, of our buried childhood, of an unseen world present, past, to come; we are endowed with new spiritual sight, with unwonted intuitions, bright visitants from finer realms of thought, which ever elude us, ever hover near. We encounter familiar objects, in unfamiliar transfigured aspects, simple expression and deep meanings, type and anti-type. True, there are palpable irregularities, metrical licence, lapse of grammar, and even of orthography; but often the sweetest melody, most daring eloquence of rhythm, and what is more, appropriate rhythm. They are unfinished poems: yet would finish have bettered their bold and careless freedom? Would it not have brushed away the delicate bloom? that visible spontaneity, so rare and great a charm, the eloquent attribute of our old English ballads, and of the early songs of all nations. The form is, in these songs, a transparent medium of the spiritual thought."

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