In „Songs of Innocence and Experience‟ how does Blake express his views
about the changes taking place in contemporary life? In your answer, you
should make particular reference to the industrial and French revolutions..
Blake expresses his views powerfully in ‘Innocence and Experience‟. He uses
language, structure and form in his poems to great effect to show his radical
and unusual views about the changes taking place in contemporary life.
Many people - the Victorians, for example, and Erdman - thought of the
‘Innocence and Experience‟ as being innocent, naive portrayals of
contemporary life. Heather Glen argues that the „Songs of Innocence and
Experience‟ make a kind of „ideal‟ society, where people rise above, or
transcend, the difficulties of contemporary life and enjoy their own special
This view suggests, however, that Blake is not very critical of contemporary
society - that he thinks that visions are the answer to everything, as opposed
to Locke (who is a „wolf‟ that rages “dire”, according to Blake, and whose
theory of the five senses was also having a profound effect on contemporary
society). We cannot help seeing Heather Glen‟s view as inadequate, though -
for while some aspects of the „Songs of Innocence and Experience‟ are
idealised, other aspects are not, and some aspects are implicitly or explicitly
critical of society and even of the reader himself.
„The Chimney Sweeper‟ of Inn. could be seen to be such a poem where Blake
reacts strongly against the impact of the industrial revolution on the poor and
the young. The sweepers are forced to enter “coffins of black,” a thinly veiled
metaphor for the chimneys themselves, where many of the boys died, being
forced to work there as a consequence of child labour during the industrial
revolution. The image is a powerful one: death here seems certain - it is as if
the boys are dead before they even enter the chimneys, for no one alive
would enter a coffin. Thus, the boys died - metaphorically and literally - and
the image is harsh and striking.
Structurally, the poem is interesting, too, in that it begins with a boy justifiably
upset, who could “scarcely” express his condition in his repeated cry, “weep
weep weep weep” - yet, as a result of the vision, he is able to transcend his
oppressive conditions by the end. The poem is in a sense didactic - providing
us with a problem and a solution (arguably like „The Lamb‟, where the
questions of the first stanza are neatly answered in stanza two - as if
everything has a solution). It seems as if the visionary is the solution.
The last lines, however, provide a parting shot that brings discomfort to the
reader who takes that view away with him - for, “if all do their duty, they need
not fear harm.” These closing lines do not belong to the contemporary poetry,
like that of Mary Alcock, in „The Chimney Sweeper‟s Complaint‟, whose poem
merely shows the awfulness of the suffering, without offering criticism of the
society that caused it; nor does the poem merely suggest the visionary as a
fail-safe solution to the wrongs of the world. Blake seems to be attacking the
„polite‟ reader, whose fault it is that these boys are oppressed to the point of
death. In the poem, the plural personal pronoun is used: the boy sweeps
“your” chimneys; it is implied, then, that this awful treatment of children is
The Songs of Exp. are slightly different, perhaps, in their treatment of
contemporary life, but this is due partly to Blake‟s changing philosophy. So
much time had elapsed between the writing of the two books (Inn and Exp)
that Blake‟s own attitude had changed - or at least become more
exaggerated. When writing the Songs of Inn, the French revolution had been
going well, and Blake was wholly supportive; by the time of writing Songs of
Exp, though, Blake was increasingly disillusioned with the revolution and with
life, and had become a supporter of Locke (rather than Swedenborg, whose
teachings and visionary stance he had followed) and his theory of perceiving
things only through the five senses.. So, the „answer‟ to the problems of
contemporary life cannot lie in a vision or dream and transcending harsh
conditions, but it must lie in real action against real repression.
So, many of the poems are harsher and more radical than the Songs of Inn.
„The Tyger‟ does not provide the secure comforting answers of „The Lamb‟,
but leaves only unanswered questions - for who can dare to frame the beast?
- and who could have made it? There is a real, and possibly a dangerous
power in the human spirit, which people are trying to „frame‟ or limit - a
reflection, perhaps, on the oppression by the English government at the time,
and their suspension of Habeas Corpus, in response to the French
„London‟ is perhaps Blake‟s greatest example of the influence of the French
revolution, though (although it is well known that Blake not only wrote poetry
in support of it, but wore a red cap of liberty to demonstrate his allegiance t
the revolutionaries). Blake‟s repetition of the word “chartered” in the opening
stanza emphasises how restricted and regulated things were - how
oppressive the English government had made conditions (as well as
suspending Habeas Corpus, Pitt had banned public meetings) in fear of
revolution from the people, led by such figures as Joseph Priestly.
Similarly, Blake bemoans the effects of the ongoing war with France, and the
deaths of many soldiers, whose blood in „London‟ runs, in a dramatic image,
down palace walls - those who inflict the battle reaping its consequences.
The imagery is the key here to the impact of Blake‟s poem, in its clarity and
starkness (the oxymoron of “marriage hearse” at the end demonstrating in just
two words the destruction in society of all that is positive, in a stark
juxtaposition of the two opposites - marriage leading to security, happiness
and new life; hearse being the end of all happiness and of life itself). He is like
Wordsworth, a “man speaking to men,” in the language “really used” by men.
But while Wordsworth found an ideal in the rustic and the „pure‟, Blake in Exp.
attacked the institutions of the day for their repression and wilful destruction.
„Holy Thursday‟ in Inn. is a poem that makes another subtle but bitter
comment about the changes of contemporary life. Blake, like the
revolutionaries, began to despise the authority of the church and its
oppression of the liberating spirit. „Holy Thursday‟ shows in the position of the
children above that of the beadles in church, that they are superior in their
freedom and real power (for their voices „thunder‟ quite frighteningly) to the
elders, who are harsh and oppressive and self-righteous (their wands, only,
are white - not they themselves).
The form of the poem looks like the form of a hymn (three stanzas of four
lines, with a neat, even rhyme scheme), which, again, is bitterly ironic. What
looks as if it should be a hymn of praise (such as were being sung across the
country, in response to the Evangelical Revival) is really an attack on the
institutions that seek to repress the human spirit - for the children are lined up
in “two & two” - an example, perhaps, of the way the church has sought to
institutionalise them, and impose restriction and conformity upon them.
Blake‟s view, it seems, is that the human spirit cannot be repressed - as he
says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Energy is eternal delight”.
The whole of Blake‟s attitude cannot be summarised in referring only to the
French and industrial revolutions, though. Blake‟s attitude towards
contemporary life is one of individuality and rebellion against the authorities of
the day in many forms. So, in „My Pretty Rose Tree‟, Blake rebels against the
traditional monogamy of the church - for in refusing the flower “such as May
never bore,” the narrator not only lost the flower (or woman?) that he desired,
but received from his own rose tree thorns of jealousy. Blake seems to be
advocating sexual freedom in following one‟s own lusts and desires- which,
again, relates to his desire for freedom in any shape or form.
Similarly, Blake rebels against the church, as we have seen. The church is of
course linked to the French revolution, in that the revolutionaries reacted
against its restriction of humanity and abuse of privilege. The little vagabond
of Exp, though, protests against the church‟s lack of warmth - both real and
emotional - and „The Garden of Love‟ shows how the church was also
responsible for limiting sexuality. Although the garden is meant to be one of
love, priests in black gowns do their “rounds” and bind the narrator‟s desires
with “briars” - the blackness of the gowns suggesting death to the instincts of
the flesh, and the briars suggesting the pain of the restriction.
Blake, then, expresses his views about the changes in society powerfully and
often critically.. His Songs of Inn, even, cannot be taken to be „innocent‟ or
naive about life. Blake revolts against any restriction, showing the indomitable
will of the human spirit.