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In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake described two opposite spiritual conditions of humans – purity and misery. I have chosen the topic to show how Blake started his career of poet with an intact vision of purity of the world and its transcendence form spiritual into the material form. To justify and explain the main symbols and themes that he depicted in this piece of his writing, I found two critical scholarly sources discussing the themes and symbols that Blake used in his poems included into the book.
In her article William Blake, Lell asserted that Blake described Biblical events and scenes of adult life in a simple form in order to make an easy reading for children. In his Songs of Innocence, he intertwined easy to understanding symbolic subjects and complicated adult topics accompanying them with pictures explaining difficult matters. The theme of parenthood, as Lell claimed, that was “seen throughout Blake’s songs” (n. pag.) was one of his major themes. For instance, he depicted loving parents in the following way: a mother sitting by the cradle (Blake 7), a child complaining to his parents about the difficulties in a school life (9), God kissing a child like his father (22), etc. Blake also described parents that did not care about their children, which showed how being innocent people once might become hard-hearted. Therefore, another major theme of Blake’s poetry concerned the innocence of children and experience of adults.
In the poem Holy Thursday, Blake described adults as “gray-haired beadles” who accompanied pupils on their walk. He made an accent on the children’s faces that irradiated their spiritual condition of youth and hope – the “innocent faces clean” (10). In The School Boy, according to Lell, he compared childhood to freedom using a bird as a symbol that showed how a cage for a bird was similar to a school for a boy whose “joy was taken away” (n. pag.). Gradually, when children mature, the experience substitutes the innocence and they become unhappy “men” with a “distorted nature” (n. pag.). Therefore, the purity of children should be preserved in people throughout their lives to make them as happy as they once were.
Another question that Blake raised was social injustice. Thus, in The Chimney Sweeper, father sold the boy when he was a baby. Blake depicted the child’s complaints in the symbolic “voice of a child” (Lell n. pag.) that cried about an injury adults caused to him. The symbolic voice spoke for all children that were unjustly offended.
Another major theme in Blake’s poetry were religious relationships. Lell asserted that Blake told about the “spiritual neglect of the church” in The Little Vagabond telling parents that “the Church was cold” and (n. pag.). The child may be considered as a symbol of all people who, as Blake himself, protested against formalistic ways of preaching. As the congregation was “alienated from preachers”, they were not able to “attract or comfort souls” any more (n. pag.). Here, we can see the other major theme of the poetry that concernes God and his role in human lives.
Blake believed that people could communicate with God without dogmatic explanations of such relationships. He supported a naturalistic concept of religion proving that children expressed “untutored acceptance of God” paying the “inborn reverence” to him (Lell n. pag.). In Divine Image, Blake explained that the inborn ability of people to understand what was correct and what was wrong stemmed from the very creation concept under which people were made in God’s image for love and happiness (n. pag.).
In A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake,Damon proved significance of symbols in understanding of the major themes of Blake’s poetry. Thus, having no children, he attracted their attention to his writings with the beautiful pictures (Damon 81); therefore, they took an important part in his creative work and had a symbolic meaning in his poems too.
For instance, in Divine Humanity they were described as emanating from the everlasting God – “Ethernal Births” (81). In Little Vagabond, Blake used the image of a child to represent entire church complaining about its cold relationships with parishes and emphasizing the real one that was “alone in the wilderness” (82). This notion was depicted in The Little Boy Lost, where a priest burned down a boy who might symbolize a candid man punished for his open speeches (Blake 22).
Another theme, which played a significant role in Blake’s poetry, was interaction between innocence and experience. Blake understood these two reflections of human life as opposite events (Damon 197). The understanding stemmed from the Biblical story of Adam’s fall, which, being happy and careless once, was banished from the paradise later and lost the protection of God (197). This notion can be described by Blake’s stanza depicting poor adults who “drew an angel from their door” (Blake 10).
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In The Chimneysweep, God was depicted as a divine father who never left his trustful children in distress. In The Little Girl Lost, God protected the sleeping girl, and no predator could approach to harm her but only “lick her” body (Blake 20). This picture also symbolized a happy life in the paradise where all the innocents would come.
The theme of God is tightly connected to the theme of death. In Blake’ opinion, “death exists in the conscious minds and the word matter” (Damon 99). Unlike the bodily death, spiritual one meant giving love to others, self-crucifixion for their sake that should be expressed through “love and brotherhood” (100).
In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake used numerous symbols and themes to
depict the comparison between childish purity of innocence and misery of hard-hearted adults. His uniqueness is in the use of the simple way in which he depicted Biblical stories and adult relationships to make the poems an easy reading for children. Lell, as well as Damon, explained Blake’s understanding of importance of one’s spiritual purity in his religious relationships. Not only it is important for one’s life, but also for the life of the entire society that was once created for love and happiness which are achieved through self-crucifixion and brotherhood of its members.