Songs of Innocence and Experience by Blake

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  • 0:03 About the Book
  • 3:15 Major Themes
  • 5:31 'The Lamb' vs. 'The Tyger'
  • 9:17 Other Notable Poems
  • 12:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

How did a book of poetry written over 200 years ago by Romantic poet William Blake foreshadow an animated superhero movie? In this lesson, you'll learn about Blake's most significant and revered collection of poems, 'Songs of Innocence and Experience.'

About the Book

In the shockingly profound movie Megamind (which, like all the computer-animated features in my Netflix queue, I watched right away while the foreign films languished on the shelf), the supervillain, played by Will Ferrell, beats out the superhero, played by Brad Pitt, Metro Man. (Which, if you think about it, totally would be played by Brad Pitt; he's just gorgeous. 'Metro Man?' Perfect.) Megamind realizes that he can't really be a supervillain if he doesn't have a superhero. And Metro Man can't really be a superhero unless he has Will Ferrell.

I would agree that a world without Brad Pitt would be incomplete, but the larger point is that evil needs good and good needs evil in order to define each other. The world is full of contrasting elements that depend on each other to make sense: Bert and Ernie, Team Jacob and Team Edward (although I think the world could be better off without either of those last two). But it's nothing new, this idea of contrast. It's been around forever, and it fascinated the Romantic poet William Blake. In 1794, he published his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience. As you can probably tell from the title, it is a book that is about innocence and experience. You can also look at the subtitle, Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, for an equally unsubtle description of what is going to go on in this book. Innocence and experience, at least in Blake's view and others' views as well, are essentially opposites that together form a whole. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but like Megamind and Metro Man, they need each other.

Blake was kind of a weird dude, but Songs of Innocence and Experience contains some of his most accessible poetry. So if you're going to start somewhere, this is a good place to start. A bunch of people have actually taken the word 'songs' in the title quite literally and have set these poems to music. Which is everyone from the German synthesizer band, Tangerine Dream, to Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. Allen Ginsberg actually idolized Blake. He recorded an entire album of the songs from Songs of Innocence and Experience using instruments that would have been available in Blake's time (which is obviously the sign of a real super fan nutso person, and Ginsberg was not a great musician so it doesn't sound that great). But if you notice from the cover of that and of Blake's book, this is one of Blake's illuminated manuscripts. You might remember from when we talked about Blake's life that he was an illustrator and a printer, so his illustrated manuscripts included lots of artwork that he created to accompany the poems. He would etch them onto plates and then print them on the manuscript.

Before we get into specific poems, we're going to talk about important themes and elements of Romanticism that might appear in this work.

Major Themes

First, it's worth noting that the book is actually two books. We've got Songs of Innocence, which was actually published alone first, in 1789. Most of the poems in this section are about children. Some are even written in the voices of children. As the title suggests, it focuses on a naïve, pure and inexperienced worldview. It's basically saying that the world can be scary, and a lack of experience can lead to being taken advantage of in some cases. Sometimes it's very positive, but there's also a negative side to innocence that is expressed here. In these poems, God is always a protective force, although children don't really fully understand him. He's there and he's protective, but he's kind of misunderstood.

Transitioning to Songs of Experience, which first appeared in the joint volume (so it was never published alone) in 1794, the tone and message of these poems changes quite dramatically. These poems tend to focus on adults (which makes sense), and the world is exposed as a dark place where the Church, politics and society can be constraining. These poems deal with jealousy and corruption, very 'adult,' bad things. While all this sounds kind of negative, these poems also suggest that these forces exist in the world among the innocent - it's not like they go away - but they're too naïve to see them. Experience has some advantages; you're able to see what's really there. It's not like you grow up and suddenly the world gets terrible, although it might feel like that.

So how are these two sets of poems different, and how are they similar? I think that's worth discussing. Both sections use contemporary, accessible language, which was really important to the Romantics; it's one of the Romantic themes. And the poems tend to take place in natural settings. Again, the Romantics were really into nature as a place to be experienced, and a place where you can get an authentic experience, rather than in a city. So that's a little about how this fits into Romanticism as a whole. Now we're going to get into a couple of the most famous poems in it.

'The Lamb' vs. 'The Tyger'

We're going to start out with 'The Lamb', which, as you might have guessed, is from Songs of Innocence. This poem starts out:

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Does thou know who made thee,

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

By the stream and o'er the mead;

We begin in a natural setting with a child questioning a lamb. This seems like the most innocent thing ever. They're just bounding over mountains and feeling great, and there are butterflies everywhere probably. Let's skip to the second stanza:

Little lamb, I'll tell thee;

Little lamb, I'll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

For He calls Himself a Lamb.

So the lamb was made by Jesus (who is sometimes called a lamb). The boy is basically just expressing his very simple Christian faith. In this poem, the world is a safe, friendly place, and religion is represented in this very peaceful, non-threatening way - it's a lamb, the Lamb of God, very simple. And the poem is a great example of why people wanted to make these poems into songs, because it's really written like a song lyric: 'Little lamb, I'll tell thee; little lamb, I'll tell thee;' you can practically hear Allen Ginsberg singing that aloud.

So what's the opposite of a lamb? What might appear in 'Experience' that's the contrast to this poem? Well, we get 'The Tyger,' which I'm not sure is the opposite, but Blake thought so. It goes:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

So it's almost the same poem as 'The Lamb,' except it's a tiger instead. The speaker wonders if God (the 'immortal hand or eye') could make such a terrifying creature (which, again, is a judgment call because I think tigers are great). The poem goes on, and it gets a little darker:

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water'd heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

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