Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
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.
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.
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?
So you can see, there's an explicit reference to the earlier poem: 'Did He who made the lamb make thee?' He's questioning whether the same God - who made the peaceful lamb the child is hanging out with in the fields with the butterflies and the bunnies - could make the tiger that's so violent it could tear that lamb to pieces and eat it for breakfast. The point being, if God made the lamb and God made everything, then God also made evil and terror. So with experience, the world becomes a more complicated place. This is something you see being expressed all over, this question of faith: If God loves us, why does he let us die, or why does he let my loved ones die? It's a realization of how that's a problematic thing to believe in. (You should listen to the song 'Casimir Pulaski Day' if you want to hear this expressed in a wonderful way. You should also read William Blake.)
Going quickly back to Megamind and Metro Man (because I just can't stay away), if we just had experience, we'd be terrified and miserable all the time. If we had a world with tigers and no lambs, we'd always be running for our lives and thinking we were going to be killed. But if we only had innocence, we'd have a complete lack of understanding of what the world was like and we wouldn't know what was going on. It's like how utopia seems like a good idea, but it's actually mind numbing and awful in its own way. It's like the saying 'I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.' The world needs good and evil, superheroes and supervillains; that's the basic idea.
There are a lot of other poems in this work that are good and worth noting. There are a few that are kind of interesting. We've got this poem called 'The Little Black Boy' that's in Songs of Innocence, and it is problematic with a capital 'P.' It goes like this:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O my soul is white!
We should probably take a look at the context to see what Blake was trying to get at. Basically, we have a boy who's born in Africa who proclaims that despite his skin color, his soul is 'white,' or pure. It was first published in 1789; slavery was still totally legal. It was common then (and still is now to an extent) to associate the color black with evil and all things bad and white with purity and all things good. That was inevitably extended to race. In this poem, Blake is using these symbolic colors to talk about the boy's innocence, and he's also trying to subvert them a bit by saying that his skin is black but his soul is white. The poem also proposes that the boy's skin is black because of his closeness to the sun (which symbolizes God), so it's a little bit that his soul is white and he's closer to God because the sun has turned him black. It's still racist, but it was progressive for 1789 in the sense that he's at least trying to say something nice even if he is using tired racial stereotypes to do it.
In Songs of Experience, one of the more interesting poems - besides 'The Tyger,' which is probably the coolest - is called 'The Sick Rose,' which is, surprise, about a dying and sick rose. It's a short poem, and it declares 'O Rose, thou art sick.' It goes on to describe:
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night…
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
So even the most beautiful things are corrupted and destroyed by experience. In this case, critics agree that the worm is probably sex and the resulting disease is probably syphilis, which is a bad one and will make you go insane. So it's a rose, which might be an innocent symbol, and it is corrupted by experience, which is sex, and something bad happens to it. That's why it belongs in 'Experience,' but it's a striking poem for its imagery and whatnot. There are a bunch more interesting poems in this work, and if you just look at the titles of the poems, you can get a sense of which ones are the 'Innocence' and 'Experience' and which ones correspond with each other. It's interesting to take a look.
In general, we've talked about how this work is William Blake's exploration of the contrasts and interdependence of two stages of life: innocence and experience. How if the world is only innocent, you're naïve and you don't know what's going on, and if you only had experience you'd be worried for your life all the time, running from the tiger. You need the lamb and the tiger. The poems in the 'Innocence' section, like 'The Lamb' and 'The Little Black Boy,' are about children, children's points of view and general innocence.
In the Experience section, there's a more mature voice. We talk about 'The Tyger,' which is kind of scary, and we talk about 'The Sick Rose,' which is sick with syphilis. You get the sense that you have experience, which is corrupting, but you also know what's going on. So that's the benefit of that. One isn't better than the other. Innocence and experience aren't competing for dominance; they balance each other out. Yin and Yang, Megamind and Metro Man; the world needs evil Will Ferrell and good Brad Pitt. And that all started with William Blake.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 139 lessons | 10 flashcard sets