The Songs of Innocence were published by Blake in 1789, and he produced a combined version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794. The Songs are now often studied for their literary merit alone, but they were originally produced as illuminated books, engraved, hand-printed, and coloured by Blake himself.
The text of the poem and the accompanying illustration formed an integrated whole, each adding meaning to the other. Read highlights from the Songs of Innocenceand of Experience in their original illustrated form, and look learn more through summaries and analyses of each poem.
The poem describes the annual Holy Thursday (Ascension Day) service in St Paul’s Cathedral for the poor children of the London charity schools. The children enter the cathedral in strict order ‘walking two and two’ behind the beadles (wardens). The children sit and sing, and their voices rise up to heaven far above their aged guardians. The poem ends with a moral: have pity on those less fortunate than yourself, as they include angelic boys and girls like those described here.
The poem is based on the contrast between the ‘innocent faces’ of the children and the authority of the ‘grey headed beadles’ and the other ‘aged men’ who act as their guardians. Although the children are made to enter the cathedral in regimented order, their angelic innocence overcomes all the constraints put upon them by authority – they even make the ‘red and blue and green’ of their school uniforms look like ‘flowers of London town’. As the boys and girls raise their hands and their voices to heaven, the narrator imagines them rising up to heaven too, just as Christ himself did on Ascension Day. In the poet’s vision they leave their ‘wise Guardians’ beneath them and become angels – which is why the last line tells us to ‘cherish pity’ and remember our duty to the poor. Although the triple repetition of ‘multitude(s)’ notes how many thousands of children live in poverty in London, the emphasis in this poem is on the ‘radiance’ which they bring to the church – they are ‘multitudes of lambs’. In the contrary Songs of Experience, Blake provides an opposing opinion and a social critique: ‘And so many children poor? It is a land of poverty’.
In this poem, the narrator is a young black boy. He insists that though his exterior is black, inside his soul is as white (or "pure") as the angelic-looking child. His mother taught him that this life is only a period of trial and preparation, in which he will learn to bear the ‘beams of love’ emanating from the sun where ‘God does live’. In God’s kingdom, however, he and the white boy will play around God’s tent like innocent lambs. The black boy will become like the white boy, who in turn will learn to love his black counterpart.
This poem, composed in 1788, dates from the dawn of the anti-slavery movement, just a year after the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had been founded. Its key feature is the power-shift between the black boy and the white boy that occurs in the course of the poem. In the first verse, the black boy feels physically inferior to his white counterpart. The English child is ‘white as an angel’, while the little black boy is pictured as a heathen – ‘black as if bereav’d of light’. But the black boy, following his mother’s explanation of his skin-colour through to its conclusion, convinces himself that his dark skin actually has the positive effect of enabling him to get closer to the ‘light’ and ‘heat’ of God’s love. Once in God’s kingdom, the poem says, the black boy (who can stand unsupported), will actually be stronger than the white boy (who will have to ‘lean…upon our father’s knee’.) Nonetheless the black boy will not take advantage of his superiority to show vengefulness, but will show compassion to the white boy by ‘shading him from the heat’ and ‘stroking his silver hair’. Blake suggests that in God’s kingdom colour is irrelevant. Both white and black skins are described as ‘clouds’ that interfere with the sun’s rays (God’s love), dulling our perception of the things all races have in common, most importantly, our shared humanity.
The child tells how his father sold him to a master chimney sweeper when he was so young that he could not even pronounce the words ‘sweep, sweep’ (the traditional street cry which chimney sweeps called out to advertise their presence). The boy comforts Tom Dacre, another sweep whose blond hair has just been shaved off. Tom goes to sleep and dreams that an angel sets free all the sweeps so they can run, play and swim freely in the innocence of youth. The angel tells Tom that if he is a ‘good boy’ God will love him and he will never ‘want joy’ (lack happiness). Tom awakes, warm and cheerful, and the poem ends with the moral: ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’.
In Blake’s time, poor parents often sold their children as ‘climbing boys’ to a master sweep at around the age of five. The boys were forced up narrow, winding chimneys to clean them of soot. Some suffocated inside the chimneys they were trying to clean. Others grew up stunted and deformed, dying at a young age from cancer or lung diseases. Tom Dacre’s dream shows just how horrible this life was for the boys by contrasting it with what they should have been doing at this tender stage in their lives: ‘leaping’ and ‘laughing’ in the sunshine. The moral at the end of the poem is the statement of the young sweep who narrates the poem. Obviously it is nonsense: the climbing boys all ‘do their duty’ but still come to great harm. Yet the sweep is just innocently repeating the moral code which he has been taught by society. The poem thus holds a mirror up to its readers: it is you who deceive children with this false morality, just as it is ‘your chimneys’ (verse 1, line 4) that are responsible for having boy sweeps in the first place.
The narrator considers it a scandal that a country as ‘rich and fruitful’ as England condemns so many of its children to live in poverty. Indeed, the second verse corrects the first: England cannot be called ‘rich’ when there are such huge numbers of poor children living there. These children live sunless, barren lives in a state of ‘eternal winter’. Again, the final verse takes it further: there cannot be other seasons as long as children go hungry. Sunshine and rain are cause for happiness, and we have no right to such happiness when thousands are suffering all around us.
The poem picks up where its contrary Holy Thursday in Songs of Innocence left off, with reference to the annual Holy Thursday (Ascension Day) service in St Paul’s Cathedral for the poor children of the London charity schools. Yet there can be nothing ‘holy’ about a service which shows us how many thousands of children are ‘reduced to misery’ in England. The poem challenges the very image of Great Britain as a rich and civilised nation. In the 1790s Britain was the world’s wealthiest superpower, so the statement that it was ‘a land of poverty’ was radical. The poem also attacks the whole system of caring for poor children as ‘cold and usurous’ (usury is the practice of lending money for profit, by charging interest on it and therefore getting back more than you lent). This may sound a harsh description, but we need to remember that the charity schools of the eighteenth century were aimed at turning out child workers for the most brutal industries. This brought profit to their employers but drove thousands of children into an early grave.
The narrator introduces the boy chimney sweep as no more than a ‘little black thing’. The child is so young that he cannot even pronounce the traditional cry of ‘sweep, sweep’ which the chimney sweeps of Blake’s time called out to advertise their presence as they walked through the streets. When the narrator asks him where his parents are, he simply replies that they have ‘both gone up to the church to pray’. He then tells how they sold him to be a chimney sweep but still refuse to accept that they have done him any wrong. In the final two lines he attacks the church and the king for pretending that all is right with the world and for closing their eyes to ‘our misery’.
In both of the first two verses Blake employs basic colour imagery to contrast the ‘little black thing’ with the white of the snow, which represents the purity of the childhood that the sweep has had taken away from him. The sweep’s clothes are ‘clothes of death’ not just because the soot has turned them black, the colour of mourning, but also because the soot will soon kill the child. The greatest shock of the poem comes in the second verse, where the boy says it was ‘Because I was happy’ that his parents condemned him to this early death. Blake has deliberately given us a sentence which doesn’t make sense in order to show us how totally wrong it is to violate the purity of the child. The rhythm of the last verse becomes quicker and lighter as the sweep describes how his parents ‘praise God’ that everything is fine, but slows right down as the biting last line exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of state religion. The law passed by Parliament in 1788 to protect child sweeps had failed to make any difference by the time Blake published Songs of Experience in 1794. The poet’s anger at society’s indifference blazes out as never before.
This poem asks a question: who could have dared to make (‘frame’) a beast as terrifying as the tiger? It then goes on to liken the making of a tiger to the dangerous process of fashioning molten metal from the furnace with hammer and anvil. In the fifth verse the poet asks the question: ‘Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ Blake implies that it was God who made both the gentle lamb and the ferocious tiger, but that he may regret having created so fierce a beast as the latter. The concluding verse of the poem is identical to the opening verse, giving the poem itself ‘symmetry’, but note that in line 4 ‘could’ has been replaced by ‘dare’.
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were intended by Blake to show ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’. The Tyger is the contrary poem to The Lamb in the Songs of Innocence. The Lamb is about a kindly God who ‘calls himself a Lamb’ and is himself meek and mild. The tiger, by contrast, is a terrifying animal ‘burning’ with fire in its eyes. The poet therefore finds it hard to believe that the same God who created the gentle lamb would also make the ‘dread’ tiger. If the lamb represents Divine love, what might the tiger represent? Some commentators think it represents the anger of God, some think it represents the aggressive, war-mongering spirit of mankind, others think it represents man’s imagination and creative urges. The poem consists of a series of questions that are never fully answered, circling round us in just the same way as a tiger stalks its prey. Even at the end no answer is given: the last verse just sends us back to the same question with which we started.
The narrator tells of his visit to the Garden of Love and of the chapel standing where he played as a child. Instead of welcoming him in, the chapel has the negative ‘Thou shalt not’ of the Ten Commandments written over the door. The narrator sees that this negative morality has blighted the garden as well, reducing the ‘sweet flowers’ to graves and tombstones. The mechanical ritual of the priests ‘walking their rounds’ threatens to choke out the narrator’s life itself.
The key to the poem lies in its second line. The narrator is talking about the change in how he now sees his surroundings, not a change in the garden itself. The poem is central to Blake’s design in the Songs of Experience, as it marks the psychological passage from childhood innocence to adult experience. There are strong echoes of the passage from innocence to knowledge of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just as their tasting the apple has commonly been interpreted as a sexual awakening, so too the narrator’s ‘joys and desires’ include the physical pleasures he is denied by the rule-bound morality of the church. The last two lines, with their heightened metre and rhyme pattern, sum up what Blake saw as the threat of losing the ‘joys and desires’ of childhood innocence: unless we can develop our creative imagination to replace that lost innocence, we will lose the essence of life itself.
In this poem, Blake may also be attacking a new chapel built in Lambeth near his then home. This chapel was built by subscription: parishioners paid for their pews. Blake was appalled at the idea that those who could not pay would be excluded from Christianity’s ‘Garden of Love’.
The narrator wanders through London and finds even the streets and the river suffering under political oppression. In everyone he passes, he sees signs of misery and moral weakness. In fact, the narrator doesn’t just see the misery of the sweep, the soldier, the prostitute or the baby, he also hears it in their cries, sighs, curses and tears. He visualises the cry of the chimney-sweep covering the churches like a pall draped over a coffin, and the last breath of the dying soldier running like blood down the walls of the royal palace. In the depths of night the ‘Harlot’s curse’ (venereal disease) blinds the new-born baby and turns love itself into a disease-infested shortcut to death.
London is one of Blake’s most powerful political poems. That power is achieved in good part through repetition. Notice how ‘charter’d’ appears twice, ‘mark’ three times and ‘every’ a total of seven times. This – coupled with the repeated use of ‘and’ – gives an atmosphere of relentless oppression to the poem. London singles out the Church and the King for their part in this oppression: the Church is a dark force of evil, while the soldier’s blood is a direct indictment of the King who sent him off to die. Though the poem is rich in symbolic meaning, Blake’s victims are also real people: the ‘Harlot’s curse’ is no tame euphemism for syphilis, but the shout of a ‘youthful’ prostitute against the society which abuses her. But what are the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’? They may represent the deeply ingrained respect for tradition and institutions that stopped the people of London from following the example of revolutionary Paris and overthrowing their oppressors in Church and State. After all, London was published in 1793, four years after the outbreak of the French Revolution and the same year as the execution of Louis XVI, the French King.