“Without Contraries There is No Progression”: Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

The purpose of this paper is to show how the essence of William Blake’s central philosophy, summed up in the statement, “without contraries there is no progression”, can be found in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I would like to show that innocence and experience are contraries, by a close reading of poems in Innocence and in Experience. Then, I will show how both these contraries blend in “The Tyger”, marking a progression from innocence to experience and then beyond, thus indicating that both innocence and experience are needed for progression.

Romanticism placed a great emphasis on the subjective and the ideal. Truth became personal, and wasn’t revealed to the seeker, but rather, created by the seeker. Rationality and empiricism were replaced by imagination and humanism. The role of the poet changed, and was seen as performing the function of a prophet. There was a changed perception of what a poem is and what it does. For the classicist, the work of art resembled a mirror, “passively mimetic or reproductive of existing reality”. For the Romantic, it was a lamp, “which throws out images originating not in the world but in the poet”. (Butler 16). The Romantic was a visionary, who perceived ordinary things with a clarity that others did not possess. This period was also a time of great political upheaval and socio-economic changes. The effect of the French Revolution was felt throughout Europe. Ideas of liberty, democracy and equality that it brought spread to other parts of the world. In England, the Industrial Revolution was making its effects felt: population growth combined with commercialization and urbanization to destabilize the very foundations of the family and beliefs of the individual. In a time of such changes, the Romantics considered themselves as seers, who lamented the present situation and would usher in a new and ideal world, depicted in their poems by emphasizing Nature and Imagination.

The Romantics used imagination to reject the “mechanistic world picture” and establish an “idealistic epistemology” (Wellek 21). Coleridge described imagination as a creative power by which the mind “gains insight into reality, reads nature as a symbol of something behind or within nature not ordinarily perceived”. The faculty of imagination allowed the Romantics to present a vision of an ideal, beautiful world. Myth, metaphor and symbolism were used to further the imaginative vision. However, the concept of imagination and the treatment of nature were unique to each Romantic poet. For Blake, man and nature are “not only continuous, but emblematic of each other” (Wellek 23). Man is central to his vision. The divine and human are interchangeable for him. This is evident in the plates on which The Songs of Innocence and Experience are inscribed. In a state of innocence, when man is in peace with himself, nature is shown to be protective and regenerative. In the state of experience however, the plates depict sterility and weeds or thorny plants.

Blake’s Myth of Man expressed an apocalyptic vision and put forward the notion that to create an ideal world, man must be in unity with himself, or the four Zoas must be balanced. For Blake, the Fall is caused by self-doubt, because man failed to see truth and doubted his own divinity. To conquer this separateness within the self, man needs to exercise imagination and break free from the constraints of negatives and prohibitions. So, Blake’s myth is an interior journey, where the human soul searches for truth. It is a journey to recover innocence which has been corrupted by the world of experience. The journey ends in the reconciliation of these two contraries, which enables man to reach his ideal state, where he is at unity within himself and in harmony with nature. (Cama 43-9). The Songs of Innocence and Experience is a poetic exposition of this journey, as I will presently attempt to explain.

There can be no doubt about the assertion that the states of innocence and experience are contraries. The ideas, images, symbols, language and impression created of both are in contrast to each other. Innocence is a state of childlike joy, spontaneity with nature and instinctive behaviour. Man and nature are in harmony. In “The Little Lamb”, the child is shown to be in a protective, nurturing environment. He asks universal questions about creation, and in a state of innocence, finds satisfactory answers by the imaginative creation of the trinity of Jesus, the boy and the lamb. The child is confident about the care of God, as is seen in his association of the lamb with God, and of God with himself:

“He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.”

(lines 13-18, “Little Lamb, Blake 64)

In “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy”, the situations described are grim and address serious social problems. But because these poems are within the trajectory of innocence, there is no bitterness in the acceptance of a faith that is cruel and unfair. There is also a sense of communion: the chimney sweepers have each other for company, and the little black boy brings the white boy to God. There is also an implicit trust in the promise of redemption after casting off the body. “Pastoral properties” are employed as “symbols of Innocence (Damon 95). This fosters the naive faith of the children. This naive faith has “both the precariousness and the strength of pastoral vision: it seems too fragile to survive suffering, yet it somehow does survive, more vivid and intense than the world it transcends” (Price 104). The state of innocence is happy and harmonious not because the world is pure and just, but because the mind hasn’t been corrupted by this outside world.

In Songs of Experience, the idyllic pastoral setting is replaced by images of death and sterility. This is the world in which the very happy children of Innocence are one of the most abused by a society which is driven by greed, fear and malice. The boy in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience is very different from his Songs of Innocence counterpart. He is a bitter figure, against whom the city as a whole is shut, as depicted by the plate. There is no sense of community; he is utterly isolated. For Blake, evil is negative and all evil is either “self-restraint or restraint of others” (Frye 55). In the state of Experience, the imagination and freedom of man is restrained by a repressive State and a Church which has suppressed the teachings of Christ to instil fear and demand supplication from the masses. In “The Chimney Sweeper”, the holy trinity of Innocence is replaced by the unholy triad of God, Priest and King. The greed of parents along with the complicity of the Church and the demands of the State exploit the helpless child. In “The Garden of Love”, the role of the Church in restraining everything that is natural and joyful in man is shown through the priests binding in briars every instinct, and graves replacing a place which used to reverberate with happiness. The words “Thou shalt not” on the shut Chapel indicates what Blake found repressive and evil about State religion. The breakdown of relationships and the alienation of the individual is shown in “London”, where the chimney sweeper’s voice is contrasted with the black Church, the castle walls are red with the blood of the soldiers who protect it, and the marriage coach is equated to a funeral hearse.

However different the worlds of Innocence and Experience are, as Martin Price argues, we can see “the potential suffering that surrounds the world of Innocence and the potential triumph that Experience permits” (Price 108). In Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb” sounds a note of tragedy because lamb alludes to the sacrifice of Christ. While the boys in “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy” innocently accept their fate, the reader is aware and discomfited by the injustice meted out to them by an unfeeling society. The strength of Experience comes of its ability to sustain or recover the faith of Innocence. In Blake’s own words,

“Man is a twofold being, one part capable of evil and the other capable of good;

That which is capable of good is not also capable of evil, but that which is capable

of evil is also capable of good”

(Frye 58).

Thus, Innocence is not a permanent state because the corruption of the world soon seeps through an innocence arising out of ignorance. Experience isn’t a permanent state either if, according to Blake, man has vision, “the revelation that this world is fallen and therefore not ultimate” (Frye 58). It is imagination which allows man to transcend the corruption present in the state of Experience, making him realize that both Innocence and Experience are necessary for his progression. This is seen in “The Tyger”.

“The Tyger” is the coming together of both Innocence and Experience. It is a poem of reconciliation, the attainment of a certain maturity which recognizes the complexity of life. It is a realization of the fact that pain and pleasure, grief and joy, hate and love co-exist in this world. The “fearful symmetry” of the tiger may invoke terror, but it is also purposeful, as the order in the word “symmetry” suggests. The God of Love is also the God of Wrath, and the furnace, while destructive, is also necessary to purify the world. Fire is a creative force, or Los, one of the Zoas which is the faculty of imagination. It burns through the darkness created by the forest of materialism, errors and restrictions. The questions raised in this poem do not get answered, but there is an acceptance of this. The important thing is that the imaginative mind is exercising the power of raising these questions. The tiger is a symbol of primal spiritual energy, which destroys and purifies.

According to Blake, the two characteristics of a visionary are “wrath and pity”, which he calls “Rintrah and Palambron” (Frye 70). From Boheme, he derived the idea that God “manifests Himself in two contrary principles: Wrath and Love, Fire and Light, Father and Son” (Paley 119). So, the juxtaposition of the tiger and the lamb in the line, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Line 20, “The Tyger”, Blake 81), is not an opposition of Innocence and Experience, but a resolution of it. Thus, wrath is the judgement of God on a fallen world, and once man realized this, he will transcend Experience into “inspired prophecy” (Paley 120).

Thus, Innocence and Experience are contraries which are needed for man to progress to a state of prophetic vision, where he is able to use his imaginative capability with no restraints as well as perceive the world with absolute clarity. Such a vision is the vision of the true prophet, and such a man exists in harmony within himself, thus creating harmony in the universe. This is Blake’s vision of Albion. The rites-of-passage from Innocence to Experience is necessary for achieving imaginative transcendence. “Without contraries, there is no progression”.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Print.

Cama, Shernaz. “Introduction”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Damon, Foster S. “The Initial Eden”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Frye, Northrop. “Beyond Good and Evil”. Fearful Symmetry. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Paley, Morton D. “Tyger of Wrath”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Price, Martin. “The Vision of Innocence”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Wellek, Rene. “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History”. Ed. Nichols Jr., S.G. Concepts of Criticism. Yale: Yale University Press, 1963. Print.


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