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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 8. Songs of Experience

Up to this point, Blake’s writings preserve the spontaneity and confident strength that mark The Marriage: his faith in the immediate efficacy of passion to free itself by revolt gives energy and freshness to the measure and language. But, from this time, his outlook becomes increasingly overcast. He comes to see that the will to freedom is not all-powerful, but must endure, for a time, the limitations of temporal experience. Salvation is still to come through passionate revolt, and, in an indefinite way, this is associated with the French revolution; but Blake now emphasises the strength of the moral heresy, and the impetuous enthusiasm of America and Visions is, to a considerable degree, checked. The simplest indications of this change occur in Songs of Experience (1794) and those poems in the Rossetti MS. belonging to the same period. The contrast between these and Songs of Innocence is not merely formal, but is the direct expression of the change already referred to. In the early collection, there are no shadows: to Blake’s unaccustomed eyes, the first glimpse of the world of vision was pure light. But, in the intervening years, experience had brought a fuller sense of the power of evil, and of the difficulty and loneliness of his lot who would set himself against the current of this world. So he writes of himself

  • The Angel that presided o’er my birth
  • Said, “Little creature, formed of Joy and Mirth,
  • Go, love without the help of anything on Earth.”
  • The title-page for the combined Songs of Innocence and of Experience describes them as “Shewing the Contrary States of the Human Soul’ while, in the motto, he writes, in a spirit of disenchantment,
  • The Good are attracted by Men’s perceptions
  • And think not for themselves;
  • Till Experience teaches them to catch
  • And to cage the Fairies and Elves,
  • the catching of the fairies and elves, apparently, signifying the deliberate searching after the hidden mystical meaning of things, in place of a docile acceptance of other men’s faith.

    Signs of the change lie on every hand. If the introduction in Songs of Experience be compared with its earlier counterpart, the piper is seen to have become the more portentous bard, the laughing child upon a cloud gives place to “the lapsèd Soul weeping in the evening dew.” And there is, also, apparent, at times, the vague consciousness of “some blind hand” crushing the life of man, as man crushes the fly. This, however, is not quite constant, though something of the same mystery lies behind the question in The Tiger,

  • Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
  • More commonly, Blake lays stress upon the fallacy of law, and this, chiefly, in its relation to love. Thus, in The Clod and the Pebble, his own ethic of the love that “seeketh not itself to please,” is set against the concept of love governed by moral duty, and, therefore, cold and interested. Similarly, in Holy Thursday, there is white passion beneath the simplicity and restraint of his picture of the little victims of a niggard charity; perhaps, nothing gives so complete an impression of the change in Blake as the comparison of the earlier and later poems under this title. Moreover, he always opposed any interference with the natural development of the individual genius. “There is no use in education,” he told Crabb Robinson, “I hold it wrong. It is the great Sin.” This text he develops in The Schoolboy and in the two versions, manuscript and engraved, of Infant Sorrow. Something of the kind appears in A Little Boy Lost, though there is also a return to the baiting of the Philistine with paradox, as in The Marriage. For here, as before, churches and priests represent the extreme forms of obscurantism and repression, and the exaltation of the letter of a rigid law above the spirit of love that transcends mere obligation. But by far the greater bulk of the engraved and manuscript verse of this period repeats the theme of Visions, the infallibility of the human instinct towards gratification of appetite, and the iniquity of all that interferes with it. Hence, modesty, continence and asceticism become glosing terms, hiding the deformity and corruption that arise from the covert satisfaction of desire; they are the fair-seeming fruit of the poison-tree, the tree of moral virtue.

    Such is a summary of the main ideas embodied in these Songs. There are, indeed, moments when this passion of disputation tells heavily against the verse, prosodically perfect though it is; only the unfaltering sincerity and directness of Blake’s spirit bears him safely through. Indeed, he never surpassed the best work of this period. Notably in The Tiger, his imagination shakes off the encumbrances of doctrine, and beats out new rhythm and new imagery for a more exalted vision of life. The poem proceeds entirely by suggestion; its succession of broken exclamations, scarcely coherent in their rising intensity, gives a vivid impression of a vast creative spirit labouring at elemental furnace and anvil to mould a mortal form adequate to the passion and fierce beauty of the wrath of God, the “wild furies” of the human spirit: it is as though the whole mighty process had been revealed to him in vivid gleams out of great darkness. Of a lower flight, but still unequalled before Keats, are poems in the “romantic” mood of human sorrow, in harmony with the more desolate aspects of nature. Such are the Introduction and Earth’s Answer, the lovely first stanza of The Sunflower or the manuscript quatrain, almost perfect in its music, beginning “I laid me down upon a bank.” Yet, Blake could ruin the effect of such lines by adding an atrocious verse in crude three-foot anapaests on the iniquity of moral law. He gives his own version of this obsession in another manuscript poem:

  • Thou hast a lap full of seed
  • And this is a fine country.
  • Why dost thou not cast thy seed,
  • And live in it merrily?
  • Shall I cast it on the sand
  • And turn it into fruitful land?
  • For on no other ground
  • Can I sow my seed,
  • Without tearing up
  • Some stinking weed.