The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

William Blake 1757-1827


In most of the Songs of Innocence, there is a reversal of the expected hierarchies. The effect is subversive: that is, the poems reject the authority of the dominant culture over the individual and the authority of the rational mind over the imaginative faculties. The child is resurrected within the adult. Imagination, desire, and creative energy are released and liberated.

In Songs of Experience, we encounter the dark underside of the virtues upheld in traditional children's literature (e.g. we are led to question the value of submissive obedience, or to see the narrowness in spiritual idealism). Many poems reveal the perversion of natural creative energy that results from repression and injustice. With the eyes of "experience," we see that way that civilization has handcuffed the human spirit ("mind-forged manacles").

Blake's seemingly simple but resonant poetic style also liberates the reader from passive instruction into active creation:
--in these poems, we find no clear authorial voice imposing its view, no didactic "messages"
--also, the poems often end inconclusively, leaving the reader with questions
--reading thus requires active involvement on the part of the reader
--reading becomes a creative act, requiring the use of imagination and emotion

The states of Innocence and Experience resemble the Biblical archetypes of The Garden of Eden and the Fallen World, but Blake redefines the terms:
--in Blake's state of innocence, natural desires are in harmony with the spirit (not tempting the spirit into sin)
--Blake's state of experience is a consequence of civilization, law, institutions, and the dominance of reason
--Blake's notion of the fall is a "fall into Division" (cf. Blake's painting of God creating the Universe)
--the Division is between mind and body; the mind, on its own, becomes analytic, scientific (cf. Blake's painting of Newton bending over his compass) separated from the body which, on it own, becomes bestial (cf. Blake's painting of Nebuchadnezzar)

Again, following a Biblical archetype, Blake imagines a "Resurrection into Unity."
--Unity: the creative imagination exerts a synthesizing power, integrating body and intellect to reinstate the whole human being
--(cf. Blake's painting of Albion Rose or Glad Day)

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