The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

 

William Blake, "Nurse's Song" (Innocence) and "Nurse's Song" (Experience)

Blake wrote these two poems as companion poems, linked by an identical title and the same first line:
"When the voices of children are heard on the green."
But the common opening is a pivot and the two poems move in opposite directions:

"Nurse's Song" (Songs of Innocence), 1789

- a nurse(maid) is usually an authority figure for children, the person who is "in charge"
- but here the nurse gives in to children; the children get their own way
- the nurse is happy to let the children follow their desires
- and so there is no need to overthrow her authority
- rather, there is mutual agreement that one can do what one wants
- desire is not threatening, the outer world not frightening
- the poem presents a vision of correspondences, of harmony
- first, between the nurse and the children
- we hear the voices of both the nurse and the children, in dialogue
- secondly, between the children and the landscape (the hills echo their laughter)
- here green is a positive image of fertility and life
- movement is open, sounds are unrestrained ("shouted")
- old and young; human and natural are unified

"Nurse's Song" (Songs of Experience), 1794

- in this poem, the adult voice predominates, warning the children of the dangers in life
- the Nurse herself is afraid; saddened by memories of her own youth and disillusioned by the falsity of the adult world
- the children are silent, do not answer her; the voice of innocence is lost or suppressed
- green here is not the colour of freshness, fertility, pastoral--but of sickness
- sounds are secret, covert ("whisperings")
- it is already night; the sun has gone down
- the time of childhood has no natural, no organic connection to adulthood
- adulthood is false and futile: "your winter and night [are wasted] in disguise"
- innocence thus becomes pointless: "Your spring & your day are wasted in play"
- note the ambiguity of the last line
- is innocence merely a disguise covering our fundamental corruption?
- or does growing up mean the inevitable loss of innocence?
- is adulthood marked by deceit and hypocrisy?
- or is disguise the mask the adult adopts for self-protection?
- overall, the poem has an unsettling, disturbing effect: the emotion is fear; the vision is waste

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