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William Blake‘s memorial plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, identifies him as an “artist, poet, mystic.” Born in London, where he spent most of his life, Blake was educated largely at home. From his childhood he claimed to experience visions of and even conversations with angels and with the Virgin Mary. His visionary experiences appear in many of his poetic works, such as The Book of Urizen and The Book of Los.
For a short time, Blake attended art school and then was apprenticed to an engraver. He made his living primarily from his artwork. His poetry, such as Songs of Innocence and Experience, was written as an integral part of his engravings.
William Blake’s memorial plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London including the first stanza of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”
Artist + Poet + Mystic
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
The British Library includes Blake’s Notebook in its Virtual Books collection. On pages 29 and 30, you can see a draft copy of “The Tyger” and on page 3, sketches of tigers. The William Blake Archive provides digital images of Songs of Innocence and Experience and of Blake’s other poetic works that allow you to read the works as Blake intended, with the accompanying engravings.
Although Blake is considered a pre-Romantic poet, his poetry exhibits many of the characteristics of Romantic poetry.
Like many late 18th-century and 19th-century writers, Blake abhorred the effects the Industrial Revolution had on the physical environment and, more importantly, on the people caught in a time of radical change in the ways of living and making a living their families had pursued for generations. Child labor issues figure prominently in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Victorian Web’s section on child labor includes testimony from 1819 Parliamentary hearings on the Chimney Sweepers’ Regulation Bill. With his Romantic sensibility, Blake puts a human face on the debate, encouraging the reader to think of the situation in terms of individuals—Tom, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack—innocent children living lives of inhumane hardship.
Blake titles his collection of poems Songs of Innocence and Experience. His subtitle explains that the poems are “Shewing [showing] the Two Contrary [opposite] States of the Human Soul.” Both “innocence” and “experience” are part of each human soul.
After reading all of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, re-read the following pairs of poems as companion poems:
Why does the first poem of each pair belong in the innocence category and the second in the experience category?
In “The Lamb,” who does the speaker refer to in the following lines?
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
In the Innocence “Holy Thursday,” the poem describes an apparently beautiful sight: the poor children of London cleaned up and dressed in their best clothing being marched to a church service to sing praises. In the Experience “Holy Thursday,” the poem begins with a question:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
What is the relationship of the two poems?