Marks of weakness, marks of woe
In every cry of every Man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
This is easily, I’d say, William Blake’s most accessible and most famous work. The poems from Songs of Innocence were originally published in the late 1780s, but in 1794, they were republished as part of this collection, with the Songs of Experience poems here being entirely new material. You can obviously see just from the title that this is Blake still wrestling with his theory of contrasts and balance and, for all the masterful work to come in his mythology, he perhaps never so artfully and beautifully expressed it. Most of poems here are doubles, ie. a poem in Innocence will connect with a poem in Experience, either thematically or, sometimes, even more explicitly. There’s, for instance, two of Blake’s most famous poems, The Lamb (“Little lamb, who made thee/Dost thou know who made thee”) and The Tyger (“Tyger, tiger, burning bright/in the forest of thenight/What immortal hand or eye/could frame thy fearful symmetry?”). These explore the beauty and tenderness of nature contrasted with the ferocity and majesty of nature by exploring, in both cases, what force or being could have created these creatures. The contrasts continue, but I can’t give all the examples of course, but some of the best are Infant Joy & Infant Sorrow; The Blossom & The Sick Rose; etc. Sometimes, the poems directly share titles. Holy Thursday examines the tradition of bringing homeless and poor children to church on Holy Thursday; the poem in Innocence examines the joyful experience of the children, while the poem in Experience castigates society for feeling that this small act of charity absolves them of responsibility the rest of the year. The Chimney Sweeper, another particularly famous poem, examines the plight of a young child sold into slavery as a chimney sweep; the poem in Innocence finds redemption in the child’s faith in God and his peaceful dreams while the poem in Experience once again takes society to task for allowing such cruelty to exist. London is a poem that has no real corollary in Innocence and it’s one of the most brutal and biting poems in Experience, a short, four-stanza poem that castigates social cruelty and corruption from the government and the church on down. The poems here are simple and accessible; Blake is consciously appropriating the form of nursery rhymes. I think Songs of Innocence & of Experience is a great gateway into poetry for someone who is interested in poetry, but feels out of their depth; the poems are simply worded, short and almost entirely rhyme-based. The meters are simple and even the poetry novice will easily be able to slip into the rhythm of a poem like London. And the subject matter is concrete and compelling. It’s a work marked by its simplicity in a way, but it’s also a work that rewards repeated reading; this is the only work in the Blake book that I’ve read before and I feel like I took so much more away this time. There’s great depth beneath the placidity; it’s a book that speaks to the reader where they are. It’s also one of Blake’s greatest works. He at least equaled this book in other places, but whether or not he ever surpassed it is a question I’m not comfortable with. It’s a pure masterpiece and these songs, of innocence or of experience either one, certainly remain of necessity. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Blake’s most accessible work marries great simplicity with hidden depths of meaning and emotion; a pure masterpiece and a good introduction to poetry in general. 4 stars.