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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

William Blake’s ‘Innocence’

by James Graham

James Graham’s “Blake’s Egalitarian Vision” appears in issue 513.
The discussion “Blake’s Vision” begins in issue 513 and continues in this issue.

I’d like to continue the debate about what ‘Innocence’ means and implies in Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

Bill Bowler writes: ‘The Songs are precisely of Innocence and the ultimate justice of cosmic reality masked by earthly suffering.’

I agree that ‘The Songs are precisely of Innocence’ but when I engage with ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and other poems — notably the apparently idyllic ‘Holy Thursday’ — I can’t see the ‘innocence’ in them as a simple thing, or the promise of Heaven as something we should take at face value. I don’t think Blake is saying there is no ‘ultimate justice’; at the same time I don’t believe he is saying the promise of Heaven is the perfect and only answer to the chimney-sweepers’ plight.

I read the closing line of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, indeed the whole of the Angel dream, as irony. Irony can be an elusive thing — some will say it’s there and some will say they can’t see it. But I think we have to say that the dream is at least open to be read as ironic.

In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Blake acknowledges that the consolation of joy in the afterlife is one kind of promise that can be made to the chimney sweepers, and to the poor in general; one kind of emancipation. However, even though he was a lifelong Christian, it is not Blake’s kind of emancipation. I read it as saying: this is what orthodox religion tells the poor.

The boy is consoled by the promise because he is innocent; he doesn’t know there can be another kind of emancipation. The poet’s voice as he tells the Angel story is a knowing voice — knowing the history of his own time and times past, painfully aware of what he sees as the evils of Empire and Tyranny, gross abuses of power. For me the poem is full of a profound sadness at the sweepers’ ‘innocence’ — their lack of education, their lack of fulfilment.

Don Webb writes: ‘The second half shows the sweepers redeemed in a heavenly afterlife, for “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”.’ But this implies, ‘So orthodox religion tells them.’ The final line may even imply, ‘In the society we live in, even if you do your duty, you may well come to harm’.

When we compare the two ‘Holy Thursday’ poems below, we can see the irony of the Innocence poem by contrast with the one in Songs of Experience. If we read the following stanzas in the latter, together with some lines of the former, the contrast is clear:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

There can be no irony in this outcry against material inequality and against the ‘cold and usurous’ institutional ‘guardians’ of the orphan children. Therefore, ‘Holy Thursday’ in Innocence must surely not be taken at face value.

Holy Thursday
(Songs of Innocence)

’Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

The parade of children to the church, ‘their innocent faces clean’, conducted by kindly old ‘grey-headed beadles’, and the idyllic picture of ‘multitudes of lambs’ as they ‘raise to heaven the voice of song’ — all this is the event as seen by the orthodox church-goer, especially the middle-class observer who may not be ignorant of social ills but for whom the church parade is a feel-good experience. Reading ‘Holy Thursday’ in Innocence by itself, one might not be aware of this irony; but reading the two poems together must surely overlay the Innocence poem with a telling irony.

Holy Thursday
(Songs of Experience)

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

I’m more influenced by David Erdman’s Prophet against Empire than by any other writer on Blake. Erdman puts Blake into his historical and political context.

Blake sees the tyranny of the ancien régime in France replaced by a new kind of tyranny. In his own country he sees the ‘manacles’ placed on liberty and freedom of speech in the wake of the French Revolution, although these events are more contemporary with the 1794 Songs of Experience.

Appalled by these and other aspects of his time, he cannot believe exclusively in a dream of joy in the afterlife, the obverse of which is an acceptance that poverty and wretchedness in this life cannot be remedied.

Unlike the chimney sweeper, or the orthodox observer of the church parade, Blake knows this isn’t good enough. In his major works, Jerusalem is unmistakeably an allegory of emancipation and peace — in this world. His Eden is a powerful signifier too — of an aspiration to create a perfect society on Earth. Well, a Utopia perhaps; but one conceived in terms of human well-being on the surface of this planet.

* * *

Reference: David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet against Empire (Princeton 1954; new edition: Dover Publications 2011)

Copyright © 2013 by James Graham

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