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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner
Bewildering Stories discusses

James Graham on Blake’s “Innocence”

James Graham’s “Blake’s Egalitarian Vision” appears in issue 513.
The discussion “Blake’s Vision” appears in issue 513.
James Graham’s “William Blake’s Innocence” appears in this issue.

[Bill Bowler] I do not doubt that James Graham knows more about Blake’s biography and the history of his time than I do. However, I find his argument about the irony of Songs of Innocence unpersuasive.

He says: ”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.”

He suggests: ”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.”

Infant Joy

“I have no name;
I am but two days old.”
What shall I call thee?
“I happy am,
Joy is my name.”
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!

He’s almost right, but not quite. The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, taken together, interact and reflect back one upon the other, and a terrible irony emerges from the two together, e.g., Infant Joy vs Infant Sorrow, or The Lamb vs The Tiger, or The Chimney Sweeper vs London.

However, the Songs of Innocence, read by themselves, as Mr. Graham puts it, seem completely straightforward and bereft of irony. Consider, for example, “Infant Joy.”

I am not supposed to take these lines at face value? These lines and sentiments are ironic? I don’t think so. In fact, once you say “The Lamb,” or “Infant Joy,” or The Songs of Innocence are ironic in and of themselves, you have sunk the boat.

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler

[Don Webb] Thank you for continuing the discussion, James. I notice you quote part of what I said in the initial discussion (the quote is in italics, below):

The first half of “The Chimney Sweeper” duplicates the “Dickensian” squalor depicted in “London.” The second half shows the sweepers redeemed in a heavenly afterlife, for “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” The sweepers will do their job and Blake will do his.

I think the full context belies the conclusion drawn from my quoted words, namely: “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’.”

Rather than “But this implies” it would be more accurate to say, “I infer.” However, neither “The Chimney Sweeper” nor I say anything to justify the gloss “So orthodox religion tells them.” As for “even if you do your duty, you may well come to harm,” I’m afraid that’s a truism at best or, at worst, a flat contradiction of the poem.

Rather, in the original discussion I emphasized that “The Chimney Sweeper” tells half the story:

“London” offers no such redemption. Rather, both church and government have failed their duty; “mind-forged manacles” remain and the many voices in the poem go unheard...

I respectfully maintain my original thesis: “The Chimney Sweeper” and “London” only appear to be contradictory; rather, they express complementary points of view.

To hold that either set of poems somehow makes the other set “ironic” leads to a fatal conclusion: a poem may not mean what it says when we don’t happen to fancy its meaning and would have preferred something else. The consequences are unfortunate. Is Blake merely scolding “orthodox religion,” among other things?

No, nothing so trivial. I say he had a far grander vision. The poems stand in tension with one another, and what that tension does imply is the union of the transcendent and the immanent.

Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb
and Bewildering Stories

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