Usage of Symbolism in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are poems that diverge experience and innocence. Poem 1 is written when the boy was new to the labour and wasn’t used to living in these harsh conditions, meanwhile Poem 2 is when the boy was experienced and was used to how he was treated and his living conditions. Both of these poems illustrate a small-aged boy working as a chimney sweeper and living under terrible conditions. Poem 1 was when the boy was still innocent and hadn’t lost his innocence, however staying there and labouring was losing his innocence and as the title of Poem 2 suggests, he was experienced. Both of these poems were written in the years of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s and the years of active child labour during the industrial revolution. Kids that sweeped at an early age were often sold by their parents because they needed to help their family survive financially, as the line in Poem 1 highlights, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry weep! weep! weep! weep!”, this line indicates that the boy’s father sold him at a very young age in which he couldn’t pronounce the word “sweep” properly which implies that he was so young that he couldn’t even speak properly. Even though his father sold him as a sweeper, there still is a hint of optimism in the boy. This is hinted when he consoles his friend, Tom Dacre when his head is being shaved, “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare, you know the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’, this line also indicates the lives these sweepers were living. Tom’s back was curled like a lamb’s back, usually lamb is a symbol for innocence.

The narrator tells Tom that the soot won’t spoil his white hair if the hair is gone. Here, hair is a metaphor for innocence, the narrator says that Tom shouldn’t worry about it since his innocence is being lost already. Another sign of optimism in Poem 1 is when the boy has a dream in which thousands of sweepers were locked up in coffins of black and an angel came who had a bright key and set them all free. The next line, “then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, and wash in a river and shine in the sun. Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, they rise upon clouds and sport in the wind. And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, he’d have god for his father and never want joy.” In the boy’s dream, an angel set them all free from the black coffins which are a reference to them sleeping in soot as chimney workers, and the boys do activities which amuse them, “then down a green plain, leaping, laughing the run”, the next line is about them washing themselves till they are naked and white. This signifies the fact that the boys were black from the soot and if they’d wash themselves, they would return to their natural colours. “All their bags left behind”, means that they won’t work as sweepers anymore since they left their bags behind and they will live peaceful lives. However, in the very next line they all wake up and get their bags and brushes to work. Yet another sign of optimism in the sweepers is when William adds, “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm”, this line yet again shows the optimism in the kids. Tom is happy and warm even though it was cold and he had to work under harsh conditions again.

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The last line of the poem is almost kind of a threat, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”, if the kids wouldn’t do their duty, they would have to fear harm and maybe they’d be punished, killed or harmed. The rhyme scheme is Songs of Innocence is AABB while in Songs of Experience, Blake uses the classic ABAB in the last two stanzas. In Poem 1 the boy couldn’t properly say the word “sweep”, because of his young age and his lisp, however in Poem 2, he has grown up since there is a 5-year gap between these two poems, and this time he intentionally says “weep” instead of “sweep”. This portrays the fact the narrator has fully understood the situation he is in and he is more understanding now that he’s grown up. Blake shows amelioration from innocence to experience. Poem 2, Songs of Experience is when the narrator has grown up and has fully comprehended with the situations in his life. The narrator has lost his innocence and understood the harsh reality of the world at that time. In the first line, the boy refers to himself as the “black thing” in the snow, he says black since he sleeps in soot and sweeps chimneys which has caused his skin to have a dark shade.

This is a good contrast to the whiteness and purity of the snow. Blake then adds “thing”, which resembles the fact that the society didn’t classify him as a human and rather called him a “thing” since he is a sweeper and has a bad background. “Crying weep! weep! in notes of woe”, similar to Poem 1, he uses the same word when he couldn’t pronounce “sweep”, however in Poem 2, he says “weep” intentionally. When he was asked where his parents are, he replied “They are both gone up to the church to pray”, this suggests to the reader that the narrator was not interested in praying. Despite all the misery and hardships throughout his life, he is happy and remains content as the line tells, “I was happy upon the heath and smil’d among the winter’s snow”. In the second stanza of Poem 2, Blake is trying to gain the reader’s sympathy for the narrator by saying that his father sold him because he was happy and had warmth and joy in him even in the winter’s snow. He adds that his parents put him in clothes of death which is a reference to coffin clothes. Furthermore, “and taught me to sing the notes of woe”, his parents taught him to woe, cry after selling him as a chimney sweeper. Personally, from both poems the last stanza in Poem 2 was my favourite, “And because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury, and are gone to praise god and his priest and king, who make up a heaven of our misery”. His parents think they have done no harm/injury to the narrator by selling him. Plus, Blake adds that his parents have gone up to pray to the king and priest who make up a heaven of their misery. This means that the kings and priests “brainwash” the parents to think that selling your child is a good thing. They use the boy’s labour to make themselves content.

The church, the government, the society and the father, all of them have played a role in looting the narrator’s innocence. In Poem 1, where he is optimistic towards his life and towards God and is hopeful that the angel and God will save him one day, in Poem 2 he blames God and the Church for his terrible life, and has lost all hope in God. Which is very understandable. Why do we never see results after hours of praying in some of our darkest times in life? Why’s there only one god but multiple religions? Why is everything about you, a peacemaker, a harmful debate? Was religion just made for the separation? Is it modern day segregation? The two poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are based on the same boy but illustrate two different time frames in the boy’s life. Both of them show how innocence is lost and show the lives of the chimney sweepers in the industrial revolution. Blake managed to paint to the reader that the boy in Songs of Innocence is rather hopeful and optimistic and looks at the bright side of things and hasn’t lost his innocence yet, however is just one step away from losing it. On the other hand, Songs of Experience shows the life of a boy whose innocence has already been stolen and a boy who has matured and comprehended with the truth and has let reality sink in. The narrator’s innocence is mainly lost due to the Church, Government, Society, financial conditions, living conditions and his parents who are delusional that their boy is content with his job.

As a songwriter, I can clearly see that Blake has incredible skills of rhyming and visual imagery. Most of both poems were perfect rhymes, however there were 2 or 3 slant rhymes. The imagery was incredible, it felt like I was the boy when he talked about the church. William paints a very vivid and bright picture in the reader’s mind when he/she reads any one of these two poems. In both these poems there were 3 main themes; innocence, death and misery. The boy’s innocence is stolen from him. They get up before dawn in cold mornings and clean chimneys, they’re forced to live in soot and be called “black things”. They play and do activities kids they’re age usually do, but only in their dreams. Soot was mentioned throughout the poems, soot is black which resembles darkness and soot is something which people stay away from and usually avoid and soot can easily be gone and nobody would care for it. Looking at this from a rather different perspective, money is to blame for the loss of innocence in the narrator and thousand other sweepers. It’s because of the father’s financial condition that the boy was sold. The 2nd theme, Death was commonly implied throughout both poems. As the last line of Poem 1 hinted, the kids would have to fear if they didn’t do their duties. The kids would be punished, harmed or killed.

Moreover, in Tom’s dream, the sweepers are locked up in coffins. Blake tells us how these kids were grateful to wake up alive every day and they face death at an early age. However, they were already dead practically. They had lost everything; their freedom, their childhood, their parents and their innocence at an extremely young age in which they couldn’t even pronounce words properly. The death for these kids is both metaphorical and literal. Literal since they might get killed anytime soon if they don’t do their duties properly and metaphorical in the sense that they’ve lost everything. The 3rd and final theme is misery. Chimney-sweeping wasn’t an easy job, the kids woke up before dawn even though it was cold, they slept in soot and in terrible fear. Blake talks about Tom’s head being shaved and how he was crying in agony since he didn’t want his hair to be shaved. The only place these kids got to play and frolic like they should was Tom’s dream. On a metaphorical level, in Tom’s dream the kids are locked up in Black Coffins which refers to where they live and sleep with the black coming from the soot and coffins since they are helpless and trapped. The only way they can escape is an imaginary angel. Lots of misery for the kids whose futures and present lives had been destroyed forever. Overall in my opinion this was a very clever and interesting poem.

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