William Blake published his second collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence, in 1789. He published it with the accompanying illustrative plates, a feat accomplished through an engraving and illustrating process of his own design. The publication of Songs of Innocence began his series of “Illuminated Books,” in which Blake combined text and visual artwork to achieve his poetic effect. Blake always intended the poems of Songs of Innocence to be accompanied by their respective illustrations, making analysis of the texts alone problematic at times.
While ostensibly about the naivety and simplicity of innocent youth, Songs of Innocence is not merely a collection of verses for children. Several of the poems include an ironic tone, and some, such as “The Chimney Sweeper,” imply sharp criticism of the society of Blake’s time. Although clearly intended as a celebration of children and of their unadulterated enjoyment of the world around them, Songs of Innocence is also a warning to adult readers. Innocence has been lost not simply through aging, but because the forces of culture have allowed a hope-crushing society to flourish, sometimes at the direct expense of children’s souls.
Songs of Experience followed five years later, bound with a reprinting and slight revision of Songs of Innocence. Songs of Experience has never been printed separately from the former volume, and Blake intended it as a companion piece to the earlier work. The same method of engraving plates to illustrate the poems is used in Songs of Experience.
Songs of Experience allows Blake to be more direct in his criticism of society. He attacks church leaders, wealthy socialites, and cruel parents with equal vehemence. Blake also uses Songs of Experience to further develop his own personal theological system, which was portrayed as mostly very traditional in Songs of Innocence. In Songs of Experience, Blake questions how we know that God exists, whether a God who allows poor children to suffer and be exploited is in fact, good, and whether love can exist as an abstract concept apart from human interaction. Blake also hints at his belief in “free love” in this volume, suggesting that he would like to dismantle the institution of marriage along with all other artificial restrictions on human freedom.
Both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contain poems that are interdependent. A critical reading of “The Lamb,” for example, is impossible without also reading the “Introduction,” “The Shepherd,” and “Night” from Songs of Innocence. Its meaning is further deepened when reading “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience, and vice versa.
Taken as a whole, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience offer a romanticized yet carefully thought out view of nature, God, society, and religion from a variety of perspectives, ultimately demanding that the reader choose the view he or she finds most compelling from among the myriad voices of the poems.