Songs of Innocence

What was your favourite nursery rhyme as a child? When you listen to it now, is it more tinged with sadness and strangeness than you remembered as a child? Many seemingly joyful children's songs and stories actually have deeper and darker undertones—for example, William Blake's poetry collection, Songs of Innocence (1789). Songs of Innocence is a collection of 19 short lyric poems written with satisfying, simplistic rhymes and repetition. The poems can be enjoyed as children's songs but also provide a deeper examination of God, religion, the corruption of society, and the fleeting nature of childhood innocence and joy.

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Table of contents

    Songs of Innocence by William Blake: context

    Songs of Innocence (1789) is a collection of 19 poems written by the early Romantic poet William Blake (1757‐1827).

    Songs of Innocence: Summary and Analysis
    Date published1789
    AuthorWilliam Blake
    Literary periodRomanticism
    Famous poems
    • 'The Lamb'
    • 'The Chimney Sweeper'
    • 'Infant Joy'
    SummaryThe collection of 19 poems celebrates the joys and wonders of childhood and innocence, depicting a world of purity, simplicity, and happiness. Many of the poems are written from the perspective of a child or are addressed directly to children.
    AnalysisThe collection criticises the harsh realities of child labour and exploitation in the industrialized world while also exploring imagination and the wonders of innocence.
    ThemesChildhood, innocence, nature, Christianity, social injustice

    In 1794, Blake published Songs of Innocence with an additional 26 poems known as Songs of Experience. He published the combined collections of poetry as a single illuminated manuscript titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794).

    In the context of William Blake's work, the meaning of 'shewing the two contrary states' refers to the idea that the human soul experiences two contrasting states of being: innocence and experience. Blake believed that these two states were in opposition to one another and that they represented the two primary ways in which humans perceive and experience the world.

    While Songs of Innocence presents childhood as an ideal state of innocence and joy, Songs of Experience presents the corrupted state of adulthood. William Blake defines innocence as an unfallen state that is characterized by freedom and ignorance of the harsh realities of the world.

    An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten book with illustrations or decorations.

    Songs of Innocence, Cover Illustration, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Songs of Innocence and Experience Cover—William Blake etched illustrations for his books onto copper plates and painted them by hand with the help of his wife.

    Songs of Innocence: historical context

    William Blake lived and wrote in London during the first Industrial Revolution (1760‐1830). During this time, there was a surge in manufacturing, and many factory workers and labourers were needed. Many children worked long hours in dangerous conditions. For example, children were made to climb up chimneys and clear out soot and ash.

    Blake greatly opposed this child labour and the poverty and dire circumstances it perpetuated. He believed childhood was a time of innocence and joy and that society corrupted childhood by placing children in harsh, harmful situations.

    Songs of Innocence: Christian context

    William Blake grew up in a family of English Dissenters (Protestants who separated from the Church of England). Though Blake rebelled against organized religion and held many unorthodox views, Christianity and the Bible strongly influenced his art and writing.

    Blake had visions of angels, Jesus Christ, and figures from the Old Testament of the Bible. The Bible was something very real and close to him. Readers cannot properly understand Songs of Innocence without the lens of Christianity.

    The poems in Songs of Innocence frequently allude to Jesus Christ through biblical terms. He is the Lamb of God who suffered and died for humanity in the ultimate sacrifice of love, the Divine Infant who was born to save humanity from its sins, and the shepherd who watches over the world and its people. Jesus Christ is both the Lamb of God who suffered and died for humanity in the ultimate sacrifice of love and the shepherd who watches over the world and its people.

    Songs of Innocence: summary

    Songs of Innocence is a collection of 19 poems reflecting childhood innocence and joy. All of the poems read like nursery rhymes. However, they also portray how the adult world infringes upon childhood innocence and joy, reminding readers that this youthful innocence cannot last forever. The poems are presented in the following order (in parenthesis are the counterpart poems found in Songs of Experience):

    1. Introduction
    2. The Shepherd
    3. The Echoing Green
    4. The Lamb (The Tyger)
    5. The Little Black Boy
    6. The Blossom
    7. The Chimney Sweeper
    8. The Little Boy Lost (The Little Lost Girl)
    9. The Little Boy Found (The Little Girl Found)
    10. Laughing Song
    11. A Cadle Song
    12. The Divine Image
    13. Holy Thursday
    14. Night
    15. Spring
    16. Nures's Song
    17. Infant Joy (Infant Sorrow)
    18. A Dream
    19. On Another's Sorrow

    Below are summaries of some of the most significant poems in the collection, including 'Introduction', 'The Lamb', 'The Chimney Sweeper', and 'Infant Joy.'

    'Introduction' summary

    'Introduction' is the first poem of Songs of Innocence. In the poem, the speaker presents himself as a piper whose role is to play and write joyful songs for children. Blake sets the tone for his collection and describes his purpose for writing in this "Introduction" poem.

    The poet wants to write poems that echo and enhance the joys of childhood. He feels that it is his mission to do so. However, this idea of childhood joy is tinged with sadness as the child "wept with joy to hear" the piper's song (12). Blakes's collection presents the joys and freedoms of childhood through the voice of a speaker who is ever-aware of the sadness and harsh realities of the adult world.

    'The Lamb' summary

    'The Lamb' is a poem in which the poet uses repetition and rhyme to ask and answer the question of who created human life. The speaker addresses the reader of the poem as a 'Little lamb' (1) and connects this to the idea of being a child of God. The speaker tells the reader that he is a child created and loved by the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who is 'meek' and 'mild' and 'became a little child' (15, 16). In Christianity, God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to be born as a child who was fully God and fully man. The poem ends with the repetition of the line, 'Little lamb, God bless thee!' (19).

    'The Lamb' and 'The Tyger'

    'The Lamb' is the counterpart to the poem 'The Tyger' in Songs of Experience. 'The Tyger' presents a frightening, mysterious creature capable of enacting great harm. Through the contrasting imagery of a lamb and a tiger, Blake calls into question why God creates creatures that are innocent and tender, as well as fearsome and ferocious. The contrasting poems call into question the ideas of good vs. evil and why God allows both to exist.

    'The Tyger' and 'The Lamb' can also be understood as presentations of the Old Testament vs. New Testament God. While in Old Testament, God is seen to be greatly powerful and wrathful, in the New Testament, God is seen as merciful and meek through Jesus Christ.

    'The Chimney Sweeper' summary

    'The Chimney Sweeper' is a poem that presents the hardships of life for children and the freedom to be found in heaven. The poem tells the story of chimney-sweeping boys whose lives are characterized by sorrow. The poem begins:

    When my mother died I was very young,

    And my father sold me while yet my tongue

    Could scarcely cry, 'Weep! weep! weep! weep!'

    So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep. (1‐4)

    Blake does not shy away from the social injustices of his time. Though he writes of the joys and innocence of childhood, he is well aware of how the faults of society affect the lives of children.

    In the poem, one of the boys has a dream that his other chimney-sweeping friends are in coffins. However, an angel comes to clean them and set them free. The angel says to the boy, 'if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father, and never want joy' (19‐20). Through these lines, Blake subtly criticizes religious institutions for assuaging the dire circumstances of the poor and using morality to manipulate others.

    'Infant Joy' summary

    'Infant Joy' is a short, 12‐line poem that emphasizes the joy of a young baby that is only two days old. The poem points to the exuberance of new life and the joyfulness of being young, unstained, and unnamed by the world.

    Songs of Innocence, Infant Joy, StudySmarterFig. 2 - In Blake's illustration of 'Infant Joy', a flower encompasses the mother, child, and angel.

    Songs of Innocence: meaning

    Songs of Innocence contain numerous layers of meaning. On the surface level, the poems read as children's nursery rhymes meant to entertain. Though a reader can enjoy them on that level, William Blake makes a number of significant inferences about society, religion, and the nature of human life through these seemingly simple poems. Overall, the meaning of Songs of Innocence is that childhood is a precious time of joy and innocence. However, it is tinged by the creeping shadows of adulthood, ageing, death, and the injustices of a broken world.

    Songs of Innocence: analysis

    Songs of Innocence is comprised of 19 lyric poems that share some common features in regard to form, content, and their use of natural imagery.

    A lyric poem is a highly musical, songlike poem that expresses strong feelings.

    Rhyme and repetition

    The rhyme and repetition of Blake's poems help create a nursery rhyme feel that echoes the ideally joyful nature of childhood. Though the rhyme patterns differ among the poems, each poem uses end rhymes. Blake also uses frequent repetition of ideas, words, lines, and phrases for emphasis, making his poems easier to remember. The poet writes as if his poems are meant to be children's songs. He emphasizes this idea in the poem titled 'Cradle Song':

    'Sweet sleep, with soft down

    Weave thy brows an infant crown!

    Sweet sleep, angel mild,

    However o’er my happy child !' (5-8)

    The repetition of the ideas of 'Sweet sleep' and 'Sweet dreams' in 'Cradle Song' gives the poem the feeling of a lullaby (1). Blake repeats the idea of an infant's blissful sleep to reinforce the beauty of childhood as an angelic, unfallen state. In this example, you can also see the repetition of ideas and symbols that appear across the poetry collection, such as rest, angels, and children.

    Many of Blake's poems have been set to music by numerous different composers. Why do you think William Blake explores such vast, complex topics through seemingly simple, childlike poems?

    Natural Imagery and personification

    In Songs of Innocence, nature plays a large role in the idea of an idealistic childhood. Blake uses natural imagery to present nature as something that reflects and supports the joyfulness of children and the creatures of the earth. It also reflects moods and feelings through Blake's use of personification. Blakes's use of natural imagery and personification can be seen in the example below from the poem 'Night.'

    'Farewell, green fields and happy groves,

    Where flocks have took delight,

    Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves

    The feet of angels bright' (9-12)

    Natural imagery is the use of nature, animals, and atmospheric conditions to help a reader visualize a scene through the senses. Natural imagery stresses the relationship between humans and the environment.

    Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are given human characteristics.

    William Blake and Romanticism

    William Blake is a founder of the Romantic literary and artistic movement. His work's emphasis on human emotion, imagination, nature, mysticism, and symbolism helped shape Romanticism. Blake's art and poetry are sometimes referred to as 'pre-romantic.'

    Romanticism is an artistic movement that developed in Europe during the late 1700s and lasted until the mid-1800s. Romantic writing is characterized by the glorification of nature, focus on the common man's experience, and intense feelings and emotions.

    Songs of Innocence: themes

    The key themes to be aware of when reading Songs of Innocence include childhood and innocence, nature and creation, Christianity and religion, and social injustice.

    Childhood and innocence

    In Blake's poetry collection, the poet presents childhood as a unique time for joy and the ability to live in an unadulterated world. Blake views childhood as an unfallen state, unmarked by sin and ideally free from the pressures and evils of the adult world.

    However, the poet notes that the realities of human life—poverty, injustice, restraint, racism, impositions of authority, and ageing—infringe on the child's freedom and innocence. Innocence can be understood as the freedom and ignorance of the harsh realities and restrictions of the adult world.

    William Blake's idea of the child centres on freedom and imaginativeness. He portrays the child as a pure creation of God that is free to be joyful and uninhibited by fears and expectations.

    What is an unfallen state?

    William Blake thinks of innocence as an unfallen state, which is a biblical term used to describe humanity before the first sin of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Humanity, in its unfallen state, is understood as being in perfect harmony with God or in a state of grace.

    In Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, innocence presents an uncorrupt, pure state of harmony with God. In contrast, experience illustrates the corrupted, fallen state of humanity in its sin.

    Nature and creation

    In Songs of Innocence, nature is prevalent in nearly all of the poems. Blake presents nature as something that is a reflection of God, the creator. He suggests that God's creations are a pathway to understanding both the divine and human life.

    Christianity and religion

    Songs of Innocence is somewhat of a contradiction. It reflects Blake's strong Christian belief in God as the creator of the world and the love of his son, Jesus Christ (the Lamb of God), for humanity. In addition, the poems present Blake's belief in a Christian world where heaven, hell, and angels are a reality.

    On the other hand, the poems depict Blake's strong opposition to organized religion. He criticizes religion for assuaging the hardships and suffering of the poor and outcast through the promises of heaven. For example, in 'The Chimney Sweeper,' Blake uses an ironic tone when he writes, 'And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father & never want joy' (19-20). The poet presents how he felt God was being distorted by the powers of the Church of England at the time, which took advantage of the poor by telling them it was God's will for them to do work that left them underpaid and endangered.

    Social injustice

    William Blake makes social commentaries on child labour and race through poems such as 'The Chimney Sweeper' and 'The Little Black Boy.' Blake speaks out against racism in 'The Little Black Boy,' conveying the message that all people should be equal, as they are in the eyes of God who created them.

    Through his poetry, Blake suggests that poverty and discrimination have become accepted and assuaged in society, but they should not be. He evokes sympathy for the outcasts of society, who feel unloved and alone. Blake particularly sympathizes with children who are left on the outskirts of society because he believes childhood should be a time for innocence, joy, and shelter from the distortions of the world.

    Songs of Innocence - Key takeaways

    • Songs of Innocence is a collection of 19 lyric poems written by the English poet William Blake.
    • Songs of Innocence is the counterpart of Songs of Experience.
    • Songs of Innocence presents childhood as an ideal time of freedom, joy, and innocence, which is infringed upon by experiences of the adult world.
    • Significant poems in the collection include 'Introduction', 'The Lamb', 'The Chimney Sweeper', and 'Infant Joy.'
    • Key themes in Songs of Innocence are childhood and innocence, nature and creation, Christianity and religion, and social injustice.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Songs of Innocence

    What do Blake's Songs of Innocence reflect? 

    Blake's Songs of Innocence reflects on God, religion, the corruption of society, and the fleeting nature of childhood innocence and joy. 

    How does William Blake define innocence? 

    William Blake defines innocence as an unfallen state that is characterized by freedom and ignorance of the harsh realities of the world. 

    What is the collection Songs of Innocence about? 

    Songs of Innocence is about how childhood is a precious time of joy and innocence. However, it is tinged by the creeping shadows of adulthood, aging, death, and the injustices of a broken world. 

    What is the message of "The Little Black Boy"?

    The message of "The Little Black Boy" is that all people should be equal, as they are in the eyes of God who created them. 

    What is the theme of Songs of Innocence

    The themes of Songs of Innocence include childhood and innocence, nature and creation, Christianity and religion, and social injustice. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of poems is the collection made up of?

    Which of the following words would the poet use to characterize childhood? 

    Which poem is an example of standing up against injustices toward children? 


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