Blake's Dialectic in the Songs of Innocence and Experience

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Blake's dialectic is to be found everywhere in the Songs of Innocence and Experience - night and day, winter and spring, wilderness and Eden, etc. As Mitchell writes (1989:46), ‘dialogue and dialectic of contraries constitute the master code of Blake's text’. Bass (1970:209) adds, ‘The total effect of Innocence and Experience is one of balanced opposites, each fulfilling and completing the other’.  Moreover, according to John Beer, the ‘contrary states’ of the human soul are dialectic in themselves. Blake intended for his reader to come into a space where he/she could encounter the two contraries in dialogue, within the imagination, and come to a sense of resolution. The most important contrary relationship in the Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), of course, is that between Innocence and Experience. For Blake, as a quick glance of the Songs will show, Innocence was largely associated with childhood, and Experience with adulthood; but, as a more methodical analysis will show, these associations are not absolute, for instance, while such poems as ‘The Lamb’ represent a meek virtue, poems like ‘The Tyger’ exhibit opposing, darker forces. As Marsh (2001:30) notes, ‘It would be wrong to think of Experience as any wiser than Innocence’ or any more cynical or world-weary; it would be equally wrong to think of Innocence as more joyful. There are elements of both in each. For Blake, these were virtual time-spaces or mind-states, with portals from one to the other appearing in either world. And it was not the road to or from one or the other that concerned Blake, but rather the road between them which eventually led beyond all dualities. As Marsh (2001:30) notes, for Blake ‘it appears that the route towards wholeness and a ‘true’ vision lies through combination of the two, not rejection of either of them.’ However, the collection as a whole explores the value and limitations of two different perspectives on the world. Many of the poems fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience, for instance, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’, ‘Holy Thursday’, etc. Blake does not identify himself wholly with either view; he stands outside innocence and experience, in a distanced position from which he hopes to be able to recognise and correct the fallacies of both. In particular, he pits himself against despotic authority, restrictive morality, and institutionalised religion; his great insight is into the way these separate modes of control work together to squash what is most holy in human beings. The style of the Songs of Innocence and Experience is simple and direct, but the language and the rhythms are meticulously crafted, and the ideas they explore are often deceptively complex. Nicholas Marsh is particularly good at parsing out the metre of the Songs, showing their inherent musicality, a musicality that differs depending on where the song is placed along Blake's Innocence-Experience textual range. For instance, ‘The Shepherd’ in The Songs of Innocence, Marsh (2001:16) points out ‘is written in regular anapaests, a metre which gives it a more bouncy and tripping rhythm,’ thus presenting a ‘carefree and uncomplicated style [that] enhances the simple and positive picture presented’. In contrast, the songs of Experience often combine a ‘lumpy and irregular rhythm’ that ‘adds to [a] destabilising effect of metrical irregularity’ (Marsh 2001:18-24). He shows this in his metrical analysis of the ‘Introduction’ to The Songs of Experience, which has a much more complex rhyme-scheme than The Songs of Innocence, reducing the ‘chiming sing-song effect of rhyme’ in the Innocence version, and introducing us ‘to a more complicated relationships between sounds,’ and between poems, and books of poems, in the combined Songs (Marsh 2001:18). Many of the poems are narrative in style, for example, ‘The Little Boy Lost’ and ‘The Little Boy Found’; others,...
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