The Regeneration of Innocence

Topics: William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Pages: 16 (5112 words) Published: October 24, 2008
In literary theory, scholars endeavor to categorize periods, authors and works by attributing a title or name to the movement that each may represent. Often, these categorizations are overlapping, vague, or irrelevant to the message these authors have tried to convey. Nevertheless, our organization of names, dates, and places aid in the study of literature, and make literature more accessible. I will argue, however, that literature can often be better understood and categorized according to the spiritual state authors depict within their writing. If the reader understands how the author is asserting to see the world, then one can understand the motivations of the author without falling victim to the intentional fallacy. It is not the intention of this thesis to redefine the limits of categorization; rather, it is my intent to offer a new mechanism by which we may understand the spirituality of literature.

In 1789, William Blake first etched the "Innocence" series in what would later be his most definitive work, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." The subtitle declares the purpose of the work - to show "the contrary states of the human soul" (Erdman 7). William Blake discovered what I will argue is the best way to understand human action - through the lens of the human soul. In order to demonstrate how an understanding of the states of Innocence and Experience can lead to a better understanding of the spirituality of literature, I will first examine the two states and explain how each function, and relate to one another. I will then demonstrate how the states operate in a specified context. As a case study, I will examine the poetry of Emily Dickinson and demonstrate how her works correlate to Blake's theory of contrary states. I choose Dickinson in order to show the far reaching implications of this mechanism; for, Dickinson is an author outside of Blake's tradition. It is reasonable to assume Dickinson would have had no influence from William Blake in the writing of her work.

"The Songs of Innocence and of Experience" are poems that portray a world of bitter absolutes and liberating truths simultaneously. Katelin Trowbridge describes the poems as "the discord between inherent human passions and society's artificial proprieties" (139). The first series, the "Songs of Innocence," begins with a pastoral image of a shepherd and a child interacting:

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me . . . (Erdman 7).

As the series progresses, the pastoral image becomes Blake's theme. The child at the first of "Innocence" encapsulates the substance of the true meaning of Innocence; that is blind joy and untainted knowledge. Harold Bloom says of the poem in his book Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument: The Introduction, "Piping down the valleys wild," is a poem of immediate knowledge, and evidently celebrates a kind of unsought natural harmony. The pure reactions of the child to the piper are those of the spirit as yet undivided against itself, free of self-consciousness. The child has not sundered itself to self-realization, and his natural world shares the same unity, as the little poem, A Dream, indicates (39). Bloom goes on to describe this theme as a "primal oneness" between the human and nature (39). Thus, the innocence of the child is an innocence born out of an ignorance of reality; I will call this type of innocence "primal innocence." Another example that epitomizes the notion of primal innocence is "The Chimney Sweeper," found later in the Innocence series. In this poem, Blake captures the primal innocence of children by writing the poem through the persona of a chimney sweep. Yet, the overtones of a vituperative criticism of societies disregard for the well-being of...

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