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Songs of Innocence and Experience

Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake
By: (1757-1827)

Tiger, tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” These often quoted lines are part of The Tiger in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

In 1789, William Blake released a limited edition of the book. Being a gifted artist, poet and printmaker, he undertook to personally publish all his work himself through a very painstaking but highly artistic process of etching, thereby transferring his drawings and poems individually onto copper plates by hand. He himself inked each plate and printed each individual page, hand painted the illustrations and bound the pages to create each single volume. As this was extremely laborious and time consuming, there were very few editions of each book.

Blake's works pose an unusual problem. Since he displays both his art and his literary skills together and himself considered them inseparable, it was not easy to review his books as literature or art alone. Additionally, he was writing at a time of literary transition. The Neo-classicism of the 18th century was fading and the Romantic Movement was yet to fully emerge. Caught between these two traditions, Blake remains a genius who cannot truly be classified under any category.

Songs of Innocence and Experience showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul to give it its full title combined two separate volumes that he had released earlier. Blake's “Innocence” is the classical notion of the Romantics—a childhood that is pure and untainted, free from the Biblical notion of “original sin” yet supremely aware of the world and its doings. When the world begins to influence this state of innocence, Blake terms it as “Experience.” Institutions like the Church and the State are examples of the latter, along with the knowledge of corruption, fear and grief that encounters with the realities of life bring.

The Songs of Innocence section in the book contain an introductory poem and eighteen others. Songs of Experience contains the Introduction poem and twenty-seven more. The poems are short, with simple rhyming schemes and each is based on a single theme. Some poems have a direct counterpart in the other section. For instance, The Lamb in Songs of Innocence is twin to The Tiger in Songs of Experience and so on.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is indeed a treasure trove of deeply humane and spiritual lyrics, which are also interesting and thought provoking.

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