I’ve recently been reading William Blakes “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. It’s a novel that includes contemporary impressions, later nineteenth-century comments and recent studies. Each casebook brings together the best of modern criticism, with a few earlier reviews and comments. Each quote gives a heightened sense of the interest and vitality of the work theme under discussion, and of the value of a critical response.
The ‘Nurse’s Song is a poem i was quite interested in discussing with you.
“When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down
‘And the dews of night arise;
‘Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
‘Till the morning appears in the skies.’
‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
‘And we cannot go to sleep;
‘Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
‘And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.’
‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away
‘And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh’d
And all the hills ecchoed
Theres a review of the poem in the book which discusses that the immediate peculiarity of the poem is the absence of metaphor. Which is a clue to it’s unique structure. Metaphors aren’t needed, because theres no web of correspondence to be established in the poem. Correspondence it shows us is that the birds and the children are both small.
‘Besides, in the sky the little birds fly’.
It says that “Simplicity of this kind means the absence of elements of individual experience, such as it’s normally the function of poetry to control, but which are present in the simplest lyrics.
The laughter of the children does not ‘rejoice’ the hill, it is merely ‘heard on’ it. The hill does not ‘feed’ the sheep, it is merely ‘covered with’ them. The use of adjectives almost inevitably introduces the personality of the observer, but here the only adjective used is ‘little’, and it is applied to small objects. This is characteristic of the Songs of Innocence as a whole. The grass is simply ‘green’; the fleece of the lamb is simply ‘wooly’. This type of simplicity has been carefully achieved.
Both the child and the lamb are types of innocent love, the all embracing charity which does not pick and choose, but loves first and makes the particular discovery later. Confront the lamb with a wolf, and it becomes an image of more than love and less than innocence.
The book then goes on to say that “In the world which Blake has created by a restriction of the christian and pastoral traditions, there are no beasts of prey or lust, disease is unknown, and old age only means access of dignity, not the approach of death. There is no need to exclude sorrow, for sorrow is another distress, like joy in another happiness, is an expression of innocence so long as it does not lead to fearful questioning”.
“can i see another woe,
And not be in sorrow too?”.
Is as true to the note of innocent love as:
“Thou dost smile,
I sing the while”.
The images we imagine from the poem are immediately related, moment by moment, as they occur by the poem, instead of developing a personal complex of impressions, it presents a vision of things which relates them without reference to past and future, and is therefore impersonal.
It is this kind of impersonality which Blake terms innocence, and the note of innocent love which sounds throughout the songs is similarly impersonal. The lamb is simply loved for being the lamb: it is not a peculiar lamb, but any lamb which is loved. In nearly all the songs, natural objects are made to sympathise with human feelings.
The attribution of human feelings is linked with the attribution of the most obvious physical characteristics.
Ref: William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience
Image: William Bouguereau, L’innocence (Innocence), 1893.