William Blake Nurse’s SongsT. S. Eliot once said of Blake’s writings, ?The Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience?? are the poems of man with a profound interest in human emotions, and a profound knowledge of them.? (Grant 507) In these books of poetry and art, written and drawn by William Blake himself, are depictions of the poor, the colored, the underdog and the child’s innocence and the man’s experience. The focus of my paper will be on Blake’s use of simple language, metaphors and drawings to show the two different states of the human spirit: innocence and experience. I hope to show this through two poems: the ?Nurse’s Song? of innocents and the ?NURSES Song? of experience.
In the first poem, the poem representing innocence, the nurse is in the background image as a pretty, young woman, sitting and reading by a tree. Her mood is peaceful and at rest ?When the voices of children are heard on the green / And laughing is heard on the hill.? (Blake 23) The drawing and the poem also convey a sense of peace and trust. The children are na?ve and vulnerable to the pain, the sorrow, and the evils of the perverted world; yet their faith in the fact that they are protected by the nurse, like a lamb by his shepherd, is clear from their play. The nurse herself trusts that the children are safe from perversions because of their voices and laughter. The picture shows this trust of the children through their carefree play, holding hands and dancing in a ring.
In the next stanza, the nurse seems to step into her knowledge of experience:
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. (ll. 5-8)
She asks them to come in, so as to protect them from the dangers, or maybe just from exposure, to the night and its dampness. Her concern for what the darkness brings can only mean she has experienced the night before. The very minute this stanza begins, a weeping willow tree appears on the right side of the lines. It does not go away until the drama is over and the children get to stay out and continue their play.
Just as quickly as the nurse expresses her concern, the children in their innocence express their desire to play more. The children, with their wise innocence, proclaim it is still light out; and not only do they know it, but the sheep still grazing and the birds still flying know it too. With this, the nurse gives in to them, and the children are victorious. By her giving in to them, she shows love and understanding for their knowledge of what is around them. In so doing, she shows that innocence obtains knowledge just as well as an experienced adult. Therefore, would it not be safe to assume that without the corruption of certain experiences the soul can still be knowledgeable and wise?
As the poem ends, the echo of laughter and shouting again rules the hills. By returning to the echoing laughter of children, Blake returns the reader to the innocence felt in the beginning. In addition, by using the word ?echoed? to describe how the children’s play reverberates throughout the hills, he gives the children’s innocence eternity.
The innocence and joy these children possess are mirrored in ?Infant Joy.? ?Infant Joy? is about a baby who is just two days old. There is a short dialogue between the baby and the baby’s mother: ?I happy am/ Joy is my name, /Sweet joy befall thee!? (ll. 3-5), which describes the simplest form of innocence and joy Blake could ever portray. The poem continues with the sweetness and innocence that a baby represents.
The nurse of experience reacts quite differently to the children in their play and the baby of joy. In this poem, a healthy, middle aged nurse brushes a boy’s hair. A little girl sits down behind the boy. The illustration shows no sign of carefree play and gives off the impression that these children are repressed. Surrounding the picture is a wreath of vines, which the book defines as the symbol of pleasures the boy will find in his life, pleasures that the boy will find regardless of the repression of experienced others. Sexuality is the victim of repression, and the nurse in this case is the offender. Blake thinks of sexuality as an innocent thing, as opposed to the people in the society, whom thinks of it as shameful. I am sure Blake is partial to the nurse of innocence.
In the poem of experience, the reader is faced with the immediate change of the title. The first ?Nurse’s Song? has the voice of children as well the nurses and a narrator. The title suggests a happy song with the interaction of the outside world and the inside of her mind. The second ?NURSES Song? has only the voice of the nurse. It suggests that the nurse’s mind and her perceptions would be the only topic of the poem.
The first line is the same as the first line in the Nurse’s Song of innocence. By using the same beginning line, Blake brings the reader back to the mood of carefree innocence. With the recollection of the first poem in the first line, the second line starts to corrupt the mood with ?whisperings in the dale.? The whisperings suggest the children are older and more experienced, aware of sex, that is. With adolescence, there is a sense of recklessness and innocence in life. It does not matter who hears them because what they say is absent of corruption or experience. However, as they mature and become young adults, ?the youth,? they become more prudent and reserved with their words, as if they have something to hide or be ashamed of, as they become aware of their sexuality. This is exactly what the nurse perceives from the whisperings. She juxtaposes these whisperings with her own experiences as a youth. Due to her reflections, her face ?turns green and pale.? The book refers to the ?green and pale? as a traditional color of the ?sex-starved spinster,? a great description of a person ?sick with longings for experience she will never have.? It seems clear to me she is jealous of the innocence and pleasures these children possess. Her next step, whether jealous or protective of the children’s youth and innocence, is to call them home:
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise
Your spring & your day, are wasted in play
And your winter and night in disguise. (ll. 5-8)
In this stanza, the nurse does not mention the morning appearing again to play in. This is a powerful statement in my opinion. If there is no mention of a new morning, we are left to forget there ever will be a new morning. By leaving this out, she refers to the loss of her innocence. Innocence that will not return to her as a morning would return to the sky. She projects onto the children her tainted thoughts and draws the children into them. Not only does the nurse take away innocence by not mentioning morning, but she also turns the spring, or the introduction to sexuality, into an unnecessary, squandered episode of in time. This takes away from the innocent discovery of sexuality and turns it into a shameful, wasted experience.
In the end, she closes her demand to ?come home? with ?And your winter and night in disguise.? There are not enough words to express the sadness in this line. The winter, which is a whole season, represents eternal sadness. The night, which is the end of light, represents death and experience. The night also symbolizes the narrowing of her mind, the dimming of her light. Finally, disguise, which conceals ones identity, represents shame and distrust. The three words together create a disheartening miserable end. How disconcerting a thought that most of the people we meet in our lives we may never truly know because they have had a similar experience to the nurses. Even more disconcerting is the fact that we project these experiences onto the children; and consequently, the joy and fun of innocence is cut short, as the nurse does to the children in the poem.
The second ?NURSES Song? is similar to that of the second version of ?Infant Joy?. Right away, the reader can see a change in the title, noting the similarity to that of the ?NURSES Song.? The first of the infant poems is ?Infant Joy?; the second is ?Infant Sorrow.? The change of the title indicates the corruption of experience, as did the change of the title in ?Nurse Song?. It continues the notion that the child is older, therefore capable of experiencing the dangers of the world:
My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping aloud: (ll. 1-3)
The differences between the experiences in both poems are the people who have the experience and the times in which they experience it. In ?Infant Sorrow? the child is going through the experiences as opposed to the nurse, who has already experienced the pains of sexuality. Although the times are different, the nurse and the youth both have a negative experience. Blake focuses on the view the sexual experience is negative. He did not believe that sexuality and experience were negative things, in themselves. Rather he wrote the poems in experience to mirror the negative perceptions we often apply to sexuality.
The poems of the Songs of Innocence celebrate trust and innocence. They also celebrate the wisdom of the innocent through the children and their argument to continue to play. But as we see from the child of experience in ?Infant Sorrow,? innocence is not immune to the suffering of the world. The poems in the Songs of Innocence are truly that of innocence, leaving one to perceive only goodness. The Songs of Experience, on the other hand, are full of negative perceptions drawn from experience. These poems give a true sense of loss, not only of innocence, but of also one’s sense of trust and honesty, leaving the person to withdraw from society. The Songs of Experience left me with the knowledge of despair. This knowledge given to all other readers, including me, by Blake are the equivalent of the commandments, to compare to the Bible. They are a set of stories that I can relate to and perhaps model after, or at least learn from them.
I truly enjoyed reading William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems were easy for me to follow and I can relate to them. These poems, as I am sure was Blake’s intentions, have opened my eyes to a few experiences I would not want to go through. Now that I have experienced through the eyes of the characters in the poems, I will work on not doing or going through the same things they did. With that, I think Blake would be pleased at the affects of his work.