The Critique of Moral Law in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips

In William Blake’s poetry collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he examines the ways in which people relate and interpret the world around them. He stresses two perspectives: innocence and experience. These perspectives are not necessarily linear, or based on age, rather they are based on this idea of open mindedness. To be innocent is to open yourself to the creative world around you, while experience shuts you off from the playful freedom that comes with innocence. This is most evident in his poem “The Echoing Green” and its companion piece “The Garden of love”, along with their illustrations done by Blake. These poems contrast those ideas of innocence and experience, while calling attention to how organized religion in the eighteenth century suffocated the people of England by enforcing the moral law of religion.

In Robert Rix’s article “‘In Infernal Love and Faith’: William Blake’s ‘The Marriage ofHeaven and Hell'”, he writes how Blake interprets spirituality, “Blake evidently sees true worship of God to be one person’s active grace towards another” (111). The Poem “The Echoing Green” is representative of not only the grace towards one another, but toward nature as well. There is no mention of religion in the poem, its peaceful and focuses on the beauty of nature and the company of others. It begins with setting the scene of a serene morning, “The Sun does arise,/And make happy the skies./The merry bells ring/To welcome the Spring.” (ln. 1-4). This evokes imagery that is fresh and welcoming the bright new day and all that it has to offer. Already there is this sense of welcoming, specific to the open mindedness that comes with the innocence perspective. He shows that with his portrayal of the action of the poem as well.

Since Blake is a poet himself, her focuses  on the manifestation of innocence through creative modes. In this poem, the creative mode is a play, shown through action.  The children put on a play for a carefree old man, “Old John with white hair/does laugh away care,/ Sitting under the oak,/Among the old folk,/They laugh at our play,” (ln. 11-15). Here the Children are uninhibited, and showing their passion and creativity through a performance. Not only are they demonstrating the innocence here, but old John is as well. Old man John is welcoming and enjoying the children’s play, even laughing, with other adults. This tells the reader that innocence is not based on age. The illustration of this piece by Blake, supports this idea.

The image above the poem, which can be found on blakearchive.org,  shows a crowd of adults and children together, under a giant tree. The adults are holding younger children, while the older children are staring up at the tree. Everyone is enjoying nature, and each other’s company. It is playful and sweet. The actual text of the poem has images of children playing and vines and fruit caressing the words on the page. This echoes the nurturing scene of the poem in two ways: the treatment of nature and the treatment of adults. In the poem, the sun warms the happy skies, welcoming spring. The adults laugh and indulge in the children’s play. This is showing that innocence is nurtured and facilitated through nature and because the adults mimic this nurturing by holding the children in the image, it is a reminder that this is a state of mind and not just determined by age. This all calls back to how Blake defines spirituality: grace towards one another. When these ideals are abandoned, experience shuts off the open mindedness of innocence. This is shown in the poem “The Garden of Love” and its illustration.

Blake believed that moral law, enforced by churches, restrained desire, and that faith was enough (Rix 110). In the context of the poem “The Garden of Love”, it can be inferred that organized religion restrains innocence, and experience takes over. The very beginning of the poem underscores that idea, “I went to the Garden of Love./And saw what I never had seen:/ A Chapel was built in the midst,/ Where I used to play on the green.” (ln. 1-4). Here the church is taking over The Garden of Love, which symbolizes the innocence. It used to be an open place with endless possibilities and now it’s cut off, especially in the next lines “And the gates of this Chapel were shut,/And thou shalt not, writ over the door;” (ln. 5-6). The church here is a looming presence of experience. Its doors are shut, just like how experience shuts out creativity and life. This all culminates in a sorrowful realization at the end, the speaker’s desires are restrained, “And the priests in black gown, were walking their rounds,/And binding with briars, my joys & desires.” (ln. 11-12). Pairing the text with the illustration, provides more insight to this realization.

Blake believed that the “external standards of morality”, such as the church,  “infringed the supreme authority of the inner spirit” (Rix 110). The illustration, which can also be found on blakearchive.org,  exemplifies that idea. Unlike the playful scene in the illustration for “The Echoing Green”, the children in this illustration are solemn. They are in a line on their knees, praying behind a priest. They are dressed in black, with their heads down, while the priest reads to them from a book. Here their innocence is being quelled, and they’re fraught with experience forced by the priest. They aren’t playing, or exploring their creativity. They are bending to the moralistic law of the church. The actual text is woven with snakes, furthering this imagery of how the Church preys on the innocence of the people of England.

Through the illustrations and imagery in his poems, Blake pushes for innocence as a guide for people, and how to view the world. When moralistic forces, such as the Church, start imposing on innocence, it closes them off leaving experience as the only perspective. This is dangerous, because it binds desires and joys and creativity, leaving no room for a fulfilling life.

Work Cited

Blake, William. “The Echoing Green.” The Longman Anthology of  British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Pearson Education, Inc., 2012, p. 178. Print.

Blake, William. “The Garden of Love.” The Longman Anthology of  British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Pearson Education, Inc., 2012, p. 198. Print.

Rix, Robert W. “’IN INFERNAL LOVE AND FAITH’: WILLIAM BLAKE’S ‘THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL.’” Literature and Theology, vol. 20, no. 2, 2006, pp. 107–125. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23927291.

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. 1789. The William Blake Archive, blakearchive.org. Accessed 25 October 2018.

Image:

Phillips, Thomas. William Blake. 1807, National Portrait Gallery, London. World History Archive, Worldhistoryarchive.co.uk. Accessed 25 October 2018.