The core of William Blake's vision, his greatness as one of the British Romantics, is most fully expressed in his Illuminated Books, masterworks of art and text intertwined and mutually enriching. In 1949 the William Blake Trust was founded to bring these rare, in some cases unique, works to a wider general audience through the publication of superbly produced facsimiles of each book. By the late 1980's these facsimiles had themselves become rare books. The Trust accordingly resolved to initiate a collected edition that would publish accurate reproductions of all the Illuminated Books to be accompanied by notes and commentaries by leading Blake scholars. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, one of the best known of the books, is now reproduced in paperback for the first time from the King's College, Cambridge copy--sometimes known as "Blake's own copy." The poems have been edited with introduction, notes, commentaries, and bibliography.
It was so weird because as I read Innocence, I sat by my bedroom window on this second day of Spring and felt the sunshine and the grandkids of our neighbors out in the yard to play. Then, when I got to the reality of Experience the sky grew dark and rain began to pour. The grandkids, no doubt, scampered inside, and the joyful sounds of Innocence disappeared!
That said, this book is very short and does contain some treasures - most notably The Tiger - so I would recommend it to anyone who, like myself, is trying to acquire some knowledge of poetry.
Some of my favorite Blake poems are found in this collection: "The Lamb" and "The Tiger." But I read some new ones that I also really enjoyed. The first half of the book contains the Songs of Innocence and the poems reflect that theme with sweet poems of God and children and Shepherds, etc. Many of these poems in the Songs of Innocence seem like lullabies.
The second half contains the Songs of Experience, with more emphasis on pain, poverty, and sin. The cover picture for Songs of Experience is a picture of someone dead on their bed. It sets the tone for the whole last part. Is the first part like the Garden of Eden—Innocence, and Experience--post Garden? The title is Songs of Innocence and Of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. So is that contrasting good and evil? Here are some examples of his criticism.
Holy Thursday was pointed, “Is this a holy thing to see,/In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduced to misery,/ Fed with cold and usurious hand?” This was critical of children in poverty.
The poem Garden of Love, I found very critical of the church. The garden had a church built there and it was now filled with tombstones instead of flowers; and priests in black robes were binding with briars. Where he used to play was no longer a garden of love!
London was very critical of the city. Phrases like “Harlot’s curse” “blood down palace walls” “marriage hearse” “Infants cry” etc. really paints a bleak picture of the city.
Yes? Well, okay. I don't know exactly what I was expecting when I first picked this up, but it certainly wasn't the poems I found in Songs of Innocence. This first volume is so excessively sweet, devoid of any hint of adult cynicism, that I felt a bit unmoored, and it actually took me days to work my way through them. It wasn't until I made it into Songs of Experience and heard the call and response between volumes that everything fell into place. Each side is illuminated and brought into relief by the other.
This volume contains what must surely be one of the most famous poems in the English language -- "The Tyger," which somehow I think I had never previously read in its entirety, though certainly I have seen its opening lines quoted often enough. Myself, I prefer "the Little Vagabond."
Worth its reputation after all, I'd have to say.