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William Blake’s Interpretation of the States of Human Soul

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William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, exposes us to two contrary states of the human soul. Written as counterparts to one another, these poems contrast different stages we go through in our lives. In literature, the theme of age and youth seem to constantly appear. In these poems, Blake approaches this theme in an interesting way, by giving us opposing sides of a similar aspect. In this way, we can better grasp the notions of youth and innocence and how they compare to age and experience. “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” for instance, both have the same subject matter, but with different perspectives. In a way, they are like mirror images of one another, one showing a somewhat different or even distorted reflection of the other. The setup of these poems not only contrasts these themes, but also gives us a better understanding of the larger structure of the text. While “Infant Joy” gives us an optimistic perspective of childbirth, “Infant Sorrow” gives us the pessimistic and dark side of it. Thus, as we look closely at these texts, we begin to see how elements of innocence and experience emerge, which contribute to our understanding of the two states of our souls and more importantly, how Blake intended to project them.

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To begin with, the Songs of Innocence were written before the Songs of Experience. In fact, they are listed before the latter in books, and this minor detail already shapes the structure for these poems. The Songs of Experience are obviously reflections of the late and developed stages of our lives. We go through a process of maturation, which really is a process of deterioration. However, we all come into this world as innocent beings. Infant Joy is a poem we can all relate to, as it depicts our natural states as newborns. The speaker of this poem, in fact, seems to be the child itself and the poem’s form consists of two short sestets. These features represent the simplicity of the poem, which in turn represent the innocence of the child/speaker. We are introduced to a conversation between this child and its mother presumably. The mother asks, “What shall I call thee?”(line 3) and the newborn simply replies, “Joy is my name” (line 5). These lines evoke pleasant emotions and make us see the wonders of being a pure, innocent child, who hasn’t yet fallen into the hands of experience i.e. corruption. There is a happy mood throughout the poem and this is sensed by the repetition of the word “joy.” In fact, “joy” is repeated six times throughout the poem, which really just talks about the happiness of this child. Since experience is paired with age, naïveté is similarly associated with youth. And so, the simple words of the poem, along with the rhyme scheme, hint at this naïveté. The short, unrhymed lines, coupled with the inconsistent rhyme scheme, are representative of the child’s lack of development. Only images of serenity and purity come to our minds in this poem.

On the other hand, Blake gives us a sharp contrast in Infant Sorrow. Even before reading it, one notices the change made in form. Here, we have longer lines that appear to be more structured. The speaker in this case commands our attention to rhyme and meter. Thus, we see a transformation; a sort of development that occurred to this child. We can view this child as the experienced speaker compared to the former child. More importantly, the diction here sounds more elevated and complex. Age or in this case, experience, has taught this speaker to express more things concisely. The poem begins on a sad note: “My mother groand! My father wept” (line 1). The speaker here is playing with our auditory senses, exposing us to noises of sorrow and anguish. This sets up the dark and disturbing tone of the poem, which is the complete opposite of the tone we felt in Infant Joy.

It continues further on with descriptions of the child’s birth. So again, we see the arrival of a newborn in this poem, but from a different point of view. “Into the dangerous world I leapt” (line 2); the experienced child knows the evils of this world. It does not want to be a part of it. Words like “helpless,” “naked,” and “pipping loud” tell us that this is not a birth to celebrate. The bringing of this child is really just a horrible experience. As opposed to the child in Infant Joy, who is “happy,” “sweet,” and “pretty,” this child is actually “struggling” and “striving.” These words are complete opposites that assist our understanding of the tensions occurring in this poem. While the child in the former poem seems to be welcomed and accepted by its family, the child in this poem is rejected and subjected to misery. And so, Infant Sorrow becomes a dark scene of an unwanted baby, who describes its birth as a traumatic experience, something we don’t normally associate with childbirth.

Interestingly enough, these two different perspectives were illustrated by Blake in his early engravings. The illustrations (Figures 1 & 2) portray the conditions of each child and help us visualize the state of their existences and consequently, the states of the human soul. In Infant Joy (fig. 1), we view a kind of unity with the round shape of the flower, which seems to be enclosed around the family. It is acting as a kind of shelter or perhaps protection against experience. The flower looks like a rose, which is usually a motif for love or beauty. In this case, I see it as a symbol of rejuvenation and life, as it seems to have blossomed. The infant is on its mother’s lap as an angel stands beside them. Next to them, there is a drooping flower, which perhaps might symbolize another birth waiting to happen; in other words, it represents innocence being born every day. However, it might also represent the corruption the child will go through with age and experience. Hence, every innocent child will at some point be exposed to corruption with experience.

In contrast, Infant Sorrow’s visual provides us with a completely different spectacle of childbirth. Here, the environment looks darker and tighter with curtains surrounding the baby and its mother (fig. 2). We sense discomfort and gloom with their body gesturing. The infant looks like it’s crying out for help, while the mother is reaching out to her child, but with difficulty. Tension builds up in this depiction. The child’s rejection of the mother’s embrace suggests that the child is afraid. This reflects the struggle it is going through, as it tries to battle corruption or evil forces. Strangely enough, in both depictions there is no representation of a father figure. The mother seems to occupy the dominant role in a child’s life and this is true to some extent. A child normally bonds more with its mother, as the mother provides the needed nourishment and affection to her newborn. It is more necessary for a child to have a mother than a father. The absence of a father does not seem to be an issue in the previous illustration. Thus, since the bond between this child and its mother is ruptured then the entire family is broken.

All things considered, Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow work well in terms of exemplifying the scope of Blake’s collection. As they contradict each other, they act as mirror images of innocence and experience. They provide us with reflections of simple and complex, youth and age, and purity and corruption. With these poems we can look deeper into the human soul, in regards to the stages it goes through in life. We are born innocent and helpless into this world, while our souls remain pure. As we age and experience everything around us, we become preoccupied with worldly desires that include greed, lust, and gluttony to name a few, and thus our soul becomes tainted. Slowly, we wither away and die, leaving nothing but our reputations. As children we are the infant “Joy,” and by the time we are adults we become the infant “Sorrow.”

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