MA English Poetry: William Blake’s Theory of Contrariness

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of short lyric poems. The two sections juxtapose the state of innocence and that of experience. Many of the poems in Blake’s words, were meant to show “the two contrary states of the human soul”. The tone of the first series is sounded by the introductory

“Piping down the valleys wild” 

and that of second the dark picture of babes “fed with cold and usurous hand”. Blake is bitter against those who go “up to the Church to pray” while the misery of the innocent is around them. Songs of Innocence and Experience show the two contrary states of mind. His theory of Contraries is explained in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”

The essence of Blake’s theory is that, in some paradoxical way, it is possible for the contraries of innocence and experience to co-exist within a human being. The crime of “religion” was its attempt “to destroy existence” by ignoring the essential oppositions in human nature. The word ‘contrary’ had a very specific and important meaning for Blake. Like almost all great poets, he was an enemy of dualism. Western thought has been intensely dualistic, seeing everything as composed of warring opposites, head and heart, body and spirit, male and female. A study of the poems in the two groups shows the emotional tensions between the two Contrary States. Blake calls his Songs of Innocence:

“happy songs…every child will joy to hear”

In the “Songs of Innocence”, Blake expresses the happiness of a child’s first thoughts about life. To the child, the world is one of happiness and love. At that stage of life, the sunshine of love is so radiant that human suffering appears only temporary. In the Introduction to the first series, Blake represents a laughing child as his inspiration for his poems. And in the poems that follow in this series, Blake gives us his vision of the world as it appears to the child or as it affects the child. And this world is one of purity and security. The children are themselves pure, whether their skin is black or white. They are compared to lambs “whose innocent call” they hear. Both “child” and “lamb” serve as symbols for Christ. Joy is everywhere in the leaping and shouting of the little ones but with some security. There is hardly a poem in which a symbol of protection or a guardian figure does not occur. In The Echoing Green, the old folk are close by, while the children play. Elsewhere there is the shepherd watching over his sheep. There is spontaneous happiness in these groups of poems as “The Infant Boy” illustrates, ‘‘I happy am/ Joy is my name’ or in Holy Thursday I:

“These flowers of London town!/ Seated in companies they sit/ with radiance all their own”

In the first Holy Thursday, poor children sit delightedly; while in the second Holy Thursday, the poet deplores the fact that there should be so many poor and hungry children depending on charity in a rich country. The second poem is very moving. We thus have pictures of contrary states. In the “Songs of Innocence”, the prevailing symbol is the Lamb, which is an innocent creature of God symbolizing the child Christ. In the “Songs of Experience” the chief symbol is the tiger as in:

“Tiger! Tiger! burning bright/ In the forests of the night”

Where ‘forests of the night’ symbolize experience. The tiger burns metaphorically with rage and quickly becomes for some a symbol of passion. The poet asks a crucial question here. Did God Who made the lamb also make the tiger? The innocent lamb seems the work of a kindly, comprehensible Creator. The splendid but terrifying tiger makes us realize that God’s purposes are not so easily understood. The tiger represents the created universe in its violent and terrifying aspects. It also symbolizes violent and terrifying forces within the individual man, and these terrifying forces have to be faced and fully recognized. The two poems called The Lamb and The Tiger do, indeed, represent two contrary states of the human soul. Blake sees exploitation in the songs of experience the lines from ‘London’ show

“And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe”.

The poems in the second group record cruelties of the civilized world. Here Blake attacks reason and religion and deplores the suppression of natural impulses. Bondage of Sexual morality is shown in “The Sick Rose” and “Ah, Sunflower” where the former shows the destructive effects of sexual repression and the latter shows the youth “pining away” because they were denied sexual fulfillment. Instead of innocence, joy, and security, Blake finds guilt, misery, and tyranny in the world. Blake insists that the contraries are important and inseparable. He sought to transform the energies generated by conflict into creative energies, moving towards mutual acceptance and harmony. Thus, by describing innocence and experience as ‘contrary states’, Blake is warning us that we are not being invited to choose between them, that no such choice is possible.

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