21 February, 2010

Thought and Feeling in Blake's Innocence and Experience

In response to my previous musings on William Blake. I don't mind posting the essay because of its relative inferiority (i.e. no aspirations of publishing, etc.).

William Blake's Songs comprise an account of Innocence and Experience, two “contrary states of the soul” which each offer a certain limited perspective on reality. Though a characterization of these states as respectively “optimistic” and “pessimistic” outlooks on life is not strictly misleading—the Songs of Experience being unabashedly more negative in tone than those of Innocence—such a generalization shortchanges the depth of thought that Blake has put into what is in fact a nuanced picture of human nature. Frustrated by the scientific revolution’s reduction of the distinctively human faculty of Reason to mathematically logical cogitation, Blake sought to effect a reintegration of the human faculties of thinking and feeling by replacing the now constricted concept of Reason with Imagination, or the poetic genius. Yet this new cosmic model recognizes nonetheless that a certain tension between the human powers of feeling and thought persists. In the introductory poem to each collection, Innocence and Experience are portrayed as states distinguished chiefly by these two ways of engaging and responding to the universe: Innocence responds with spontaneous emotion to the beauty of nature, Experience with a rational recognition of the sorrow that threatens human life.

In their imagery, the “Introduction”s to Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience differ much less dramatically than many other similarly paired poems in the series. Both are set in the context of a pleasant pastoral scene, the former making reference to “valleys wild” and “songs of pleasant glee” while the other presents images of “dewy grass,” and the “starry floor” (“Intro,” SoI, 1,2; “Intro,” SoE, 18). The tenses reveal, however, that while this comforting environment is a thing of the present for the speaker of the Innocence “Introduction,” for the speaker of the “Introduction” to Experience, it belongs to the past. This temporal contrast is reflected on a rhythmic level. The meter of the first poem is iambic tetrameter with initial trochaic substitution: a stanza form familiar as a variation on the traditional ballad meter. The movement of the meter is natural, almost facile at times, conjuring both by sound and by historical association children's rhymes or the simplicity of folk hymns; it evokes faith in present happy existence. By contrast, the “Introduction” to Experience is written in nonce stanzas. While the first two are patterned after one another, they are somewhat ungainly, with their almost nonrhythmic pattern of 3-4-2-2-4 foot iambic lines further upset by the jolting trochee that opens each stanza. And when the third and fourth lines of stanza three—“Night is worn/And the morn”—evade even this pattern, or when the second line of verse four lacks the four metrical feet of its cognates in the previous stanzas, we are firmly out of the comfortable metrics of ballad stanzas, hearing in the stilted rhythm an echo of a tearful appeal to the “lapsèd soul” of modern man (“Intro,” SoE, 13-14; 6). Beyond the emotional power of these dramatically opposed rhythms however, is a reflection of the human Imaginative capacities proper to each state. The highly evocative simplicity of the “Introduction” to Innocence favors the emotions and makes no great demands upon the intellect, while the irregular cadence, difficult to discern by eye or ear and complicated to pronounce, of Experience puts the focus on the words and demands the reader's close attention.

The external effect of the contrast between the musicality of the Innocence poem and the unsettledness of that of Experience is no more than a presage of the variation in content, as seen in the contrasting narrative methods. The narrator of the first poem speaks in an apparently unselfconscious first person; his lighthearted piping of “songs of pleasant glee” takes its inspiration from a child who appears within the first lines (“Intro,” SoI, 2). Cajoling the Piper to “Pipe a song about a Lamb,” this child both directs his choice of subject and demands that he actualize the artistic impulse. The repetition of the verbs “hear,” “pipe,” and “sing” puts an emphasis on the faculty of hearing that complements the aurally oriented meter. This agrees with the child's initial appeals to the Piper to use an instrumental medium to communicate the beauty of his surroundings, but contrasts rather sharply with the eventual demand that the Piper put his song in writing—an action that seems, as will be seen more clearly later, to impel the Piper towards a state more akin to that of the Bard of the subsequent poem than of the carefree musician of the opening. There is neither a present inspiring voice nor a cohesive linear storyline for the Bard of the Songs of Experience to engage in this book's Introduction. That he has been inspired is beyond a doubt: his “ears have heard/The Holy Word,” but this Word that once “walk'd among the ancient trees” is no longer a presence except in the prophetic voice of the Bard (“Intro,” SoE, 3-4; 5). This prophetic character s in fact one of the most significant elements of the poem. Eschewing the leisurely first person narrative of the Songs of Innocence, the narrator—who, one may note, is still even once removed from the person of the Bard himself—commands the reader to “Hear the voice of the Bard,” who seeks to resolve the tragic disconnect between man and the riches of nature by calling both the “lapsèd soul” and the earth itself to “Turn away no more” (“Intro,” SoE, 1,6,16). Unlike in the Songs of Innocence, there is a sense that something in man's relationship to his universe has been lost, that the soul has divorced itself from the Word, its poetic genius, and thus—senselessly, as the query of line seventeen hints—is disconnected from the “starry shore” and “watery floor” which might form touching subjects for the Piper (“Intro,” SoE, 18,19). In a milieu of such dissociation of man and his environment, mere music cannot effectively negotiate between identification of the problem and the possibility of solution. Moreover, however, the proliferation of words and verbal constructions is an image for a strengthening of the rational outlook on reality.

The different effects of musical (understood here in a general sense as combinations of rhythm and sound) and verbal communication are in fact the primary images that Blake uses in these two poems to introduce the concepts of Innocence and Experience as he will present them in the rest of the works. As observed above, the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence puts an emphasis on sonic modes of communication both through its rhythm and vocabulary. The question of how an utterly sonic art—piping, here—relates to the process of verbalization is foremost in this work, and the process of transforming music to words is revealed to be indicative of a growth in consciousness that by the end of the poem seems only barely compatible with Blake's conception of Innocence. The Piper of the opening is unabashedly a figure of the poet in the state of Innocence. The previously discussed unselfconsciouness of the rhythm and narrative style is matched in the action of piping, initially a spontaneous response to the beauties of the natural world as he encounters it. Though the laughing child is hardly a foreboding figure, its appearance causes a certain quality of consciousness to come into the piper's art. “Pipe a song about a Lamb,” it commands, and though the Piper does so with “merry cheer,” the song is now not a direct response to the beauty of the wild valley, but to the child's demand. (“Intro,” SoI, 5,6) Repeating the directive, the child then “[weeps] to hear,” another slight indication that the conscious repetition of the initially spontaneous response to the world something of its original freshness (“Intro,” SoI, 8). The next command causes a more noticeable disturbance: “Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe,” the child directs, and with the command to “Sing thy songs of happy cheer,” introduces the first clearly verbal element into the Piper's art (“Intro,” SoI, 9,10). The child weeps at the song, and though he weeps “with joy,” the action nonetheless suggests a waning of innocence: one whose approach to life is one of joy untainted by knowledge of potential sorrow is not likely be anything but blithe in his response to beauty (“Intro,” SoI, 12). The real turning point of the poem comes in the fourth stanza and is borne out in the fifth as the Piper moves, once more at the child's behest, from song to writing. At the moment when the voice of inspiration moves the Piper to “sit. . .down and write,” it disappears (“Intro,” SoI, 13). From that point on, the poem is driven onwards with dry anaphoristic declarations of action. “And I plucked a hollow reed. . ./And I stained the water clear”: mixed with the apparently harmless depictions of making a pen and writing “happy songs” are these two images that hint that the action of writing itself may have a corrupting effect on the unstudied reaction of joy to one's environment (“Intro,” SoI, 16,18,19).

Indeed, the nature of writing makes such a conclusion not unsurprising. Writing is an intrinsically rational enterprise, depending as it does on the medium of human language, which enables communication by virtue of its ability to symbolize and thus articulate intellectual conceptions of human experience. Thus as the Piper becomes more verbally articulate, he begins to resemble the Bard of the Songs of Experience, until at the end of the poem, the former foreshadows the latter directly. While the poems in this collection remain the Songs of Innocence, firmly within the state of the soul to which an active and spontaneous response to the emotions elicited by a world unsullied by human mathematics, Blake's explanation of how the poems came to be recorded in pen and ink suggests that this very medium necessitates a move on the artist's part into the state of Experience.

In some sense, then, the “Introduction” to Songs of Experience picks up where its corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence left off, resuming the theme of the poet's reliance upon rationally based verbal communication. Songs of Experience depicts the human thinking faculty negatively on the whole, portraying it, as in “London,” as too often corrupted into applying a misleadingly rational structure to the universe; it is a capacity associated with the genesis and growth of “charter'd streets” and “black'ning Church[es]” (“London,” SoE, 1,10). Yet here the presentation is more ambiguous. The Bard himself, as a prophetic figure, is bound to a specifically verbal mode of expression if he is to effectively communicate to his audience the problems of this world of pure rationality. It would seem, in fact, that one may be in a state of Experience without falling prey to what was for Blake the great fallacy of the modern age: the isolation of logic as the only meaningful power of the human machine. The poem is melancholy in its regret for a past age when the human soul and Earth were united, yet it is precisely its ability to cognate about the flaws of the culture it addresses that enables the Bard to be a prophetic presence in its midst. This is most directly seen in the fact that the source of the Bard's inspiration is the “Holy Word,” itself a figure of linguistic rationality, yet one that is sanctified, that both recalls a time of its own converse with “the ancient trees” and that “might. . .fallen, fallen light renew” if allowed free “control” of its proper realm (“Intro,” SoE, 4,5,8-10). Basically I just need to make a few more well-sounded points that derive directly from the text in order to drive home the idea that reason can be good and that it's really to be identified with this set of poems. I should also go back to the SoI part of the essay and more explicitly state the connection with feeling.

Thus while the difference between musical and verbal communication serve as potent images in these two poems for the divide between feeling and thinking that Blake diagnoses in man, neither can absolutely be taken as the “proper” state of the human soul. Innocence is a state of joyous emotional response to the beauty of the world that begins to dissolve once the impulse to rationally describe these is indulged; it is a state in all external respects preferable to the state of Experience. Yet the poet must step into the state of Experience if he is to express either Innocence or Experience, and is doing a disservice to neither state by painting the other. Even in itself, the rational outlook on life (if not arrogantly assumed to be the only outlook) is not entirely objectionable. The increased willingness to think deeply about the ramifications of actions and the awareness that initial impressions of goodness and beauty may be superficial are both characteristic of the Bard's vision, and though painful realizations to some extent, this “Introduction,” at least, does not seem willing to allow us to reject them as unattractive in comparison to the partial ignorance of the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence. Though these states are contraries, they need not be at war: Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “contraries are necessary for progression” (CITE). Thus the rapturous musical encounter with the world and the more sober comprehension of the world's all-too-actual evil are equally necessary to progress spiritually towards a more complete understanding of human nature. Like a slow tread, both legs advancing at different times to move the whole body forward, the progress of the human spirit is measured by the alternate steps of the feeling and thinking states of the soul: it is a progress that may not unite these faculties, but which sees each as responsible for a movement towards perfection of the Imagination, the poetic genius of man.

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