Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is as much a work of art as a collection of poems. Produced laboriously from etched copper-plates, it combines text and hand-coloured illustrations, and draws on the nursery rhymes, chapbooks and popular ballads that William Blake (1757-1827) would have encountered during his London childhood. Its subtitle, 'Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul', summarises Blake's intention to dramatise the concepts of innocence and experience, giving them an unorthodox twist that sprang from his reading of philosophers such as Emmanuel Swedenborg and Jacob Boehmen. At first glance, his poems seem childlike and insubstantial, with simple rhythms and rhyming patterns and images of children, animals and flowers. However, they are often argumentative or satirical, and deal with a range of topical issues: poverty, child labour, political and social revolution, industrialisation and the abuses of the Church.

Many of the poems in Songs of Experience respond to counterparts in Songs of Innocence, exploring their themes from darker, more complex angles. The oddness of Blake's vision led many of his contemporaries to denounce him as mad: his biographer Peter Ackroyd has commented that 'He might have been some star-child, or changeling, who withdrew into himself and into his own myth because he could not deal directly or painlessly even with the human beings closest to him'.