The music of William Blake's poetry

One of William Blake’s acquaintances described him singing his songs in social gatherings. Julian Walker considers how Blake intends us to understand the word ‘song’ – and why his volume of poetry is called Songs – rather than ‘Poems’ – of Innocence and Experience.
Throughout the 18th century song played a major role in the culture of all levels of society, from opera and oratorio for the wealthy to street ballads for the poor. In the 1780s Blake’s social life was connected to the homes of fairly wealthy associates; in this environment music was an important social skill. John Smith wrote two books of anecdotes about the leading artists and writers of the day, including a short biography of Blake that mentions him as a singer of his own songs.

What does John Smith say about Blake?

From 1784 Blake was a frequent guest at the home of A S Mathew, who held social gatherings for artists, intellectuals and scientists. In these gatherings Blake would sing his own compositions, and sing very well, to the point where music teachers would try to transcribe his music. It is known that Blake sang songs that he composed from an early age.

Nollekens and his Times

Nollekens and his Times [page: 465]

From John Smith, Nollekens and his Times (1829), which indicates that Blake’s early songs were meant to be sung.

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What other musical influences on Blake are known?

Published in 1783, A Select Collection of English Songs is a collection of song lyrics and music, compiled by Joseph Ritson, with eight plates engraved by William Blake. From 1779, soon after he had finished his apprenticeship, Blake was commissioned regularly to make engraved plates for printing by Joseph Ritson; these are copies of works by other artists, in this case Thomas Stothard, to be included as illustrations in books. The first volume of this collection contains drinking songs, which were sung in taverns and inns.

How does this relate to Blake’s writings?

The song shown has a strong similarity to ‘The Fly’ in Songs of Experience (1794). A drinking song, it is marked ‘Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale’.

In Blake’s version the couplet:

For I dance
And drink, and sing,

refers us back to the drinking song. Blake uses the same metre as the earlier song, but has split the line in two, making it smaller and jerkier, like a fly and its movements.

Select Collection of English Songs by Joseph Ritson

Select Collection of English Songs by Joseph Ritson [page: vol. II p. 17]

From Joseph Ritson, A Select Collection of English Songs, 1783.

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William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience [page: 40]

‘The Fly’ from William Blake’s Songs of Experience, 1794.

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Where else in the Songs are there references to music and singing?

The first song in the Songs of Innocence sets a number of themes that recur during the collection: the child, nature, and song. It is the child that tells the poet to pipe, but then to sing; and then leaves the singer alone to write the poems.

What happens in the poem is that the poet pipes, then is asked to sing, and then sing again, and then to transcribe what has been sung. Thus there is a clear indication that these are songs for both reading and singing. At the end of ‘Introduction’ this is reiterated, as the songs are to be heard:

And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

The last line of the introductory poem to Songs of Innocence makes it clear that the songs were to be written down ‘so that every child may hear’.

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience [page: 2]

From a facsimile copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1923.

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Is the implication of singing always positive?

Of the 1789 edition of Songs of Innocence only two poems are ‘songs’ – ‘Cradle Song’ and ‘Nurse’s Song’. The word ‘sing’ appears in four other poems: ‘Holy Thursday’, ‘The School Boy’ and ‘Laughing Song’ (birds sing in ‘The Echoing Green’). The first two of these apply to the institutionalised children being marched to St Paul’s for a mass service of thanksgiving, and to a bird in a cage; only ‘Laughing Song’ relates to unrestricted human happiness.

  • Julian Walker
  • Julian Walker is an artist, writer and educator, who works with the Learning Department at the British Library. His research-based art and writing practice explores language, social history, the nature of objects and engagement with the past. He is co-author of Trench Talk: Words of the First World War (Stroud: Spellmount, 2012).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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