William Blake was an artist, poet, mystic, visionary and radical thinker. Working at a time of great social and political change, his work explores the tensions between the human passions and the repressive nature of social and political conventions. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, perhaps his most famous collection of poems, he investigates, as he put it in the subtitle, 'the two contrary states of the human soul'.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience is regarded as both a visual and literary work of art. Blake invented a new way of printing, designing the work in reverse with varnish on metal plates, which were then etched with acid to produce relief printing surfaces; these were printed in brown ink, and the prints were coloured by hand. Only a small number of copies were made, and sold privately to friends and collectors.
Though Blake stated that children could understand his work as well as, or better than, adults, this is rather a comment on how children understand things directly and without the clouded perceptions that derive from the compromises required by adult life. The songs are specifically ‘of’ and not ‘for’ innocence and experience.
The work echoes the rhythms and forms of popular 18th-century children’s poetry and ballads. However, much of the verse directed at middle-class children at this time contained simple didactic messages, and Blake deliberately avoids this type of dogmatic morality – instead many of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience contain unsettling ambiguities. Blake’s very particular spiritual visions, which underlie all his mature writings, include reactions to philosophers such as Emanuel Swedenborg.
Despite the simple rhythms and rhyming patterns and the images of children, animals and flowers, the Songs are often troubling, argumentative or satirical, and reflect Blake’s deeply held political beliefs and spiritual experience. Blake’s vision embraces radical subjects such as poverty, child labour and abuse, the repressive nature of state and church, as well as right of children to be treated as individuals with their own desires. Many of the poems in Songs of Experience respond to counterparts in Songs of Innocence.