Blake's Innocent Song

"Introduction" to Innocence, two bibliographies


Joseph H. Wicksteed discusses the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence in Blake's Innocence and Experience as the catalyst that "makes his 'songs' into a 'book'" (61). Wicksteed suggests that the poem is a microcosm for the entire book of 'songs.' Wicksteed focuses his analysis of the "Introduction" on the importance of individual words in the poem. He then progresses to the symbolic reification of words as vision after the piper drops his instrument: "Words can only be sung after the pipe is dropped. . . . We can only sing when we cease to pipe, and we can only write when we wake from dream" (80). Wicksteed concludes by warning the reader not solely to associate the Child with Christ. He summarizes his argument by commenting that the "'Introduction' is in fact more than an introduction to the Songs of Innocence; it is like an early sonata whose form was to dictate that of the later symphonies" (81).

In 1947, Northrop Frye, discussed children and childhood as two components of Blake's conception of innocence. He asserts that "real children are not symbols of innocence. . . . One finds a great deal more than innocence in any child: there is childish as well as the childlike" (235). He then progresses to a commentary on childhood, which seems pertinent when considering the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence. Frye states that "childhood to Blake is a state or phase of imaginative existence, the phase in which the world of imagination is still a brave new world and yet reassuring and intelligible. . . . The spontaneity of life which such protection makes possible is the liberty of the expanding imagination which has nothing to do but complete its own growth" (236). This observation seems applicable to a poem in which the child moves from a mode of simply hearing the Piper's song to articulating his own perception and expression of the song (imaginative abstraction made concrete).

C. M. Bowra advocates that Blake's Songs should not be considered inferior to the prophetic books because of their simple form and subject matter, but rather should be lauded for their superior lyricism. Bowra insists that while, in the prophecies, Blake "had a great message for his generation, an urgent call to awake from its slothful sleep. . . . This is not the spirit in which Blake begins the Songs of Innocence [in] the 'Introduction,' . . . . These are the words of a poet who sings because he must, not of a prophet whose first wish is to summon his generation to a new life" (26-27). It seems telling that Bowra identifies the Piper as an adult obeying orders from a child to pipe a song, a theme which anticipates Leader in his discussion of children in Innocence.

Arthur Wormhoudt responds to an earlier commentary on the "Introduction" to Innocence in The Explicator by asserting that the second and third stanzas in the poem are distinct. Wormhoudt names the biblical allusion to Luke 7:32 as evidence of the stanza's innocent viewpoint. In the second stanza, Wormhoudt interprets the child's weeping as a response to remembering how Jesus' innocence was rejected by society, but that in the third stanza, the weeping is joyful, and is in response to a "secular poet." He concludes by claiming that Blake, therefore, seems to favor the artist (poet) and his song over that of the saint (Jesus).

Another contributor to The Explicator, Howard Justin gives a close reading of the meaning in this line of the "Introduction" to Innocence: "And I stain'd the water clear." Justin proposes two readings of this line which exemplify the line's ambiguity: he suggests that art either pollutes or clarifies nature. He also presents the poem as a "descent of Innocence into the world with the contingent loss of its ideality."

In his investigation of the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, Robert F. Gleckner also examines the biblical allusions in the poem (echoes of Luke 7:31-35) formerly cited by Wormhoudt, and how they exemplify the peripheral but potent traces of experience in innocence. Gleckner reads the "Introduction" as a prototypical example of the Songs of Innocence which includes innocent elements such as children, the pastoral, joy and happiness, laughter, and imaginative vision. He next examines the metrical changes in the poem as exemplary of the necessary progression for the child in the temporary state of innocence to "either . . . a higher innocence or . . . to infantilism" (87). Gleckner discusses the commingling of innocence and experience , and claims that "though the visionary inspiration (like the child on a cloud) be lovely, creation involves a knowledge of both ugliness and loveliness, joined with the imaginative ability to fuse both into a larger and higher loveliness" (88). He further comments that only a "mature conceptual creation in which both joy and sorrow are present" will produce this "higher loveliness." Gleckner disagrees with Wicksteed by explaining that it is the child's demand for a song that prompts him to play and which gives direction to his piping and not through "the aid of heaven" (89). Gleckner sees a triple unity in the third stanza of Piper, child and lamb; they are one, "poet, inspiration, song" (90). He reads the last two stanzas as "graphically represent[ing] creation, the most divine act the human can perform, a process which involves the union of poet, inspiration, song, and . . . Christ" (90). Gleckner also compares the "Introduction" to "Spring" and "Night" (similar forms of progression and structure).

E. D. Hirsch grounds his discussion of Blake's Songs by investigating the systematic and biographical influences of Innocence and the necessary completion of the collection through the Experience sequence. However, Hirsch also argues that these explanations are not without objections. He suggests that "Blake's impulse to write the Songs of Innocence came when he abandoned the limited and secular conception that connected 'innocence' with 'virtue,' and consciously embraced the wider, religious, and visionary conception of 'innocence'" (27). Hirsch posits that although the song in the "Introduction" is religious, it also retains echoes of the pastoral, though a modified pastoral. He comments that Blake considered this "new genre" as the means of being able to write poems about the city as well because "unfallen spiritual perfection [was] more profoundly portrayed in the mind and heart of a child than in fields and villages peopled by swains and maidens" (27).

In 1966, D. G. Gillham, in Blake's Contrary States, argued that Blake, in his two collections of Songs, assigns two different roles to the poet in each state. Gillham was anticipated by Bowden as he suggests that the piper in the "Introduction" to Innocence pipes his music because he enjoys making the music, and he is pleased by the children's enthusiastic response. Gillham also reads the piper as secure and confident, not suspicious and envious of the child. He gives a comparative reading of the two plates accompanying the "Introductions" to Innocence and Experience, and identifies the freedom of the piper and child in the former and restriction and non-interaction of the two in the latter. Gillham also comments that by the poem's end, words instead of sounds are used to express the piper's songs. However, the song still conveys the same song though the mode of expression is changed. Gillham concludes by asserting that "the piper's songs are simply a form of self-expression, but this manner of composition is possible only for the innocent (153). The poet is able to be spontaneous yet controlled in his expression.

John Holloway's reading of the "Introduction" to Innocence echoes Bowden's and Adams's concern with overburdening the text with images and ambiguities insupportable by the poem's language. Holloway's overarching argument is for the "harmonious oneness" (62) of the poem as exemplified through the images of "singer and stream," the piper's song and the landscape, and the stream and the rain clouds (62). This oneness will be repeated in the poems to follow in Innocence.

Alicia Ostriker comments briefly on the "Introduction" to Innocence in "Metrics: Pattern and Variation" by citing the repetition of certain words/groups of words in the poem as exemplary or the Songs of Innocence generally. She further comments on the Songs' metrical form as illustrative of the simple language and structure of the poems. She does not specifically refer to the "Introduction," but her argument seems applicable to this the first poem of Innocence.

Ronald Paulson places his discussion of the "Introduction" to Innocence in the context of examining the Sister Arts in Blake's poetry in "Blake's Revolutionary Tiger." While Experience seems to embody and emphasize the separation of the visual and verbal, in Innocence, there is no dichotomy. Paulson then asserts that in Innocence the "unity of textual meaning and literary form . . . represents the unfallen word" (130). He posits that the "poetic development" (131) beginning in Innocence and ending in Experience commences in the "Introduction" to Innocence. The piper's freely composed song is soon structured into "literary form." Paulson describes the piper turned poet as falling from innocence as he produces his art (131). Paulson considers this transformation both positive and negative. The lyric song, though now confined to a specific structure, must take on this form in order for it to be accessible to others. However, "the act of writing robs the piper of his artistic innocence--it severs him from his lyrics, when previously the artist and the poem had been inseparable and the lyric was the breath of the lyricist" (131). This idea of unity echoes In 1981, Zachary Leader traced the "early stages of the reader's visionary awakening" (61) in the course of examining Blake's Songs of Innocence. Leader closely reads some of the first several plates in Innocence, one of which is that for the "Introduction." He aims to trace the process by which the reader should "learn how, as well as why, he should adopt child-like ways of seeing" (61). Leader asserts that the enclosure and security, a predominant theme in Innocence, suggested by the intertwining trees and vines complements identical motifs articulated in the poem itself. Leader further argues that it is against Blake's intent for readers to impose actively "identity" in the poems; Blake prefers the readers be passive as opposed to active when reading the Songs. Leader also posits the "Introduction" as the model for reading the rest of the poems in Innocence. For example, the Piper remains open to the child's command; this challenge to authority reveals the way in which adults in Innocence encourage a child's ideas and desires. Leader states that the "'Introduction' implies that adults have something to learn from children and that it will be worth their while to listen attentively and sympathetically to the things children have to say" (70). Leader suggests beginning a reading of the poem on the literal level, which resists prematurely assigning identities or symbolisms in the poem. He concludes his analysis of the "Introduction" by asserting that Blake wants the reader to consider the Songs as composite parts of the whole, of a larger unity: [the "Introduction"] "unifies Innocence by encouraging us to think of each plate that follows as one of the Piper's songs 'about a lamb'" (75).

Harvey Birenbaum, in Tragedy and Innocence, asserts that "the meaning is what makes the poem happen" (98). He identifies Blake as an artist with this premise in mind for his Songs, and that innocence is defined by the "song process" (98). Birenbaum rejects ironic readings in Innocence, and posits that the reader must experience the oneness of Innocence through joining in with the songs. He also notes the spontaneity of the Piper's song and of the poem generally. Birenbaum reads the final line of the poem as a microcosmic statement for the entire poem--it is both purpose and result (101). "It is innocence, made to happen through a story-song-picture process as the realization of a desire and the clarification of an impulse" (101). Desires realized and clarified impulses, introduced and lauded in the "Introduction," continue to be manifested in the remaining Songs of Innocence.

Heather Glen's comparative study of Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads reveals Blake's departure from the Wordsworthian advocacy for a common language in poetry. Rather, it seems that Glen posits Blake as a supporter of the "language of daily life" (65). She suggests that this kind of language is found in the "Introduction" to Innocence, but is "articulated as a coherent artistic vision. The gap between actual experience and cultural definition . . . is the subject of the poem" (65). Glen reads the poem as a progression of "expressive rather than communicative" energy, but by the poem's end, it has become limited and structured. This reading is reminiscent of Paulson's argument treating the metamorphosis of piping into lyric form. Glen also reads the poem as exhibiting a more linear progression; the sense of interactive communication stops. She also suggests that the "Introduction" "explores the paradoxical nature [of Blake's suspicion of books and his belief that an illuminated book was "an enduring work of art"]" (67). Glen reads the poem as the means of telling public readers that Songs. is available to all. Glen compares the "Introduction" to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, and argues that Blake, in the "Introduction," makes his collection more accessible to adults and children, whereas Wordsworth seems to be addressing an educated, adult reader. She also highlights Blake's penchant for particulars whereas Wordsworth favored "abstraction" (80). Glen then discusses the physical, concrete elements of poetic creation in the "Introduction" which suggest that the artistic process is a struggle that sometimes concludes in doubt.

In 1985, Tillotama Rajan explains in "Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness" that Blake's Songs exemplify the "intertextualization of lyric" (201). He proposes that the Songs can be read "interdiscursively" and not just as isolated poems. Rajan suggests that the "Introduction" to Innocence exemplifies how Blake further complicated "any future attempt to bind the Songs into a book by centering the collection in single poems" (201).

Edward Larrissy echoes earlier theories by Paulson and Glen in William Blake when he traces the progression in the "Introduction" to Innocence from abstraction to form. He also investigates "And I stain'd the water clear" as suggestive of "corruption" already present in Innocence but also as exemplifying Blake's own "ambivalence about form" (27).

Stanley Gardner begins his discussion about the "Introduction" to Innocence by suggesting that the accompanying plate illustrates the freedom and playfulness found in innocence. He suggests that in this poem "Blake's initial proposition is that the nature of childhood, identified and fostered in the Songs, is both vision and reality" (18). Gardner argues that the lamb is the central image and subject of the poem; the piper is only encountered at a distance. however, there is a sense of unity between the piper (adult) and child, Gardner posits, which echoes Paulson, Holloway, and Leader in their similar discussions on oneness between adults and children.

Thomas R. Frosch also reiterates the sense of progression in the "Introduction" to Innocence that Paulson, Glen, and Larrissy have articulated in their analyses of the poem. By emphasizing the "borderline between the states of innocence and experience, Frosch shifts his focus from the states themselves to a broader understanding of the sense of tension between childhood and adulthood.

. Martin Bidney describes the Blakean influences in Harold Brodkey's "Piping Down the Valleys Wild," and suggests that by choosing the first line of the "Introduction" for the title of his book of short stories, Brodkey "will offer . . . an illustrative examination of both Blakean contrary states" (237). Bidney traces the appearances of innocence and experience in the short story by closely reading some its short passages.

--Beth Ann Neighbors (December 1995)


Bidney, Martin. "A Song of Innocence and of Experience: Rewriting Blake in Brodkey's 'Piping Down the Valleys Wild'." Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 237-45.

Birenbaum, Harvey. Tragedy and Innocence. Washington, D. C.: UP of America, 1983.

Bowra, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949.

Frosch, Thomas R. "The Borderline of Innocence and Experience." In Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989. 74-79.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.

Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: Althone, 1986.

Gillham, D. G. Blake's Contrary States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Gleckner, Robert F. The Piper and the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.

Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964.

Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Arnold, 1968.

Justin, Howard. "Blake's 'Introduction' to the Songs of Innocence." Explicator 11 (1952) Item 1.

Larrissy, Edward. William Blake. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge, 1981.

Ostriker, Alicia. "Metrics: Pattern and Variation." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969. 10-29.

Paulson, Ronald. "Blake's Revolutionary Tiger." In William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 123-32.

Rajan, Tillotama. "Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness." In Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Ed. Chavia Hosek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 194-207.

Wicksteed, Joseph, H. Blake's Innocence and Experience. London: Dent, 1928.

Wormhoudt, Arthur. "Blake's 'Introduction' to Songs of Innocence. Explicator 1 (1949) Item 55.