Criticism of Blake's "Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence has generally evolved along two separate, but not mutually exclusive strains of thought. One group of critics read the poem as Blake's commentary on the process of poetic creation, while another group insists that Blake is primarily concerned in the "Introduction" with illuminating the qualities of the state of innocence. And of course critics within each group produce contrary readings. Critics of the first group have found the "Introduction" to contain either Blake's affirmation of the communicative power of art, or his lamentation of it as an inherently limiting form. Critics of the second group have read the vision of innocence inscribed in the "Introduction" as either wholly untainted by experience, or already penetrated by it.
Both groups, however, read the "Introduction" as crucial to an understanding of Blake's larger poetic vision. For the former, what the poem reveals is nothing less than Blake's conception of the powers and limits of poetry and art. For many critics of the latter group, the "Introduction," by illuminating the qualities of the state of innocence, reveals how we are to read the songs which follow.
The summary which follows will examine the critical debate within these two strains of interpretation. However, rather than examining these two strains exclusive from one another, my summary will proceed more or less chronologically. In this way I hope both to avoid a reductive approach which would sacrifice a complete annotation of each critic's work for the sake of narrative coherence, and to avoid implying that these two strains of criticism are mutually exclusive of one another. Indeed, several critics bestride both groups, and several cannot be understood without some knowledge of what has come before.
The first critic to read the "Introduction" as a Blakean commentary upon the process of artistic creation, Joseph Wicksteed claims that Blake's "main interest" in the poem is putting into exact and expressive imagery his own experience as the singer of the songs which follow (79). Thus the piper's experience mirrors the experience Blake has undergone in composing the Songs of Innocence. The piper begins upon the "wild" earth, is lifted momentarily into direct intercourse with a heavenly vision (the "child" on the "cloud"), and finally returns to earth to sing a note of "joy." This movement symbolizes Blake's--or any other poet's--own creative process: first the poet amuses himself with his craft, then becomes inspired by artistic vision, and finally transforms this vision into material art. Thus the "Introduction" expresses "the theme of all Blake's greatest work": however one explores the realms of vision, one cannot remain there, and must return to earth (81).
Howard Justin also reads the "Introduction" as Blake's recognition of the increasing materialization and humanization of art, or "the descent of Innocence into the world with the contingent loss of ideality" (1). For Justin, the poem is an elucidation of a single, necessarily ambiguous line, "And I stain'd the water clear," which should be glossed as both "by dipping my pen in the water, I stained it," and "I stained the water into clarity." Justin interprets the "pen" as art, and the "water" as nature; thus Blake is claiming that art leaves a blemish upon nature, and that art (though itself a blemish) stains nature into clarity. Material art, then, is both a corruption of "Ideal art"--which is symbolized by the "child" on the "cloud" who is himself "piping down the valleys"--and a transformative medium with the power to clarify existence (2).
In a direct response to Justin's reading, William Bowden asserts that the "Introduction" describes not the descent of ideal art into corrupted, material poetry, but the ascent inherent in the creative process: "it is not the disparagement of art, but a proud poetic credo" (41). Bowden insists that it is Blake, not the "child," who opens the poem by "Piping down the valleys wild" (1). Thus the evolution of the piper's song from pleasurable tune, to a song infused with specific meaning, to written verse addressed to "every child" symbolizes the creative process in which Blake (and every artist) participates. Blake recognizes that each artist bears a responsibility to compose not only work which is pleasurable, but work which is fraught with meaning. Moreover, this art must be disseminated and preserved for posterity, so that all "may joy to hear."
The first critic to read the "Introduction" as not primarily an exploration of the artist's creative process, but as an elucidation of the state of innocence, Margaret Giovannini claims that Blake consciously employs the style of ballad verse as well suited to his purpose: to introduce the songs which follow. Giovannini reads the "child" as a symbol of happy innocence who understands the "Lamb" only as the infant Christ, and not as the tragic figure of the crucifixion. For the child's state is one of innocence untainted by the tragic knowledge of experience; he, like all the children present in the Songs of Innocence, reflects a joy which issues from a perfectly innocent faith.
Robert Gleckner's reading of the poem both disputes the claim that the state illuminated exists free from the looming presence of experience, and affirms that Blake is graphically representing the process of artistic creation. Concluding that in the "Introduction" the "shadow of experience constantly impinges upon innocence," Gleckner finds in the child's thoughts of the "Lamb"--which symbolizes the Lamb of God, Christ--a vision of loveliness which is tinged with sorrow by knowledge of the crucifixion (84). This provides a hint that innocence is a temporary state, knowledge of which demands either a retreat to infantilism, or an advance to higher innocence through experience. In the final two stanzas--the "introduction proper to the Songs of Innocence"--the piper faces just such a choice when the child who inspires his song disappears: he may return to the state of selfish glee in which he opened the poem, or he may crystalize his vague feelings of change into a creative act (89). By composing the songs, the piper chooses creation: "the most divine act a human can perform" (90).
Donald Dike also perceives in the state of innocence illuminated in the "Introduction" an intimation of the state of experience which must inevitably come to pass. The celebrations of innocence are never complete; they are always disturbed by a sense of vulnerability which anticipates the coming of the state of experience. Even in the "Introduction" there exists a "faint elegiac strain": a clue that the freedoms present in the state of innocence cannot long be imagined (358).
Unlike Dike, John Holloway does not perceive the world of innocence described in the "Introduction" as being threatened by the coming of experience, but as a "world of harmonious oneness" (60). And unlike Justin, Holloway reads the line "And I stain'd the water clear" not as ambiguous, but as the line from which the poem's harmonious oneness springs. The phrase "the water" refers back to the child's tears; thus, since these tears issue from a cloud, they are also to be read as "joyous showers of rain" (60). The poem's harmonious oneness, then, exists in the dual image Blake inscribes: the spiritual image of a poet singing to the presence of the divine (the child), and, "different but not different," the natural image of a springtime landscape containing lambs in meadows and rain-bearing clouds above (60).
Like Wicksteed, Justin, Bowden, and Gleckner before him, E.D. Hirsch reads the "Introduction" as a Blakean commentary upon the process of artistic creation. More specifically, Hirsch reads the poem as a symbolic account of the way Blake was inspired to compose the Songs of Innocence. In the poem Blake examines both the moment of religious and artistic expression, and the process of making poetry out of this inspiration. And, although C.M. Bowra had earlier claimed that Blake makes a distinction between the lyric poetry of the Songs, which the poet feels compelled to sing, and the visionary prophecies, which are the words of a prophet summoning his generation to new life, Hirsch views the "Introduction" as both lyric and prophecy. The poem's form is simple and lyrical, but its purpose is prophetic: to directly reveal the "joy" of artistic creation that is divinely inspired to all who "may joy to hear."
Heather Glen reads Blake's attitude toward artistic creation as more problematic: rather than simply being infused with a sensation of "joy" in the moment of creation, the poet experiences a dual sensation of loss and empowerment. In the "Introduction," Blake reveals that shaping a book involves abandoning a form of communication which is constantly changing and directly heard for one which is fixed and visible. The work becomes abstracted from real life, and spontaneity and face-to-face communication are lost. However, such abstraction allows the poet to address a wider audience--allows for a potentially joyful relationship with not one, but "every child." Thus art is not a reified object, but an agent which possesses the potential to stimulate the faculties of other children. This dual moment of artistic creation is neither a paradox nor a contradiction: both attitudes are part of a "coherent poetic vision" whose implications are worked out in the following Songs of Innocence.
Stanley Gardner discovers evidence for reading the "Introduction" as a Blakean commentary on the artistic process in the poem's design. The figures within the looping tendrils of the vines which frame the plate's text illuminate "the care, the instruction, the elation, thee good seed, the inspiration, the mechanics of publishing" (18). Throughout the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the illustrations often refer back to a condition which gave rise to the poem, or provides an alternative depiction of the proposition introduced in the poem. In the "Introduction" the design accomplishes the latter function. The text describes the ways in which a divine vision (the child) motivates communication and transforms the piper's "songs of pleasant glee" into something more profound; the design reveals, by its references to publishing, that the text can be read as a commentary on the process of poetic creation.
Claiming that the piper's unhesitating response to the cloud- borne child implies that adults have something to learn from children, Zachary Leader admonishes critics who would ignore the example of the sympathetic piper and approach the "Introduction" with the "adult's instinctive desire to anatomize or abstract or categorize" (a group which would certainly include those who read the poem as a Blakean commentary on artistic creation) (72). Leader emphasizes the poem's dramatic context, and claims that a proper reading of the poem should begin on the literal level, and not with an examination of the symbolic meaning of the poem (for which he admonishes Gleckner). Read in this way, the child can be seen as divinely human, not a divine agent inspiring the human piper.
Harvey Birenbaum also takes issue with critics who would approach the "Introduction" with an eye toward analyzing its symbolic meaning. Birenbaum claims that the Songs of Innocence define innocence through the song process; that is, innocence is not just the subject of the verses, but each poem is itself an innocent song which is not to be read ironically. Read properly, the "Introduction" allows the reader to experience what it is like to adopt the persona of one in the state of innocence. Thus the reader becomes the voice of the song, and can ignore the ironic implications of certain clusters of words.
In his claim that the "Introduction" encourages its reader to abandon analysis and realize the perspective of one in the state of innocence, Birenbaum is anticipated by B.H. Fairchild. Although earlier Alice Ostriker had claimed that the meter of the "Introduction" provides enough slight variation to prevent a sing- song monotony, Fairchild argues that the Songs of Innocence all contain "time meter" which is characteristic of many nursery rhymes (136). This submerged, insistent tempo pulls the reader closer to a "child-like, 'innocent' sensitivity which appeals to the child's ear within the adult ear" (136). The last stanza especially evinces the pull of this temporal regularity.
Unlike Leader and Birenbaum, Edward Larrissy claims that with the vine-like designs which often frame the text of the Songs of Innocence, Blake is depicting the personas of the poems as limited, and thus they require an extra-textual level of interpretation to explain them. In the "Introduction," the staining of the water, the disappearance of the child (the source of the piper's vision), and the contrast between voice and writing all suggest that in writing down the songs the piper has corrupted the original inspiration of the idea. This could indicate that the state of innocence which this poem evinces--as well as introduces-- has already fallen.
By contrast, Harold Bloom insists that the child who inhabits this region of innocence exists as one as yet wholly untainted by experience. As yet, the child has no conception of one of the defining characteristics of someone in the state of experience: self-consciousness. Rather, the child's pure reactions to the piper are those of the spirit "as yet undivided against itself," and the natural world which surrounds the child participates in this unity (7).
--Mark Rollins (December 1995)
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