{Curds and Wild Honey} “Songs of Innocence and Experience” by William Blake (1789)

William Blake wrote that “Every Poem must necessarily be a perfect Unity”. This appears to be the case with Songs of Innocence and of Experience, despite the fact that they were published independently (the former in 1789 and the latter in 1794). It is difficult to conjecture what Blake had in mind while he composed the first set of poems—did he in fact originally intend on producing a second set of poems in reply to the first?—but their cohesiveness can hardly be disputed. Reading the works in sequence only deepens our understanding of Blake’s ambition; he is being profoundly literal when he writes that the poems are “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Blake’s arrangement is effective and compact. His antithetical structure is never gratuitous. Poems like The Lamb from Innocence and The Tyger from Experience complement each other, and in a broader sense, complete each other.

Songs of Experience illustrates an artistic growth for Blake. They permit him to develop increasingly complex poems, both in terms of style and content, but more importantly, they grant him an opportunity to resolve questions he put forth in the Songs of InnocenceSongs of Innocence and of Experiences dramatize Blake’s move from a poetical system that was predominantly passive and dependent, to a fiercer and bolder approach. And Blake could not have been more overt in his selection of representative creatures to highlight this change.

In reality, lambs are docile creatures. They are prey to the wiles of other fiercer creatures, and also to the will of man. In Christian iconography the lamb has deeper connotations. The lamb is a popular image of Christ, an emblem of his sacrificial nature, among other things. In The Lamb, Blake does not subvert this tradition. The poem houses a three-way unity in the images of the child, the lamb, and God. The poem is set in a quiet and gentle agricultural landscape, reminding us of the pastoral poetic tradition. Blake’s technique is very simple here. The metre is trochaic trimeter, with a few variations on the endings. The framing lines (“Little Lamb who made thee”) all have an unstressed ending, whereas the middle lines of both stanzas all end with stressed syllables (“He became a little child”). These devices lend the poem a contemplative rhythm: questions are musingly put forth and answered by the narrator. The rhyming couplets in the first stanza frame the narrator’s rhetorical queries.

The tradition of the pastoral landscape is full of religious significance, fraught with allusions to a golden age—a period occurring before the Fall of Mankind. This is the landscape of Blake’s poem. The creator is amongst his creation. The creator is reflected by his creation. He is like the lamb: soft, wooly, and meek. Such a vision, while beautiful and joyous, is myopic. This poem illustrates the world of a child. It is a vision of life before the Fall of Mankind. The distance between God and man, man and nature, is negligible. If the Fall of man is a metaphor in the Book of Genesis, a metaphor for the stage in a person’s life we call adulthood, then a child is an appropriate narrator for a pastoral poem. The child is the very image of innocence. A child is unwary of the reality of adulthood, unwary of man’s inheritance after the Fall. The child’s vision in the poem is not deluded. It expresses his or her faith in the gentle and happy nature surrounding him or her. However, as Blake went on to further illustrate, such a vision is shortsighted, for there are wolves and tigers in forests only slightly removed from the pastures of lambs, restlessly anticipating the cover of night.

The Tyger is a markedly different poem from The Lamb. It is not a poem Blake could have written in 1789, not without the experience of the Songs of Innocence behind him. There is a distinct alteration in Blake’s technique. The Tyger is a thunderous poem, a tone suitable for its subject. Everything about this poem stands in stark contrast with its analogue, The Lamb. Our task here is to appreciate Blake’s use of sound, rhythm, and image alternatively from The Lamb; what was mellifluous and caressing before, is heavy and hammering now. Metrically, The Tyger is principally trochaic. The harrowing thundering beat that opens the poem (“Tyger Tyger”) is held steady throughout. As in The Lamb, Blake mostly uses a rhyming couplet scheme to unfold his complete portrait of the creator, with the exception of last two lines in the first and last stanza, which do not rhyme. This technique draws attention to the central theme of this poem delineated by the closing lines of the first and last stanzas: who created the “tyger” and how did he or she manage to do it? The poem attempts to answer both questions.

The two spondee in stanza three (“What dread hand? & what dread feet?”) depict the nature of the creator of the “tyger”. The questions Blake posits bring to mind the Book of Job and the questions that Job put forth to Jehovah. The answers Job received can be summarized as such: do not attempt with your pitiful reason to deduce the infinite via the finite. In other words, the reality of the “tyger” and the creator of the “tyger” are too complex for us to understand, but not too terrible for us to behold. As far as how the “tyger” was created, Blake creates a decisive picture. In stanza four, the “hammer,” the “chain,” the “furnace,” and the “anvil” are all images of industrial labor, particularly metalwork, and it is here that we gain our final decisive entry into Blake’s vision of innocence and experience as permanent, but contrary states of the human soul. A biographical note is important here to illuminate Blake’s imagery. Most readers of Blake know that he was an accomplished engraver and that he composed his work on metal using a technique that he originated. If the industrial images are allowed to function in a reflexive fashion here, the meaning of the poems becomes clearer.

The landscape in both poems, the “mead” of The Lamb and the “forests of the night” of The Tyger, may be interpreted as an interior locale. The creatures of both poems may also be placed in the same context. The contrary states of the human soul can be illustrated by the creatures of the two poems. Both creatures are a part of nature. They do not happily co-exist, but they exist nonetheless. The lamb and the tiger may be used variously to represent different aspects of the human soul and aspects of the creative process. The predicament of being a creature in a state of innocence cannot be resolved: the young have been initiated into adulthood since time immemorial, often losing what they prized most about life. The lamb will be led to slaughter time and time again. What can be mended is one’s approach to the state of experience. In The Tyger, Blake illustrates how one may take on the world of experience—by taking on the role of the aggressor, by accessing the creative, titanic power within, and recreating the world as the innocent see fit. The Tyger and The Lamb belong together like curds and wild honey.