What did Blake mean by 'Innocence' and 'Experience'?

There are very many differing views about what Blake means by the terms ‘Innocence' and ‘Experience'. What follows is one view based on what is known of Blake's beliefs and reading at the time he wrote the Songs.

Blake describes the entire sequence as ‘the two contrary states of the soul'. In the light of this we should not read innocence and experience as states which follow one another, but as co-existing states which characterise fallen humanity. This view is supported by his other work at this period and his reading of Swedenborg and Boehme. See Religious / philosophical background > Philosophical influences on Blake.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

In Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) he portrays his belief that fallen humanity labours under the false division between body and soul, energy and reason:

  • The body and energy are regarded as ‘evil'
  • The soul and reason are seen as ‘good'.

‘Woe' comes to people because they persist in creating such oppositions, which they perceive as antagonistic. This renders either side of the dichotomy harmful and incomplete.

To understand the human condition rightly, Blake felt that it was necessary to see that human beings are made up of such contraries, rather than destroyed by them. So, according to Blake, the correct understanding is to regard:

  • The ‘body' as what the senses can perceive of the soul
  • ‘Reason' as simply marking the outward boundary of human thought.

As Blake remarks in his marginalia to the writings of Swedenborg (Wisdom of Angels Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom c1788):

‘Heaven and Hell are born together'.

Blake's philosophy of contraries

  • Blake read the mystical writings of Jacob Boehme (see Religious / philosophical background > Philosophical influences on Blake). There, he would have met the belief that innocence and fallenness co-exist in human beings as their normal state
  • Blake's close reading of the prophets of the Old Testament would also have confirmed his conviction regarding the co-existence of contraries in humankind, since he believed human beings to be ‘receptacles of spirit' (i.e. they were a combination of two ‘ingredients' already)
  • Further, human beings are made in the ‘image of God' and God says of himself:
‘I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things. ' (Isaiah 45:7)
  • Blake would also have known the apparent contradiction of Jesus' saying in Matthew 10:16:
‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.'

Blake's application of Boehme

So Blake can be understood here in the light of his reading of Boehme. He is applying what Boehme says of God, to human beings:

  • Evil occurs when one aspect of an individual's life strives to become the only aspect.

For example:

  • Innocence is a capacity for freshness of vision, for joy, for celebration
  • But it is also vulnerable; it is often ignorant of the negative aspects of life and, in Blake's eyes, therefore lacks wisdom
  • It is not a complete vision of reality
  • It should not be seen as totally ‘good' in contrast to ‘experience' as totally ‘bad'.
  • Experience is equally incomplete in its vision of reality
  • However, in human life the Fall of humankind into separate selfhood means that experience overwhelms innocence and becomes the dominant mode of existence
  • Instead of existing alongside innocence, it devours it
  • This leads to humanity having a blinkered perspective, seeing the world / God only as a reflection of its own ‘fallen' characteristics
  • Experience therefore becomes evil, not because it is intrinsically so but because it has been divorced from innocence and established as the only reality.

Blake's ideas can be summarised by his motto to The Songs of Innocence and Experience and in some lines from Auguries of Innocence:

Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

These ideas underpin all of Blake's poems in this collection. Different aspects are highlighted in different poems.

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