Varied critical responses

Perspectives on Innocence

Some, usually earlier, critics have tended to see ‘innocence' as the good, pure state of the child, who:

  • Is capable of exercising pure, untrammelled imagination
  • Has non-hierarchical, mutual relationships
  • Is soon contaminated by the repressive effects of society.

By contrast, ‘experience' is identified with the adult world:

  • Characterised by rules, regulations and rationalism
  • Which stifles any capacity for imaginative creativity, joy and emotional freedom.

The majority of critics, whatever their interpretation of ‘innocence' and ‘experience', see innocence as a prior state, giving way to experience. Blake, however, describes them as ‘the two contrary states of the soul', not successive states.

Blake and irony

Pastoral irony

Some critics, such as Northrop Frye, have pointed to Blake's use of the pastoral genre, involving ‘a vision of simplified rural existence'. They claim that, through this, Blake is making room for irony and satire in his presentation of innocence.

Others, such as Gardner, deny the existence of irony in the Songs of Innocence. Instead they point to the use Blake makes of events he would have experienced, such as the children of the poor being brought to play on Wimbledon Common. Gardner claims that these are recounted without any intention to question the motives of those responsible for this. For him, innocence remains pure and innocent.

Moralising verse?

Some critics also suggest that Blake should not be seen as a Romantic poet. Instead, the Songs of Innocence should be read in the light of the kind of moral verse for children written by John Bunyan and Isaac Watts. However, given Blake's dislike for the moralising religion of his period, other critics have indicated that his use of this form should be understood as ironic or parodic.

Other readings

Some Marxist critics see Blake as a proto-Marxist in Songs of Innocence and Experience. They point to:

  • His antipathy towards organised religion and the power of the State
  • His opposition to the oppression of the poor
  • His questioning of accepted sexual morality.

Feminist critics have been interested in:

  • The meaning of the female figures of the mother and the nurse in the entire sequence
  • The nature of the influence and power these female figures are allowed to exert.

‘Reader-response' criticism foregrounds the reader's role in creating the meaning and experience of a literary work. Some critics have suggested that:

  • There is no one viewpoint represented by the Songs of Innocence
  • Each poem must be read individually, considering the point of view of the speaker
  • Each should be seen as a dialogue with the perspective of the reader
  • It is inevitable that the reader approaches the poems of innocence from the perspective of someone who is ‘experienced'.
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