William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Traditionally, innocence and experience might be seen as opposites that cancel each other out or are related by the physical progression in life--from childhood to adulthood. What do Blake's Songs reveal about Innocence and Experience? For Blake, the "states" of Innocence and Experience are correctives to each other, and even satires upon each other. When Blake says that good is heaven and evil is hell, is there an irony here? (See NA Vol D, top of 160.) Do the Songs support this irony?

The Songs make us reevaluate the meaning of Innocence and Experience and their relationship. Innocence is traditionally associated with imagination, nature, harmony, piety, peacefulness, reason, and goodness while experience is traditionally associated with reality, fallenness, chaos, pain, energy, and evil. Innocence is often viewed as preferable to experience. But in the Blakean scheme, both states are limited.

The Songs call the traditional assumptions about innocence and experience, good and evil, into question. One cannot live in a state of Innocence forever [we pass into adulthood (experience)], and Innocence usually entails a lack of knowledge/experience and naivete, resulting in stasis.  Experience often creates conditions that make life oppressive and unfulfilling, resulting in a loss of hope and pessimism. Therefore, both Innocence and Experience are necessary states of human existence. Innocence censures or warns against the duplicity of Experience; Experience exposes the precarious unreality of Innocence. The imaginative vision of the child can be genuine because it has the potential to move beyond the limited world of our senses (see NA Vol D, pg 127-There Is No Natural Religion [b]) and connects us to the Creator. But the child is dependent on adults, and the child's imaginative vision and willingness to obey adults (passiveness) can lead to a false or naive view of the world. The state of Experience, based on sensory perception, can provide a truthful view of reality and promote self-consciousness for the individual (e.g., child) that allows for anger and protest, perhaps even revolt. In social terms, this awareness is necessary for social and political change. But there is a price for this knowledge. Confrontation with experience can often lead to despair and suffering without any sense of redemption.

Therefore, goodness (reason-Heaven) is not always positive and evil (energy-Hell) is not always negative. By having contrasting sets of poems, the Songs ask us to frame these "states" in a dialectical relationship, to see life as consisting of a "sustained tension" of "co-present," oppositional states (contraries--see NA Vol D, pg. 158, first three paragraph--Marriage of Heaven and Hell). We need to read the Songs together. (And also read the individual poems together with their illustrations.) The Songs also ask us to consider how a confrontation with both "states" is necessary for the advancement of the human soul. Passing through Innocence and Experience into what Blake called "organized Innocence," the individual can ultimately use the imagination (beyond that of the innocent child's) to re-envision the world, with the possibility of social and political change, in which the individual is autonomous, free, and creative, and in which human connection is supported.