Miranda Noden is a senior at Syracuse University and is majoring in English and Textual Studies. In her free time, she enjoys playing the guitar, watching horror movies, and mothering her beloved cat Ophelia (follow Ophelia:@OpheliaSchnapps).
Upon first glance in class, I was very taken by William Blake’s delicate and moving cover art for his book of poems, Songs of Innocence, published in 1789. I loved the fact that Blake created these books of both his art and his poetry. When you combine art and poetry with something like childhood, as Blake did, you are set for a particularly emotional experience. I have always been moved by children’s abilities to process the world through untouched, untainted, innocent eyes. Blake capitalizes on this notion and makes it the focal point of his book.
When I ventured into the Special Collections Research Center to actually see the book itself, I was kindly greeted at the front desk. “Are you the researcher?” I was asked. I was slightly taken aback by this dignified title. Wow, me, Miranda, a researcher? So fancy. I then sat down and was greeted by Blake’s work. The cover page presents us with an innocent, mystical image of sorts. In the lower left corner, a woman sits holding a book— presumably The Book of Life— while two children eagerly kneel and take in the book.
Next to them, a tree grows and encompasses the book’s title, its branches merging with the words. The words in turn echo the branches of the tree, suggesting that innocence and nature are connected. Within the tree, there are tiny angels and a piper. They comfortably bask in the light, watching this scene play out. In the background lies a placid pastoral landscape. The sky changes tones as the eyes move from the top to the bottom, giving us a pastel palette that starts from light sky blue, then eases to an almost light, violet pink for a very brief period, and ends with a fading yellow before the field setting begins.
From the cover page, we move to the introduction, which is important to unpack, as it is, like the cover, our first point of entry into Blake’s collection of exploratory poems and visuals that ruminate on what it means to be an “innocent” child within the beauties of the natural world. Robert Musante draws attention to the rich symbolism in this section of the Songs of Innocence—a symbolism that can be found throughout the poems and visuals that make up Songs of Innocence (Musante, 12-13). The imagery we encounter in the introduction is similar to what we find in the title page, for here too we come across a piper and a child requesting him to play a tune for him:
“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry chear.
“Piper, pipe that song again”
So I piped, he wept to hear (Blake, 1).
It is interesting that a child is commanding the piper to do something, though it is an innocent command. It further reveals the child’s naiveté because this could be seen as impolite, though in this case, it isn’t (Musante, 14). From here onwards, we get hints of the darkness that is to come in the poems of this book, which are especially explored in Songs of Experience that followed in 1794. The piper lists all the things he will need to do in order to complete this task of playing the child a song. The things he lists are all material objects, for example a pen. This is a sad reminder of the commodities we come into contact with regardless of if we want to. We can’t help but interact with the industrialized world as it is a world into which we are integrated. The piper’s response is subtle preview of what is to come in the rest of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
Following his introduction to the Songs of Innocence, Blake continues to subtly remind us through his poetry that innocence cannot be constant. Blake asks us, his readers, to contemplate what comes after this pure state of child-like wonder. Unfortunately, in Blake’s eyes, it is the more bitter, realized state of understanding that childhood purity can’t last forever. In Songs of Innocence, the loss of innocence is also touched upon in a poem called, “The Little Black Boy” in which a little boy comes to terms with racism and the gross injustice that many people are forced to face in the world (McQuail, 90). Blake’s Innocence isn’t actually as innocent as it appears to be.
How then can we characterize Blake’s work as Romantic? Romanticism largely focused on the interactions between humankind and nature:
Man is related to nature and environment in every moment of his life from birth, during his life and even at the moment of death. Even though nature has been forgotten and destroyed by man because of industrialization, the importance and influence of nature in man’s life cannot be ignored (Jamili and Khoshkam, 2).
In Songs of Innocence, we have children interacting with the natural world, and unlike other explorations of this subject by other Romantics, Blake’s rendering emphasizes childhood as something magical and holy, though there are hints of darkness on the horizon. The tree acts as a protective canopy for the children to find joy in The Book of Life. Integrating man (in this case, child) and the natural world to produce (in this case) such a harmonious state was one of the hallmarks of Romanticism.
After learning about Blake’s works, I had a slew of questions about Blake himself. Who was this grown man who was so fascinated by child-like ways and who was able to see the world through child-like eyes? Blake wasn’t only an artist and a poet. He was also an engraver. He didn’t have any children with his wife, Catherine. Perhaps Blake’s works were their children. Before Catherine met Blake, she was illiterate. But Blake, being the doting, caring husband he was, taught her how to read and write. From there, a business partnership was born in addition to their marital partnership. Catherine even continued Blake’s legacy after he died (Langridge, 9-11). She is quoted reminding Blake that he experienced the type of divinity he hoped to evoke in the Songs of Innocence when he was a boy. “You know, dear, the first time you saw God was when you were four years old, and He put his head to the window and set you screaming” (Langridge, 2). Blake’s love for his wife was a huge influence on his work.
When I thought about other potential museum collections to explore and relate to Songs of Innocence, my mind immediately went to the art museum I am lucky enough to have almost in my backyard— the Princeton University Art Museum. Currently on display there are two exhibitions that are very relevant to the idea of innocence. The first is Gainsborough’s Family Album that includes a portrait of Thomas Gainsborough’s daughters titled, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, Playing with a Cat (1760) that evokes childhood innocence. Gainsborough painted his daughters with a delicacy that suggests he saw them in a light of wonder. This wonder was especially captured for viewers in Blake’s cover art as he produced a soft image of children appreciating our world in a way many can’t because they have been exposed to such harshness. The second exhibition, Confronting Childhood, includes another work that resonates with Blake’s thoughts and messages: a photograph by Sally Mann titled Under Blueberry Hill (1951). Here, we have a black and white image of a young boy sitting in a pool of water, staring directly at the camera. To me, this image is somber and emotional. It seems to convey that childhood is something that can also be dark and reflective. Blake’s Songs of Innocence is a preview for this darkness that Mann evokes through this striking black and white image.
The innocence that Blake captured and wanted us to appreciate is something to hold onto because it doesn’t last. Children are unfortunately exposed to various toxic things at an early age, be it the internet, cell phones, or social media. As a child, one of my favorite times of day was right before bedtime, when my mom or dad would read to me one of my favorite stories before bedtime. I loved books like The Velveteen Rabbit and Comet’s Nine Lives. I think Blake’s work connects to the literature we read our children today, but instead of creating times of innocence through the works we read to our kids, Blake was examining it, and reflecting on it, and asking us to behold that innocence, because it might soon be gone.
That being said, Songs of Innocence poses a hopeful message about the divine spirit of childhood. This spirit is one to admire and use as a tool for hope. Though it quickly disappears, we must not forget about the innocence of children as they grow up in the natural world. Blake has given us something holy in his own way in that he was so taken by this wonder and purity, he preserved it for readers in Songs of Innocence, starting with its cover page.