William Blake, poet, painter and engraver, was one of the main conductors of British Romanticism. “Until the last decades of the 18th century Britain had liberally borrowed its artists (Holbein, Kneller, Van Dyke) as it did its musicians (Bononcini, Handel, Haydn), from the rest of Europe. In poetry only did the country express its heart and soul, preserve a unique national heritage. It was the symbolic center of the nation’s spirit (…)” (Curran 221) . So did this art flourish in Blake’s own spirit. One of his greatest works is “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, written between 1789 and 1794 (Poetseers). Blake reflects the innocence of childhood in his “Songs of Innocence” in contrast with the later experience of maturity collected in “Songs of Experience”. In the first book, the poet tells of a dream:
Once a dream did weave a shade
O'er my Angel-guarded bed,
That an Emmet lost its way
Where on grass methought I lay.
Troubled, wildered, and forlorn,
Dark, benighted, travel-worn,
Over many a tangle spray,
All heart-broke, I heard her say:
"Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?
Now they look abroad to see,
Now return and weep for me."
Pitying, I dropped a tear;
But I saw a glow-worm near,
Who replied, "What wailing wight
Calls the watchman of the night?
"I am set to light the ground,
While the beetle goes his round:
Follow now the beetle's hum;
Little wanderer, hie thee home."
In this poem, Blake portrays the concepts of the return to innocence from experience. No wonder the artist thought first of including it in “Songs of Experience” at first, finally deciding to move it back to “Songs of Innocence” (according to the Blake Digital Text Project). The theme of the child who is lost and later found is also present in the character of the Emmet (ant) who is given the privilege of capitalisation to show its personification; also in the ant’s children, and even maybe in the narrator’s person. There is a strong presence of the natural world, very much admired by Blake, and his means toward mysticism, notably in contrast with Wordsworth’s “’atheistic’ love of nature” (Kazin 35). Also, the concept of guidance and protection appears throught the text in different forms, as a means to return to a lost innocence.
The narrator in the poem tells us about a dream. He conveys a feeling of abstractism by describing the dream as weaving “a shade” over his bed, which is guarded by angels, guardians of innocence. A bed, including Blake’s, is probably the place where imagination can expand at its most. In this dream, while the narrator believes he is lying on some grass, he sees an ant who has, paradoxically, lost her way. Thus is nature shown as an even finer place for the greater expansion of imagination. The dreamer describes the ant as “troubled, wildered, (…) forlorn, dark, benighted [and] travel-worn”. She has been lost for some time now, looking for her children. Alfred Kazin states in his famous essay on the artist: “[Blake] (…) celebrated in Songs of Innocence, with extraordinary inward understanding, the imaginative separateness of the child.” (Kazin 6), assuring that “The central subject of Songs of Innocence and of Experience is that of the child who is lost and found.” (Kazin 41) . In this case, it is the mother, not the child, who is lost. This can explain why Blake might have had trouble deciding which collection to place this poem in. It seems it is the adult who is lost this time, looking for a way back to innocence, carrying the burden of experience on her, fighting over “many a tangled spray”. Kazin explains how Blake sees childhood and why he might be interested in showing the return from experience to innocence: “One of the reasons why [Blake] is so supreme among those who have written of childhood is that he sees it as the nucleus of the whole human history, rather than as a state that precedes adult “wisdom”.” (Kazin 39). The dreamer in the poem feels the ant’s despair and drops a tear, thus showing empathy; the author brings the ant and the dreamer closer, giving the insect human-like characteristics, showing the universality of nature as he often does: “[Blake was] a mystic who reversed the mystical pattern, for he sought man as the end of his search.” (Kazin 3). Kazin also remembers in his work how “Spinoza once said that the greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole nature.” (qtd. In Kazin, 21) . Blake certainly feels and enjoys this humanist and, at the same time, mystic union with nature, seeing both God and nature in men, making him the essence of the universe and its smallest component at the same time:” He was entirely preoccupied with his designs, his poems, and the burden- which he felt more than any writer whom I know- of the finiteness of man before the whole creation.” (Kazin 2). The dreamer sees a glow-worm near as the ant hears her children weep; again a symbol of guidance, “the watchman of the night”, who lights the ground, casting away darkness, bringing light. The glow-worm bids her to “follow the beetle’s hum”, yet another guidance in the night who shows the “little wanderer” the way home.
Blake’s poems were printed by himself, as he was also an engraver. The plate for this poem could well fit into Kazin’s general description of the poet’s engravings: “In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he designed his poems in such a way that the words on the line seem to grow like flowerheads out of a thicket. Each hand-printed letter of script, each vine trailing a border between the lines, each moving figure above, beside, and below the page mounts and unites to form some visible representation of the inner life of man- seen in phases of the outward nature.”( Kazin 20). The engraving shows intricate drwings to represent the vegetation, the tangled sprays, as well as the watchman of the night, represented as a man carrying a light within a dark environment.
This poem clearly portrays Blake’s vision of nature as a place where innocence is returned to us, and we to it, in turn. The themes of nature and innocence are present throughout most of Blake’s work, but especially so in his “Songs of Innocence”. On a personal level, I must agree with E.D. Hirsch as quoted in “What the critics say about ‘A Dream’” (Blake Digital Text Project) : “Hirsch's discussion of "A Dream" is relatively thorough and somewhat general. He asserts that "it is a great mistake to take the poem too seriously" (205), but he clearly considers it worth examination, identifying guardianship as a central issue and linking the song with the themes of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love.” I believe this poem to be simple and innocent; however, the idea of the return to innocence from experience definitely gives it more interest and depth, making it stand half-way between the greater darkness of Songs of Experience and the naïveté of Songs of Innocence.
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