Tag Archives: songs of innocence

“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

NursesSong

As I near the end of the Songs of Innocence, the “Nurse’s Song” is next up.

When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.        

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.    

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.

 Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills echoed.

I see this as a coming-of-age poem. The transition from day to night symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood. As evening falls, the nurse tells the children to “leave off play.” It is time for them to mature and accept the responsibilities of being an adult.

But the transition is not easy, and the children point out that there is some daytime left, hence, they still have a little more time to be carefree and young. When they respond that “it is yet day, And we cannot go to sleep;” they are asserting that they are not yet ready to consign their youth and innocence to the realm of dream and memory. They want to remain children for a little while longer.

The nurse concedes: “Well, well, go and play till the light fades away.” She allows the children to enjoy the last of their innocence as they are at the threshold of adulthood. Once they cross that threshold, the light of happiness within them will begin to fade as they sadly take their places in the world of responsibility and sorrow.

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“Spring” by William Blake

Spring01

I know it’s not spring yet, but this is next up in the Songs of Innocence, hence I read it.

Sound the flute!
Now it’s mute!
Bird’s delight,
Day and night,
Nightingale,
In the dale,
Lark in sky,–
Merrily,
Merrily merrily, to welcome in the year.

Little boy,
Full of joy;
Little girl,
Sweet and small;
Cock does crow,
So do you;
Merry voice,
Infant noise;
Merrily, merrily, to welcome in the year.

Little lamb,
Here I am;
Come and lick
My white neck;
Let me pull
Your soft wool;
Let me kiss
Your soft face;
Merrily, merrily, to welcome in the year.

As is often the case with Blake’s poetry, it appears deceptively simple but in actuality it is quite complex. While this seems like a playful song celebrating spring, with music and joy, there is actually a much deeper symbolism hidden in the poem. The key is in the refrain: “Merrily, merrily, to welcome in the year.”

The question we need to ask is—why is Blake welcoming in the new year in spring? I suspect that he is drawing from astrological cycles. According to the zodiac, Aries is the first sign of the astrological cycle, which would place the new year celebration around the time of the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is also symbolic of rebirth after the cold death of winter. So taken together, we have the rebirth of life, the beginning of a new cosmic cycle, and the rebirth of the god and/or goddess (if we tie in resurrection mythology usually associated with that time of the year). That to me seems like a genuine new year as opposed to the rolling over of the Julian calendar.

Blake never ceases to fascinate me. I can’t think of another poet who can present such profound ideas in such whimsical lines of rhyme. He was a genius and an artist.

Spring02

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“Night” by William Blake

NightBlake1This poem is fairly long, so for those who need, here is a link to read it online:

PoemHunter.com

Overall, this poem gave me the impression that it was inspired by the classic children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

But in addition to echoing the theme from the children’s prayer, Blake adds his own symbolism, building on the foundation and creating something that is uniquely his own.

In the first two stanzas, there are references to flowers and blossoms, which are symbolic of young girls’ virginity in most of Blake’s poems. Blake describes the angels pouring blessings and joy “On each bud and blossom, / And each sleeping bosom.” I get the impression that the angels are not only blessing the young virgins, but also protecting them from the abuse and assault that may occur at night.

In the third stanza, we see the angels comforting the birds in their nests and the beasts in their caves. It appears that sorrow and unrest haunt the animals, which leads me to interpret them as symbolic of the poor and homeless children of London, seeking shelter wherever they can.

The fourth stanza turns dark, as the wolves and tygers of the night begin to prey upon the unsuspecting innocents as they sleep. The angels try to protect them, but are often unable to do so. Instead, they “receive each mild spirit” and guide them to Heaven.

NightBlake2In the final two stanzas, Christ accepts the souls of the children. Here, Christ is symbolized by the lion whose eyes “flow with tears of gold” as a display of deep, holy sorrow at the loss of the innocent children. The poem concludes with the image of the lion lying down with the sheep, protecting the flock, which is comprised of the souls of the children who were taken from the world too, too early.

This is a perfect example of Blake’s poetic genius. He beautifully weaves his words together in a way that evokes conflicting emotions: joy and sadness; comfort and unease; love and anger; hope and despair. Right now, my feelings are so confused by this poem that it’s hard for me to nail down exactly how I feel. But that’s the goal of poetry, to stir emotion.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Innocence

HolyThur-SOI

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

I confess that when I read this, I was lost as to the meaning of the poem, mainly because I had absolutely no idea what Holy Thursday was. So I did a quick search and discovered that Holy Thursday, in Catholic tradition, is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. At that point, the poem began to make sense to me.

The scene that Blake describes seems innocent enough, but as is the case with most poems in The Songs of Innocence, there is a sense that below the surface, something is wrong. In this case, it is the hypocrisy of the church. The children are paraded into St. Paul’s cathedral in a display of charity and kindness, but it is really just a show and does not appear to be genuine. The children are poor and probably homeless, which can be determined by the fact that Blake points out in the first line that their faces are clean, implying that this is not how they normally appear. I got the impression that to show how charitable the church is, they cleaned and fed a group of homeless children just to show them off.

At the end of the poem, Blake entreats the church elders to practice what they preach, to have pity on the poor, hungry children who crowded London’s streets and to not drive them from their door, but instead offer them comfort and food. Just as Christ fed the poor and starving, so should the church.

Once I was in a car with a co-worker going out for dinner, which was being paid for by the company we worked for. On the corner was a homeless person with a sign begging money for food. The person I was with callously yelled out, “Get a job!” I lost all respect for that person. I understand that you cannot give to every starving person, but you can at least have sympathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is the message in this poem: cherish pity. You may not be able to help everyone who needs help, but at least have compassion for another human who is suffering.

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“The Divine Image” by William Blake

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

DivineImageThe message is a pretty clear in this poem—we are all created in the image of god. How we perceive the Divine is not important. Whether you choose to worship the Divine as a pagan, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, whatever, it makes no difference. We are all of the Divine and the Divine spirit exists within all of us.

This leads us to the issue of tolerance. Too many of us are still intolerant of others and harbor feelings of fear and hatred directed at people who are different. The Divine can manifest in an infinite number of forms, each one is as holy as the other. The differences in people are nothing more than the myriad emanations of the Divine. When someone is intolerant towards a group of individuals, whether it is because of religious differences, race, nationality, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc., then that person is essentially rejecting one of god’s manifestations.

Focusing on the similarities as opposed to the differences in people can be difficult, but it becomes easier with practice. Acceptance is the key. Once we learn to be accepting of others, we become more tolerant and we begin to notice the manifestation of the Divine within those around us.

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“A Cradle Song” by William Blake

CradleSong1Sweet dreams form a shade,
O’er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams

Sweet sleep with soft down.
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child.

Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight.
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

CradleSong2Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

After a month of gothic and macabre reading, I decided to go for the extreme opposite today and read William Blake’s “A Cradle Song” (posted above). The poem is part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and certainly has the feel of a sweet, childhood lullaby. In fact, for kicks and giggles, I read part of it aloud in a sing-song tone of voice and it sounded like a song that a mother would sing while rocking her infant to sleep.

In addition to the simple AABB rhyming scheme and the musical cadence, Blake goes heavy on the use of alliteration, particularly the “ess” sound. This works very well, invoking a feeling of a soft “shhh” as the mother calms her child, or of gentle breezes outside a window as one teeters on the brink of sleep.

Blake associates the child with Christ, a metaphor that he frequently uses in his poems from Songs of Innocence. The mother sees the image of Christ reflected in her child’s face. It’s a sweet image, but nothing really earth-shattering.

There is, though, something foreboding below the surface of this poem, the key to which is in the following stanza:

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

The mother is sad and weeping, which seems to contrast the general tone of the poem. My guess is that the mother, gazing upon her child, knows that her child is destined to grow up, suffer, and die. As much as she would love to coddle and protect her infant, the harsh reality is that doing so is impossible. On a more cosmic scale, I would go as far as to assert that the mother here represents the Goddess, looking down upon “all creation” as it sleeps and realizing that Her beautiful creation is destined to die, that eventually our world, like everything else, will wither and pass from existence.

Blake’s poems never cease to fascinate me. Many of them, such as this one, seem so simple on the surface, yet the more you think about them, the more profound they become.

Thanks for reading, and as always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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“Laughing Song” by William Blake

LaughingSongAs I continue reading through William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, the next poem up is “Laughing Song.”

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

when the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing “Ha, ha he!”

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of “Ha, ha, he!”

I read through this poem twice this morning, seeking for some hidden spiritual symbolism that I have come to expect from Blake. I concluded that there is nothing hidden in here and the poem expresses exactly what it appears to: that joy is the common state found in nature. The natural world exists in harmony and if one slows down and looks around, then that person will become aware of the joyous balance in nature.

Currently, many of us live in a world far removed from nature, where we get in our cars so we can race from our offices to the strip malls and back to our homes in gated and controlled communities. But if we were to take an hour and quietly sit in a place where nature abounds, we would experience the same feelings that Blake expresses, and we would hear the joyous laughter within the sounds of nature. All we need to do is slow down and spend a little time in a natural setting in order for us to hear the Laughing Song.

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