Tag Archives: songs of innocence

“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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“The Little Boy found” by William Blake

LittleBoyFoundYesterday I wrote about “The Little Boy lost,” so today it seemed appropriate to write about “The Little Boy found,” since the two poems accompany each other. Here is the poem for those who need.

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
Led by the wandering light,
Began to cry, but God, ever nigh,
Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child, and by the hand led,
And to his mother brought,
Who in sorrow pale, through the lonely dale,
The little boy weeping sought.

In “The Little Boy lost,” the child has a vision of god and the vision dissipates, leaving the boy to wander alone in the wilderness. In this poem, the boy continues his search, following the “wandering light,” which is the fading image of god from his previous vision. His search is rewarded and he is again connected with the divine presence, which leads the child back to his mother, who for me is the key character in this poem.

I see the mother as a symbol for the goddess. In the illustration that accompanies the text, the mother appears as a divine being, radiating a halo of light. Blake associates the goddess figure with the moon when he describes her as pale, a word that is often used to describe the moon. The child is now whole and fulfilled, having discovered the two halves of the godhead: the divine masculine and the divine feminine.

I think the two poems create a perfect balance and carry an important message. Often, people on the spiritual path become focused on one thing and follow that image solely, which results in them getting lost. To walk the path, one needs to have balance: male/female, god/goddess, yin/yang, darkness/light, etc. Without the inner balance, one may become lost in the wilderness and wander, unable to reestablish the connection with the divine.

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“The Little Boy lost” by William Blake

LittleBoyLostSo I finished work early today and to start the long weekend off right, decided to read some Blake. The poem’s short, so I’ll include it in the post.

Father, father, where are you going
       O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
       Or else I shall be lost,
The night was dark no father was there
       The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
       And away the vapour flew.

Like most of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence, the poem is simple yet spiritual. The child becomes aware of the divine spirit and longs to make contact with it, but the connection to the divine realm is fleeting and temporary, and the child is left alone in the dark wilderness of the world.

I empathize with the little boy. To connect with the divine and not to be able to sustain that connection makes you feel lost. There is a void left behind that nothing earthly can fill. Still, it is one of the most profound experiences a person can have and no one should avoid contact with the divine spirit for fear of feeling an inner vacancy afterwards. As you begin to process the experience, that vacancy is filled with a deeper wisdom and understanding. I think this is an experience that many people in the world would benefit from.

I hope you all enjoy the long weekend. Cheers!!

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

ChimneySweeperI’ve read this poem before and it never bothered me. I’d always viewed it as a social commentary against the horrific child labor practices in London. But having gone to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC this past week while on vacation, something about this poem struck me the wrong way, and while I am sure it is just my interpretation as seen through the lens of what I recently experienced, I still need to point out my issue with this poem.

Click here to read the poem online.

Most of the poem is pretty straight-forward. Innocent children are being exploited and one has a vision of an angel telling him that a better life awaits in the next realm. This vision provides hope for the child to continue with his life. It is the ending of the poem, though, that is problematic for me.

Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.

This struck me as the same mentality that allowed the holocaust to occur, that quiet acquiescence in the face of abuse and human rights violations. On one hand, this is the same as the lie that “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) which appeared above the gates to Auschwitz. It is also likely that this is the same belief that caused many Germans to go along with the atrocities, the belief that they were only doing their duty. If you think about it, how many human rights violations are committed today as a result of “doing one’s duty.” Sometimes, doing what is right means refusing to do one’s duty.

I know that Blake was progressive and supported human rights, but we must be careful when we read and interpret literature. Ideas can be twisted and reinterpreted to express the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Just think about how many atrocities have been justified by an individual’s interpretation of a religious text. Words are powerful; therefore, we must be careful when we use them.

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Sexual Symbolism in “The Blossom” by William Blake

TheBlossom I am including the poem here, since it is short.

Merry, merry sparrow!
Under leaves so green
A happy blossom
Sees you, swift as arrow,
Seek your cradle narrow,
Near my bosom.

Pretty, pretty robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, pretty robin,
Near my bosom.

Upon first reading, I got the sense of sexual symbolism here. I asked myself if I was maybe reading too much into the poem, but after reading it over a couple more times, the imagery became stronger and I definitely concluded that Blake was expressing sexuality, particularly the loss of virginity.

The blossom is a symbol of female genitalia. Nothing really new here. The flower has been an artistic representation for the vagina for as long as humans have created art. What did strike me, though, is that preceding each mention of the blossom, Blake writes “Under leaves so green.” At first glance, I thought he was saying that the birds were under the leaves, but not so. I believe that he is implying that the blossom is under the leaves go green, which leads me to see this more as symbolic of Eve’s first sexual experience in the Garden of Eden, where she covered her genitalia with a leaf after becoming sexually aware.

In the first stanza, the image of the sparrow and its comparison to an arrow seeking the “cradle narrow” represents the phallus entering the woman for the first time. Again, there is nothing remarkable here. The arrow is a fairly common phallic symbol.

Now for me, it’s the second stanza that gets interesting. We have a different bird here, the robin, and the bird is associated with sobbing. I thought about the robin and pictured the bird with the reddish patch on its belly. I concluded that the robin must symbolize either the blood that accompanies the loss of virginity (being deflowered) or menstruation. If the robin represents loss of virginity, then the sobbing is a result of being deflowered. If the robin represents menstruation, then the sobbing likely represents the sorrow of the woman realizing that she did not get pregnant. It’s also possible that Blake was expressing both.

As with so many of the poems in Songs of Innocence, this one appears simple on the surface, but becomes more complex the deeper you look. As always, feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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“The Little Black Boy” by William Blake: A Little Racist?

LittleBlackBoyContinuing through my copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the next poem up was “The Little Black Boy” (click here to read the poem online). I have to say, although I love Blake’s works, this one rubbed me the wrong way. I found it to be a little racist.

The poem opens with a black boy comparing himself to a white boy and basically saying that he is “bereav’d of light” because he is black, but that the white boy is angelic.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

This immediately turned me off and it was hard for me to shake my distaste as I read the rest of the poem. Even having the black boy say “but O! my soul is white” made it seem like, well, since there is some whiteness in there, the black boy is OK too. I personally find things like that to be offensive.

Now, granted, I have to consider the period in which Blake wrote this, and in defense of Blake, he was obviously trying to convey that in the eyes of the Divine, there is no difference between people based upon skin color. It is the spark of divine spirit within each of us that matters. I agree and I applaud him for expressing that at a time when not so many people were enlightened in that area. But still, it’s hard for me to read this poem today without seeing the racist slant, especially when he asserts that the black boy is really white inside. Ugh!

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“The Ecchoing Green” by William Blake

EcchoingGreen“The Ecchoing Green” is one of Blake’s poems contained in the Songs of Innocence, which I find a little strange because I see this as a poem about the cycle of life and death. For that reason, it seems like a subject that he would have addressed in the Songs of Experience.

The Ecchoing Green

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bell’s cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.’

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brother,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

(Source: poemhunter.com)

I see the poem structured to represent the three stages of life. The first stanza represents childhood and includes imagery of the Sun rising, spring, birds, and playfulness. The second stanza is about maturity, where the older generation observes the young and remembers the innocence and joy of their early years.

Finally, the third stanza symbolizes death. Here we have imagery of the sun setting, of the games coming to an end. The metaphor of being “ready for rest” evokes a weariness with life, that one is preparing for the final sleep. Also, the symbol of the “darkening Green” conjures images of grass covering a grave and contrasts with the Ecchoing Green which is growing and echoes the lives of people who lived before us.

As with so many of Blake’s poems, they seem simple on the surface, but as you look closer, you discover a depth that is not always apparent. Feel free to share your thoughts and impressions. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Cheers!

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