Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
I don’t think I would dare give any collection of poems that contains the above lines anything less than five stars. Luckily, although every poem isn’t a winner for me (cough*Laughing Song*cough), there are so many immortal poems in this collection that I don’t feel the least bit guilty for giving the collection the full five stars. I started collecting some of my favorite lines to put in this review (not even the whole poem in many cases), and when I got to three pages in Word I realized I would have to restrain myself from posting half the collection in this review. This review is still going to be on the long side, but you’ll have to just deal. :)
William Blake, one of the most well-known authors of the Romantic era, published this short collection of poems or songs in the late 1700s. The full title was “Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” which aptly describes the dichotomy echoed in most of these poems, with innocent Christian belief and pastoral joy in the foreground in the nineteen Songs of Innocence, and dark cynicism, criticism of man’s institutions (including churches), and even despair playing a more prominent role in the twenty-seven Songs of Experience. In fact, many of the poems in the Innocence set have their darker counterpart in the Experience set. So you go from “The Lamb”:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
to “The Tyger”:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Even in the more lighthearted Songs of Innocence, more often than not there’s a dark undercurrent, a hint (or sometimes a slap across the face) that the narrator of the poem is being unintentionally ironic:
"The Little Black Boy"
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.
… And thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I'll shade him from the heat, till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
That last line is a heartbreaker. Even though the black boy sees that the white child is equally under a cloud, he still can’t imagine being accepted by him until he looks like him.
Similarly, we have “The Chimney Sweeper,” where the young boys sold by their destitute families to be chimney sweepers’ assistants ― a terrible, cold, dirty job ― aptly cry “weep” in their childish lisps instead of "sweep":
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl'd like a lamb's back, was shav'd: so I said
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when you head's bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work,
Tho the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
Such an indictment of those who mistreat children and the less fortunate among us!
This next one has stuck with my since I studied it in college. Even if you have Christian beliefs (as I do), you have to admit that the institutions of churches have often been misused by those in power. The last lines are haunting:
“The Garden of Love”
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.
Notice how the meter and rhyme change in those last two lines ― there’s something inexorable about it.
A few more: I appreciate the insight into the effects of anger and grudges offered by “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water'd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil'd the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.
And the stultifying strictures and chains of society get a knock in “London”:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
I’ll go back to the Songs of Innocence to end on a more hopeful note:
“On Another's Sorrow”
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd?
… He doth give his joy to all;
He becomes an infant small;
He becomes a man of woe;
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh
And thy maker is not by;
Think not thou canst weep a tear
And thy maker is not near.
O! he gives to us his joy
That our grief he may destroy;
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
I highly recommend this collection, and you can find copies of it free all over the web.
A couple of notes on bonus material: When this book was originally published, each poem was handwritten by Blake on a separate page with an original painting that he did to go with that poem. For example:
They're worth looking up, and often add to understanding of the meaning or intent of the poem.
Also, many of these "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" actually were songs: at least some of them were set to music. As far as I'm aware none of the original tunes used by Blake have survived, but different people since have tried their hand at setting some of them to music, with varying results. Wikipedia links several of these modern song versions of the poems. I haven't checked them out yet, but if I find any good ones I'll link them here.2016 Classic Bingo Challenge:
5 down, 19 to go.