WILLIAM BLAKE QUESTIONS FOR E212
Assigned: William Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience (81-97); The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plates 2-5 (111-14).
SONGS OF INNOCENCE
Note: The William Blake Archive offers copies of Blake's major works, and is well worth using -- below, I have included links to the plates for the specific poems we are covering, so please have a look at them if your time permits, especially if you are doing a presentation on Blake. Attending not only to the words but to the imagery surrounding and intertwining with them may help you develop some very promising ways to interpret the poems. Blake is not strictly a poet -- even his words are part of works of visual art, so it's best to keep that in mind when you enjoy his poetry. The Archive allows you to magnify plate images and to view comparative copies.
1. What do you consider to be the task or purpose of Songs of Innocence? In other words, do the songs teach us anything? What might the title itself Songs of Innocence add to our understanding of this purpose -- how does it lend itself to two different interpretations of the songs' perspective on innocence?
2. Are adult limitations in understanding different in kind from a child's limitations? What bounds the perceptions of an adult? What bounds the perceptions of a child? Can you remember some feeling, perception, or incident from your childhood that suggests the difference between a grown-up's understanding of either very joyful or very distressing things and the understanding of a child? If you can (and it's not something you don't want to write about) discuss it as part of your response.
3. In the Introductory lyric, what is the child's role in this poem? In what circumstances does he appear to the piper, and when does he choose to vanish? Also trace the progression of the boy's demands -- what is the piper expected to do, and why?
4. How does the piper react to the child's requests -- what does he do in response to them? How does his task take shape as he tries to do what the child suggests? Is that task simply to sing joyful songs, or is it more complex? If so, how?
"The Ecchoing Green"
5. In "The Ecchoing Green," how do the poem's aged characters (as reported in the second stanza, lines 11-20) perceive the children's joyful play? To what extent do they seem to connect to it, and in what way?
6. In "The Ecchoing Green," how does the child speaker interpret the passage of time? That is, how does the child view the cessation of play and the coming on of night? What difference is there between this young speaker's view and that of the poem's adults?
7. In "The Lamb," how are the child, the lamb, and Christ (the Lamb of God) set in relation to one another? Why is it so easy for the child to identify the lamb's creator, and so easy to invoke God's blessing on the lamb? What traditional perspective on (or dimension of) the religious symbolism is not part of this poem?
"The Little Black Boy"
8. In "The Little Black Boy," where might the young speaker have learned that he is "bereaved of light"? How would you characterize the way he initially interprets the significance of his race and that of the white "English boy" he mentions?
9. In "The Little Black Boy," how does the child's mother accommodate his understanding and yet correct it? What story does she tell him? What is the significance of "clouds" in that story? How does she teach him to view racial difference?
"The Chimney Sweeper"
10. In "The Chimney Sweeper," to what extent does the young speaker interpret his situation (practically a form of industrial-age slavery) in a positive light? Does the content of his narration undercut his innocent trust in God? If so, how?
11. In "The Chimney Sweeper," what is the speaker's relationship to little Tom Dacre? How does he try to comfort Tom? How do you interpret the significance of Tom's dream as well as the concluding stanza, with its final line consisting of an "if/then" moral pronouncement?
"The Divine Image"
12. In "The Divine Image," why are "mercy, pity, peace, and love" good attributes in this poem -- what sanctifies them? How do you interpret the moral significance of this poem whose contrary companion is to be found in "The Human Abstract" from Songs of Experience?
13. In "Holy Thursday," how does the speaker describe the annual progression of the children from their charity schools to St. Paul's Cathedral in London? What images does the speaker employ to describe them, and to what effect? Is this poem less "innocent-sounding" than some of the others? If so, why -- what do certain of its lines or phrases suggest about the true nature of "charity"?
14. In "Nurse's Song," what is the difference in the way the Nurse perceives the children's playing and their own understanding of their day's events? How does an adult perceive time (and play) differently than a child? If this poem is a gentle competition between children and an adult, who wins -- or perhaps the question should instead be, "what is the outcome?"
15. In "Infant Joy," we hear a brief dialogue between a newborn child and a singer, perhaps the one who takes up the task at the beginning of Songs of Innocence. What does the poem suggest happens to us when we transition from a nameless being to one endowed with a name? What is gained, and what is lost? Furthermore, in this poem the child names herself -- what is the significance of that?
SONGS OF EXPERIENCE
16. In the "Introduction," what is the difference between the "Piper" of the introduction to Songs of Innocence and the "Bard" in Songs of Experience? What might we suppose to be the Bard's task in the latter collection, which was created some five years after Songs of Innocence?
17. In the "Introduction," how do you interpret the persistent nature-symbolism -- the references to "Earth," light and darkness, the "starry floor" and "watry shore," and so forth? What question does the poem ask by way of initiating Songs of Experience?
18. In "Earth's Answer," who does Earth say prevents her from being regenerated -- in what manner and to what end does he hinder Earth's regeneration? What ideal relationship between nature and humanity does the poem imply, and what is the relationship as it stands in the poem?
"The Clod and the Pebble"
19. In "The Clod and the Pebble," is the Clod's interpretation of love privileged? Is the Pebble's? Or do both have some legitimacy or power? What "experienced" understanding of love emerges when you put both interpretations together?
20. In "Holy Thursday," how has the speaker's perspective changed from the corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence? What allows the speaker to see things differently? What has been gained, and what lost, with the change in perspective?
21. In "Holy Thursday," how do you understand the poem's references to natural things -- sun, rain, fields, thorns, etc.? What do they add to our perspective on the children's situation? How do they differentiate the poem from its counterpart in Songs of Innocence?
22. Compare "The Chimney Sweeper" to its companion poem in Songs of Innocence. What allows the speaker to see things differently? What has been gained, and what lost, with the change in perspective?
23. In "The Chimney Sweeper," what does the child say about his parents, their conception of God, and God's Priest and King? What enables the parents to constitute a heavenly realm from the misery that surrounds them?
24. Compare "Nurse's Song" to its companion poem in Songs of Innocence. What difference in perspective distinguishes the Nurse in the poem of experience from the one in the poem of innocence? In addition, how do you interpret the final line, in which the Nurse insists that the children are wasting their "winter and night in disguise"?
"The Sick Rose"
25. In "The Sick Rose," what does the worm or caterpillar symbolize? Moreover, characterize the unhealthy sexuality figured by this poem: what has gone wrong?
26. Compare "The Sick Rose" with its unassigned companion in Songs of Innocence, "The Blossom," which runs as follows: "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." How does the latter poem re-imagine sexual experience?
27. With regard to "The Fly," see King Lear 4.1, where Gloucester says "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport." To what extent is the speaker's thought about the fly in Blake's poem similar? Is his identification with the fly uplifting or pessimistic? What power is attributed to "thought"?
28. In "The Tyger," the speaker in part imagines the creation of the tyger. How and from what "materials" is the tyger created? Who is the creator? What is the significance of the poem's references to "fire," "burning," and the "furnace" with respect to the tyger's creation?
29. In "The Tyger," do you understand Blake's beast to be a "tyger of the mind" -- an imaginary or symbolic tiger -- rather than an existing, flesh-and-blood animal? Or would giving an either/or response oversimplify the matter? Explain the reasons for responding as you do.
30. In "The Tyger," what emotional stance or progression does the poem imply in the speaker's contemplation of the Tyger and the process whereby it came to exist? In particular, why does the speaker feel compelled to ask, "Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" (19-20)? What great moral issue has the speaker raised in posing the questions that he has throughout the poem?
31. Examine the plate for "The Tyger" included in the Norton edition or in the link above, and describe the Tyger's appearance. (The William Blake Archive's "comparison tool" allows viewers to compare different versions of Blake's plates, so you can view several "tygers.") What sort of "tyger" is this that Blake has engraved -- is it the one you expected based on the text of the poem? Why or why not? Also, what effect does the odd spelling "tyger" create?
"My Pretty Rose Tree" / "Ah Sun-flower"
32. What two troubling dimensions of love do "My Pretty Rose Tree" and Ah Sun-flower," taken together, invoke? Why does the speaker in the first poem refuse the flower offered to him, and what is the consequence of his refusal? And with regard to the second poem, what thematic use does Blake make of the sun-flower's "aspiration" or growth skywards -- to what dimension or experience of love does he relate this flower?
"The Garden of Love"
33. In "The Garden of Love," explain the speaker's perspective on religion-enforced morality as a power that crushes free sexual expression and connection. To what extent, if any, is the speaker complicit in what is happening -- what in the poem leads you to respond as you do?
34. Articulate the system of oppression that the poem "London" describes: what kinds of oppression does the speaker mention, and how does he reinforce the idea that they all work together as a tyrannical system that destroys the human spirit? What stylistic features and word choices help the poet convey the intensity and pervasiveness of the injustices he describes?
"The Human Abstract"
35. In "The Human Abstract" (the contrary companion of "The Divine Image" in Songs of Innocence), why is it significant that Blake's title includes the word "abstract" -- what does that word mean in context, and how is abstraction perhaps the key to the erroneous thinking that the poem laments? Moreover, what progression of mental states does the poem describe, and what are the material consequences of those successive states?
36. In "Infant Sorrow," why is the child sad following the ordeal of birth? What relationship to the father and mother does the infant-speaker assert? What happens in this poem that didn't happen in its companion or contrary "Infant Joy," and to what effect?
"A Poison Tree"
37. What story does "A Poison Tree" relate? What is the apple, in symbolic terms, and why does the speaker decide to use it kill the foe? Why does the foe try to steal the apple? As with "The Human Abstract," what progression of mental states does this poem trace? What are the material consequences of those successive states?
38. Tirzah in "To Tirzah" is one of Blake's figures for material nature, in addition to what the Norton editors say. Blake seems to have added this poem to Songs of Experience only in later copies. Does that mean we should take the speaker's attitude towards nature and the human body as definitive?
39. Look up the editorial reference to the Gospel of John 2:4 and its surrounding context. How does it affect your understanding of "To Tirzah"? (Time permitting, you might also look up Song of Solomon 4:6 and I Corinthians 15:44, and discuss how they affect your view of Blake's poem.
"A Divine Image"
40. Refer back to "The Divine Image" in Songs of Innocence. What was Blake suggesting about the relation between the human and the divine in that poem? How has the representation of that relationship changed in "A Divine Image"?
41. The Norton editors say that "The Human Abstract" is subtler than "A Divine Image." How so? Which poem do you consider a more effective contrary to "The Divine Image" in Songs of Innocence, and why?
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
42. To what extent, if at all, does Blake privilege the Voice of the Devil (or other characters/statements from the perspective of Hell throughout MHH?) To what extent does the prophetic narrator identify with or ally himself with the Devil? Give some instances one way or the other.
43. Trace the progression of events in MHH. That is, if we read this poem as a narrative in which things happen in some understandable sequence, what kind of story does it tell? Also, how might the poem fit within the long tradition of English satire?
44. How is the marriage of heaven and hell supposed to come to pass? Does the poem point towards this union, or does it in some sense achieve it? Explain. Also, what are the implications of calling the desired result a marriage rather than a fusion or some other such term?
45. What general expectations does the Argument establish for the rest of MHH?
46. What is a "contrary"? How do contraries differ from simple opposites?
47. Whose perspective do the last four sentences flow from? Are they to be accepted at face value?
"The Voice of the Devil"
48. Does the Devil satisfactorily correct the Errors he says have been caused by "Bibles or sacred codes"? What, if anything, does he propose to do by way of setting them right?
49. In what ways has Milton misread the Bible, according to the narrator?
50. Why does the narrator nonetheless admire Milton? What does that admiration have to do with the doctrine of contraries?
"A Memorable Fancy" and "Proverbs of Hell"
51. Explicate three or more of the Proverbs and, if possible, relate them to one another. In what way might the proverbs be true, in spite of their apparent contradictoriness?
52. In Plate 11 (115), what is Blake's warning about the poetic device of personification? I.e. "The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses -- "
"A Memorable Fancy"
53. What does the narrator learn from the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel?
"Plates 14 and 15, A Memorable Fancy"
54. What constitutes the Apocalypse alluded to in the line "the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years"?
55. What, if anything, does Blake's own writing or engraving have to do with the Apocalypse? (The Norton editors write that the Fancy is an allegory about Blake's methods as an engraver. Is it more than that?)
56. What are the "Prolific" and the "Devouring," respectively? What is the relationship between them?
"A Memorable Fancy"
57. From what perspective does the Angel admonish the narrator?
58. By what means do the Angel and the narrator descend into the abyss or "void boundless"? Provide some description and explanation with regard to the various "places" along the way.
59. Why should it matter that the Angel is upside down? I.e. that "he was suspended in a fungus which hung with the head downward into the deep"?
60. What form does the narrator's comic vision of the Angel's eternal lot take? Why does it take that particular form -- that is, why is it appropriate for the Angel based on what we know about that character?
"Opposition is True Friendship"
61. What is the narrator's basic criticism of the Angel's view and of those who ground their opinions in sacred codes, or institutional religion? If such codes are wrong, then what is the way to gain true knowledge?
"A Memorable Fancy"
62. Why is it significant for MHH as a whole that the Angel is converted to the narrator's and the Devil's perspective?
"A Song of Liberty"
63. Blake apparently added this poem to some copies of MHH. How does it complement MHH?
Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.