Notes and Questions on William Blake's Poetry in NAWME
Geoffrey Keynes, one of the first great editors of the works
of William Blake explains that "the Songs of Innocence formed the first
complete book executed by Blake by his new method of illuminated printing. The
text anad designs were etched in relief on copper, the prints from these plates
being then illuminated by hand. The Songs of Innocence were completed in
1789 and sold for a small sum; only twenty-one copies are now known to be in
existence." [[ Click here for the title
page of the 1789 edition, in black and white -- or
in color. ]] Keynes explains
that "the Songs of Experience were added in 1794." [[
Click here for the title page of the
combined edition. ]] [[ Click
here for the title page added for the new section -- "Songs of Experience."
]] Keynes goes on: "Twenty-four copies of the complete series of poems have been
recorded, these having been issued by Blake at various dates between 1794 and
1827. The coloring is different in each copy, and the arrangement of the plates
also varies." Keynes explains that the arrangement of plates (containing the
pictures and poems) is about the same in the majority of the later copies of the
G1. (a) How do any of the "Songs of Innocence" or "Songs of Experience" relate to any of the typical subjects of the Romantics such as childhood, nature, philosophy or religion, emotion or feeling, and the individual in relation to society? (b) What ideas or themes are conveyed about these subjects?
G2. As indicated by the second paragraph of Wellek's introduction to Blake in NAWM as well as the first footnote to "Songs of Innocence," what was different about the text of Blake's poems, in contrast to almost every other poet or writer, previous, contemporary (to Blake), or later?
G3. (a) How in particular poems of "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience," especially the former, does Blake express through diction (word choice, vocabulary), syntax or grammar, line length, rhythm and meter, and repetition the voice of an innocent child? (b) What repeated animal image or figure of speech is found in the NAWM selections from "Songs of Innocence," and why is it recurrent? (c) For a review of matters concerning figurative language, rhythm and meter, etc., go to the Prinsky Engl. 1102 webpage and find my Notes and Questions on these subjects as they occur in an Engl. 1102 textbook.
G4. How are several of the poems in "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" paired off as comparison-contrasts: How does the "Introduction" poem in each compare and contrast? How does "The Lamb" make a pair with "The Tyger"? How do the two versions of "The Chimney Sweeper" compare and contrast?
G5. (a) Blake was much influenced by his reading of the Bible, and naturally absorbed the Bible's idea of numerological symbolism. Where in Songs of Innocence and Experience can you find the numerological, religious symbolism of three, seven, or ten? (If you're not sure what these numbers might symbolize, look back at Dante's Inferno and the notes to it in volume 1 of NAWM.) (b) How does Blake repeatedly use Biblical allusion to express ideas in several of the poems in the NAWM selection?
G6. In the NAWM selections from "Songs of Innocence," one of the two parents is stressed more and more affectionately treated than the other. Which one? With what associations? How does the second stanza of "Earth's Answer" in "Songs of Experience" (see the NAWM footnote to the stanza, as well) reveal the preference in "Songs of Innocence"?
G7. William Blake has several interesting connections to modern music. One of the musical groups to set a Blake poem to music is Tangerine Dream, founded in 1967 and continuing to today, a pioneer New Age (electronic music) group, whose personnel have changed over the years. Their music contributes to the drama of the 1981 film Thief, starring James Caan, as evidenced by the amazing opening ten minutes of the film, scored with the group's song "Diamond Diary" (a reference to the subdued opening of the assembling of the robbers, frenetic middle of the actual heist, and then the subdued getaway/split-up in various cars of the thieves). On their CD Atmospherics (Emporio CD, 1995; EMPRCD-564), Tangerine Dream has a setting of Blake's The Tyger. The group is mentioned in the highly recommended novel, Pinball (after which the worlds of Classical and popular music will never seem the same to anyone who has read the book), by Hungarian-turned-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a major modern British composer of classical or art music, has settings of Blake songs on both his Songs of William Blake and his 1942 work Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (Op.31). The latter work is comprised of eight pieces, the fourth of which is titled "Elegy (Blake)"; in actuality, the poem, as the lyrics make clear, is Blake's "The Sick Rose," from Blake's Songs of Experience. A later British composer of classical or art music, John Tavener (born 1944), has done musical settings of both Blake's "The Lamb" as well as well as "The Tiger" (both in 1982).
"Songs of Innocence: Introduction" [[ Songs of Innocence Introduction Poem Engraving ]] [[ Songs of Innocence Introduction; Piper & Child Engraving ]]
1. What word and related word are repeated most often in the poem? What themes are expressed thereby? How is this poem a metapoetic poem, a poem about the writing of poetry? What does the poem suggest are the stimuli and mechanics and ends (aims, purposes) of poetry (and literature)? Who is the poem's speaker --that is, what category of person is represented or symbolized by the speaker? How do the first two stanzas of the poem (as well as the first line of the last stanza) contrast the pastoral with the epic genres of poetry (what two very different kinds of invocation to the Muse are contrasted)? How do details of the poem suggest a connection between poetry and music? How might the details in the first two lines of the last stanza of the poem embody, in the writing process as described, a mixture of innocence or youth and experience or age, suggest a distancing of literature or art or the imagination from nature or purity, and also hint at the peculiar way that Blake actually printed most of his books of poetry, including Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and then the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience?
2. How does the poem use trochaic tetrameter (with the last syllable missing) expressively? What feeling or mood does the trochaic meter help evoke? How does the poem's meter make the reader and poem's speaker pronounce unexpectedly the first two words of lines 4, 16, and 17-19? What word is emphasized repeatedly as a consequence, and how does this word help convey something about the innocent world of a child? How would the famous psychologist expert of children, Jean Piaget, concur with Blake's ideas about a child's view or "construction" of the world?
3. What might the cloud and child's emotional state (quatrain 1), and the details in the first two lines of the final quatrain symbolize? How does "happy" (line 19) loop back to quatrain 1?
4. (a) How does the second stanza of this poem foreshadow the next poem in the sequence, which is printed immediately following in NAWM? (b) How does this poem compare and contrast with "Songs of Experience: Introduction"? How do the different terms for the poet in each of the respective poems embody or express this comparison and contrast?
The Lamb [[ Blake Engraving of the Poem ]] [[Blake Engraving of the Poem, black & white]]
1. (a) How is this poem linked to "Songs of Innocence: Introduction" through the second stanza of that poem? (b) In this poem, who is the speaker, and who is the addressee or listener in the poem? (Hint: see line 17.) How are they equated, and what ideas are suggested through this equation? Where does monosyllabism occur in the poem, and how is it appropriate to the speaker and what the speaker represents? How is the repetition at the opening and closing of each of the two stanzas appropriate in characterizing the speaker and the traits or qualities the speaker represents?
2. How is the two-stanza structure of the poem appropriate to the speaker and the poem's content or themes? What ideas about literature, language, or communication are suggested in lines 7-8?
3. Usually diacritical marks such as those found in lines 13 and 18, which strike the average reader's subconscious as yet another element of mystery in poetry, are usually (a) not supplied by the author (as the slides of Blake's original prints clearly demonstrate, as shown in class) and (b) an elementary matter of counting on fingers by a later editor. How did a later editor know that the poet wanted the word "called" in the second stanza to be pronounced disyllabically (two syllables) rather than monosyllabically (one syllable), when the poet didn't use a diacritical mark to indicate this? No magic: just count the number of syllables in each line in lines 14-17. How many syllables did Blake want per line? How does this knowledge apply to lines 13 and 18? How does the number of syllables help demarcate the opening and closing of each stanza as separate from the body of the stanza? (Poets really care about this stuff; they're not the same as us prosaic prose writers.) What is the rhyme scheme of the first stanza (especially the body of the stanza); how does this rhyme scheme apply, with slant or near or off rhyme (synonymous terms) to the second stanza? How is this rhyme scheme appropriate to the speaker or content of the poem?
"The Little Black Boy" [[ Blake Engraving for Stanzas 1-4 ]] [[ Blake Engraving for Stanzas 5-7 ]] [[Stanzas 1-4, b&w]] [[Stanzas 5-7, b&w]]
1. (a) As Wellek points out in his introduction to Blake in NAWM, how does this poem contain or evoke a dual perspective of innocence or youth versus experience or age? (b) How does this use of simile (stressing as or as if) rather than metaphor (something is something else) in this poem help imply Blake's criticism of racism and racist propaganda and its effects? Where else in the poem are the ideas of self esteem (cf. the psychology of Alfred Adler, one of the triumvirate founders of psychology, with Freud and Jung) and propaganda's influence found in the poem? (c) How does the speaker in lines 25-26 pick up but distort what his mother has told him in lines 15-16? Is it true that children sometimes don't fully understand or misapprehend parental wisdom in your own personal experience or observation? (d) What similar perspectives on racial relations and colonialism does Blake share with Voltaire in Ch. 19 of Voltaire's Candide (NAWM6 2:370-373)?
2. (a) How does this poem, like "The Lamb," have a symmetrical envelope structure (three parts: stanzas 1-2; stanzas 3-5; stanzas 6-7)? (b) The number seven underlies both "The Lamb" (syllables per line) and this poem (number of stanzas); what might be its numerological, religious symbolism? (c) How do color and animal imagery connect, through comparison and contrast, this poem with "The Lamb"? (d) How does the key repeated word little connect this poem with "The Lanmb"? (e) How do the imagery and details of nature in this poem function thematically? (f) How is the tactile imagery of heat in this poem used thematically, and with perhaps greater emotional force for a British reader (used to British weather and climate) than an American one? (g) How is parataxis--use of coordinate conjunctions, especially and, rather than subordinating conjunctions like because and since--expressive or characterizational in this poem? (h) Presumably the little white boy's hair is blond (no terminal e for males; terminal e for females) rather than "silver"(line 27), a metaphor for this color. How does the metaphor connect backward with stanza 5, suggest the black child's view of the white child, and subtly suggest a criticism of the white child (and unthinking racist whites)?
3. The regular iambic pentameter used in this poem has a smoother flow to it than the incantatory, chant-like, or assertive trochaic meter of "Songs of Innocence: Introduction" and "The Lamb." How might the meter be expressive in this poem, subliminally or subtly suggesting something about racial relations or attitudes?
"Holy Thursday" [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem ]] [[Blake Engraving, b&w]]
1. How is color used thematically in this vividly polychromatic poem? Which group is colorful, and which more or less colorless, with what suggestions? How do other details of the imagery and figurative language suggest a contrast and suppressed antagonism between the children and the paternal, patronizing adults? What male, Freudian, repressive symbol can be found in the poem? How does the imagery in the poem contrast the artificial (e.g., line 4) with the natural?
2. (a) How is Genesis 6-9 ironically alluded to in the first quatrain? How does the simile in line 4 not only (along with line 2) allude to Genesis 6-9 but also connect to the simile in line 9, relating to the idea or topic of repression in the poem? (b) What other Biblical allusions can be found in the poem, and with what thematic suggestiveness? (c) What pun on the word beneath may there be in line 11? Cf. the repeated participle and verb in lines 8 and 9.
3. (a) Given questions 1-2, how does this poem have the dual perspective of innocence and experience that Wellek refers to in his NAWM introduction to Blake? (b) Blake uses the relatively rare meter of the "fourteener" or "poulter's measure" (fourteen syllables per line, rather than the usual six, eight, or ten) in this poem; why might this be thematically appropriate or expressive?
"The Chimney Sweeper" [[ Blake Engraving for the Songs of Innocence Version ]] [[Blake Engraving, b&w]] [[Color, #2]] [[black & white, #2]]
1. (a) How is there a pun in line 3 of the poem, playing on two meanings of a particular word as a child's pronunciation and the desolation of his circumstances? Through this pun, what ideas are suggested about childhood that are addressed today by various child advocacy groups? (b) What recurrent animal imagery and symbolism in other of the "Songs of Innocence" occurs in this poem, and with what meanings? (c) How does Blake use color symbolism in the poem, and how is this symbolism comparable to other of the NAWM selections from "Songs of Innocence"?
2. (a) What symbolic meanings or referents do the coffins have in the speaker's dream (quatrains 3-4)? (b) What multiple symbolic meanings might washing in the river have in quatrain 4? (c) What contrasting meanings does the nakedness of the children have (quatrain 5), one of which is indicated in the NAWM footnote to line 17?
3. One source of difficulty in reading comprehension is vocabulary: either not knowing the meaning of fancy or unusual or literary words, or not knowing secondary meanings of common words. One instance of this is the word want in line 20; the word does not mean "desire" or "wish for," but has its more usual older meaning that is less common today. What does the word mean if not "desire" or "wish for," referring to a good dictionary?
4. (a) How does Blake's use of eleven- or twelvle-syllable iambic pentameter lines help express any of the poem's content? (b) How do the chimney sweepers in this poem compare with their occurrence in "Songs of Experience" in "London" and "The Chimney Sweeper" ("Songs of Experience" version)?
"Songs of Experience: Introduction" [[ Blake Engraving for the Title Page ]] [[ Blake Engraving for the Book Front ]] [[ Blake Engraving of the Songs of Experience: Introduction Poem, black and white ]] [[ Blake Engraving of the Songs of Experience: Introduction Poem, color ]]
1. (a) In what general and specific ways does this poem compare and contrast with "Songs of Innocence: Introduction"? How is time, a key concept in Blake's poetry (and many other important authors' works), treated differently in this poem from "Songs of Innocence: Introduction"? (b) How does the word for poet in this poem vary significantly for the term used in "Songs of Innocence: Introduction"? (c) How is the poetic process, the process of writing, described differently in this poem from "Songs of Innocence: Introduction"? (d) How is the imagery of nature used for multiple meanings, including but not only Biblical symbolism, in the poem's first quatrain? How does this particular natural imagery compare with similar particular natural imagery in "The Little Black Boy"? (e) How is repetition used to convey emotion in the poem? How are punctuation marks other than periods used to convey emotion in the poem? (f) What specific Biblical references or allusions do lines 11 and 16-17 have? (g) How is the poem symmetrically organized in two parts, stanzas 1-2 and stanzas 3-4? (h) How is water imagery a motif in the poem, conveying what ideas or meanings? (i) How does Blake use favorite motifs (partly absorbed from the Bible and the poetry of John Milton) in this poem of light-dark and rising-falling? For example, how does line 15 connect with line 10?
2. (a) How can the floor be "starry" in line 18? (b) How is the variation of line length in each stanza expressive in the stanza or the poem overall? (c) How are trochaic and iambic feet mixed and used expressively or meaningfully in the poem?
3. How do child/piper in "Songs of Innocence: Introduction" compare and contrast with (a) Holy Word/Bard and (b) Bard/lapsed Soul-Earth? How does this poem and the next reveal what can happen to poetry in the Romantics' era emphasizing the importance of each individual's imagination and feeling?
4. (a) How is the Bard's transcendence of time revealed or suggested through the verb tense and mixed allusions to Genesis 3 and the Gospel of John 1 in stanza 1? (b) How might Blake's "ambiguous use of pronouns," as pointed out in the NAWM footnote to the poem, suggest what the relationship is between God and the prophet? (c) The pronoun "That"(line 8) refers to the "lapsed Soul"; what ideas about the imagination are revealed in the remainder of stanza 2, including the role of imagination in the modern (including Newton, modern science), adult world of experience? (d) By changing referents from "lapsed Soul" to "Earth" (evidently the same creature or being) in stanzas 2-3, and then from "Earth" to "Slumberous mass," how does Blake allude to the original meaning of the name Adam? (e) How might the word "Worn" in stanza 3 be a pun on two different meanings of the word wear: (1) "to put on an item of dress" and (2) "to deteriorate or diminish through some constant or repetitive action"? How does meaning number 1 suggest part of what's wrong in the world of experience?
5. (a) How do the first lines of the third and fourth stanzas refer not only to mental or psychological orientation but also to something astronomical? How does this astronomical meaning suggest Blake's theme of the need through imagination to transcend the trap in the real world (the world of "experience") of eternal cycles or repetitions? (b) How is the contrast between imagination and reason embodied in the reference to the "starry floor" in the last stanza? (c) How might a pun on "break" in the poem's last line (not only the initiation of a new day, but to destroy something--that is, the illumination through imagination breaking or destroying something) embody Blake's emphasis on the importance of imagination?
"Earth's Answer" [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem, black and white ]] [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem, color ]]
1. How is this poem a companion piece to "Songs of Experience: Introduction"? How does Earth's response to the Bard ("Songs of Experience: Introduction") compare and contrast to the child's response to the Piper ("Songs of Innocence: Introduction")? How does Earth's response, including in the contrast between "Songs of Experience: Introduction"/"Earth's Answer" and "Songs of Innocence: Introduction," reveal the fallen world of experience, both in the details of the poem and the tone of the poem, via its satire or parody of "Songs of Experience: Introduction"?
2. How are specific details or images in the poem used by Earth to parody or satirize those details in the preceding poem, "Songs of Experience: Introduction"?
3. How do any of Blake's ideas or themes in this poem, handily summarized in the NAWM footnote to the poem, parallel and help reveal the themes or ideas of "The Sick Rose"? How might the imagery of the third stanza, in particular, connect with "The Sick Rose"?
"The Tyger" [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem ]] [[Engraving, Color#2]] [[Engraving, b&w]] [[Blake's Revisions of the Poem#1]] [[Blake's Revisions of the Poem#2]]
1. (a) How is this poem a companion piece to "The Lamb" in "Songs of Innocence"? (b) How do the two poems convey very different worlds, orientations, and views of nature, the universe, and God? (c) How does the predominantly trochaic meter of the poem help express any of its ideas and create a certain tone or feeling? (d) How do all the questions and question marks in the poem relate to the poem's ideas or tones?
2. (a) Where is the word symmetry repeated in the poem, and how does it help convey Blake's ideas about the forces or powers of destruction in the universe? (b) How is the poem itself symmetrical? (c) How might a relationship between a and b suggest something about Blake's concept of poetry and the imagination?
"The Sick Rose" [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem ]] [[BlakeSickRoseColor]] [[BlakeSickRoseB&W]]
1. How do Blake's ideas and imagery in this poem anticipate Freud's concepts of repression and sexuality?
2. (a) How does any of the imagery have sexual--Freudian--overtones? (b) What are the conventional associations of roses in poetry, and how does Blake utilize these associations for his themes in this poem?
"London" [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem ]] [[Color Engraving#2]] [[Black & White Engraving]]
1. (a) Where and how in the poem does Blake suggest an interconnection between the modern world (the world of Experience), repression, corruption, and the emotion of unhappiness? (b) How does the word mark (repeated three times in the first quatrain) have negative connotations or overtones that the words note and signs, possible synonms, wouldn't? (c) Besides the meanings of chartered (line 1) given in the NAWM footnote, the word may have the additional senses of "charted" (drawn on a document, like a map) and "confined" (running in a definite or specified course); how do all the meanings of this polysemous or plurisignificant word help express Blake's criticisms of the world of experience as exemplified by London and city life? (d) How many times is the word every repeated in the second stanza, and conveying what ideas about urban life? (e) What pun is there on the word appalls (line 10), as pointed out in the NAWM footnote; and how does the pun help convey Blake's criticisms of modern urban life? (f) How are stanzas 2 and 3 each symmetrically divided in describing two groups or categories of urban victimization? How in stanza 3 is metonymy* used to signify two social components that victimize the unfortunate?
2. (a) How is the auditory imagery in the third stanza picked up and echoed in the fourth stanza, all criticizing modern city life? (b) How does the motif of childhood or youth, with ironic echoes of "Songs of Innocence," thread through stanzas 2-4? (c) How does one specific, technical sense of the word Blasts (line 15) picked up in blights and plagues (line 16)? While the NAWM footnote gives one meaning of lines 15- 16, how might additional meanings in these lines refer to (1) parents in their "flat" attending to an infant, (2) the "family-unit" of the harlot herself, and (3) the corruption of a church marriage, even if the subsequent child wasn't born with the effects of venereal disease? (d) What word do we expect to find rather than hearse after the word that immediately precedes it in line 16? What ideas about the modern, urban world's degredation does Blake suggest through his surprising substitution?
"The Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Experience) [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem, black and white ]] [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem , color ]] [[ Blake Engraving for the Poem, color ]]
1. How does this poem compare and contrast with the poem of the same title in "Songs of Innocence"?
2. (a) What societal institutions are condemned in this poem,
echoing similar condemnations in "London"? (b) What is the tenor* (literal
meaning) of the vehicle* (the comparison part of a figure of speech: the
concrete item something is compared to) in the sweep's metaphor
"clothes of death" (line 7)? How is this a good metaphor to describe his
work uniform? What dream symbol does it echo in the "Songs of Innocence"
version of this poem? (c) How does the redundancy in line 7 help convey
a child's innocence and an adult's purposefulness? (d) What several meanings
does Blake play on in "make up" in the poem's last line?