The Language of Innocence and Experience in

Blake and Wordsworth

In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and William Wordsworth’s Ode, innocence is marked by a commonality of being wherein the ‘self’ is not distinguished from nature or the ‘other.’ Justly, language is either harmoniously reflective of being or else not needed at all. But as an inevitable consequence of the transition from innocence to experience, the unified world deteriorates into a world of composite parts, each existing in isolation. Moreover, the breaking away from God results in the dissociation of Word and being so that language is reduced to an insufficient form of mediation. In Wordsworth’s realm of experience, it is ultimately the "primal sympathy" (184), articulated through language as a "timely utterance" (52), which functions as a form of consolation for the individual. Unlike Blake’s Experience wherein words have been divorced from their true meaning, Wordsworth employs language in an attempt to re-connect and re-capture, if only in part, man’s lost state of innocence.

In Blake’s Songs of Innocence, all objects and living things act according to their true nature: "The Sun does arise" to "make happy the skies" (1-2) whereas "the merry bells ring / To welcome the Spring" (3-4). There is no alternative action for the Sun but to "shine" and "make happy the skies" (2) just as the principal aim of "merry bells is to "welcome the Spring" (4). Thus because all things acts in perfect harmony with their nature and function, linguistic mediation is not necessary: things simply are themselves—Suns shine, bells ring, and pipers pipe—requiring neither explanation nor identification.

Just as each thing acts in loyalty to its true nature, emotions such as joy are not separate from but rather define one’s being. Thus the child in Infant Joy determines its name based on its state of being: "I happy am / Joy is my name’ (4-5). In the same way, outward expressions perfectly represent internal emotions: the fact that the infant "dost smile" (10) confirms that it is "happy" (4). Ultimately, in a world where innocence reigns, language is not a means of comparison; the infant does not behave as one who is happy, rather it is happy therefore it is "joy" (9). Its identity—its name—is derived directly from its state of being. Not surprisingly, then, because its identity harmoniously reflects its being, a name, as "a word or symbol used to designate an entity" (OED) is not something which the infant desires to be given.

Because ‘identity is being,’ there is no separation between the ‘self’ and ‘other.’ In On Another’s Sorrow, the speaker cannot "see another’s woe, / And not be in sorrow too" (1-20) just as a father cannot "see his child, Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d" (7-8). Thus emotion is collectively shared rather than individually experienced: "you are sorrowful" therefore "I am sorrowful." The register of sensation is deeply woven throughout this poem as one’s ability to feel is determined by the use of one’s senses: the speaker is "in sorrow" (2) because he "see[s] anothers woe" (1); God is prompted to "sit the cradle near / Weeping tear on infants tear" (20) because he "Hear[s] the woes that infants bear" (16). Ultimately, then, it is one’s capacity to feel which makes universality of being possible.

This universality of being depends upon Blake’s recognition of God as Creator and Originator of everything good. God, as in The Divine Image, does not merely represent "Mercy Pity Peace and Love" (1) rather God is these things. In Blake’s world of innocence, language, as a form of expression, is not separate from the Divine Image, rather language is God: Love is "the human form divine" (11) and "Peace, the human dress" (12). Justly, "Love" and "Peace" do not merely serve as linguistic symbols which represent the nature and form of the Divine Being; rather, they are Him. Moreover, because God is Himself the divine embodiment of language so also "Is Man his child" (8). In The Lamb Blake asserts that "We are called by [God’s] name" (18): because "[God] calls himself a lamb" (14), so "thou" art a "lamb" (17); because "He became a little child" (16) so "I" am "a child" (17). Blake’s philosophy is derived from the gospel of John, which states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being" (1.3). Thus as the Divine Word, God grants all things being through Himself, therefore there is no dissociation between Word and flesh. Language does not exist for the purpose of mediation between two distinct beings. Rather, it is the substance which composes and dwells within each.

In Blake’s Songs of Experience, language is no longer inextricably linked to being. In his Introduction to the series, Blake emphasizes man’s Fallen state and consequently the dissociation of word and being, and the reduction of language to an insufficient form of mediation. The "Holy Word" (4) itself is described as animate, having "walk’d among the ancient trees" (5) whereas the "Soul" of mankind is "lapsed," in a state of having "Turn[ed] away" (13). Mankind’s separation from God, and consequently, from language, is emphasized in Holy Thursday wherein individuals and things now act in opposition to their true natures. The infant, whose inherent nature, in Infant Joy, is one of joy, is now "reducd to misery" (3). The "sun does never shine" (9) and the "fields are bleak and bare" (10). Seasons no longer rotate, as is their nature, but instead "It is eternal winter there" (11). Moreover, the "Babes" (3) are "Fed with cold and usurous hand" (4) as opposed to being nurtured with love and care. Blake’s use of the word "fed" (4) demonstrates the perversion of language within the realm of experience. As opposed to being nourished and sustained, the child is "fed" with hostility and sustained by a hand whose business is usury, the act of lending money for the purpose of collecting an exorbitant amount of interest. Thus, whereas Blake’s Innocence was marked by the language of unity and collective harmony, Experience characteristically depicts images of disunity and confusion.

Just as things act in opposition to their true natures, words are inverted to mean their opposites. When the speaker enters The Garden of Love, he is confronted with that which "[he] had never seen" (2). The "Garden" (1) no longer resembles that place where the speaker "used to play on the green" (4). Instead it is now "filled with graves" and "tombstones" (9). Whereas it once "so many sweet flowers bore" (8), it now contains a "Chapel" on which is "writ over the door" the words "Thou shalt not" (6). As opposed to being a place where, in faithfulness to the nature of the Divine image, "Mercy Pity Peace and Love" prevail, the Chapel’s gates are "shut" (5) and its principles are fundamentally restrictive. It is no longer a "public place of worship" (OED) but is rather one of stringency and harsh legality. Thus as opposed to representing a place of life, rebirth, and rejuvenation, the Garden harbors within it images and symbols of death and deterioration.

The "Priests," who are symbolically clad in "black" as opposed to white "gowns" (11), "walk[] their rounds, / And bind[] with briars" the "joys and desires" (12) of the speaker. Blake’s use of the word "briars" to articulate the oxymoronic behavior of the Priests is no doubt an allusion to the crown of thorns, which was placed on Jesus’ head by the Pharisees, symbols of hypocrisy throughout much of the New Testament.1 The Priests’ behavior contradicts their principle function: in name, a priest is one who is "authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God" (OED). Yet the Priests’ within Blake’s Garden work to prevent the individual from entering into relationship with God. Likewise, in The Little Vagabond, the "Church is cold" whereas the "Alehouse is healthy & pleasant & warm" (2). Once again the Church is a symbol of sterility and indifference, features which contradict its linguistic identity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a church as a "public place of worship" which welcomes all individuals. Yet Blake’s Experience depicts a chapel whose gates are "shut" (5) while, ironically, it is the "Ale-house," with its "pleasant fire" (6), which both nurtures and restores its patrons, leaving them "as happy as birds in the spring" (10).

In his Ode, Wordsworth conceives of an innocence very similar to Blake’s wherein "every common sight" (2) is "Apparell’d in celestial light" (4). "The earth" (2) itself "seems[s]" (3) clothed in a universal garment of holiness, which extends to all living things. There is no separation between the self and nature, which is likened to "The glory and the freshness of a dream" (5). Blake uses the concept of a "dream" (4) as a metaphor to define the relationship between the self and nature. As a "dream" (4), nature is a mere manifestation of the human psyche; it is both an echo and an extension of the human mind. In a state of innocent "bliss" (41) nature appears one with and reflects the self: "The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee" (38); likewise "the sun shines warm" (48) as the "Babe leaps up on his mother’s arm’ (49). As in Blake’s On Another’s Sorrow, the infant’s emotional state is fully shared by its environment. The innocence of youth is itself a "festival" (39) of "gladness, merriment, and joy" (OED) wherein all things are united in a chorus of celebration.

Yet the unity with nature which the speaker experiences in infancy merely reflects his unity with God prior to birth. As the speaker asserts, "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" (66). Essentially, then, it is in its near primordial state of infancy that the Soul is closest to God who is its "home" (66). As Wordsworth asserts, the Soul comes into the world "trailing clouds of glory… / From God, who is [its] home" (65-66). The image of the "trailing clouds" (65) recalls man’s relationship to God as Creator and giver of life. The "trailing clouds" (65) extend from heaven as the umbilical cord shared between mother and child. The umbilical cord itself, as a "cord-like structure" which nourishes the unborn child as well as removes its wastes, making possible the child’s continued life. However, once the child is born, the cord must be severed, and the child must rely up on its own faculties to survive within the world. In the same way, Wordsworth’s speaker, as Earth’s "Foster child" (82), "daily farther from the East / must travel" (71-72), relying wholly on the "work of his own hand" (87) to subsist.

The Soul’s inevitable loss of innocence results in the origination and fragmentation of language. As he gains experience, the speaker begins to see the world as composed of a series of finite objects. The harmonious unity which previously defined his being splinters into "a Tree, of many one / A single Field which he ha[s] look’d upon" (52): collective consciousness fractures into singular consciousness. In naming the single "Pansy at [his] feet" (55), the speaker "alone" (51) realizes the innocence he has lost. The "visionary gleam" (56) which marked him in his infancy continues to fade into extinction as with the onset of "the setting sun" (199), the "Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy" (67-68). Wordsworth uses the "prison-house" as a metaphor for mans’ state of transience and imprisonment on earth. Like Blake’s Chapel, the "prison-house" is a place of confinement. As a house of captivity, or, "a building that is or serves as a prison" (OED), the Earth prevents man from acting according to his true nature. Instead, "The homely Nurse" (81) of Nature seeks, with "something of a Mother’s mind" (79), to make her "Inmate Man" (82) feel at home by causing him to "Forget the glories he hath known" (83) and fix his mind on "pleasures" (76) of a more "natural kind" (87).

To compensate for his state of imprisonment, man employs language in an attempt to re-capture "some fragment of his dream of human life" (91). He becomes "The little Actor" (101) whose whole "vocation" (106) is naught but "endless imitation" (107). The principle occupation of an actor, as "one who personates a character, or acts a part" (OED), is one of contrivance. The actor uses language (i.e. his script) as a primary tool for executing his performance. Ironically, his greatest success stems from his ability to reproduce reality as opposed to genuinely creating it. Wordsworth uses the register of mimicry, in words and phrases such as "con," "Shap’d by himself"(92) and "newly-learned art" (92) to emphasize the falsity of linguistic mediation. It is the self-created customs of "wedding or…festival" (93), implemented by language, to which man "frames his song" (95). Like a puppet, he becomes "all…Persons" (105) in hopes of "find[ing]…those truths" (116, 115) which adorned him in his infancy. Thus fueled by the "dialogues of business, love, or strife" (98) man "cons another part" (102), using language as an instrument of parody toward which he "fit[s] his tongue" (97). The etymology of the word ‘parody’ stems from the Greek, parOidia, from para- + aidein to sing, which is linked to the word Ode, the poem’s title. Thus it is clear that Wordsworth seeks to associate the function of language with "imitation" (107).

But "the dialogues" (97) which man uses in an attempt to re-capture his lost innocence are ultimately "thrown aside" (100). Instead, Wordsworth directs his praise toward "those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things" (144-5) which, like "our embers" (132) reflect "What was so fugitive" (134). Unlike Blake, whose realm of Experience fully disoriented the individual—"Is that trembling cry a song?" (Holy Thursday, 5)—Wordsworth locates some sense in those "Fallings from us" and "vanishings" (146) which characterize the early stages of experience. Essentially, it is the individual’s first recognition of his separateness which prompts him to recall the reality of his true identity. Wordsworth employs the register of non-rationality in words such as "obstinate" (144) and "instincts" (144) to emphasize the inherent quality of the knowledge discovered. It is "those shadowy recollections" (151) which lead the Soul to uncover the latent knowledge of its "fugitive" condition (149); it is "Those first affections" (153) which prompt the Soul to remember "that imperial palace whence it came" (84). Wordsworth describes the subconscious premonitions of the experienced Soul regarding its eternal home, praising the "Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized" (147-8). The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘misgiving’ as "a feeling of doubt or suspicion especially concerning a future event." Thus it would seem that Wordsworth is praising not only the inevitable disunity between the self and nature but also the "Blank misgivings" (147), or, "High instincts" (149) which direct the Soul towards recognizing the eternal "truths that wake, / to perish never" (158-9), which neither "Man nor Boy…Can utterly abolish or destroy" (161, 163). The word ‘instinct’ is used to describe the Soul’s intrinsic capacity to recognize its eternal nature. Wordsworth employs the register of non-rationality in words such as "obstinate" (144) and "instincts" (144) to emphasize the inherent quality of the knowledge discovered. Ultimately, then, it is through the language of "obstinate questioning[]" (144), which the Soul discovers the "truths" (158) which are "the fountain light of all our day" (156).

Ultimately, Wordsworth finds consolation in the form of linguistic mediation which seeks to re-capture innocence through thought, not deed. Unlike the "dialogue of business, love, and strife" (97), the "primal sympathy" (184) gives way to "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" (207). Thus the individual intellectually experiences the primordial state of innocence, versus attempting to actively reproduce it. While acknowledging that "nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass" (180-81), the speaker finds strength and comfort in the "timely utterance" (29) which enables him, to "join…in thought" the innocent "throng" (176). Thus it is not the idyllic innocence of youth and infancy which he longs to regain; rather it is the knowledge that "though inland far we be" (166), our "Souls have sight of that immortal see / Which…can in a moment" bring us "thither" (167-8) to "hear the mighty water rolling evermore" (170). This is the second "bliss" (42).