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William Blake and
Songs of Innocence and Experience


The touchstone of this project is William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience which was written, etched, printed, and hand-colored by the artist in the late 18th-century. The first series of poems, Songs of Innocence, was published in 1789, and today there are twenty-five known copies. It is thought originally it might have been planned as a book for children [Kathleen Raine] because its joyful tone and grammatical and structural simplicity resembled nursery rhymes of the period.


Five years later, in 1794, Blake published Songs of Experience which was intended as a satire of his first book. Each poem in Innocence had its correlate in the later book. In Experience, Blake vented his deeply-felt rage against the social injustices of the age, such as child labor and what he considered the dual evils of Church and State. Shortly thereafter, Blake then combined the two series into one volume of fifty-four plates with a new title page: Songs of Innocence and Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.


Blake believed that “without Contraries there is no progression.” In accordance with this belief—and also to save money—Experience is etched on the back of the copper plates of Innocence; thus “Two contrary states could be held, as an object, in the hand” [Peter Ackroyd]. This fact interests me because it is also the case that opposites co-exist in one entity in my own altered books.


Blake continued printing copies of Songs of Innocence and Experience until the end of his life. As time went on, he “found more general possibilities of expression” inherent in the work as opposed to just the dichotomy of good versus evil. Blake maintained that the Fall from Innocence to Experience was an inevitable transition that every individual passed through at adolescence [Michael Davis]. To quote Blake: “Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance.”

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