Religious Symbolism in William Blake’s
“Songs of Innocence and of Experience”
The poetry as well as the whole art of William Blake is abundant with symbols and allegories that carry a strong charge – inspirational, charismatic and religious. It is the result of numerous factors including the peculiarity of Blake’s epoch, the city he was born, raised and lived in, the traditions of his family, and, of course, his personal features that are imprinted on every line of his writings and every engraving or picture he created. Moreover, he was the first poet after Edmund Spenser who produced his own mythological reality [1, 192], which proves the power of his imagination and creative potential. In his childhood and youth, William Blake was surrounded and impacted by objects, phenomena and people that were of pronounced symbolic character – his Dissenter origin, Bible study, visions and revelations that visited him throughout all his life, work in Westminster Abbey [1, 74] – and they could not but be incorporated in his masterpieces. If we add here interest in and adherence to Emmanuel Svedenborg and Jacob Boehme [2, xxi], the background of his symbolism may become more or less clear.
The article deals with one of the most outstanding and acclaimed books written by William Blake – “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” – and focuses on religious symbols that are so copious here and multidimensional in their connotations. The goal of the article is to single out most frequent and significant symbols, trace their history back to their origins and suggest some directions of their interpretation.
Among the works devoted to the study of Blake’s symbolism we may mention those by Leopold Damrosch (“Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth”), David V. Erdman (“Blake: Prophet Against Empire, A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times”) Kathleen Raine (“Blake and Antiquity” and “Blake and the New Age”), Margaret Bottrall (“William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience”) and biographies that in no way should be overlooked – “The Life of William Blake” by Alexander Gilchrist and “Blake: A Biography” by Peter Ackroyd. The latter is particularly significant in that it contains overview of major works devoted to the poet and the diaries of contemporaries which have mentions somehow related to the nature of Blake; it is a successful synthesis of poet’s biography, art history and the history of London.
There are also some sources that may be useful for deeper approach and analysis of Blake’s symbols and images. As he was influenced mainly by two traditions – Christian Dissenter one and European esotericism – Bible, “Selected Teachings of John Chrysostom” and Catechism will deal with the former and “Zohar” along with “The Kabbalah for Beginners” by Michael Laitman – with the latter.
It should be mentioned that the peculiarity of Blake’s creativity is the organic unity of text and engravings. Virtually every poem is illustrated, and many of the characters have both verbal and graphical images. Poetry and visual images form a complete wholeness [1, 199]. Illuminated copies are rarities kept in several American and British museums and libraries. It is, however, beyond the frames of the article to regard poems together with the illustrations, for most of the standard editions contain only the text.
It is also important to emphasize the uniqueness of each copy printed by Blake and his wife – there are no even two copies with the same order of poems [1,195]. So, dealing with the symbolism of this book special care should be taken in seeking special meaning or enigma in disposition and order of poems. William Blake avoided any shade of standardization and mechanical monotonousness in printing and publishing, most of engravings and poems changed with every edition during all Blake’s time.
Where may the author’s attitude and approach to “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” be revealed without deepening into the complicated structure of symbolic images and their interrelation with each other and with the writer himself? It is in the inscription that follows the title and plays the role of a comment possessing considerable degree of significance and importance – “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” [3, 9]. So, the poems, first of all, intend to convey different states of human soul. The events described take place within the inner world of man; images, objects, dialogues are parts of him. Here is evident the influence of Svedenborg [1, 167] and Kabbalah [4, 43].
The scene in “Introduction” is in certain closeness to those Biblical chapters that relate the moment of vocation of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and other prophets [5, 55 – 56, 681, 795 – 796]. The prophecy is caused and initiated not by a human but from above – from a Supreme Being, in case of Bible it is God, in case of Blake it is “a child” “on a cloud”. Another parallel we may see in mentioning “a Lamb” – “Pipe a song about a Lamb” – that is a very popular symbol in Bible referring mostly to Jesus Christ but also to any innocent (here is displayed connection with the title also) person. Further, however, the plot develops in a way different from the Bible. Piper never resists and always fulfils the “command” as for piping, singing, and writing. The child resembles a Muse rather than God or Jesus Christ, he laughs and weeps like a real vivid kid without any hint on severity or urgency.
Later on we encounter this image in another poem – “The Lamb”. Here the author speaks to a certain lamb that is probably grazing in the pasture, asks him philosophic or even religious questions about who gave it happiness and life and then himself answers those questions. It is more probable that he starts reflecting on the Creator after seeing a lamb that caused associations with the one who is also called a Lamb and who is according to the Christian Trinitarian doctrine is identical with God – Jesus Christ [6, 24 – 26].
 This book may also have heading “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (omitting preposition of) in some editions.