Stripp'd of Context:
A Publication History of William Blake's Songs of Innocence

Patrick Mooney
English 100/8

The Advertisement

William Blake's Songs of Innocence contains a group of poetic works that the artist conceptualized as entering into a dialogue with each other and with the works in his companion work, Songs of Experience. He also saw each of the poems in Innocence as operating as part of an artistic whole creation that was encompassed by the poems and images on the plates he used to print these works. While Blake exercised a fanatical degree of control over his publications during his lifetime, after his death his poems became popular and were encountered without the contextual material that he intended to accompany them.

The Text

William Blake was probably more concerned than any other major Romantic author with the process of publication and its implications for the interpretation of his artistic creations. He paid a price for this degree of control over the process of printing, however: Blake lived in poverty and artistic obscurity throughout his entire life. Later, when his poems began to be distributed among a wider audience, they were frequently shorn of their original contexts. For William Blake, there has been a trade-off between the size of the audience he has reached and the degree of control he exerted over the publication process.

Blake was not satisfied merely to write poems and send them off to a publisher; instead, he designed illustrations to accompany his poems, engraved the poem-illustration works onto copper plates, printed the plates onto paper, and (when color was desired) colored the pages by hand, then bound the printed pages into volumes for sale. Blake was assisted in much of this work by his wife, Catherine, who had been illiterate when he married her and whom he taught to read and write.

Blake even invented his own method of printing from copper plates. He claimed that the essentials of the method had been communicated to him in a dream by his brother, Robert, two years after Robert's death (Doyle 563). Songs of Innocence was the first of Blake's major works, which he printed with this process (Keynes 11). Innocence was first published in 1789, although copies of drafts of the poems are extant from as early as 1784 (Keynes 9). The poems in Innocence are among the most frequently studied and collected of Blake's poems, although the single most frequently anthologized poem of Blake's -- and the most frequently published poem in the English language -- is The Tyger, from Innocence's companion book Songs of Experience (Hilton 6).

Unlike Wordsworth (who spent more than fifty years writing four complete versions of The Prelude, ranging from two to fourteen books, without ever publishing the book) and Coleridge (who published five different texts of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner between 1798 and 1817), Blake rarely revised a poem once it had been printed. Blake himself wrote the following about his plates in The Caverns of the Grave I've seen:

Re-engrav'd Time after Time,
Ever in their youthful prime,
My designs unchang'd remain. (Frye 6)

Northrop Frye argues that these lines, in conjunction with the manuscript evidence remaining of the original editions of Blake's books, mean that Blake intended for the engraved poems to constitute a sort of canon of poems which Blake endorses as finished works (Frye 6). His conclusion -- that Blake rarely changed the text of his poems once they had been finalized -- makes sense for a poet who engraved his own poems: once a poem had been engraved, it would have been a time-consuming and expensive process for Blake to alter any aspect of one of his works.

Blake could and did, however, make an important change from one printing to another of Songs of Innocence without incurring effort or expense to himself: he varied the order in which the plates were printed, even from one copy to another. The order of the poems became standardized by 1815, but varied widely before that. 1794 saw the first publication of Songs of Experience, which was published in the same volume as Innocence. Although Blake had published Innocence separately previous to the publication of Experience, and continued to do afterwards, Experience seems never to have been printed as a separate volume (Mason 558). Modern editions of Songs of Innocence and Experience follow the order of the poems in one or another of the existing copies that Blake himself printed. There is no completely standard ordering, but some orderings are more common among Blake's copies than others. For instance, in Innocence, The Shepherd usually follows the Introduction (although sometimes The Lamb does), and The Little Black Boy usually follows The Lamb. (Hilton 2-4)

Despite the fact that Blake had no standard ordering of the poems in Innocence as a whole, there is a definite and perceptible change in the ordering of their ordering after Blake began to add Experience to it: several poems -- The Little Girl Lost, The School Boy, and The Voice of the Ancient Bard -- frequently move to Experience in the combined edition (Hilton 5). The Little Girl Lost is clearly meant to be read in conjunction with The Little Girl Found and to stand as a complement to it: each poem comprises one and a half plates, and the two poems share their middle plate (Hilton 6). It also seems that The Voice of the Ancient Bard, which frequently comes at the end of Experience, was moved there from Innocence to allow it and the Introduction -- which begins Hear the Voice of the Bard! -- to bracket that work (Introduction 1).

Blake stopped producing copies of Innocence and Experience in 1827 and died soon afterward (Keynes 1827). At this point, his poems remained in the same relative obscurity they had been in while he lived. Blake, of course, had no editorial control over his poems after the time of his death, and there seems to be no evidence to suggest that his wife, who died four years later, ever attempted to exercise any control over the publication of his poems. (Due to the obscurity of Blake's work during his life and for years afterward, it seems unlikely that there was much need for her to do so.)

Blake's poems were first printed in the United States in 1842. The first of these, The Little Black Boy, appeared in the March 10 edition of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a New York-based abolitionist weekly. After this, several other poems from Innocence -- The Chimney-Sweeper, Night, The Divine Image, and A Dream -- were published in succeeding years, and several poems were republished (Stauffer 41). Stauffer argues that references to Blake made by various members of the American Anti-Slavery Society who are unlikely to have known each other well indicate that Blake was beginning to enjoy a more widespread popularity, at least in the United States, than he had while alive. Specifically, Stauffer suggests that Blake was known to at least some degree to members of certain groups of people who were interested in abolitionism, transcendentalism, Unitarianism, and the writings of Swedenborg, an apocalyptic theologian (Stauffer 41-2).

Despite the fact that Blake became somewhat better known in these intellectual circles in the 1840s, Keynes argues that Blake was virtually unknown (at least to the public in general) until the publication of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of W. Blake in 1863 and that he was not fully accepted until his remarkable modernity and his imaginative force, both as poet and artists, were recognized in the twentieth century (Keynes 8). From the time of Gilchrist's biography, the popularity of Blake's poems has increased until, in 1992, The Tyger was the most-published poem in English (Hilton 6).

It is at the point where Blake begins to be published in periodicals and anthologies -- roughly from the 1840s onwards -- that problems of context begin to be associated with Blake's poems. Frye says that Blake is more than most poets a victim of anthologies, because Blake is usually encountered by students in anthologized form. This anthologizing, argues Frye, has the effect of stripping the anthologized lyrics of their context as parts of a complete poetical work (Frye 3). The fact that the Introduction and The Voice of the Ancient Bard bracket Songs of Innocence is not a unique example of a relationship between poems in Songs of Innocence or Songs of Innocence and Experience. Numerous relationships between poems exist even in the volumes without Experience, and this number increases greatly when Experience is added. It is a commonplace in Blake scholarship that poems in Experience are meant to present a different perspective on issues touched on in Innocence -- obvious examples include Experience's Infant Sorrow and Innocence's Infant Joy; Experience's The Sick Rose and Innocence's The Blossom; and Experience's The Tyger and Innocence's The Lamb. In each of these cases, the corresponding poem in each text takes up the same thematic material and interprets it in a different way and from a different viewpoint. Examples also exist within the text of each individual section -- in Innocence, for instance, the most immediate example is the pair of poems The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found. In each of these cases, the reader of an anthologized poem is deprived of the opportunity to see the thematic material of the poem in the larger context of the double Songs of Innocence and Experience or even the original Songs of Innocence, which was probably originally intended to form an independent volume and not merely to be a precursor to Songs of Experience (Hirsch 16).

A related problem with he anthologizing of Blake is that the poems of Innocence and Experience were not simply presented as text on a page, in the manner of most volumes of poetry. Blake's first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches, was published in the traditional manner in 1783, and he was apparently so unsatisfied with it that he developed a new method of printing which was laborious (it required that each plate be hand-colored) and restricted his ability to disseminate his works to a wider public. Given the fact that Blake was willing to undergo this degree of effort to control the presentation of his Illuminated Works (as he called them) on the page, it seems unlikely that Blake would be satisfied with the presentations only of the text of the poems on the pages of an anthology.

In every poem in Innocence, there is a meaningful relationship between the text of the plate and its graphic design. Behrendt argues that the graphic work in the plates is not the weak and subservient sister art in the poem-illustration texts and that the works are not texts-with-illustrations (Behrendt 79-80). The visual aspect of the work and the written aspect of the work, he points out, operate aesthetically in very different ways on the reader of Blake. With pictures, what we see [is] a visual totality, all at once, upon first glance, while with the written text, we must proceed … [by] putting the subject together like a jigsaw puzzle, in linear, chronological fashion (Behrendt 82). An honest presentation of Blake, then, includes both of these aspects, as they depend upon each other. As the title page to Songs of Innocence and Experience reminds the reader, the book was put out by The Author & Printer W Blake. It seems unfair to emphasize one of these linked aspects of Blake's art above the other.

For example, the graphic aspect of the plates of The Little Black Boy provides for an interpretation simply not possible without the images. The black mother comforts her boy by pointing to the sun and advising him to take comfort in the rising sun: there God does live/ And gives his light, and gives his heat away (Black Boy 9-10). The graphic on the plate, however, shows a weakly colored son that seems to be far away. In the second plate of the poem, the black boy promises that he will shade [the English boy] from the heat till he can bear/ To lean in joy upon our father's knee (Black Boy 25-26). But the etching depicts the white boy leaning upon the knee of Jesus' figure while the black boy stands behind, apparently still subservient. Both of these images add subtexts of despair and irony to the work not present when the simple text of the poem is anthologized in an easy-to-read typeface, stripped of the illumination of the work's graphic etchings.

Although Blake took a great deal of trouble with the presentation of his Illuminated texts during the course of his life, after his death his artistic works were misrepresented by those who reprinted them out of their original contexts. This contextual removal -- which takes the form of both the removal of the poems from their original collections, where they form parts of a dialogue, and of the separation of the text from the plates as a whole -- does a grave disservice to an artist who saw his work as encompassing both poetry and printing.


  1. Behrendt, Stephen C. Something in My Eye: Irritants in Blake's Illuminated Texts. in Clark, Steve, and David Worrell, eds., Blake in the Nineties. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  2. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Ed. Geoffrey Kynes. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1967. [Visit in the Blake Archive]
  3. ---. Introduction to Songs of Experience in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Ed. Geoffrey Kynes. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1967. [View in copy B from the Blake Archive]
  4. ---. The Little Black Boy in Songs of Innocence in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Ed. Geoffrey Kynes. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1967.
  5. Doyle, Brian. Billy Blake's Trial The American Scholar. 63: 4. Autumn, 1994: 557-568
  6. Fraser, Kennedy. Piper Pipe That Song Again The New Yorker. 72: 13. May 27, 1996: 126-131.
  7. Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
  8. Hilton, Nelson. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience in The Blackwell Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. Internet. 25 Feb 2000. < >.
  9. Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964.
  10. Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. Introduction to Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1967.
  11. Mason, Michael. Notes to Mason, William Blake: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Michael Mason. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1988.
  12. Stauffer, Andrew M. The first known publication of Blake's poetry in America. Notes and Queries. 43: 1. March, 1996: 41-43.

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