The A to Z of English - The enigma of Blake’s innocence

A RECENTLY forwarded message containing gruesome images of young children’s bodies huddled together was disturbing. The accompanying voice message claimed that the bodies were of children found in a neighbouring country up north where it is said to be from an organ-for-sale racket rounded up by the police.

The warning that followed gives us a grim reminder that mankind has turned into beasts to make money any which way they can and children, the very gift from God, to be revered and loved unreservedly are being commoditised, alive or otherwise. We have hundreds of missing children, not found, with cases piling up, no leads and no clues.

In this scenario children grow up in “prisons” within the confines of their homes, tucked away in some corners and seeking solace and companionship in the cyber and digital world.

All that we feel for the children is vividly captured by William Blake (1757- 1827), an English poet, in his work. While reading the poems we are overcome with a sense of remorse over how humanity has regressed so pathetically.

Many of Blake’s best poems are found in two collections: Songs of Innocence (1789) to which was added, in 1794, the Songs of Experience. Broadly speaking, the collections look at human nature and society in optimistic and pessimistic terms, respectively – and Blake thinks that we need both sides to see the whole truth.

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience juxtapose the innocent, pastoral world of childhood against an adult world of corruption and repression. While such poems as The Lamb represent a meek virtue, poems like The Tyger exhibit opposing, darker forces. Thus the collection as a whole explores the value and limitations of two different perspectives, the opposing facts of life.

Many of the poems fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience.

Blake does not identify himself wholly with either view, most of the poems are dramatic – that is, in the voice of a speaker other than the poet himself. Blake stands outside innocence and experience, in a distanced position from which he hopes to be able to recognise and correct the fallacies of both.

Songs of Innocence dramatises the naïve hopes and fears encircling and consuming the lives of children and traces their transformation as the child grows into adulthood.

Many of the poems draw attention to the positive aspects of natural human understanding before the corruption and distortion of experience.

The Schoolboy from the collection is a blunt lament against restriction and education is seen here as a blight and perversion. The child’s nature is intruded in the strict and regimented ways education is overwhelmingly imposed, robbing the children of their right to childhood. The nature of innocence in the context of the poem is the closeness to the world where there is abundance.

A child is a unique individual and that uniqueness is often educated out of him. His uninhabited thoughts and actions are restrained when his access to learning and acquisitions are restricted to just words:

But to go to school in summer morn,
O’ it drives all the joy away;
Under the cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing in dismay

In the lines above, there is obvious lament and the joy of learning is taken over by long, tiresome days in school.

The poems also serve a reminder for those of us who find it justified to push the limits to see their children ace their exams, that there is life beyond education as living life in itself is education.

The writer believes that the Malaysian education system will reach greater heights with a strong antidote to revolutionise just about everything. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com