Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul title page

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of illustrated poems by William Blake.[1] Originally, Blake illuminated and bound Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience separately.[2] It was only in 1794 that Blake combined the two sets of poems into a volume titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.[1] Even after beginning to print the poems together, Blake continued to produce individual volumes for each of the two sets of poetry.[2]

Blake was also a painter before the creation of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and he engraved, hand-printed, and colored detailed art to accompany each of the poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.[3] This unique art helps tell the story of each poem, and was part of Blake's original vision for how each poem should be understood.[4] Blake was heavily inspired by children's literature and juvenile education in his creation of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and his analysis of childhood as a state of protected innocence rather than original sin, but not immune to the fallen world and its institutions, would soon become a hallmark of Romanticism.[2][5]

Notably, there has been an abiding relationship between Songs of Innocence and of Experience and musical artists. Poems from the collection have been set to music by a variety of musicians, and band U2 titled two of their albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in an homage to this volume.[6][7]

Songs of Innocence[edit]

Songs of Innocence was originally a complete collection of 23 poems first printed in 1789. Blake etched 31 plates to create the work and produced an estimated seventeen or eighteen copies.[8] This collection mainly shows happy, innocent perception in pastoral harmony, but at times, such as in "The Chimney Sweeper" and "The Little Black Boy", subtly shows the dangers of this naïve and vulnerable state.

Copy G of The Divine Image held at the Yale Center for British Art and printed in 1789

The poems are listed below:[9]

Songs of Experience[edit]

Songs of Experience is a collection of 26 poems forming the second part of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems were published in 1794 (see 1794 in poetry). Some of the poems, such as "The Little Girl Lost" and "The Little Girl Found", were moved by Blake to Songs of Innocence and were frequently moved between the two books.[note 1]

The poems are listed below:[9]


Blake was known for his skill as an artist and print-maker in addition to his poetry, and he combined these talents when creating Songs of Innocence and Experience.[10] Each page of Songs of Innocence and of Experience contains the text of the poem surrounded by a unique illustration. Blake individually illustrated these pages for each binding he did of the collection.[11] Blake combined several strategies to create each unique illustration.[12] He would create a relief-etched copper printing plate by hand, then paint each page after printing using a variety of mediums, including watercolor.[12][13] This process meant that each printing of Songs of Innocence and of Experience was visually distinct from the one that came before.[11]

Blake confessed in a letter that Songs of Innocence and Experience was an attempt to combine the "painter and the Poet."[14] The illustrations in Songs of Innocence and of Experience do more than simply depict what is in the poem. They serve to intensify and translate the poems and are central to a full understanding of what each poem attempts to convey.[15][16] The meaning of several of the poems is changed by the illustrations that accompany them, with notable examples including The Blossom and the first plate of The Little Girl Lost.[15]

Some of Blake's illustrations have occasionally been critiqued for errors or lack of realism.[17] Notable examples include inconsistent coloring of the rose appearing in the illustration of The Sick Rose and the appearance of the tiger in The Tyger.[15]

Musical settings[edit]

Blake's title plate (No. 29) for Songs of Experience

Poems from both books have been set to music by many composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Joseph Holbrooke, John Frandsen, Per Drud Nielsen, Sven-David Sandström, Benjamin Britten, and Jacob ter Veldhuis. Individual poems have also been set by, among others, John Tavener, Victoria Poleva, Jah Wobble, Tangerine Dream, Jeff Johnson, and Daniel Amos. A modified version of the poem "The Little Black Boy" was set to music in the song "My Mother Bore Me" from Maury Yeston's musical Phantom. [18] The folk musician Greg Brown recorded sixteen of the poems on his 1987 album Songs of Innocence and of Experience and by Finn Coren in his Blake Project.[19]

The poet Allen Ginsberg believed the poems were originally intended to be sung, and that through study of the rhyme and metre of the works, a Blakean performance could be approximately replicated. In 1969, he conceived, arranged, directed, sang on, and played piano and harmonium for an album of songs entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg (1970).[20]

American composer and producer David Axelrod produced two solo albums, Song of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969) which were homages to the mystical poetry and paintings of William Blake. [21]

The composer William Bolcom completed a setting of the entire collection of poems in 1984. In 2005, a recording of Bolcom's work by Leonard Slatkin, the Michigan State Children's Choir, and the University of Michigan on the Naxos label won four Grammy Awards: Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Producer of the Year (classical).[22]

The composer Victoria Poleva completed "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" in 2002, a chamber cycle on the verses by Blake for soprano, clarinet and accordion. It was first performed by the ensemble Accroche-Note of France. [23]

Electronic rock group Tangerine Dream based their 1987 album Tyger on lyrics by William Blake. [24]

Irish rock group U2 released an album called Songs of Innocence in 2014, and followed it in 2017 with Songs of Experience. [7]

American Singer Songwriter Bob Dylan, mentioned the "Songs OF Experience" in his song "I Contain Multitudes" in his Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) album. [25]

Facsimile editions[edit]

The Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California, published a small facsimile edition in 1975 that included sixteen plates reproduced from two copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience in their collection, with an introduction by James Thorpe. The songs reproduced were Introduction, Infant Joy, The Lamb, Laughing Song and Nurse's Song from Songs of Innocence, and Introduction, The Clod & the Pebble, The Tyger, The Sick Rose, Nurses Song and Infant Sorrow from Songs of Experience. Tate Publishing, in collaboration with The William Blake Trust, produced a folio edition containing all of the songs of Innocence and Experience in 2006. A colour plate of each poem is accompanied by a literal transcription, and the volume is introduced by critic and historian Richard Holmes.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience edited with an introduction and notes by Andrew Lincoln, and select plates from other copies. Blake's Illuminated Books, vol. 2. William Blake Trust / Princeton University Press, 1991. Based on King's College, Cambridge, copy, 1825 or later.

Songs of Innocence Dover Publications, 1971. Based on copy of Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress, Copy B, ca. 1790.

Songs of Experience Dover Publications, 1984. Based on "a rare 1826 etched edition," per back cover.



  1. ^ a b "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy C, 1789, 1794 (Library of Congress): electronic edition". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Leader, Zachary (11 August 2015). "Reading Blake's Songs". Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315675121.
  3. ^ Tate. "William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience". Tate. Retrieved 16 February 2024.
  4. ^ Zhao, Sinan (19 April 2023). "The Comparison and Fusion of William Blake's Poetry and Paintings". Journal of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. 12: 78–82. doi:10.54097/ehss.v12i.7602. ISSN 2771-2907.
  5. ^ The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. Broadview Press. 2010. ISBN 978-1-55111-404-0.
  6. ^ Hutchings, Kevin (2007). "William Blake and the Music of the Songs". Romanticism on the Net (45). doi:10.7202/015815ar. ISSN 1467-1255.
  7. ^ a b Greene, Andy (20 September 2017). "Bono on How U2's 'Songs of Experience' Evolved, Taking on Donald Trump". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 16 February 2024.
  8. ^ "Songs of Innocence". The William Blake Archive. Retrieved 19 August 2023. Blake etched the Songs of Innocence in relief, with white-line work in some designs, on thirty-one plates in 1789, the date on the title page. The first printing, also of 1789, produced seventeen (or possibly eighteen) copies[.]
  9. ^ a b "Collective Title: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Bentley Copy F - YCBA Collections Search Search Results". Retrieved 18 March 2024.
  10. ^ Barker, Authors: Elizabeth E. "William Blake (1757–1827) | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  11. ^ a b "William Blake | Songs of Experience: Introduction". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  12. ^ a b William Blake's printing process. Retrieved 6 April 2024 – via
  13. ^ "How The Prints Are Made". William Blake Prints. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  14. ^ "Joseph Viscomi, "William Blake's 1818 Letter to Dawson Turner and Later Career as Graphic Artist" | BRANCH". Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  15. ^ a b c Wilkinson, A. M. (1962). "Illuminated: Or Not?: A Note on Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience"". The Modern Language Review. 57 (3): 387–391. doi:10.2307/3721830. ISSN 0026-7937.
  16. ^ Behrendt, Stephen C. (1992), Behrendt, Stephen C. (ed.), "Songs of Innocence and of Experience", Reading William Blake, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 36–72, doi:10.1057/9780230380165_2, ISBN 978-0-230-38016-5, retrieved 6 April 2024
  17. ^ Bateson, F. W. (1 January 1963). Selected Poems of William Blake. Heinemann.
  18. ^ "Phantom: The American Musical Sensation 1991". The Official Masterworks Broadway Site. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  19. ^ "Greg Brown Discography". Archived from the original on 1 December 2012. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  20. ^ "PennSound: Ginsberg/Blake". Archived from the original on 12 November 2012. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  21. ^ "Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Tone Poems of David Axelrod and William Blake". PBS SoCal. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  22. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 21 February 2011. Retrieved 17 December 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  23. ^ "Songs of Innocence, a song cycle on words by William Blake for soprano, clarinet and accordion (2002), - Poleva, Victoria - listen online, download, sheet music". Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  24. ^ Peacock, Tim (1 June 2023). "'Tyger': Behind Tangerine Dream's William Blake-Inspired Visions". uDiscover Music. Retrieved 6 April 2024.
  25. ^ "I Contain Multitudes | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Retrieved 6 April 2024.

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