Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Title Page

This page displays Emily Brandehoff’s response to, and Michael Phillips’s reproduction of, the Title Page to William Blake’s best known collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. They were displayed in the Blake in the Heartland exhibit at Tiffin University, which ran March-April 2015. Among the Songs’ 54 plates (number varies with some copies) is included “The Tyger,” one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. The Songs is a combination of two separate collections of poems, The Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, and The Songs of Experience, published in 1794. They were combined in 1795 as the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but Blake continued to produce the two collections separately until 1818 and together as the combined Songs until 1826, the year before his death.

The collection’s subtitle, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” comments on the nature of the collection: Innocence poems tend to represent the perspective of childhood innocence and are often located in pastoral settings, while Experience poems often represent a disillusioned perspective and are located more often in urban settings. In some cases, such as “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweep,” there are separate Innocence and Experience poems sharing the same title, while other poems, such as “The Lamb” in Innocence and “The Tyger” in Experience, are clearly companion works meant to be read together.

The number and order of  the poems vary by copy. Blake did write out an ideal order of the Songs in an 1821 manuscript, but only one copy actually follows that order even though Blake produced copies of the Songs for five years after that date. Between 1794 and 1818, Blake moved five poems from Innocence to Experience. There have been 39 known copies of The Songs of Innocence (some of them small groupings of poems or single plates), three of which are currently untraced; 45 known copies of The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, one of which is currently untraced and one that has been dispersed; and four copies of The Songs of Experience.

Blake’s Title Page depicts Adam and Eve, still clothed in leaves, being cast out from the Garden of Eden. Blake here is dramatizing Genesis 3:22-24 (KJV),

22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: 23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

The flames in the background are flames from the flaming sword. Blake’s other main source for the Songs as well as for his mythological works in general is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which Blake provided illustrations, as he also did for the Bible and various books of the Bible, such as Job and Genesis. Considering the combined Songs as existential states might also identify Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” as possible background for Blake’s combined Songs.

Michael Phillips’s reproduction of the Title Page of the combined Songs was printed after Blake’s original from a copper plate that Phillips inked by hand. He used inks and a leather dauber similar to those that Blake would have used in his lifetime. It is printed on paper stock that closely resembles the heavy papers that Blake used.

Emily Brandehoff’s Innocence and Experience responds to Blake’s combined Songs with drawings of female heads corresponding to each of Blake’s states of the soul. The images are conceivably of the same woman at different times, the Innocence image having fewer lines and shadows than her Experience counterpart. Both, however, seem a bit macabre, suggesting that her work is an ironic commentary on these states of the soul, all the more so since the heads’ facial expressions appear to move from anger to sadness. Is it possible that she is inverting the states of innocence and experience, so that experience is represented by the angrier and younger looking face, while innocence is represented by the sadder and more worn looking face? Innocence in this case would be a retrogressive state prompted by capitulation to suffering.

Blake’s originals taken from Wikimedia Commons. See a list of all available copies of the Songs, with the ability to view different copies of the same page side by side, at The William Blake Archive, which also provides transcriptions of and annotations for each individual plateYou can also read David Erdman’s edition of the Songs at The Blake Digital Text Project. Images of Michael Phillips’s reproduction and Emily Brandehoff’s drawing by permission.

William Blake's title page for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
William Blake’s title page for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy AA.

Michael Phillips's reproduction of the title page for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
Michael Phillips’s reproduction of the title page for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Emily Brandehoff's Innocence, Experience.
Emily Brandehoff’s Innocence, Experience.

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