“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.”

– Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

The two binaries of nature itself are reflected in the innocent and the mighty, here.

William Blake’s theory of contraries is very well elicited in his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The essence of Blake’s theory is that, in some paradoxical way, it is possible for the contraries of innocence and experience to co-exist within a human being. This is elaborated extensively through the medium of poetry in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). It is the through these set of poems that Blake really draws out comparisons to support his theory. In his Songs of Innocence, the childhood gleam of the narrator is depicted, where the youthfulness is symbolic of inexperience and naivety. This is very well brought out in the poem ‘the Lamb’. On the other hand, in Songs of Experience, the mood changes completely and the tone turns to a more dark and realistic narrator who has weathered in his perception and is now the experienced adult and this is brought out in the poem ‘The Tyger’, which is in direct contrast to the innocent narrative seen in ‘The Lamb’.

 An extension of the above mentioned quote, “From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.” – Blake here is trying to posit a view completely washed by the view of the so-called religious, who refuse to accept the existing dualities in man by ignoring or minimizing the essential oppositions in human nature of  both ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. The word ‘contrary’ had a very specific and important meaning for Blake. The great modernist poet and critic T. S. Eliot writes that Blake’s poetry has “a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant. Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.”

Original illustrations from Blake’s Songs of Innocence

‘I a child and thou a lamb

 We are called by His name’.

Blake makes no subtlety to reinforce the fact that innocence and experience are binaries. The very idea that ‘bad’ is something which is not ‘good’ in the realm of religiosity gives rise to this perception. “The ideas, images, symbols, language and impression created of both are in contrast to each other” and hence, impact Blake’s message effectively. Innocence is a state of childlike joy, spontaneity with nature and instinctive behavior, this juxtaposition puts Man and nature in harmony. In the illustration as well as in the poem ‘The Lamb’, Blake presents the environment of the child as conducive for a peaceful, harmonious and joyful existence in the shadow of God. The narrators unrefined perception is clearly seen in the use of his terms; ‘Clothing of delight’. He asks universal questions about creation, and in a state of innocence, he “finds satisfactory answers by the imaginative creation of the trinity of Jesus, the boy and the lamb”.

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
Original illustration from Blake’s Songs of Experience

In the Songs of Experience the chief symbol is the tiger as expressed by the first stanza:

‘Tiger! Tiger! burning bright 

In the forests of the night’

Where ‘forests of the night’ symbolizes experience and the Tyger burns metaphorically with rage and “quickly becomes for some a symbol of anger and passion”. It is here that Blake’s comparison comes out most sharply, when the narrator questions the said Tyger, ‘Did He who made the Lamb make thee?’. The lamb, innocent and pretty, seems the work of a kindly, comprehensible Creator who bares comparison with a benevolent god and the gentle “lamb of God”, Christ of the New Testament. Whereas, the God of the fearful and majestic “tyger”- is seen in complete opposition to the former, a vindictive and incensed god of the Old Testament.

In this poem, the lamb and the child are the symbol of mystical knowledge. Christian ideas about God are conveyed in the line: ‘He is meek and He is mild’. In Songs of Innocence, Blake describes the security and assurance of existence that belongs to lamb’s under a wise shepherd or to children with loving parents. Songs of Experience records the terrifying and disenchanted experience of adult life when the ‘shades of the prison-house’ had already closed upon the maturing man. “But the apparent evil of existence has its bearing upon the formation of a man’s character”, as Browning also would emphasize a century later. Even the most forbidding things of life have, perhaps a beauty and justification of their own, that seems to be the message of the poem ‘The Tyger’.

“Romanticism placed a great emphasis on the subjective and the ideal. Truth became personal, and wasn’t revealed to the seeker, but rather, created by the seeker. Rationality and empiricism were replaced by imagination and humanism.” The role of the poet changed, and was seen as performing the function of a prophet. This is adequately reasoned in the works of another Romantic poet, P. B. Shelley, especially in his “A Defence of Poetry” (1821). He talked about the “unacknowledged legislator” whose role as a poet is “heroic and visionary”. Shelley stood for every Romantic poet who took it upon themselves to convey their own deep mystic appreciation for nature to their readers via poems. Therefore, the Romantic’s changed perception of what a poem is and what it does. For the classicist, the work of art resembled a mirror, “passively mimetic or reproductive of existing reality”. For the Romantic, it was a lamp, “which throws out images originating not in the world but in the poet”. This period was also a time of great political upheaval and socio-economic changes. The Romantics used imagination to reject the “mechanistic world picture” and establish an “idealistic epistemology”.

For Shelley, poets were “the constructors of law and founders of civil society” who communicate the pleasures of experience to the community. Through the words of such poets, the society would lead towards a better political, social and spiritual change. Hence, their poetry became a kind of prophecy. Coleridge described imagination as a creative power by which the mind “gains insight into reality, reads nature as a symbol of something behind or within nature not ordinarily perceived”. “Myth, metaphor and symbolism” were used to further the imaginative vision. However, the concept of imagination and the treatment of nature were unique to each Romantic poet. For Blake, man and nature are “not only continuous, but emblematic of each other”, but Man is central to his vision. The illustrative plates for Blake’s poem are also very informative, In a state of innocence, when man is in peace with himself, nature is shown to be “protective and regenerative”. In the state of experience however, the plates depict “sterility and weeds or thorny plants”. The change in perception and the growth of the poet can also be found in Wordsworth’s poems, especially in ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798′ in which the poet records his own shift in understanding and even his consumption of nature from a “thoughtless youth” to a more mature narrator who finds calm and peace even in the remembrance of Nature. Thus, Contradictions are ever-present, be it in Nature or man itself.

The contrasts Blake brings to light in the Songs are echoes of English society’s approach to the social and political issues of his era—a time characterized, by increasing desire for personal, political, and economic freedom, on the one hand and on the other, by anxiety regarding the potential consequences of that freedom for social institutions. Several of the poems directly address contemporary social problems, for example, “The Chimney-Sweeper” deals with child labor and “Holy Thursday” describes the grim lives of charity children. The most fully realized social protest poem in the Songs is “London,” a critique of urban poverty and misery. Thus contrariness is a must.  The language and vision not just of Blake but of poetry itself insists that the contraries are equally important and inseparable. ‘Without contraries is no progression’, wrote Blake. He sought to transform the energies generated by conflict into creative energies, moving towards mutual acceptance and harmony. Thus, by describing innocence and experience as ‘contrary states of the human soul’, Blake is warning us that we are not being invited to choose between them, that no such choice is possible. He is not going to assert that innocent joy is preferable to the sorrows of experience.