Introduction | The Governess | Working-Class Children  | Children's Literature | William Blake and the Child | Wordsworth and the Child

“Can it be a song of joy? / And so many children poor?”: William Blake and the Child

The Cradle Song
William Blake’s engraving accompanying “A Cradle Song” in Songs of Innocence (1789). The legend goes that Blake developed the method of engraving he used in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience after witnessing a vision of his dead brother Robert, who told Blake what he should do. Blake sketched the illustrations on a copper plate before adding another chemical, which would erode certain parts of the plate, leaving an outline behind. After the plates were printed, Blake or his wife, Catherine Blake, would add color to the engraving print by hand.
William Blake, engraver and poet, often included children in his radical poems. Although not widely read during his lifetime, he is now recognized as part of the Romantic literary canon. Children appear frequently in the text and engravings which illustrate his Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, and Songs of Experience, published in 1794. Blake’s poems were not children’s literature per se, yet their simplistic language and even some of their content responds to the characteristics of didactic fiction and children’s poetry. However, the irony and social critiques employed within Blake’s work distinguish him from other children’s authors. In his poetry, the child serves important thematic and political purposes for adult readers. He includes various political elements and depicts children who work as chimney sweepers, a black boy, children attending charity schools, and more. Blake calls attention to society’s abuse of children in a number of different ways, showing how society corrupts their inherent innocence and imagination while also failing to care for their physical and emotional needs. His interest, however, is not necessarily in portraying the psychology of the child. Rather, Blake uses the child as a point of contrast to a world he views as having gone badly astray. The supreme purity of children juxtaposed with the failings of society creates Blake’s commentary on the damage society’s institutions cause to childhood innocence. Blake’s work disavows Puritan ideas of childhood, which saw children as ruined by original sin, just like adults. Instead, for Blake, childhood incorruptibility renders the child superior to adults, who have been inculcated in the ways of society. Several of his poems show the ways in which children’s innate nature has already been tainted by their parents and other societal forms of authority, such as the church.

Blake incorporates the speech of children into his poetry as well. In “Nurse’s Song,” from Songs of Innocence, for example, Blake captures both the speech of a group of children as well as the words of their nurse calling them home at the end of a long day playing outside. While the Nurse bids them “come home my children the sun is gone down,” the children reject this order, of course, and reply “No no let us play, for it is yet day/ And we cannot go to sleep.” Throughout Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the children speak in different ways. At times, as in “Nurse’s Song,” they seem much like children you might meet today, carefree and unconcerned with adult worries. In other poems, such as “The Chimney Sweeper” found in Songs of Experience, Blake strikes a very different tone with the child’s speech. There, the sweep seems much more adult when he recounts that his parents “are gone to praise God & his Priest & King/ Who make up a heaven of our misery.” The sweep seems to reflect the use of more adult language, while the children of “Nurse’s Song” seem unconcerned with adult worries such as the passage of time and adhering to a schedule. Blake uses the various representations of children to show a natural innocence in which they can participate, as well as a more adult outlook that has been taught to them and which denies their childhood. In doing so, Blake reflects the historical shift which began to recognize childhood as its own developmental stage.

Stephanie Metz

Select Bibliography

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