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Blake’s Songs of Innocence

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Submitted By GusG
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At first glance, William Blake’s selection of poetry in Songs of Innocence and Experience seems to be vastly different than the satirical masterpiece that is Voltaire’s Candide. However, despite being very different works of literature, both of the pieces were created in the same time period, and in the same political and international climate (Blake and Lincoln). Both of the literary works are concerned with similar themes, and with the changing political and social climate in western Europe during the mid- to late-eighteenth century. The theme of innocence and the pain of acquiring knowledge is a common thread throughout both of the pieces, and reflect a an era of growing socio-political awareness that emphasized fact and reason over blind faith and mindless servitude.
During the Middle Ages, Western Europe went through a religious transformation that led to a type of society that emphasized leading a virtuous life in the way the Bible instructs. One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is the idea of original sin: that is, the original sin that Eve committed when she ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and convinced Adam to do the same, leading to their exile from the Garden of Eden. Knowledge was long considered dangerous by the Catholic Church, and the type and amount of information that the average person could attain was very limited. However, that all began to change during the Renaissance, which was a re-awakening of arts and sciences in Western Europe; the Renaissance led to an intellectual awakening that culminated in the Age of Reason. It is during this age, the Age of Reason, that both Voltaire and Blake created their famous works of literature.
Voltaire’s Candide is one of the greatest pieces of satirical literature of all time. Voltaire uses the titular character of Candide to exemplify innocence-- however, instead of being charming and virtuous, as innocence is meant to be, Candide is comical and inept character who has little ability to handle the realities of the world outside his Edenic garden. Candide’s character is laughably inept, continuously making decisions and being swept into situations where some cynicism and worldliness would be a boon; however, he remains painfully optimistic throughout most of the text, although he abandons his optimism and innocence at the end of the novella (Voltaire and Havens). Candide’s innocence is not the highly-lauded innocence of the Bible; Candide is seen and presented as a fool, not as a character to be emulated.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (hereafter Songs) seems, on its face, to carry an entirely different message regarding innocence and experience. However, while Blake lauds the wonders of innocence, he also notes that innocence cannot exist without the other, darker side: experience. Blake’s Songs of Innocence are not stand-alone; they cannot exist wholly without the counterpart of experience. In “The Lamb,” for instance, the speaker asks the lamb if the lamb knows “who made thee” (Blake and Lincoln). At the end of the poem, Blake tells the lamb that he was made by God. However, in the poem that contrasts “The Lamb,” “The Tyger,” the speaker notes that God also made the tyger with his symmetry and ferocity (Blake and Lincoln). Innocence, Blake contends, is not meant to last; the individual is meant to be changed and molded in the crucible of experience.

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