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William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience

A Student's Guide

Brendan Cooper

William Blake (1757–1827) is one of the most significant figures in the history of English poetry. He is also one of the most mysterious, most challenging, and most frequently misunderstood. His Songs of Innocence and of Experience, on the surface so simple, are laden with mysteries that seem to deepen on every reading.

In this book, aimed at A Level and undergraduate students, Brendan Cooper explores the subtleties and contradictions of the Songs, avoiding formulaic readings by asking key questions about Blake’s life and art. What are the Songs about? What does Blake mean by «Innocence» and «Experience»? Why are they called «Songs»? Was Blake a genius, or a madman?

This engaging and accessible introduction to Blake’s work will help students to navigate its complexities and develop their own critical responses to the text.

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(i) Blake and Drugs

Unlike various literary figures associated with the Romantic movement, there is no record of Blake ever taking drugs – and the very idea of it is somehow implausible, even absurd. Though it cannot be proved that he never did, we can take it as almost certain. The idea is fundamentally inconsistent with all accounts of the man and the nature of his relationship with the world. Blake did not require drugs of any kind, since transcendence was already all around him, in the form of his visions and astonishing imaginative power. It seems likely that Blake was a fairly abstemious man, rarely drinking and favouring a life of hard work in which pleasure-seeking was kept in its rightful place: “Fun I love”, he once wrote, “but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom [sic].”

It is therefore somewhat surprising that Blake has become perhaps the most powerful influence on drug consumption in the history of literature. The visionary nature of his writing has led various notable writers of succeeding generations to find versions of such visionary transcendence via mind-altering substances. In 1954, Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, which describes his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs in an effort to achieve states of particular imaginative intensity. His title is taken from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the Doors of Perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”. Huxley’s work is,...

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