William Blake’s countless contributions to art and literature have been pivotal around the world, and his work is just as pertinent today, with a new exhibition of his work opening at Tate Britain to celebrate his enduring legacy.

Despite being one of England’s most influential Romantic poets, William Blake was unappreciated during his lifetime. He was born in 1757 in a respectable neighbourhood and enjoyed a peaceful childhood that contrasts the struggles he felt later in life due to his radical outlook on politics. His exceptional poetry and art originated from religious visions at a young age and reflect his nonconformist perspectives on state oppression. His contemporaries thought him mad due to his unconventional views.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is possibly Blake’s most famous collection of poetry and epitomises his views on the state, race, child labour and the church. For example, in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ he addresses the suffering caused by child labour, while in ‘The Garden of Love’ he highlights what he believed to be the corrupt and repressive influence of the church. He designed the full-colour plates and poems of Songs of Innocence and Experience to show the two opposing states of the human soul, varying from capturing the ideas of the ethereal nature of love to denouncing slavery.

Blake explores many themes in his poetry and artwork. If you’re unsure of where to begin we’ve selected some of our favourite poems and illustrations from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience to help.

 

Songs of Innocence

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’

So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

 

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,

That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved; so I said,

‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,

You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

 

And so he was quiet, and that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight! —

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,

Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

 

And by came an angel, who had a bright key,

And he opened the coffins, and set them all free;

Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run

And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

 

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind:

And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

 

And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,

And got with our bags and our brushes to work.

Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm:

So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

The-Chimney-Sweeper

 

Laughing Song

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,

And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;

When the air does laugh with our merry wit,

And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

 

When the meadows laugh with lively green,

And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene;

When Mary and Susan and Emily

With their sweet round mouths sing ‘Ha ha he!’

 

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,

Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:

Come live, and be merry, and join with me,

To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’

Laughing-Song

 

Night

The sun descending in the West,

The evening star does shine;

The birds are silent in their nest,

And I must seek for mine.

The moon, like a flower

In heaven’s high bower,

With silent delight,

Sits and smiles on the night.

 

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,

Where flocks have took delight,

Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves

The feet of angels bright;

Unseen, they pour blessing,

And joy without ceasing,

On each bud and blossom,

And each sleeping bosom.

 

They look in every thoughtless nest

Where birds are covered warm;

They visit caves of every beast,

To keep them all from harm:

If they see any weeping

That should have been sleeping,

They pour sleep on their head,

And sit down by their bed.

Night

Songs of Experience

The Tiger

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And, when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 

When the stars threw down their spears,

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

 

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Image TitleMy Pretty Rose Tree

A flower was offered to me,

Such a flower as May never bore;

But I said, ‘I’ve a pretty rose tree,’

And I passed the sweet flower o’er.

 

Then I went to my pretty rose tree,

To tend her by day and by night;

But my rose turned away with jealousy,

And her thorns were my only delight.

My-Pretty-Rose-Tree

 

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen;

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love

That so many sweet flowers bore.

 

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tombstones where flowers should be;

And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys and desires.

The-Garden-of-Love

 

The Human Abstract

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor,

And Mercy no more could be

If all were as happy as we.

 

And mutual fear brings Peace,

Till the selfish loves increase;

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with his holy fears,

And waters the ground with tears;

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head,

And the caterpillar and fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,

Ruddy and sweet to eat,

And the raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The gods of the earth and sea

Sought through nature to find this tree,

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the human Brain.

The-Human-Abstract