When Art and Text Hold Hands
Geoffrey Keynes states that William Blake was “one of the finest craftsmen of his time, an artist for whom art and poetry were inextricably linked.”[i] Blake started his career as an artist at an early age with his writing following shortly after. At a young age, Blake was able to develop into a knowledgeable scholar of philosophy, art and literature. He entered in the royal academy, and later became an engraver to pay his way. Apart of the “romantic revival,” he started creating poetry and art but was not satisfied with his creations until he experimented with copperplate etching. Blake felt that his poems were in essence, more symbolic and deeper than words — his message needed special deliverance. While his words could stand alone, his particular fusion of poetry and art pushed his unique ideas into a realm of imagination, comprehensive understanding and enlightenment. The full expression of his complex points was hard to reach, until they were fashioned together. His work encompassed a deeper philosophy that “…demanded the identification of ideas with symbols which could be translated into visual images, word and symbol reinforcing the other.” [ii] This paper will examine the text and artwork of “The Nurse’s Song” in the songs of Innocence and Experience, and compare and supplement the two works together. This will allow the reader to understand that Blake’s poetry and pieces are only whole when presented together.
This poem from the Songs of Innocence truly reflects a time in Life which one is happy and content. The word choice, images, and point of view in this poem express this time of innocence in many ways. Presented through an ABCB rhyming scheme pattern, the poem is given in four couplets. The rhyme creates a sound like that of a soft lullaby, in which the tone is peaceful and calm. The lullaby effect is enhanced through the repeated words and sounds, which link similar sounding pieces together into a harmonious tone. The four couplets provide a sense of balance, as the rhythm brings the back into full harmonious circle, leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfaction and closure.
Blake’s word choice and imagery leave the reader wanting more, yearning for more of the offered pleasant goodness, like an echo that is expected to go on repeating itself forever. Even though the echo of the pleasant goodness has stopped, the reader still keeps on hearing it and essentially the reader is left with that feeling even after the poem has been read.
The “Nurse’s Song” begins with a sweet tangible opening, wherein the voices of children are heard on the green. These joyous sounds connect the reader to their own childhood. This type of opening creates an expectation that the poem is going to be easy-going and pleasurable from the start. This expectation is supported by the words that follow, such as “laughing” and “heart,” which also add to the warm tone. “And then everything else is still.” Following the stanza of warmth and joy, calmness prevails. The readers are then left in a static state between the two stanzas. This first stanza resonates within the reader as the poem moves on.
The next quatrain holds an evenly placed repetition of words. “Come come,” is mirrored reversely by “No, no.” These sounds create a responsive drumbeat, as the Nurse first tells her children to come to sleep, to which they fight back, “No, no.” This conflict in the poem is easily resolved by letting the children simply be: they play in the fields of green with all the creatures of the sky and land. Again these words act as a lullaby, moving in a steady circle like the crashing of waves, cycle after cycle. This rhythm also represents youth and innocence, where a child will want to push off the “end” to continue having fun. The nurse wants to rejoin in the cycle of youth and innocence, and therefore, she joins in the children’s freedom and youth. As long as the children are happy, so is the Nurse, for her happiness is gained vicariously from the children.
The message of innocence is also at the heart of this poem. The characters share a point of view. None control the others. The synchronization is harmonious, shared by people and their surroundings. There are soothing echoes of the children on the green, playing with the birds and the sheep. The Nurse does not stand over the children, she does not force them to do anything, but she bargains with them and takes part in the happiness of their youth. The Nurse acts in this fashion because she once again wants to see and feel the innocence of her own youth. Blake gives us a complete cycle in the expression of youth. First the narrator starts by setting the scene, followed by the Nurse speaking, then the children, and back to the nurse. The cycle is completed when the poem returns to the narrator, and the pleasant sounds of children “The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d, And all the hills echoed.” [iii]
The stylistic elements of the textual poem itself are important when looking at the text of Blake’s work, because they show what the text alone portrays to the reader. The artwork of these songs holds other elements that are perhaps lacking from the text. The visual stimulation of the artwork delivers a new message and feeling to the viewer that could not have been presented through words alone.
The illustrated representation of “The Nurse’s Song” from the Songs of Innocence is filled with symbolism, action and an overall tone of childhood and growth, which can be felt by the viewer. The tree enwraps the entire picture from the ground to the sky, to the Nurse herself who blends in with the roots. The tree celebrates the ideals of growth and life. It holds the picture together. Colors are soft and serene. A cloud with a soft pinkish hue is seen at the top, with brown and red tones all around. The layout of the text also adds to the color of the artwork as it is presented on the page in a beautiful swooping fashion of movement.
The hills in the background contrast with the predominant presence of the foreground, which is focused on the children, dancing in a circle. The circle represents a dual harmony with nature – a harmony with the tree and a harmony with the Nurse, who seemingly longs to be part of their circle of dance. While the Nurse is physically and visually apart of the circle, she is not temporally there. Her time of youth exists only through the children, for her time of youth has past. The visual image of the circle allows the reader to read more depth into Blake’s message. Words alone impart one message, but once the reader visually sees the Nurse dancing with the kids, the poem takes on multiple levels of interpretation. With only the text, the reader might only see the poem through their own mind’s eye, but the visual imagery allows the reader to see things through Blake’s actual eyes.
The viewer is able to feel their freedom and happiness in their free-formed bodies and linking arms. The children and Nurse, almost blend in with the tree and with the nature they play in, adding more and more to the sense of freedom and youth that Blake intends to portray. The tone is set by the color scheme and the flowing tree branch lines, and by the sun in the background. One cannot tell if the sun is rising or setting, which imparts the feeling of perspective. Additionally, a stagnant sun brings the sense of a moment frozen in time, or that time is endless and the children can play on forever. The viewer can really gain a sense of the tone and mood on the page by seeing these images, which the text alone could never impart. The viewer’s is connected to the colors and the figures and images, and therefore the viewer can read the picture and not have to guess at the meaning of these elements but they are given a full translation. The addition of the picture augments the text, allowing the reader to be moved to find a full understanding of the details presented in this double work.
In terms of length, the poem from the Songs of Experience is half as long as the one from the songs of Innocence. It is curt, abrupt and bitter, and the presence of two more quatrains would drag out Blake’s point, too long for it to ring and echo in the reader’s heart. Like a resounding command or order, it is short and to the point. The word choice, images an point of view of this poem illustrate how a poem’s tone can present such an unpleasant nature.
Linked to the other poem by the first line and other similar lines, the reader is placed in the same setting as the Nurse’s song, from the song of Innocence. Regardless of our associations with the previous poem, one’s hopes and optimisms are quickly dashed by the words and images within this poem. “Whisperings are in the dale” exposes an eerie image associated with secrets and the unstable bouncing of echoes in the valley. The children are no older. The nurse’s interaction with them is not one of happiness, rather one that is envious — “green and pale.” She is quick to order the children around, as evidenced by the lack of negotiation and her harsh tones. This time around the circle of life, the Nurse speaks of the children’s wasted youth and the unpleasant disguise of the winter and night. Both winter and night present a coldness that is not present during play in spring, to which the children fail to realize that the future brings unpleasant reality. Already these images and choice of words give the reader the cold sense of the Songs of Experience.
The word choice and images are sending the pessimistic messages of the songs of Experience. “The sun has gone down,” is a line used in the first poem in which it is met with corresponding line of hope that the morning will appear in the skies. Instead the reader is left with the dark image of an endless night. Whereas the former poem made use of phonically soft words such as “heart, rest, play,” the words Blake uses in this poem, “green, waste, disguise,” present a starker harsher reality.
Beyond the text and imagery of the poem, the characters and their interactions in Blake’s poem also deliver a symbolic message to the reader. The Nurse is the only character who has a voice in this poem, and she does not let the children speak. Her relationship with them is condescending and overruling, showing that life is often unbalanced — a hard concept to grasp without pictures. The absence of the surrounding optimistic nature, comprised of its landscape, animals, pleasant voices and echoing laughter on the green is strongly felt and the poem feels barren. Furthermore, the Nurse’s feelings of envy and pessimism are tangible. The harmony residing in the first of the Nurse’s song is replaced with a cold, harsh negativity towards “spring and day wasted in play.” The harshness of the second poem contrasts with the Nurse’s optimistic commentary from the first poem, who lets the innocent play and spring time continue in oblivious childhood, illustrates the stark reality of how one can refuse to live in the unrealistic dream of eternal youth.
The picture accompanying this text conveys a message that is different altogether. With the photographic addition of the image, the reader can see that Blake’s characters are standing at all different heights and places, which represents control of the Nurse over the others. They are entrapped by green vines, and green grapes — controlled and caged. The nurse wears a purple, sweet color, while the children are cloaked in various shades of green: The nurse has already come to her aged, ripened prime, while the green children represent the nurse’s envy. Also, the color of the nurse’s clothing overpowers the greens and stands out in the portrait. The nurse stands over the boy while he lets her comb his hair, and the girl is sitting in the background in silence. The boy holds a “repressed resentment,” shown in the color choice and known to be present in Blake’s work, as the nurse holds an “evil female domination.” The nurse is holding the boy from the doorway of the cottage that promises the future pleasures of life. Had the text stood alone, these details would have been left a mystery to the reader: the uneven height levels, the coloring and the way the characters are portrayed. These facts are important to understanding the poem, fully.
A stop sign can be read as one of three things. The word itself, “Stop.” The picture, a big red sign catching the viewers eye to beware. And finally the word “Stop” and the sign together that read something like: “Look over here! Alert! STOP.” Signs are just one example of how pictures and text read together convey a whole new message. Blake and his magnificent songs of Innocence and Experience are works that can be read alone, but reading them together proves the best way to truly understand Blake. All of the imagery presented in these illustrations allow the reader to not only grasp the message Blake wanted to light up with their eyes, but also to complete ideas with the supplemental text. These messages would be lost without their dual relationship. In conclusion, certain elements can be compared within these works. The text holds a stylistic tone while the visual adds warms. The rhythm and sound is created with text, while the art illustrates the mood of the work. The sounds in the text are the abstract words that become personified into a tangible form of expression. And finally, the interpretation is bound by the words on the page, while the addition of the artwork creates room for an unbound interpretations — what the viewer can see is limitless.
Basically, thought through text has become personified into a physical form through the aid of the visual image. Conversely, in image that had the possibility of yielding an unlimited amount of meaning and interpretation has been narrowly focused to the words Blake used. The text and the image feed off one-another to hone in the boundaries of interpretation while simultaneously expanding and adding depth to the words Blake used.
[i] Keynes, Geoffrey. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1970. Backcover.
[ii] Keynes, Geoffrey. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1970. Page 11.