Longing for Innocence

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1

I’m sure that every now and then, it has happened to all of us to look at our past with a certain nostalgia. Past is always warm, reassuring, bright, peopled by those we loved and cared about us, but that we have inevitably lost in the course of our life, so, if you had the chance to go back in time, which period of your life would you like to live again? How far would you go back? Well, I have no doubts. I would go back , let’s say, to five. It sounds childish, I know, but what I do really miss is that lightness of spirit, that gaiety, those eyes of wonder typical of childhood that transform triviality into beauty. Children are confident about their present and future, as they can see no evil in the world that surrounds them. I still remember, when my mother used to give me the usual warning: “don’t accept candies from strangers!”. After all children focus their attention on candies, rather that pondering on the reason why a complete stranger should give them candies. Adults ponder, children want their drives satisfied.

chim2As long as you can enjoy this happy condition, you are in what Blake called the age of ” Innocence”, which is opposite to “Experience”. It has nothing to do with ageing, or at least not only, but it is a transient state of human soul. As time goes by, the candor of innocence is slowly polluted by experience, that is knowledge, hence we start to open our eyes and we see a new reality. We start to understand, just like in story of “Little Red Riding Hood“, that under the cover of the good hunter there might be a nasty wolf hidden. At this point the world doesn’t seem so safe and welcoming as it used to be and those happy times look like an enchanted garden of heaven we are no longer admitted in. Once definitely outside, we cannot but look at it with nostalgic eyes, like Adam and Eve after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Once you have eaten it, you cannot go back.

victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton pic 05/09/2003In order to mark this passage, Blake rewrote some poems belonging to his early collection   “Songs of Innocence” and included them in the “Songs of Experience“, which was published five years later, thus giving them a different shape and perspective.The poem “The Chimney Sweeper“, for example, deals with the theme of children exploitation. In this poem there is all the disarming beauty of children’s naivety, who keep on being confident in a better future, despite the appalling condition of their lives. A child says he had lost his mother and that his father had “sold” him when he was so young that he “could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”, therefore at such a tender age he was forced to work and slept “in soot“. But children still retain the faculty of dreaming and furthermore believing in what they dream, even if there the shadow of a wolf is always hidden somewhere. The dream is the Freudian metaphor of their imprisoned youth, which is locked in “coffins of black“, which stand for the chimneys they are forced to sweep every day. In that dream an angel comes by and opens all the coffins setting them all free and restoring them to the lightness of thoughtfulness of youth, in fact, once out of those horrible coffins “down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run”.

chim4What did my mother say? “Never accept candies from a stranger!”, particularly if he comes in a shape of an angel, I would add. In fact, then the angel speaks and imparts the child the following lesson: ” if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father, and never want joy.”  Afterwards the little child, whose name is Tom, wakes up and goes to work “happy and warm” , “though the morning was cold”.  Why should Tom be happy and warm in such a dark and cold morning? Because he trusts the angel and he believes in the words the had said: he would have God as father and happiness, if he did his duty, and what is his duty? Working, here is the candy. Therefore, he is just doing the right thing.” He sees no evil in his condition.

chim5The situation completely changes in the poem Chimney Sweeper which appears in the “Songs of Experience“. In this poem there is all the loneliness and hopelessness of a child who is fully aware of the system which enslaves him. He has perfectly understood that the whole society, the church and even his family are part of a scheme whose main concern is the making of profit and constantly ignores his needs. The boy bitterly says : “and because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury”, but they have. They have stolen his youth, happiness and faith in the world and in the future. They have taught him to sing “the notes of woe” and this is irreversible. The boy had bitten the forbidden fruit, the fruit from the tree of knowledge and he had been poisoned, becoming adult too soon.





30 thoughts on “Longing for Innocence

  1. Love that concept of innocence bleeding into experience. I guess if I could relive any part of my youth–it would be my childhood summers. Blissful ignorance, chlorine, and Italian ice.

  2. Stefy I think age five sounds like a wonderful time to return to. A time of innocence and play and trust. It leaves me reflective of how life changes from that original carefree state.

    • So, you agree. Five is all right with you? 🙂 However, travelling is a way of retaining that wonder typical of childhood and this is what you actually transmit in your blog. You don’t need to go so back in time 🙂

  3. I have known people with terrible childhoods – where is their ‘happy time’, safety? It tends to be in snatched present moments, rather than past ones.
    I recall how time seemed to stretch forever: mornings of light sun, warm air; evenings lingering so long I fell asleep before they finished.

    I am currently reading Inger Christensen’s long poem Letter in April: how in her 50s she spent a year(?) with her son, a friend in a house in Sweden. In her 50s , and full of that lightness – timeless almost.

    There is the small and circumscribed awareness of the child: shallow and limited; when not prematurely stretched out of shape. Later happiness has a very different character.
    Maybe it is retrievable, maybe we can have a second go at it?

    • The poet Giovanni Pascoli suggests a solution: we should retain at least a little of that lightness, happiness , state of the soul typical of childhood. Just a little bit, so that you are still allowed to believe in a better future.

    • This is impossible. The loss of innocence coincides with the awareness of evil in the world that surrounds you. There must have been a period in your life, at least at an early stage, when dream won over the bitter reality. 🙂

      • I was sexually abused from 18 months old until I turned 16 Stephy. My father was a high functioning psychopath. Any dreams I had were knocked out of me, reinforced by a mother who joined in and condoned his actions. There’s so much more but here isn’t the place to air it.

  4. Hi Stefy…. I love your analysis on Blake’s poetry and particularly liked the way you have highlighted the progression exiting between Innocence and Experience…
    Blake seems to be a romantic somehow as he made of Past a reservoir of best memories…
    By the way, you also reminded me of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”…
    Excellent post ❤ Best wishes! Aquileana 😀

    • Hola Aquileana ! Thanks a lot for your words. Blake’s artistic sensibility is actually Romantic even if he is placed among the so called Pre Romantic poets. You are right, Whitman shares many of the characteristics of that movement : sensibility, love for nature……
      See you soon
      Best wishes
      Stefy 😀

  5. I always enjoy your writing – and nice to learn about the the poem Chimney Sweeper – I feel all ponderous now 🙂 – and I guess I would go back to 8th grade – and have some tea and play cards with my pops. and side note here – I kind of think some teens are inhibited from being allowed to experience certain maturities – at least in some cases I have seen an attempt to preserve youth where maybe it is done too much – for some teens in certain circumstances – but all in all I am glad we have come a long way since the days of child labor like the child in that photo….

  6. This is a very interesting and well thought out post. I was old before my time, when I was young. I did not like a lot of my childhood when I was depressed. You can’t change the past, but you can certainly turn things around and take your youth back. This is what I have done and I am doing. I live a very young and quirky, unconventional life, and I am going full pelt for my dreams. Now is my time to be young and enjoy my dreams coming true, now is the time to live my young life and I have nothing and no one to stop me. Anyone can be unstoppable, anyone can live the young life that they want. Age is just a number.

  7. Stefy: Another beautiful, insightful post. The loss of youth and innocence is certainly one of the great themes of literature — captured so eloquently and sensitively by Blake. The poem underscores the ineffable fragility of innocence. It is one of life’s greatest blessings, but once lost, it can never be regained. I am reminded of Robert Frost’s early poems that focus on lost innocence, including “Birches” (“So I was once myself a swinger of birches/And so I dream of going back to be.”) Cheers. Alex

  8. The two chimney sweep ‘songs’ have always touched me; I’m moved, Stefy, that you should highlight them so sensitively.

    I’ve often wondered if Charles Kingsley was familiar with Blake’s poems. After all, his child hero in The Water-Babies was also a climbing-boy called Tom who, following his death by drowning — a metaphor for baptism, perhaps — went from innocence to young adulthood learning from his experiences in a fantasy life. This novel, along with the Isle of Wight death mentioned earlier, led to the Chimney Sweep Act that changed conditions for these young unfortunates.

  9. I don’t know if I want to go back. Be a child has many advantage, the greatest is the unawareness of evil. William Blake shows this in “Songs of Innocence”. Children see only the good of the world. In my opinion, this isn’t really an advantage, because you don’t understand and don’t know what happens. So, if the unawareness may seem positive, the awareness makes you really free.

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