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.