Songs of Innocence and Experience

By Gareth Evans


William Blake’s radical experimentation with image and text is cinema itself

“Blake sang of the ideal world, of the truth of the intellect, and of the divinity of the imagination… The only writer to have written songs for children with the soul of a child… he holds, in my view, a unique position because he unites intellectual sharpness with mystic sentiment.” – James Joyce


250 years on from his birth, artist and poet William Blake remains unassailable as perhaps the most singular and visionary artist these islands have ever produced. Self-described as an ‘author and printer’ he saw angels in the branches of Peckham Rye aged eight and died singing in a two room garret off the Strand in 1827. In between he created a poetic cosmos, a visual mythology of political and spiritual intensity that is effectively unsurpassed in world literature. Wordsworth believed him insane, while Coleridge declared the man a genius. In his lifetime he sold less than 30 copies of this, his most famous publication, a 1794 collection that aimed to show ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’.


Poems of extreme formal simplicity but profound meaning and intention, the Songs fuse illuminated image-making with textual variety in a way that is far from illustrative in either direction. They feel closer to a Godardian textual incursion into the previously privileged image space of the screen, granting the verbal a graphic charge, but democratically. Here image and text hymn together, and much more richly than apart. Like a form of frozen cinema (but far from still) Blake’s pages work with such cumulative force, and cover such a distance that, by the close of this tiny, magnificent volume, if encountered with one’s senses open and alert, the reader/viewer/pilgrim might feel they have traversed the oceans, mountains and deserts of the spirit, made infinite and new.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is available from Tate Publishing at £9.99 (020 7887 8869). Thanks to Anna Luxon and Tate Publishing for permission to reproduce the images.