Auguries of Innocence by William Blake

Auguries of Innocence can be seen as a one-poem example of Blake’s longer poetic volumes, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. It uses the same tenets used in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – that is, the construction of both an innocent, child-like narrative, and a mature, adult narrative – but puts them together in one poem to show the hypocrisy and the chaos of Blake’s contemporary life.

William Blake was an unknown among his contemporaries. Considered at times a genius, and at times a complete madman, he is only seen as a great poet, and indeed a great artist, posthumously; in 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in a list of the 100 Greatest Britons, and today he is considered one of the most important figures of the Romantic movement.

His work was beyond comment: mythological, philosophical, and mystical, he eschewed and derided all forms of organized religion, but worshipped the Bible; in fact, one of his influences was Milton, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the discerning reader can find quite a few influences to Paradise Lost in more than one of Blake’s works. The French and American revolutions – which, at the time, were glorified and romanticized quite heavily – also served as an influence to Blake. He was so enamored, in fact, by the idea of the American Revolution that he wrote what later became known as the ‘prophetic book’ – a series of interrelated poetic works that drew upon his own mythology, which attempted to make sense of the current political and spiritual mire of the time. This particular book was called ‘America, a Prophecy’, and it was published in 1793 on eighteen different plates. Only fourteen copies are in circulation today.

If one follow Blake’s mind through the several stages of his poetic development it is impossible to regard him as a naïf, a wild man, a wild pet for the supercultivated. The strangeness is evaporated, the peculiarity is seen to be the peculiarity of all great poetry: something which is found (not everywhere) in Homer and Æschylus and Dante and Villon, and profound and concealed in the work of Shakespeare—and also in another form in Montaigne and in Spinoza. It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant. Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry. Nothing that can be called morbid or abnormal or perverse, none of the things which exemplify the sickness of an epoch or a fashion, have this quality; only those things which, by some extraordinary labour of simplification, exhibit the essential sickness or strength of the human soul. And this honesty never exists without great technical accomplishment. The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favouring conditions probably include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him.

– T.S. Elliot on William Blake.

One of the tenets of his mythology was this: the manipulation of religion for the means of the Catholic church; the misconstruing of religious values such as mercy, piety, love, and faith by the money-hungry bishops and nuns of the Church of England; the destruction of innocence by the journey into adult hood; the power of human creativity and freedom; and the spiritual unity with the divine, which he thought of as this: ‘mercy has a human heart, while pity is revealed in the human face’.

This poem has been analysed separately by two members of the PoemAnalysis.com team. To read the other interpretation/analysis of this poem, please scroll to the bottom of the page and click ‘Next’ or Page 2.

Auguries of Innocence Summary

The poet’s argument is that the natural world is in a state of constant cycle; the world, which is reborn and remade throughout nature, symbolizes the innocence of man that is forgotten and pushed aside as man advances closer to adulthood. It explores the value and limitations of the human perspective as opposed to the cycle of nature, which grows ever older and more experienced, and yet also, in some cases, remains untouched and unblemished. Throughout the poem, Blake’s anger at the corruption within his country, and within humanity, is almost palpable; this is a trait indicative of Blake’s personal style, which, while heavily symbolic, is also heavily critical and powerful.

 

Auguries of Innocence Analysis

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

The four four lines of the poem are the ones that are most often quoted and remembered by literary scholars, leaving the rest of the poem to wither away in complete anonymity, and they are an important four lines: they open with the paradox of holding infinity in ‘the palm of your hand’, that is holding something immeasurably big in a space that is almost immeasurably small. The concept of infinity itself, mathematically, is an abstract idea too large to be withheld by the mind, and therefore it cannot be held in the palm of the hand – this is how scholars argue the opening of the poem. Should one look at it mathematically, Blake’s opening paradoxes – ‘infinity in the palm of your hand / and Eternity in an hour’ – become understandable if only logically as something that is technically achievable. Infinity is a stretch of time, an hour is also a stretch of time, therefore the two can somehow corroborate together.

There is also the idea that Blake’s opening paradox is to give the world that he was writing about the appropriate level of mystery and stunning wonder that nowadays is forgotten. Note also that the first two lines specifically reference sight – more to the point, it references a sight so common that most people would skim over it, however this is Blake’s aim – beauty, his idea is, is found in common places. The very articles that we have witnessed a thousand times before can still be transcendently beautiful, and allow us to connect to God. That is the ultimate goal of Blake’s poetry: unity with the divine. It also stands as a testimony and a character witness to Blake’s intelligence and forward thinking; although these concepts are not new, to put them in poetry shows the true genius of Blake. He wanted to use his poetry to express his own personal mythology: that mythology which was partly political, partly mythical, and partly divine, and to express his own complicated worldview and feelings about the society that he was a part of.

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions

There are several ideas conflicting here: the image of a robin red breast – a bird commonly associated with Christmas and with a Christian holiday at that – in a cage ‘puts all Heaven in a Rage’, writes Blake; is man, therefore, attempting to enslave nature? Or is it a symbol of the caged humanity of man, which Rousseau famously put as ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. Given the events that were happening around Blake at the time – the French Revolution, the American Revolution – it is far more likely to be a protest against slavery. Notice as well that the second line – ‘A Dove house fill’d with Doves & Pigeons / Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions’ – also references slavery. If one were to also apply Blake’s idea of philosophy and religion to this poem, one could take the idea as humanity enslaving humanity, an act so diabolical, that even the Devil finds it overwhelmingly evil.

One can also take into account that the doves and pigeons referenced are meant to stand for children – those who are born into a world that they do not rightly understand, and are taken advantage of by the very people who are supposed to help them, such as the Church, and the master of the mill, or wherever they worked. Using two Christians birds – the robin red breast, and the dove – also reminds the reader of Blake’s opinion on religion; he could very well be drawing an allusion between Christianity and its oppressive nature through the symbols of the cage and the dove house.

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood

The loyalty of the dog ‘at his Masters Gate’ can mean a variety of things – here, it is referencing the people that the state or the country has left down; the homless, the soldiers, the poor, the hungry, those without a job that have turned to crime to support their families. Given the high rate of crime (again, remember that Blake was a contemporary of the French Revolution and the American Revolution, two Revolutions born out of a disagreement with the dominating country). Blake’s opinion here is that if the very few people who are within the country are not taken care of, then the entire country is on the road to ruin – if there is a high population of starving, poor, homeless, jobless, then there is something wrong with the country itself. This idea is not new, however to put it blatantly into a poem would have been a shocking thing at the time, as there was still that idea of social class and social status in England. If you were born poor, then you would be poor until you died; if you were born rich, then you would be rich until you died.

The French Revolution disavowed these tenets and the poor rebelled against the rich. However, this did not happen in England, a thing which was reportedly one of Blake’s biggest regrets.

The reference to the ‘Horse misusd’ can also be towards the mistreatment of the working man by the oppressive mill owner or employer; both are working animals which, if treated fairly, respond with loyalty. However, in Blake’s Auguries there is no fair treatment.

Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright
Every Wolfs & Lions howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul
The wild deer, wandring here & there
Keeps the Human Soul from Care
The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife
And yet forgives the Butchers knife
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that wont Believe
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbelievers fright

Birds were considered signs of freedom, and thus to wound them – and to wound them in what gives them their freedom – shows the chained nature of man. The next few lines go deeply into the idea of terror: here all the animals are frightened, showing the confused and terrified nature of man, and of the world at large. It can be taken as an expression of the world howling in confusion at the unbalanced nature of the events – mainly, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution.

The symbol of the lamb is also a Christian image; however, here, it is subverted. The image of the land is historically used as an image of rebellion; however here, the lamb stands for the subservient and brutal methods of organized religion. It is the people, who are easily terrified into submission by organized religion.

He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belovd by Men
He who the Ox to wrath has movd
Shall never be by Woman lovd
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity
He who torments the Chafers Sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night
The Catterpiller on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mothers grief
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar

Darkness comes to those who harm nature – here, it shifts constantly with the ideas of a revolution against oppression; the figures who are harming nature stand as the same figures who would harm humanity, the mill owner who beats his children, the father who drinks away his money and leaves his family starving, the Church who takes and takes and never gives back.

The Beggars Dog & Widows Cat
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat

Help those in need, and they will help you.

The Gnat that sings his Summers Song
Poison gets from Slanders tongue
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envys Foot
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artists Jealousy
The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so

The smallest sins can upset the delicate balance of nature; the ‘gnat that sings his Summer’s song’, interrupted by slander ends up biting someone; ‘the poison of the Snake & Newts’ is indicative of a larger issue, that of envy. All of these small things have ripples and ripples of dire consequences.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

Despite all the misery that exists, Blake does not want us to despair: every misery comes with a parallel joy, ‘woven fine’ into the pattern of daily life.

The Babe is more than swadling Bands
Throughout all these Human Lands
Tools were made & Born were hands
Every Farmer Understands
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity

Here, Blake wants to state that people are more than their positions in society – the ‘babe is more than swaddling Bands’, the child is more than the blankets that he is wrapped in. Society moves on, and everyone is important, and becomes a part of the eternity that we strive towards in the end. Blake also wants to state that ‘every tear from every eye’ becomes a good thing in turn.

This is caught by Females bright
And returnd to its own delight
The Bleat the Bark Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heavens Shore
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of Death

The noises of a distraught world continue, however Blake wants to show that these sounds are not in vain: these sounds play out in history, they are an ocean of happening, and heaven exists to put them all to rights. This is not to say that there is no retaliation on the earthly plain – as the last two lines show, whoever does bad things on earth will be punished in the afterlife.

The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air
Does to Rags the Heavens tear
The Soldier armd with Sword & Gun
Palsied strikes the Summers Sun
The poor Mans Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Africs Shore
One Mite wrung from the Labrers hands
Shall buy & sell the Misers Lands
Or if protected from on high
Does that whole Nation sell & buy
He who mocks the Infants Faith
Shall be mockd in Age & Death
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out

Here are more examples of men whose life will be set to rights in the Heaven: the beggar will become rich, the soldier will be free from the tyranny of the empire, the poor man will find money, and the man who ‘teach the Child to Doubt’ will die horribly.

He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death

This is parallel to the couplet that came before – the man who teaches children to believe will never die.

The Childs Toys & the Old Mans Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons
The Questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to Reply
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out

Blake writes here about the importance of thinking, of trying to understand the world around you, of making up your own philosophy rather than following the perceived status quo. This did not mean that understanding everything meant that you could destroy others’ beliefs.

The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesars Laurel Crown
Nought can Deform the Human Race
Like to the Armours iron brace
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow

Blake shows the horrors of war in this part of the poem – power is ‘the strongest poison ever known’, and ultimately ruins the people who get it. Arts, on the other hand, help to strengthen society; a society built on peace can never truly be destroyed.

A Riddle or the Crickets Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply
The Emmets Inch & Eagles Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will neer Believe do what you Please
If the Sun & Moon should Doubt
Theyd immediately Go out
To be in a Passion you Good may Do
But no Good if a Passion is in you

Does doubting everything do good? Blake does not believe so. One must have a system of belief; one cannot get through life without it, and he shows that everyone, from the philosopher, to the layman, has a system of belief; even nature itself believes in greater things. This might be a dig at the scientific ideas of the French Revolution, where there was no greater thought than the destruction of religion.

The Whore & Gambler by the State
Licencd build that Nations Fate
The Harlots cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet
The Winners Shout the Losers Curse
Dance before dead Englands Hearse

Blake wasn’t forgiving with all people – he despised prostitution and gambling, and saw them as the downfall of the nation. Here, Blake thinks that the small corruptions will ultimately ruin England itself. By allowing prostitution and gambling, one is setting up the irreversible fate of England.

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night

Nothing is set in stone. Although one day you may be unhappy, the next you might be happy. Blake therefore does not want the reader to despair; there is a better life ahead.

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

Blake’s ultimate few lines are a reiteration of the belief in God, which saves: we are born in a dark place, and we might die in that dark place, however at the end of our lives, we will come to terms with God, and things will be made better.

 

Historical Background

Auguries of Innocence is a collection of conflicting situations written as a kind of prophetic judgement. It pits the innocent against the mature, the rich against the poor, the elite against the underprivileged, and invites the audience to recognize the fragile beauty and balance found within nature. The rough rhyme scheme and uneven length of the poem adds to its sense of passion and fury, as it reads much like a plea from the poet to the reader.

It remained unpublished until sixty years later.

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4 Comments

  1. Anza Rajpoot December 21, 2017
    • mm Lee-James Bovey December 22, 2017
  2. Anza Rajpoot December 21, 2017
    • mm Lee-James Bovey December 22, 2017

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