How William Blake is helping my students become independent learners

It’s fascinating watch my students struggle with Blake’s poetry. You can almost see some of them actually grapple with the man, flinging him onto the ground in frustration as they try and make sense of the poetry, the images, the contexts he arose from. Yes, they are struggling. They are finding him difficult. And it’s difficult for me too teaching them Blake. The temptation is to step in and say: “Well, this poem MEANS this. Here’s a ready made explanation for you, all neatly tied up in a bundle, away you go and write a nice essay on him.” I know a huge amount about Blake, but that’s not important, what’s important is what my students know and how they acquire their knowledge about him. They need to be told to read him by themselves and work out their own meanings for him, they need to read critical commentaries on him by themselves and try and work out how critics’ views can used in their own essays and work.

Some students are fine with it; they are used to finding work difficult. There are three students who are doing A Level Art in one of the classes, and as soon as they realised that Blake was an artist, they began to make sense of him. I watched them today annotate a critical commentary on his life and work published by OCR which can be found here. Initially, they found the academic tone of the commentary hard to deal with, particularly without a teacher (me) explaining it all for them. One student asked me what “spiritual non-conformist” meant, I answered by asking her what she thought it meant. After some thought, she said it was someone who didn’t conform to the normal religion. Yes! I said, you’ve got it. Did she need me to tell her? No, she didn’t. After I explained to her and her group that I wanted them to annotate the text, ask questions, and take notes on what might be relevant for them, they started to “get it”; you could see the lights go on. They started asking all the questions that were nagging them: “If Blake rejected Christianity, why does he use so much Christian imagery? Why did he print his own books? Why was he never imprisoned for his views?” And so on.

My other class seemed to be on task with writing about the poems, but one student was really, really struggling. “I just don’t get it. We’ve got to do a piece of coursework on this in a few weeks and I just don’t understand ANY of the poems!” He was looking at the Clod and Pebble, for which they are very few notes on Gradesaver etc. I found myself getting a bit sharp with him because he really kept saying he didn’t get it, and I felt blaming me. “Why can’t you just explain all of them to us?” he said. I replied that I wanted him to have a go at working it out for himself. I asked him to read the first verse of the Clod and the Pebble to me and explain the lines. He did so, and was really able to say what the lines meant: they talk about how people who really love care for other people more than themselves. The second verse though totally flummoxed him because a “Clod of Clay” was speaking. First, he didn’t know what a “clod” was! Second, after I told him about clods,  he found it very difficult to comprehend how Clod of Clay could speak. What was the point? I realised that this was at the root of the problems that many students were having with the poems; they, so used to having everything neatly explained to them, found living with the uncertainty and instability of Blake’s symbolism very disturbing. Blake frequently provokes more questions than answers; he can’t easily be “bundled up” into a “message of meaning”. And yet, there are clear ideas lurking within the poems; ideas that argue for generosity of spirit, openness of interpretation; the discourses within the poems powerfully argue against restrictive, regulatory ways of thinking.

However, within the echelons of Blake research, there are a number of critics who argue that Blake needs to be read in a “closed” fashion, that one can “pin down” his symbolism to certain mystical or social meanings, particularly if you look at the illustrations as well. ‘The Tyger’ generates the most controversy because it’s so popular and yet so elusive in meaning. Here’s one critic who argues that you can only understand it if you look carefully at the illustration, which apparently is of a tiger smiling.

Blake is forcing my students to think for themselves; they are learning so much by looking in depth at his poems; learning to research, to grapple with poetry written in a variety of styles, learning how to work out what something means when they don’t fully understand it straightaway.

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A student’s analysis of ‘Infant Joy’ & ‘Infant Sorrow’

Whilst the poems ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ are companionable, both poems, although they share the same context, are surprisingly contrasting. The title of the poems for example, immediately highlights the differing contexts; the word ‘Joy’ is juxtaposing to the word ‘Sorrow’ thus portraying Blake’s conflicting ideas to the reader. ‘Infant Joy’ as the title suggests, focuses on the joyous gift of a new born baby; Blake expresses his belief on how the strongest feelings, of ‘Joy’ in this case, are often the least complicated and most precious emotions. Blake explores the relationship between mother and baby, the mother pretends to have an imaginary conversation with her new-born child. ‘I happy am,/Joy is my name’. Through this powerful conversation between two connected minds, the mother names her baby Joy. The physical and emotional bond between a mother and her child is one so powerful and Blake studies this joining of life. ‘Sweet joy befall thee!’ The repetition of this phrase emphasises the love and care a mother has for her child – even whilst in the womb, the gift of life is joyful. Blake very much believed in the idea of loving God, hence why the poem concentrates on the happiness, love and magic of new life entering the world. These religious connotations are skilfully embedded and weaved between the lines of all of his poems – religion had a great influence over his writing.
In comparison to the blissful imagery created in the poem ‘Infant Joy’, ‘Infant Sorrow’ views the same situation from the perspective of a baby rather than the mother of a child and therefore, the poem bares a more sorrowful tone. William Blake captures the pain of childbirth, however this time, from the infant’s viewpoint. In contrast to the joy experienced by a mother in ‘Infant Joy’, the child in this poem finds itself ‘Helpless, naked’. The adjective ‘helpless’ reveals how the baby feels scared as it is no longer protected by the womb of its mother – this safety and security has ironically disappeared through the ‘joy’ of being born into the world. ‘Sorrow’ is not an emotion commonly associated with an infant; it is a very complex emotion, a mature emotion, contrasting to the simplicity of the emotion ‘joy’ portrayed in its partner poem. Once more, Blake questions life and the power that we have over it; he implies that, from birth, we do not have power over everything – we are unable to control everything we do. God does. Furthermore, both of these brief poems reveal William Blake’s inner thoughts regarding life and creation; by investigating birth from two different viewpoints Blake cleverly exposes the powerful differences between the emotions experienced by the two human beings that are, ironically, so closely related.

What do teenagers today think innocence is?

My William Blake project began in earnest today because I conducted my introductory lesson by getting my A Level students to do a “P4C” type exercise, exploring what innocence is. Many of them hadn’t done “P4C” — Philosophy For Children — and weren’t familiar with sitting in a circle and interrogating a topic with lots of searching, philosophical questions. However, after a stuttering beginning, many students “got into it”. It set me thinking that P4C is very useful for English teachers because it does really get students analysing a subject in much more depth. I think at the heart of many of my students’ problems with in-depth analysis is that they don’t quite real fluency with asking searching questions of themselves, of their own thought processes and other people’s. But I could see with practice, the P4C way, they could do this.

I asked the question: “What is innocence?” to one person, and then the group asked questions about what that pupil had said. After doing this with two classes, a few key themes emerged: most students felt that innocence often connected with naivety, of ignorance, of not knowing stuff, and that experience was “knowing”. Innocence was generally agreed to be a pleasurable state but also a worrying one because you were vulnerable as one pupil put it; you could easily be manipulated, and you could easily be corrupted. Experience, on the other hand, was a different state; a state of “knowing”, of being “self-aware”, of “self-consciousness”. There was general agreement that children and babies are born innocent, with original sin, and are, in a funny way, in a state of grace because of what they don’t know. We had a wide ranging discussion and many students were thinking outside the box.

One student’s thoughts on the two ‘Nurse’s Songs’ from Innocence and Experience

The Nurse’s Song –Innocence

When reading the poem ‘The Nurse’s Song’ aloud, it allows the audience to get a different perspective of the poem.  For example it may be the way a person reads the poem aloud; perhaps stressing certain words or the volume and tone they read it in.  By reading aloud each individual will have a different take on the poem and this allows discussions and opinions to become more interesting and fluent.

What interests me most about the poem is the relationship between the nurse and the children.  The nurse is portrayed as a kind, gentle and compassionate woman, almost seen as a mother like figure.  It seems that the children really look up to her and obey her rules and regulations.  The nurse takes pleasure in watching the children play, its as if their cheerfulness inspires her to be at peace.  She supports them rather than overshadowing their innocence.  In the poem we also see that the children are not threatened by her; if they ask for more play time she allows it.  There does not seem to be any evidence of alienation between the nurse and children which emphasizes the happiness and joy of the poem.

The Nurse’s song is about a group of children playing outside in the hill’s whilst the nurse watches over them like a mother would her child.  As twilight arrives she kindly orders them inside, however they ask to play until bedtime.  The nurse gives in to their pleas and the children are overjoyed.

This particular poem portrays the theme of innocence by using the four stanzas to express the happiness and freedom of childhood.  In the poem it mentions “And all the hills echoed”  meaning that the children’s happiness is rebounded around them- in other words it symbolizes that joy is carried and spread around the playground.  This ending quote sums up the poem nicely as it brings an content  atmosphere for the audience.  The poem is also rhymed with an ABCB pattern, allowing the poem to become much more interesting and fun to read.  This highlights the main theme of innocence and happiness throughout the poem as William Blake’s words and patterns make the audience happy too.

The Nurse’s Song- Experience

What interests me most about this poem is that it opposes ‘The Nurse’ Song- Innocence’.  I find this incredibly intriguing as it is as if the poem has been continued into the future.  It explains how growing up allows you to experience new activities and sights, which will in turn lead to the loss of childhood innocence.  This particular poem also juxtaposes with ‘The Nurse’s Song-Innocence’ as it is not as cheerful and joyful.  It allows the reader to recognise the harsh reality of society and how important childhood is to an individual.

This poem begins with the nurse hearing whispers from the children which suggest that they are partaking in secret activity which allows them to become experienced.  When hearing this, the nurse ‘turns green and pale’ and reflects upon the previous innocence of the children.  The nurse then realises that the children are becoming young adults and are aware of their own sexuality; in other words, they are growing up.

The rhyme scheme in this poem is not the childlike rhyming pattern used in the previous poem, this suggests that the nurse is upset and displeased that the children are growing up and losing their innocence.  The experienced ‘Nurse’s Poem’ is half the size of the innocence poem with only two stanzas instead of four.  This could represent the rapid growth of the children from the first to the second poem and allowing the audience to sense the nurse’s loss and disappointment she is feeling.

 

Students’ thoughts on first reading Blake

M wrote:

From first reading through the poems of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience,’ I found that some of the poems were clearly related to the title of the collection, and others seemed to have a more abstract take on the idea of ‘Innocence and Experience’.

For example, the poem titled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ gave an immediate impression of a young, vulnerable child within the opening few lines of the first stanza. The beginning of the poem seemed to have a strong focus upon innocence and was suggestive of the fact that the young boy had a considerably lack of experience because of his age, ‘weep weep weep weep’. The repetition of the dynamic verb ‘weep,’ seems really powerful within the opening of the poem, because it suggests that the young chimney sweeper is innocent and vulnerable, possibly because of the experience of his mothers death and his father’s suggested dismissal of him.

In contrast to this, the poem titled ‘The Clod & the Pebble’ didn’t seem to give any impression of being relatable to either innocence or experience when initially reading through the poem. The concepts within the poem seemed very abstract, and the idea of the poem portraying a sense of ‘experience’ was something that I did not find immediately obvious. When thinking about this poem further, it seems to be relatable to love and relationships, and a possible interpretation of this poem would be that it is a metaphor, and is representative of the experience that love can give you, but is hidden within a more simple concept of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.

T wrote:

FIRST THOUGHTS ON POEMS

As a group, we decided to read through all of the poems first before stopping to analyse them. Obviously, the common theme through the first half was innocence however it proved to us that sometimes it is hard to identify what the link to innocence or experience in the second half was. For example in songs of innocence a lot of the poems seemed to be to do with youth, either portrayed through children or animals (lamb) or even simply young minded. I thought that some of the poems seemed sad e.g. the chimney sweeper. I enjoyed reading the poems further to see how they linked and connected because reading through all of them gives you a better first understanding than analyzing deeply into one after a first look at it. Our group brought up the question of whether our original views of what innocence and experience was were changed after reading the poems. Sometimes, we found it difficult to understanding what was going on in the poems, I found it confusing that there is no definite beginning, middle and end like a story has. I think the poems try to get information across without saying it directly, I get this opinion because some of the poems do not link and connect.

My students start to prepare readings of selected Blake poems

The second phase of the William Blake project began today. Students responded with some trepidation about performing the poems in a musical fashion, but some were quite keen to have a go at home.

Many students were appreciative that they had time to study the poems in this way; they weren’t, on the whole, familiar with performing poems. However, the act of getting them to perform the poems did make them look again at the title of the poems, and notice that they are “songs”. One students asked an interesting question: “Is a poem a song? Or vice versa?” We had a discussion about the distinctions between poems and songs.

Some students are musical but felt a bit intimidated about the thought of playing/singing/performing the poems, but said they would go away and have a go for homework. We didn’t listen to any performed versions in this lesson.

Most students were appreciative of the fact that this approach is more in the spirit of William Blake — who certainly wouldn’t have liked people to over-analyse his poems before they really “felt” their impact.

I feel that this is a good approach because it enjoys an “aesthetic” response to the poems as opposed to an analytical, cognitive response; this is what art is about, “aesthetic appreciation”.

Groupings for reading and analysing the Blake poems

Blake groups for the poems

Learning Objectives: to develop your skills at reading out aloud, to develop your analytical skills

Tasks

S&L: To read the allocated poems aloud in an EXPRESSIVE fashion (set them to music, drum beats, use echoes, SFX etc) and presentation clear explanations and analysis of them to the class; to do this as a podcast or video presentation.

Writing: to write detailed analysis of these poems and post on blog:

Williamblakereloaded.wordpress.com in reply to the poems. There are specific questions on the blog to answer.

 

Pairings — 13 B

 

Michael: Holy Thursday both Songs of Experience and Innocence; The Clod and the Pebble

Sarah: The Nurses Song both Songs of Experience and Innocence

 

Harry: A Cradle Song and the Poison Tree

Emily: A Dream and The Angel

 

Hollie: Infant Joy, Infant Sorrow

Demi: The Sick Rose, Pretty Rose Tree, Ah Sunflower, The Lilly; Blossom; Spring

 

Jez: London and The Ecchoing Green; The Garden of Love

Sophie: Introduction to both songs of innocence and experience; Earth’s Answer’ The Shepherd; The Voice of the Ancient Bard

 

 

Georgia: The Chimney Sweeper, both Songs of Innocence and Experience

Nahum: The Fly, Blossom, Spring; Laughing Song

 

Tunbi: The Lamb and The Tyger

Britney: On Anothers Sorrow, The Divine Image, The Human Abstract

 

Kabir: The Little Vagabond; The School Boy;

Millie: The Little Black Boy; The Lost Children Poems: The Little Girl Lost; The Little Boy Lost etc

Please COLLECT extra poems if you do these ones quickly.