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”.


What are students’ favourite Blake poems on first reading?


My students finished reading ‘The Songs of Innocence and Experience’ today and then read out their favourite poems. It was interesting to see their diverse responses.

The first group chose: ‘The Fly’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper — Experience’, and ‘The Lilly’.

Harry says: “I like this poem because It uses the fly as a symbol of day to day life: it could be metaphoric in the sense that the fly represents different daily troubles.”

Millie: “I like the Chimney Sweeper I thought it showed the hypocrisy of the people living in Blake’s time who would go to church and then at same time neglect their children.”

Sophie: “I like London because it gives an insight into the context of the time; it shows how children were chimney sweepers, families were really struggling and everyone was unhappy.”

Nahum: “I liked the Lilly because it is saying that everything else has its opposite side; the Lilly stands out against the rest, she’s just there being beautiful. It can’t be touched by all this other stuff, the thorns, the roses can’t touch it or her. She’s on another level to everything else.”

Group 2:
The Chimney Sweeper: Innocence
The Ecchoing Green
The School Boy
The Clod and the Pebble

I was interested in the comment about ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ from a pupil who felt that the poem represented the problems we encounter in everyday life. ‘The Ecchoing Green’ was chosen because of the way it travelled through the different phases of the day. Interestingly, The Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence was chosen for its representation of the horrors of child slave labour and the terrible treatment of children generally.

I was fascinated to notice that some students were already beginning to sing and do drum beats to the poems.

Group 3:
Chimney Sweeper – Experience
The School Boy
Introduction to Innocence

This group liked the Introduction because of its happy atmosphere and its last line that invited every child to hear the poems.

Here are some more detailed, written responses from the students:

G writes:

The School Boy

I really liked this poem because it shows Blake’s anger and his protest against the destruction of innocence and youthful joy. The powerful animalistic imagery of the bird symbolizes freedom and innocence which is juxtaposed with the Cage which represents the education system 200 years ago. Blake’s self education influenced his views on education which we can still relate to today.

The Chimney Sweeper (experience)

The first line in this poem shows strong imagery of contrast between the black boy (covered in soot) and the snow which connotes innocence and heaven. This poem has a lot of anger in it.  I like the fact that Blake is attacking authority and blames parents for  inflicting cruelty on innocent children.

Introduction (innocence)

I like the way Blake sets the scene for his songs showing innocence throughout the introduction. He uses symbolism for religious purposes to show innocence such as the lamb and also children which is a main theme in his poems. The last line for me shows that the children are his audience, this could be why his songs of innocence seem very sweet and short?

A draft scheme of work for teaching William Blake at A2 for English Lit/Lang AQA

SOW for Teaching William Blake at A Level

 The task: ELLA 4: Comparative Analysis through Independent Study

–          20%

–          Coursework (June)

–          Two texts from an OCR prescribed list. One must be poetry. Students can choose two texts from List A or one text from List  A and one text from List B. See below fro lists.

–          2000 – 2500 words

–          Must include a draft with the final submission.

–          The primary focus of candidates’ work must be on literary and linguistic analysis and comparative issues within the texts.

–          The essay should be concerned with the question of how / in what ways writers create their effects in order to focus on a particular theme.

Learning Objectives:

Important “learning power” skills:

Resilience: absorption, managing distractions, noticing, perseverance

Resourcefulness: questioning, making links, imagining, reasoning, capitalising

Reflectiveness: planning, revising, distilling, meta-learning (knowing yourself as a learner)

Reciprocity: Interdependence, collaboration, empathy and listening, imitation

Assessment Objectives:

A.O1: Select and apply relevant concepts and approaches from integrated linguistic and literary study, using appropriate terminology and accurate, coherent written expression.

 A.O3: Use integrated approaches to explore relationships between texts, analysing and evaluating the significance of contextual factors in their production and reception.


FGI Learning objectives based on the ones above:

To learn how to write in a fluent academic style with passion and panache.

To learn how to use Harvard referencing style for the writing of the essay.

To learn how to think creatively and flexibly under extreme pressure.

To learn how compare and contrast texts. (AO3)

To learn how to discuss contexts of writing and reading. (AO3)

Phase 1

LO: Resilience: building upon what you have achieved.

Introductory phase:

Word association starter: English, books, exams,

Reflect upon what you know so far; assess your achievements; predict your final grade; to develop ability to assess contexts

Word association games connected with the titles of William Blake: piper; innocence; lamb;

Phase 2            

LO: A.O3: Use integrated approaches to explore relationships between texts, analysing and evaluating the significance of contextual factors in their production and reception;


Resourcefulness: questioning, making links, imagining, reasoning, capitalising




Reading all the poems in groups; poster work; spider-diagrams showing relationships between the poems; similarities and differences.

Phase 3

LO: Reflectiveness: planning, revising, distilling, meta-learning (knowing yourself as a learner)

A.O1: Select and apply relevant concepts and approaches from integrated linguistic and literary study, using appropriate terminology and accurate, coherent written expression.

 STARTER: Revise systematic framework; nouns; verbs; adjectives;

MAIN TASK: Analysing two poems; making comparisons between them and posting on website using website questions as a trigger for ideas.


Phase 4

LO: Analysing and evaluating the significance of contextual factors in text production and reception.

 To learn how to write in a fluent academic style with passion and panache.

To learn how to use Harvard referencing style for the writing of the essay.

Reciprocity: Interdependence, collaboration, empathy and listening, imitation

STARTER: Discussing how to research a book

MAIN TASK: Revising your initial responses to the poems; amplifying with deeper research; sharing of research;


 Phase 5

LO:  A.O3: Use integrated approaches to explore relationships between texts, analysing and evaluating the significance of contextual factors in their production and reception.

 Resilience: absorption, managing distractions, noticing, perseverance


What is your “calling”? William Blake has some suggestions…

Introduction to the Songs of Innocence

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.
Pipe a song about a Lamb:
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again —
So I piped, he wept to hear.
Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear.
Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read —
So he vanish’d from my sight,
And I pluck’d a hollow reed.
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

Blake’s poetry is possibly the most ambitious in all of English Literature. Yes, maybe Milton trumps him with Paradise Lost in which he attempts to explain the ways of God to man but maybe not. Blake not only tries to explain what and who God is, but he also sets out his ideas on how we should live our lives if we are going to find “paradise” on earth. Both his ‘Introductions’ to The Songs of Innocence and Experience are important because they announce his ambitions in his dramatic descriptions of two very different situations. 

Blake clearly intended for the two introductions to be compared; they are indicative of the two “contrary” states of the human soul. So it’s worth looking at them in some depth, and seeing their similarities and differences.
At the heart of both poems is the notion of “vocation” or a “calling”. In the first “Introduction” a piper is called by a child on a cloud to pipe a “song about Lamb”, pipe it again, then sing it, and then finally, he’s asked by the child, to “write in a book/That all may read”. The double rhyme of “read” and “reed” indicates the importance of “reading” as a liberating activity, an activity that creates joy in the world. The child on the cloud asks the piper to become a writer, to leave behind the valleys wild and to communicate something of his spirit, of his music, of his songs of “happy chear” to the world.
Before we examine in depth why the child might have asked him to do this, we need to think carefully about the child himself. Who is he? An angel? A spirit? A cherub? God? A child who happens to be floating in the air? Blake’s picture indicates a cherubic-like figure, but definitely a child. The child is, like many of Blake’s literary “tropes” (devices) a suggestive symbol which connotes many things. The noun phrase “child on a cloud” is much more mysterious and therefore engaging than if he had said “angel” or “God”. Blake deliberately leaves it to the reader to make his or her own interpretation; the child is WHO you want it to be. Blake makes a strong point about the importance of multiple interpretations throughout his poetry; there are usually multiple pictorial versions of his poetry, and sometimes, more than one written version. For me, the child is an “inner” child; the child within all of us calling us to do what we really should be doing.
The idea of a “calling” is very important to Blake — and in the Christian religion generally. He felt “called” to print these poems and was shown how to print them by the spirit of his dead brother, Robert. Although he knew he would not be financially rewarded to any great degree by printing the poems, he clearly felt called to write them. To this extent, Blake is the “piper” commanded to write these poems. But what is the “piper” called to do? There are two things that he has to do: to write the poems and then make sure that every child should read them. Reading the poems, one could argue that young children may struggle to understand some of them, although there are clearly some like “Blossom”, “Spring, “Infant Joy”, “The Ecchoing Green” and “The Lamb”, which are pretty easy to understand. However, there are some, such as “The Divine Image”, “The Little Black Boy”, “Anothers Sorrow”, that are addressed more to adults than children. This begs the question as to what Blake means by “children”. As you read the collection, you become being a “child” is a “state of mind” — a state of informed “innocence” — and not a physical age. Blake deconstructs scientific notions of time and space in his poetry; his world is one where linear time is an illusion, and where time is a state of mind.

Introduction to the Songs of Experience

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees
Whose ears have heard,
The Holy Word,
That walk’d among the ancient trees.

Calling the lapsed Soul
And weeping in the evening dew:
That might controll
The starry pole:
And fallen fallen light renew!

O Earth O Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.

Which brings us onto the “Introduction to the Songs of Experience”. Here we have a desperate picture of a fallen world. Instead of the happy songs of the piper filling the valleys wild, we have the “lapsed Soul…weeping in the evening dew”. Who is the “lapsed Soul”? This is the person who has lost their “inner child”, who no longer speaks to children on clouds, who no longer takes joy in piping, in songs of “happy chear”, whose world is dominated by the “starry Pole”. Many critics have speculated as to what Blake means here, providing mystical and other abstruse interpretations. For now, I think it’s perfectly fine to view the “starry Pole” as the axis of the night, as an emblem of time and space. Blake calls the Bard to “control” this axis, to take charge of time and space again, and to renew the “fallen light”. This Bard has “heard the Holy Word” — the voice of God — that “walked among the Ancient Trees”, possibly this is the Garden of Eden. The Bard, or poet, in other words, has knowledge of a time of paradise, a time when God lived amongst nature.
The Bard is possibly the “piper” of the ‘Introduction’ who has experienced paradise and written about it. But now, things have become corrupted; the imagery here is that of the closing of the day, “evening dew”, and flickering darkness, “starry Pole”. The Bard is called to bring light back to this fallen world.
The last two verses of the poem indicate that everything is there for the taking; “Earth” is told to “return” in a powerful exclamatory line. The address “O” has the effect of creating an elongated vowel sound which echoes throughout the line, causing two heavy stresses or beats to begin the line (“O” and “Earth” being stressed), which produces an irregular rhythm, generating the element of surprise. Blake personifies the Earth as a woman who is oppressed, or feels she is oppressed by male power in “Earth’s Answer”, but in this poem I am tempted to suggest that the Earth is the common people — the “slumb’rous mass” — who have gone to sleep in the night, or have abandoned their duties, forgotten their calling. The poem says that the Bard and the Earth has an opportunity to bring paradise back to earth because the “Night is worn” — the powers of darkness are fading — and morning in “slumbrous mass” is “rising”. It’s not difficult to provide a political interpretation of the imagery here; Blake wrote this poem in the 1790s just when the people of France were overthrowing their cruel and despotic monarchy and establishing a “republic” — a state without the monarch being the head of it. Early on in the revolution people were optimistic that the “slumbrous mass” of the people, the main body of “Earth”, would “rise” an establish a better social order, that Bardic voices like those of Thomas Paine (who wrote The Rights of Man) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who wrote The Social Contract) would be listened to and a humane democracy established. Blake tells the Bard and the reader not to “turn away” — not to ignore their vocation — because the universe is given “thee till the Break of Day”.
So we can see that in the world of “Experience” as opposed to that of “Innocence” the poet — and the reader — is called to a political as well as a creative process. There is a shift in emphasis here; not only is the poet being addressed but also everyone who is reading the poem. There is a shift from “he” — the piper — to “we” — all of us, engaged readers. Our calling is not to “turn away”; we are alive, the world, the universe is given us to the “Break of Day”. We may be living in darkness still, but light is emerging, there is hope on the horizon.
The ‘Introduction’ to The Songs of Experience cannot be studied without looking at ‘Earth’s Answer’ which appears to reject the Bard’s call for Earth “return”.

Earth rais’d up her head,
From the darkness dread & drear,
Her light fled:
Stony dread!
And her locks cover’d with grey despair.

Prison’d on watry shore,
Starry jealousy does keep my den
Cold and hoar
Weeping o’er
I hear the father of the ancient men

Selfish father of men
Cruel jealous selfish fear
Can delight
Chain’d in night
The virgins of youth and morning bear.

Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower?
Sow by night?
Or the plowman in darkness plow?

Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around
Selfish! vain!
Eternal bane!
That free Love with bondage bound.

 The Earth is personified as a woman, “Mother Earth” if you like, who wails at the way in which the male God has imprisoned her. She calls him “jealous” and “selfish”; according to her account, he is keeping her chained up, and denying the natural pleasures of the world. The jealous male God, a God of night and the stars, “starry”, has “prison’d” her on the “watery shore” and, as a result, has denied the natural order of things, making “spring hide its joy/When buds and blossoms grow”. It’s worth exploring this extended metaphor because it could mean a great many things. The most obvious explanation is that the jealous male God is suppressing the natural joys of the world, smothering delight and innocence, seeking to destroy the very things that Blake celebrated the ‘Songs of Innocence’: child-like energy and play, joy and delight. 
Her words contradict what the Bard was saying in the ‘Introduction’ because the Bard was calling for the Earth to “return” and claim mankind for her own, clearly not feeling at all that God was the heart of the problem, but it was rather the “lapsed Soul” of mankind that was the issue. So we have two poems saying apparently totally different things; the ‘Introduction’ calls for the Earth to muster some energy and save the fallen soul of mankind, and ‘Earth’s Answer’ cries back that she is being imprisoned by the very God the Bard is supporting, ‘the Holy Word’.
So what is the solution? What is the truth?
One has to read these two poems in the context of Blake’s other poems and then the solution becomes clear. Both the Bard and the Earth only have partial visions of the truth; they don’t realise that the Holy Word comes from within man, from the “Human Brain” — as Blake points out in the Human Abstract. The jealous, male God is a human invention just as Jesus is, except that Jesus is the way of “Innocence”, not “Experience”; Jesus is the inner voice we should follow, not the way of the jealous, male God who “binds joys and desires” with “briars”. The Earth is the victim of a vision of religion which is deceitful, mysterious and imprisoning, while the Bard hasn’t realised what the “Holy Word” really is yet, he is unaware of the true path of Jesus. It is only by reading ‘The Songs of Experience’ that one becomes clear of the true path. Thus Blake sets out his case that ‘The Songs of Experience’ is a form of education, a spiritual journey towards truth.
So while the Bard feels his calling is to awaken the Earth from her slumber, her sleep, and the Earth feels she must be rescued from imprisonment, they really need to re-educated, to see things differently; they need to read ‘The Songs of Experience’ and absorb the totality of Blake’s message.
Our calling then is to be educated, to strip our perceptions of illusion and deceit and see why there is misery on earth and to find our true inner voice, the voice of Jesus.

William Blake in Soho — his childhood home



William Blake was born in Soho, 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market. His father, James Blake, was a hosier, who made gloves. At the time, London was the biggest city in the world with a population of one million. It was the capital of the first country to experience industrialisation; people were flocking into the city from the countryside in search of work.

According to Michael Bedard (author of the excellent biography of Blake, The Gates of Paradise), there was a workhouse behind the house where Blake lived, and the young William Blake would have seen first-hand the poverty and suffering of the young children placed there; most appeared to have died before they reached adulthood. During Blake’s youth, a more enlightened governor of the workhouse would send the workhouse children with a “Nurse” — a guardian — to Wimbledon Common to play where it was cleaner and safer. However, this practice was stopped when Blake was older and the children were essentially imprisoned in the workhouse. Bedard claims that the two Nurses’ songs in the Songs of Innocence and Experience are probably about this.


While Blake’s house has been knocked down, there is a plaque marking the spot where he was born, and the block of flats there now is named after him. Apart from this, I can’t see much which signals Blake’s presence in the area, which is a shame because he lived a long time here; he spent most of his childhood here, his early married years were spent here, and he developed his innovative poetry, art and print-making techniques in the area.

We could speculate that Blake’s childhood was a happy one; it seems as though he was free to wander around London as he chose, going as far as places like Peckham Rye, where he says he saw angels in the trees. Poems like ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Innocence, ‘The Ecchoing Green’, ‘Nurses Song’ (Innocence), ‘Blossom’, ‘Spring’, and ‘The Laughing Song’ all paint pictures of a perfect ‘pastoral’ existence, indicating that the country and the city were very close in Blake’s time. It was easy to wander into fields because they were very nearby the city. Certainly, Blake, in many ways, is a ‘pastoral’ poet; he shares with the Romantics a belief in the healing power of nature and certainly shows its virtues in the Songs of Innocence.

Peter Ackroyd, Blake’s biographer, claims that the spirits of the past are still present in places, particularly in London. I’m not sure I’m so mystical as Ackroyd, but I think knowing about Blake’s work, and the topography of his life, can really assist with understanding his thoughts and inspirations. For example, Christopher Wren’s Golden Square is just a few blocks from Blake’s birth place and still there



Is it possible that the Square, dominated by the rich, inspired Blake to think about ‘The Garden of Love’, to think about ‘charter’d’ streets (essentially privatised places in the city), where both the rich and the religious hijack and take over spaces that were once for people to play and socialise in but now are tightly regulated by the powerful?

There is still a sense of the eighteenth, early nineteenth century city that Blake used to know in the narrow streets I think:


Blake’s family were artisans; they were craftsmen who were highly educated and politically motivated. The “artisan” class were pushing for political reforms: for democracy, for better conditions for the poor, for re-distribution of wealth, for artistic freedom and freedom of speech. Much of their justification for this was from the Bible — which they interpreted in a much more radical fashion than the religious authorities of the time.

So Blake’s Soho was a place of striking contrasts; a place where the absolutely desperate lived like the workhouse children, a venue for radical thought, industry and revolutionary agitation, a place of commercial inter-change at Carnaby Market and an area where the extremely powerful would live in Golden Square.

Some thoughts on William Blake’s ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Innocence

—Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.
Pipe a song about a Lamb:
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again —
So I piped, he wept to hear.
Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear.
Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read —
So he vanish’d from my sight,
And I pluck’d a hollow reed.
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

What effects are created when the poem is read aloud or sung?

I worked for a long time on a sung version of this song and decided to sing it in a very “non-traditional” way, giving it a modern “dubstep” beat, and singing it in a half-spoken, sinister fashion. You can watch and listen to it here on YouTube:

I’m sure lots of people will hate it, but some might find the interpretation thought-provoking because I sing the song very much against type. It appears, on the surface, to be a happy song about a piper piping a song – and then singing it – to a child on a cloud. Other sung versions and readings of the song emphasize the happiness of the poem. When you read out aloud you can really hear and feel the effect of the alliteration and repetition; the repetition of “piping” and “pipe” creates a bouncing, very rhythmic effect, while the alliteration of the powerful consonantal “p” sound creates a punchy drive to the poem. You can also hear the effect of the vowel sounds when you read it: the long vowel sound of the “i” in “pipe” generates, for me, quite a sharp singing, slightly “spacey” tone to the poem, giving it what you might call an “ethereal” quality. Like many of his poems, the text has the quality of a hallucination; it is, after all, about a musician playing and then singing to a child on a cloud, presumably an angel.

The simple rhyming quatrains blaze out when you read it; you always hear the rhymes making the words chime together.

The punctuation is important; it’s very important to note Blake’s punctuation which shows where he felt the pauses should go. For example, there is a full stop at the end of the third line which makes you realize that Blake wants you to think about the vision of the child; the pause is there possibly to convey the piper’s astonishment at seeing the child on the cloud.

What questions do you have about this poem?

I have so many questions still about this poem but here are a few:

  • Who is the child on a cloud?
  • Why does the child weep when he hears the song? From happiness or sadness?
  • Why does the child/angel want the piper to write down his songs?

What interests you most about the poem? Why?

For me, I’m most interested in the two characters in the poem; the piper/poet and the child on the cloud, and their relationship. What was the piper doing in the “valleys wild”? What kind of person is he? Why does the child feel that the poems should be written down? It feels like the pair of them are aiming to spread the word about the songs of “happy chear”; the child wants to generate a new culture, a new world of song and “happy chear”. Why? Is it because the world is so miserable?

What is the poem about?

At its most basic level, this is a story about a piper who meets a child on a cloud who first asks the piper to pipe a song about a “Lamb” for him, and then sing it. After hearing the song played on the pipe and then played again, the child weeps – presumably from happiness. Then the child asks the piper to sing the song, and finally to write it down, which the piper does with a “hollow reed”.

Presumably, the child is an angel of some sort and the Lamb he asks the Piper to sing about is Jesus Christ; the Lamb was, and is, a very common image for Jesus. So you could say that the Piper by writing songs about Jesus is spreading the Word of God. But equally, the Lamb could be a “natural” Lamb and the piper, who has come from the “valleys wild”, is actually spreading the word about the marvels of nature; a common idea at this time as well.

What effects does the language create?

The language is deceptively simple and repetitious; but I found you need to read the poem a few times to work out exactly what is going on. Blake plays around with nouns and verbs in an interesting fashion; there are the nouns of the “piper” and the “pipe” and the verbal phrases of “piping” and “piped”. For me, this creates a great sense of musicality and playfulness; there is almost the quality of a tongue-twister about the poem.

The syntax is sometimes, though not always, shaped by the demands of the rhyme scheme and the ballad form. For example, Blake writes “On a cloud I saw a child” rather than “I saw a child on a cloud” – which would have sounded more natural. The effect of this word order is to emphasize the “ethereal” quality of the poem, to make us see more vividly the cloud and then the child on it.

Blake’s ‘The Fly’: “Am not I/A fly like thee?/Or art not thou/A man like me?”


Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

You can compare different versions of the poem here.

Questions to answer on the poem

What effects are created when the poem is read aloud or sung?

What interests you most about the poem? Why?

What questions might you ask about the poem?

What is the poem about?

What effects does the language create?

What is the effect of the poem’s structure and form?

What are the similarities and differences between other texts?

How do other people interpret this poem? Find sources/links…

What might make a good creative response to the poem?

How might you teach this poem?