First thoughts on reading Blake: my classes’s response to innocently reading him…

Today, the William Blake project began in earnest with my Year 13 classes reading all the poems in groups together. I asked them to read them all at a go, without lingering too long over what they are about. The whole point was that they would get an overview of the poems.


 

I introduced the poems today by getting the students to sit in my “poetry circle” which some seemed excited about! I talked about how I appeared on Radio London this morning talking about a letter a number of experts have written about the need to raise the formal schooling age to 7. Their remarks tie in a great deal with what William Blake thought: he believed that children learnt through play, that it was through play and being creative that children learnt, that it is not a “bolt-on extra” to learning but absolutely integral to the learning process. I spoke on the Radio London breakfast show defending their approach, saying that if learning is too formal at an early age, then children can become like “robots”, programmed to learn but without creativity.

He wrote in The School Boy:

But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, The little ones spend the day, In sighing and dismay.

Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour, Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learnings bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing. How can a child when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring.

The task of reading all the poems through in a group without teacher commentary/intervention is not a “traditional”, “upfront” teaching approach; I suppose some teachers would immediately start reading and analysing the poems as a whole class, without giving classes a chance to read the poems for themselves. Or possibly getting them to read them for homework by themselves. Reading them together in a group for the first time is possibly a different approach; one that immediately invites communal discussion.

However, many teachers would do what I am doing; encourage independent reading skills and a sense of independent inquiry.

As I listened to the groups, I could hear a degree of laughter and enjoyment as they read the poems; the lexis is not difficult and the poems have an easy, lilting music. The rhythms of Blake’s words really came through for me. I heard one student saying, “I quite like that one!”.

It was strange listening to the words I know so well mouthed by unfamiliar voices, but also invigorating; it made me see these poems in a new light. They live in the mouths of young people.

Here is one response from a student which is illuminating:

“I found William Blake’s Songs of Innocence thoroughly enjoyable and pleasant when reading them in todays English lesson. The majority of poems in this collection included an obvious rhyming scheme that continued throughout, making the poems easy to read and far more entertaining. A theme throughout all of the poems in Songs of Innocence was religion, whether this was a direct address to religion or a subtle undertone running continuously through the poems. The poems were written in a period of history when religion was a major part of everyone’s lives. The poems contained within Songs of Innocence are all relatively short and sweet, a lot revolving around children – this is due to the fact that children are often associated with innocence.”
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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 ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Experience: can the Bard save the Earth from destruction?

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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.

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?