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.