From Anna Barbauld's Hymns in Prose to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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When Northrop Frye refers in Fearful Symmetry to the relationship between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as mutual satire with "double-edged irony," he uses the term "satire" in an unusual way. Frye argues that pastoral poetry traditionally satirizes "the artificiality of the court or city."(1) The notion, however, that two texts satirize each other seems to stretch the common meaning of the term. Whether satire is directed at contemporary society or, as in burlesque and parody, at another text, it is usually a oneway street.

Most subsequent criticism has focussed on just one side of Frye's satirical equation, the irony directed against innocence. Thus, for example, Donald A. Dike, in "The Difficult Innocence: Blake's Songs and Pastoral," focuses his attention on irony in Songs of Innocence that undercuts innocence and that is therefore not "double-edged."(2) And when David V. Erdman in Blake: Prophet Against Empire discusses satire in Songs of Innocence, the satire is not directed at Songs of Experience. Erdman classifies "Holy Thursday," "Nurse's Song" and "Little Boy Lost" as satirical because they originate in the satirical context of An Island in the Moon.(3) With regard to "Nurse's Song," he goes on to suggest, somewhat equivocally, that it is a "gentle parody" of Anna Barbauld's "Hymn II" and "Hymn V" in Hymns in Prose for Children. Erdman replaces Frye's mutual with a regressive satire, so that Songs of Experience becomes in effect a parody of a parody.

Although both Erdman and Frye are pointing at something serious and important in Songs of Innocence, Erdman himself as much as acknowledges that "parody" is not the right term when he withdraws it immediately: "Mrs. Nan's song is a gentle parody of--or at least derives phrasing, images, and mood from--Mrs. Anna's second and fifth Hymns in Prose for Children."(4) If parody "imitates the serious materials and manner of a particular literary work, or the characteristic style of a particular author ... and applies this to a lowly or comically inappropriate subject,"(5) then a parody of Barbauld's text would focus our attention on her text as an object of ridicule.

In Mrs. Nannicantipot's song, Blake was particularly influenced by the following passage from "Hymn V":

The little birds have ceased their warbling; they are asleep on the boughs, each one with his head behind his wing.

There is no murmur of bees around the hive, or amongst the honeyed woodbines; they have done their work, and lie close in their waxen cells.

The sheep rest upon their soft fleeces, and their loud bleating is no more heard amongst the hills.

There is no sound of a number of voices, or of children at play, or the trampling of busy feet, and of people hurrying to and fro.

The smith's hammer is not heard upon the anvil; nor the harsh saw of the carpenter.

All men are stretched on their quiet beds; and the child sleeps upon the breast of its mother.

Darkness is spread over the skies, and darkness is upon the ground; every eye is shut, and every hand is still.

Who taketh care of all people when they are sunk in sleep; when they cannot defend themselves, nor see if danger approacheth?

There is an eye that never sleepeth; there is an eye that seeth in dark night, as well as in the bright sun-shine.

When there is no light of the sun, nor of the moon; when there is no lamp in the house, nor any little star twinkling through the thick clouds; that eye seeth every where, in all places, and watcheth continually over all the families of the earth.

The eye that sleepeth not is God's; his hand is always stretched out over us.(6)

A parody of this passage would, for example, take Barbauld's question, "Who taketh care of all people when they are sunk in sleep; when they cannot defend themselves, nor see if danger approacheth?" and make Barbauld's concern seem pompous and silly by reducing it to the relatively trivial worries of an anonymous baby sitter, a mock-heroic Barbauld. …