That Blake was a radical is clear enough, however a close study of his work (not just the Songs of Innocence and Experience) reveal some interesting contradictions and raise some interesting questions.
True, Blake seems to advocate free will, but this view is not wholly borne out by the structure of his longer poems; for if what is really happening in the world is a cosmic battle between forces of good and evil, then how can we as relatively powerless individuals escape being merely pawns in this much larger game?
Can we blame people for falling away from innocence, or are we meant to see humanity as a victim of a wider set of circumstances beyond their control? To what extent are individuals responsible for what they do, or are we always at the mercy of larger forces which effectively dictate our lives? Besides which, what exactly, in Blake, is evil? ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle’, he says in one of the most notorious of his Proverbs of Hell, ‘than nurse unacted desires’. We may see this as a plea for the liberation of desire, but as with all such pleas, admirable as they may be, we are forced to ask how far such a view can go. Perhaps Blake is here speaking in metaphor; indeed, we rather hope he is; again, perhaps poetry can only speak thus. But even so, we have a right to question how we read the role of liberation in Blake’s work.
What, we must also again ask, are innocence and experience? Very occasionally, and not in the Songs, Blake invokes a concept of ‘organis’d innocence’ as the third term to which these two incomplete states point; but what would ‘organis’d innocence’ be? Is it possible, or even advisable, to retain an ‘innocent’ perspective in the teeth of life’s traumas and troubles? Is there, on the other hand, anything of positive value to be gained from the cynical, world-weary stance which affects some of the ‘experienced’ poems? Even in the Songs themselves the distinction between Innocence and Experience is not always clear. Many of these Songs do appear genuinely innocent, in the sense that we feel that the reader is enjoined to share their celebration of nature and their imaginative delight in human aspiration; but in others, we uneasily sense a certain irony creeping in, as though the voice of innocence is itself unstable and always ready to be undercut by a different apprehension of the world.
Perhaps we have to say at the end of the day that to ‘fix’ Blake in any one position is a virtually impossible task; but equally, it might be better to say that he presents a continuing challenge to the reader, and this is precisely what makes reading the Songs, and Blake’s work in general, such a continuingly invigorating experience.