Literature

A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’

Unlike many of his other celebrated poems, William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ languished unpublished in notebooks for decades after his death, and was only first published in 1863. In a sense, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ provides a backdrop for the poet’s most famous poetry, and is worth subjecting to close analysis. Here’s the poem first:

Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright
Every Wolfs & Lions howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul
The wild deer, wandring here & there
Keeps the Human Soul from Care
The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife
And yet forgives the Butchers knife
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that wont Believe
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbelievers fright
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belovd by Men
He who the Ox to wrath has movd
Shall never be by Woman lovd
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity
He who torments the Chafers Sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night
The Catterpiller on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mothers grief
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar
The Beggars Dog & Widows Cat
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat
The Gnat that sings his Summers Song
Poison gets from Slanders tongue
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envys Foot
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artists Jealousy
The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
The Babe is more than swadling Bands
Throughout all these Human Lands
Tools were made & Born were hands
Every Farmer Understands
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity
This is caught by Females bright
And returnd to its own delight
The Bleat the Bark Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heavens Shore
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of Death
The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air
Does to Rags the Heavens tear
The Soldier armd with Sword & Gun
Palsied strikes the Summers Sun
The poor Mans Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Africs Shore
One Mite wrung from the Labrers hands
Shall buy & sell the Misers Lands
Or if protected from on high
Does that whole Nation sell & buy
He who mocks the Infants Faith
Shall be mockd in Age & Death
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out
He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death
The Childs Toys & the Old Mans Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons
The Questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to Reply
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out
The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesars Laurel Crown
Nought can Deform the Human Race
Like to the Armours iron brace
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow
A Riddle or the Crickets Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply
The Emmets Inch & Eagles Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will neer Believe do what you Please
If the Sun & Moon should Doubt
Theyd immediately Go out
To be in a Passion you Good may Do
But no Good if a Passion is in you
The Whore & Gambler by the State
Licencd build that Nations Fate
The Harlots cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet
The Winners Shout the Losers Curse
Dance before dead Englands Hearse
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

Written in around 1803, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ offers various images of innocence, juxtaposing them with images of corruption, decay, or evil. The first four lines might be regarded as a sort of ‘introduction’ to the poem that follows: they have become among Blake’s most oft-quoted lines, and argue for seeing the grand in the very small, and pondering those metaphysical concepts beyond the comprehension of man by observing them at a local level. This opening quatrain of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ is rhymed abab; the rest of the poem settles down into rhyming couplets, i.e. aabbccdd, and so on.

But these opening lines do more than frame the poem in general terms: they also direct us as to how to read the sequence of images that follows, instructing us to pay attention to, and to analyse, the latent connections between things. ‘A dog starvd at his Masters Gate / Predicts the ruin of the State’ is a fine example of Blake’s sense of interrelatedness between these different aspects of society: the way we treat (or mistreat) animals informs the way we view our fellow humans whom we consider beneath us. In short, if we will let our dogs starve, we will probably let the poorest people among us starve, too. And more than this, such a lack of compassion for the weakest and most vulnerable points to a spiritual lack within all of society, and weakens society as a whole.

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions

Here, in the poem’s other most famous set of lines, we see ‘innocence’ being destroyed by man: putting birds in cages or birdhouses restricts their freedom, and is abhorrent to Blake. Similarly, a boy who kills a fly will feel the wrath of the spider, not out of some sense of justice, but because the act has interfered with God’s natural order: the fly exists to be killed, but not pointlessly by a cruel or sadistic schoolboy but by the spider which relies on flies for survival and sustenance. Unnecessary and pointless acts of suffering and destruction, especially of animals, are Blake’s specific target in ‘Auguries of Innocence’. It’s worth remembering that ‘augury’ means ‘omen’ or ‘prophecy’, and, indeed, the word has its origins in a specific form of prophesising: observing the flight patterns of birds to predict the future. Animals are thus already there, as a spectral etymological presence at least, in Blake’s title.

After the opening lines of Blake’s poem, the most famous are probably ‘A Truth thats told with bad intent / Beats all the Lies you can invent’. Often repeated with reference to politicians or other people who would justify harm and injustice by using facts to support their position, these lines are among Blake’s most resonant. A lie, for Blake, would carry its own punishment: like letting your own dog starve, it is an act of self-harm that rebounds upon the perpetrator. As Mark Twain once said, if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything; nor will you have your conscience nagging you that you have done something Immoral with a capital ‘I’. But this is why misusing pure truth is worse: it is an assault on innocence, because (good) truth is being pressed into service for immoral ends. Truth – and, by extension, innocence – is thus being corrupted once more.

‘Auguries of Innocence’ might be regarded as a sort of verse manifesto for much of Blake’s writing, laying out, through a long sequence of examples, his moral position. Blake was consistent in speaking out against injustice and moral wrong, and ‘Auguries of Innocence’ shines further light on how Blake saw evil deeds harming not just the victim but also the perpetrator.

2 Comments

  1. Paul Connolly

    Read the magnificent biography of Blake by Peter Ackroyd. Fabulous book !

  2. Mary Zoeter

    One of the reasons Blake’s poetry attracts me is that he sees the connection among all living beings.

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