Personally, I hold very dear the idea of innocence, of the untarnished, of simple delight and awe at the world. That’s why, when I first came across Blake’s Songs of Innocence, I was fairly blissfully happy combing through verses that reminded me of days spent riding bikes through puddles or tracking the progress of caterpillars across a curb. Blake’s The Echoing Green probably brought the strongest of this nostalgia, particularly the lines: “Till the little ones, weary,/ No more can be merry:/ The sun does descend,/ And our sports have an end.” The imagery caused me to immediately recall playing kickball in the backyard with the neighborhood kids. And while the poem centers around just one day of play, Blake’s repetition of “on the darkening green” at the end of each verse was reminiscent of the repetition of every childhood day spent like this — besides the snow-cold winters, where we’d sled down our hilly road, laughing until halfway down we’d shriek and throw ourselves off the sled to avoid sliding into the busy street at the bottom; giving our parents heart strain every time.
While Blake inserted the “old folk” into this poem, those who reminisced and said, “‘Such, such were the joys/When we all—girls and boys—/In our youth-time were seen/On the echoing green,” this recollecting is still seen through the eyes of a child. Who hasn’t listened to their grandfather say, oh, back in my day, and rolled their eyes, incapable of imagining their elder as anything but a man with wrinkles and a white beard? ‘Old’ and ‘experienced’ were otherworldly concepts; there was just this moment with our juice box, or yesterday’s silly moment with the dog, swirling around our heads. But Blake’s Songs of Experience shove us through puberty, young adult life, and straight through to middle age.
Here, in this period of life, we are given to read Nurse’s Song. Childhood is no longer something to be lived, it is something to be remembered, to grieve for because it is something of the past and not the present. The speaker hears the calls of children on the “green” as in The Echoing Green, but instead of jocularly saying, “such, such were the joys” — instead, the speaker’s face “turns green and pale.” What has happened in the meantime? What strips the speaker of joy? There are always trials as we leave childhood, moments of stark and painful clarity when we discover that our imaginations and dreams don’t always become tangible; when responsibilities begin to rain down and mull about in ever-larger puddles and ponds. But to look upon the wonders of the innocent and feel nauseous; that is an entirely different matter, and a stark contrast between the two poems.
Continuing with the differences between the Innocent poem and the one from Experience: unlike Green, which was simply a collection of observations, Nurse’s has an underlying message found in its last two lines: “Your spring and your day are wasted in play,/And your winter and night in disguise.” Freedom and joy are spurned, and the speaker essentially says that youth is wasted on the young. But the young need youth. We are not so lucky as Benjamin Button, to be able to ignore old age in favor of laughing at one’s first feel of a butterfly’s tickling legs on our skin. But again, the speaker takes it another step further, and says that our ‘winter,’ our experience and aging, are spent hiding our true selves. And the simple fact that there is a message here, that something must be learned rather than just taken at face value and enjoyed as we did as kids, bespeaks another truth of ‘experience’: that everything has a reason, that we must learn at every opportunity and continue to grow wiser…and older.
But there is a fallacy in the Nurse’s speaker’s despair. Though we may learn, through growing up, that ‘hiding’ is sometimes necessary to navigate social requirements and etiquette, we don’t have to become entirely repressed and two-faced. And youth is not wasted on the young, it is given to those who would make the most of it. On that note, I recommend trying sledding again. We can use our experience to avoid sledding down dangerous hills, but we can still rediscover our innocence by planting your butt on plastic and giving up control to the universal forces of gravity and momentum, laughing at the oddness of crystals melting against your soon-to-be-wrinkled skin.
By Allison Willard
Image from http://austintalks.org/2011/04/go-out-and-play/.