Songs of Innocence and of Experience


When I was in college, I opted to pursue an Honors degree in English.  Part of the requirement for this was to write a sort of mini-thesis that incorporated some concept that one could trace through several different works and then defend before two professors and a peer.
In the Liberal Arts Seminar that consumed most of my freshman year, I had been introduced to the pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of poetry that he illustrated with his own woodcuts.  The idea that we all start out life innocent (think Adam and Eve in Paradise) but then inevitably have to pass through the fires of experience seemed to keep turning up over and over in the books I read throughout college.  Blake’s vision wasn’t entirely bleak, thankfully, since he implied that if one learned from the experience, “organized innocence” –wisdom–would result.
So in my paper I talked about innocence, experience, and wisdom in Blake’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.  I defended it successfully, and I got that Honors degree.  Did I understand what I was writing about?  Probably not.
But most people who have made it to (ahem!) middle age would understand, and they wouldn’t need an Honors degree to do it, either.  Because by now all of us have passed through the inescapable fires of experience, and we hope that we are at least a little wiser.
Last night I attended a production of  The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical EVER, put on by the KCHS Theatre Department.  My son Jake played El Gallo.  Twenty-seven years ago, my husband played Amos Babcock Bellamy.  He admits that he and his friends didn’t really understand the play then, and Jake admits that he and his friends don’t really understand it now.  Our younger kids attended with us last night, and they enjoyed it, but they didn’t comprehend it.
How could they, when it is an extended metaphor about innocence, experience, and wisdom, and when you are in high school you don’t know or believe any of that.  Who doesn’t want to believe that first love will last forever?  Who wants to think that being buffeted and scarred by the world not only confers benefits but is actually necessary to growth?  Who wouldn’t rather stay in the garden forever, with no need for eventual redemption?
I started crying last night as soon as Jake appeared onstage singing  Try to Remember at the opening of the play.  Part of that had to do with parental pride and my feelings about my son, but part of it sprang from the sadness of knowing (as the song says) that “without a hurt the heart is hollow.”  The play has a happy ending of sorts, but still I saw my husband wiping his eyes at the end.  Because even though we both know that innocence comes to an end, that experience is unavoidable, that the wisdom we’ve gained since we were in high school is valuable, irreplaceable–we wish it didn’t have to be that way.


Thank you to Palo for the beautiful featured image.

What’s in a Name?

The following is a reprint of a column that ran in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper on August 11, 2002.  It explains the name of my former column, which is now the name of this blog.

Names are important.

Think of the time we spend choosing the names we give our children, the hours poring over baby-name books, making lists, asking opinions, only to be told years later by an unappreciative adolescent, “I hate my name!”

Now, any writer or artist will tell you that his creative product is something like “offspring” to him.  So when it was time–past time–to name this column, I agonized over the choice for days.  Then, coming up blank, I followed my usual procedure for titling my work:  I stole.

Image result for bartlett's familiar quotations
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with its handy index is an old friend that has proved its worth to me many times.  I looked up life in the back of the book, and voila, the works of far better writers than I were at my disposal.

The phrase “life in every limb” sounded perfect at first reading, and once I investigated the source became even more so.

First, the author:  William Wordsworth, famed English poet of the Romantic Period, and as it happens, an old favorite of mine.  My first college English professor, later my advisor, is a preeminent Wordsworth scholar who spends summers at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District.  By virtue of his enthusiasm almost as much as Wordsworth’s talent, he taught us to love Wordsworth too.  This seemed like an omen.

Next the poem whence the line came: We Are Seven. The poem’s narrator encounters a “little maid,” who in answer to questions about her family asserts again and again that there are seven children, even though two have died.  This inclusion in the family’s number of two who are unable to speak for themselves resonated with me as I thought of the voiceless unborn and their need for similar champions.

Finally, the entire quotation:  “A simple child/That lightly draws its breath/And feels its life in every limb/What should it know of death?” I thought of the unborn child, alive in every way, in every part of its tiny body, heart beating, blood pumping, at the very beginning of its life doomed so often to a premature and violent death.

I wonder what Wordsworth might add to the abortion debate if he were with us today.  My first child’s godmother (a fellow student of the aforementioned professor) created a beautiful cross-stitch as a gift for Emily when she was born from a paraphrased Wordsworth quotation: “Children come trailing clouds of glory from God who is their home.”

This comes from his Ode on the Intimations of Mortality, in which he expounds upon his belief that children are closer to God because they remember glimpses of heaven that are more and more lost to us as we grow older.  His own heavenly visions, the “spots of time” he celebrates in his long autobiographical narrative poem The Prelude, were a continuing source of inspiration to Wordsworth.  I have a feeling that he would have viewed the killing of the innocent unborn, fresh from God’s hand, as the worst kind of sacrilege.

Moving to a different sort of literature, the phrase “life in every limb” calls to mind St. Paul‘s metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12: ” . . . [T]he body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body . . . .”  Each person, born or unborn, is a part of that body and has a unique role to fulfill.

In valuing all members of the body equally, our church espouses a consistent ethic of life.  Although abortion is the focus of this column, I plan to write about many other life issues, such as the death penalty and euthanasia.  We might think of the abortion issue as just one of the many limbs of the church’s pro-life teachings.  For we are a church that embraces and celebrates and protects all life, that of the innocent unborn equally with that of the convicted murderer, of the ill and disabled along with the healthy, of the non-Christian along with the Christian–life in every limb of the Body of Christ.