Guest Post: Songs of Urban Innocence and Experience

By Katherine Magyarody

I was recently chatting to a friend about the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus and the suggestion that posts could include original poetry. It is an exciting prospect, but also vexing. What might contemporary poetry on a Romanticist blog look like? If someone wrote something similar in tone to Keats’s early faux-Spenserian verse would anyone find value in it? Did it have to be an Ode? Was there anything in our proximity as remote and beautiful as the Lake District? Looking around, I nearly concluded that the world is too much with us.

We happened to be sitting on a bench near a city playground that evening, and our conversation was punctuated by the shrieks of tiny humans running through the sand and dirt in their socks and stockings. Part of me hoped that if I ever became a parent I’d have the presence of mind to either crazy-glue my spawn’s shoes to their feet or forgo foot-gear entirely. Another part of me wondered what it might be like for these children to be growing up in the twenty-first century, where childhood is often a progressively difficult exercise in disenchantment. This led me to contemplate Blake’s “The Lamb” and Songs of Innocence.

Blake’s poem, which could be read by children and adults, relies on the reader’s familiarity with catechism and Christian imagery, two basic references of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The poem, and its more disquieting counterpart, “The Tyger,” are meant to present in succession a familiar and a disruptive narrative about creation. In “The Lamb,” the child speaker comfortably equates himself with the animal and to the divine, an equation which “The Tyger” strips of its innocence. But lambs no longer have the same cultural weight. Any lamb these children might have encountered, whether bleary-eyed in a petting zoo or pinky-red and wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket, would certainly fail to have the effect Blake intended. The lamb is no longer familiar in the way, say, a squirrel is. Goodness knows there were herds of those prancing through the park, chasing their mates and pushing each other off trees. Whoever made the squirrel must be a genius, because by adding fluff to the tail, this modified rat can bounce around the city in broad daylight and get fed by old ladies for its troubles. Squirrels have a certain greedy innocence to them, which has its charm — not unlike humans. Raccoons are more unsettling, with their sharp intelligence and teeth.

So I created a response to, or adaptation of, Blake for the blog. I’m not a poet or an artist or a Blakean visionary, but I thought that my attempts might encourage some poets to submit more original poetry.

Note: In terms of meter, I would like to observe that “squirrel” is usually pronounced something closer to “squirl.” I know that after you have read this you will insist that it has two syllables of equal importance. I’m sure you also spell tiger with a y.


Katherine Magyarody is a Victorianist at the University of Toronto.

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