BLAKE’S ARGUMENT WITH NEWBERRY IN “LAUGHING SONG”
Although David Erdman claims that “Laughing Song” in Songs of Innocence owes much to Anna Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), and David Bindman has discovered a visual influence on Blake’s illumination for “Laughing Song,” no specific literary source or influence has been proposed for Blake’s lyric.1↤ 1 See Blake: Prophet against Empire (Princeton, 1969), p. 124. In Blake as an Artist (Oxford, 1977), pp. 59-60, Bindman discusses the probable influence on Blake of Stothard’s illustration for “Drinking Song” in Joseph Ritson’s English Songs (1783). Blake executed engravings after Stothard for this book. Certain affinities in form and content suggest, however, that in literature for children Blake’s song does have a prototype—a short lyric entitled “How to Laugh,” which appears in Newbery’s A Pretty Book for Children (1761) and A Collection of Pretty Poems (1770).
John Newbery (1713-1767) wrote, printed, and published some of the best and most beautifully bound books produced for children during the eighteenth century. His collections of rhymes are relatively free of the repressive moral and religious indoctrination characteristic of the vast majority of books for children then in print. For this reason, he has been seen as a possible influence on Blake.2↤ 2 Foster Damon, William Blake, his Philosophy and Symbols (New York, 1924), p. 42. At the very least, Newbery’s work can be said to stand largely outside the implied criticism, in Songs of Innocence, of traditional and contemporary literature for children. His rhyme “How to Laugh” seems a special case, however, in that it is Newbery’s only lyric to which Blake specifically alludes, and with which he apparently takes issue.
The verbal and conceptual similarities between Blake’s “Laughing Song” and Newbery’s “How to Laugh” are striking. Newbery’s four-line rhyme concerns human laughter as an expression of Nature in relation to other of Nature’s modes of expression:
Nature a thousand Ways complains,Blake’s subject is the same, and he uses the same laughing sounds to conclude the last two of his three stanzas.[e]
A thousand Words express her Pains:
But for her Laughter has but three.
And very small ones, Ha, Ha, He.
But Blake contradicts the assertion in Newbery’s rhyme that Nature has only “three words”—“and very small ones”—to express happiness, whereas her numerous other sounds complain and express pain. In Blake’s lyric, expressions of pain are altogether absent. And instead of personifying nature as a whole, Blake humanizes her various aspects. Parts of the landscape, together with birds, grasshoppers, and even the air, laugh independently though in harmony with man’s own preverbal “Ha, Ha, He”: ↤ 3 The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman (New York, 1970), p. 11. The subsequent quotation from Blake is also from this edition.
When the green woods laugh, with the voice of joyJoyful innocence is here shared equally by man and by nature in its broad diversity and particularity. This is not mere personification or pathetic fallacy, but a clarity of vision in which, as Blake later put it, “All Human Forms” are “identified even Tree. Metal Earth & Stone” (Jerusalem Ch. 4, pl. 99:57).
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by,
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.
When the meadows laugh with lively green
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily,
With their sweet round mouths sing Ha, Ha, He.
When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He.3
The whole of Songs of Innocence implies the metaphysical equality and communion of man, nature, and the divine. But there is more human expression on the part of nature in “Laughing Song” than in all the rest of Songs of Innocence.4↤ 4 In “Night,” the moon smiles, and a lion speaks. In “A Dream,” an emmet and glow worm speak. In “Spring,” birds delight—which may or may not be a humanization. That makes “Laughing Song” a focal point in the Songs for the begin page 37 | ↑ back to top visionary identification of “Human Forms” in nature. The poem is exceptional in this regard probably because it was conceived and written as an antithesis or corrective to Newbery’s “How to Laugh,” which excludes nature from full and equal participation in human life.