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William Blake and the Inspiration Behind U2's Songs of Innocence

@U2, July 28, 2015
By: Tassoula E. Kokkoris

 

The year was 1788. Artist William Blake was still grieving the loss of his beloved brother Robert, who had passed away several months prior. He was searching for an inventive way to share his personal poetry that was less laborious than the method he employed for his day job as an engraver for various London publishers.

One night, his late brother visited him in a dream, offering precise instructions on how to create a new way of presenting the work via copperplate. The coloring of the pages was to be done by hand and no two copies of the work in progress were to be identical. Even the order in which the poems were presented was supposed to alternate.

Blake followed this ghostly guidance to the letter and published 19 poems the following year, which made up the Songs of Innocence collection. Five years later, he added 26 more and called that group Songs of Experience. Presenting them together as a pair, they became: Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.

The works were reissued by Blake several times throughout his career; the timeless essence of the subject matter never expiring.

So, what does that have to do with U2?

In obvious terms, the band took the name for their current (and presumably next) album from these poetry books. In a broad sense, the themes Blake explores in his texts (childhood innocence, social injustice, poverty, conflicting aspects of religion) are identical to those of U2.

Bono is quoted as saying the Songs Of Innocence album is all about “first journeys” and “falling in love.” We can only assume that the second volume will reflect an older perspective.

The fact that Blake released these works of art in a new and inventive way for his time is also a parallel, as (love it or hate it) U2 released their album via iTunes in a way no other band had ever before.

The Presence of Nature

An undeniable infusion of nature is repeated throughout William Blake’s collection. Whether he’s “weeping in the evening dew” or has “smil’d among the winters snow,” he’s embracing the natural world. In The School Boy, the young narrator finds joy in his earthly surroundings:

I love to rise in a summer morn
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the sky-lark sings with me.
O! What sweet company.

Similarly, U2 lyrics on Songs Of Innocence are rich with landscapes and environmental descriptions. When Bono sings about U2’s first visit to the Golden State in “California (There Is No End To Love),” he can’t help but remember the color of the sky:

California, blood orange sunset
Brings you to your knees
I’ve seen for myself
There’s no end to grief

Nature is also used to describe a memorable childhood place. In Blake’s The Ecchoing Green, it’s a location where kids played in their youth:

The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the ecchoing green.

For Bono, the beauty found in his best friend’s yard brings comfort to “Cedarwood Road:”

And that cherry blossom tree
Was a gateway to the sun
And friendship, once it’s won
It’s won, it’s one

There are countless other references to nature in both works that mention the ocean, the sky, stars and seasons. A relatable and universal way for each artist to convey a mood — even if over 200 years apart in delivery.

Religious Overtones

Though neither Blake’s poems nor U2’s album could be considered strictly religious, they’re both laced with references to Christianity. God and the church are both celebrated and condemned in each collection.

In Blake’s poem The Divine Image, he urges non-judgment and shows that God is compassionate:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew;
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

In “Lucifer’s Hands,” U2’s singer delights in God “saving” him through music:

The spirit’s moving through a seaside town
I’m born again to the latest sound
New wave airwaves swirling around my heart

You no longer got a hold on me
I’m out of Lucifer’s hands

Alternately, Blake takes God to task for the suffering of the poor in Holy Thursday:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

And in U2’s “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” shades of priestly abuse are evident:

Hope is where the door is
When the church is where the war is
Where no one can feel no one else’s pain

You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight
In your dreams everything is alright

In Blake’s time, he was considered radical for his vocal opposition to the Church of England. While Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam are probably known more for their political voice, all but Adam have previously identified as religious, so it’s a slight about-face to see them so blatantly criticize the church.

The Poetry of the Innocence + Experience Tour

Conceptually, the tour aligns quite well with William Blake’s books. U2 begin each show with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” which details their collective loss of musical innocence seeing Joey Ramone live for the first time as teens. They typically follow that tune with songs from their earliest albums (except “Vertigo”) before going into “Iris,” which is about Bono’s mother. William Blake’s poem The Chimney Sweeper is about a child who lost his mother when he was young.

Next in the show, U2 explore Bono’s childhood and life in general as a young man in 1970s Ireland. Blake’s Songs Of Innocence shows children both “lost” and “found” as they navigate childhood among life’s joys and challenges in 1700s London.

As the show progresses, the band members grow metaphorically older, referencing events that happened as they aged. Following intermission, they launch into the “experience” portion of the concert, with songs that reflect their later years as men who have fallen in love, raised families, found fame, suffered loss. Though the setlist changes from night to night, they clearly move to the “other side of the barricade” in this second half of the show.

Even the way the songs are presented — heavy on the visuals, with books and pages falling from the stage and sky, respectively, each night — mimics the spirit of Blake’s ancient copperplates; conveying images in a way that had never before been seen. No other lead singers have leapt into a cage mid-show that displayed their childhood street as they sang along to the description of it. Nor have concertgoers clamored to collect ripped pages of books they were (most likely) forced to read in young adulthood, searching for the symbolism as they Google paragraphs of old text on their smartphones.

Only Part of the Story

Though I’m guessing the inspiration didn’t go much deeper than the general concept of Blake’s poems for U2, the similarities in theme are evident. Plus, the band’s history with this collection of poems goes all the way back to the late '80s, when they recorded the song “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience,” taking the lyrics directly from Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Experience. Perhaps they were intentionally prophetic, giving us a taste of things to come. The fun in searching for clues to the method of U2’s madness stems from the theoretical puzzle pieces the band so generously doses out. However, because the album Songs Of Experience has not yet been completed, it’s hard to draw a comprehensive comparison between the works.

Of course, if U2 really wanted to pay homage to the legendary poet (and please the marketing department at their record label), they could pull a different kind of stunt when the next album is released. Instead of issuing vinyls and CDs with a fixed playlist, they could mix up the tracks and offer several different versions with the songs in no particular order, just like Blake issued his copperplate pages.

This would not only put a smile on the faces of William Blake fans everywhere and potentially sell more albums (since completist fans would want at least a few variations in sequence), but it would also force them to make songs so brilliant and versatile that they’d shine regardless of the order in which they were played.

Not that they wouldn’t shine anyway.

(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2015.

Please note: the spellings and punctuation used in referencing William Blake’s poetry is authentic to the way he wrote the works in the 1700s.

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