A brief network analysis of symbolism in Blake’s poetry with Python

Extracting symbols and imagery from 18th-century Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Published in the late 18th century, The Songs of Innocence and of Experience are probably the best known works by poet and artist William Blake, and one of the many treasures preserved by Project Gutenberg. Although regarded by some as a collection of poems for children, the Songs can actually be read as an exploration of human spiritual growth as well as a representation of what Blake himself called “the two contrary states of the human soul”. The antithesis of innocence and experience is visible in the richness of symbols present in this ensemble of poems. Religious figures, animals, tales of light and darkness oppose each other. The positive outlook of Innocence emerges in contrast to the gloomy world of the experienced adult in Experience.

I wanted to explore the symbolism and the dichotomies of this fascinating collection with the aid of named entity recognition and network analysis, and bring it all to computational life. This is how it went. Here is the link to the code.

Innocence, experience, and network graphs

An opposition of darkness and light

As the dichotomy between good and evil, between light and darkness, is central in Blake’s work, although in less traditional ways. These polar opposites are represented via the contraposition of innocence and experience.

Jacon Böhme’s theological theories, that looked at the contrasts and oppositions within the very nature of God, was very dear to Blake. This is key to understanding the double dualism that is here at play: innocence, that is the place of joy and freedom of mind, can hide a level of darkness as well in the form of the simple naivete of a child. On the other hand, the knowledge and maturity needed to navigate a harsh world do enlighten the path, but they also obscure the virtue and joy of the innocent.

A lot of Blake’s poetry comes to life through symbols and biblical imagery. In Songs of Innocence, the figure of the child is the protagonist and true representative of innocence. The lamb is a direct thematic link to Christianity. The shepherd is yet another biblical image paired with that of the lamb, as Jesus depicts himself as both in religious writings (ArtsColumbia). Apart from religious imagery, which is quite dominant throughout both collections, the theme of play and that of spring is particularly widespread standing for times of naivety and lightheartedness. Innocence is freedom, but also ignorance.

The Songs of Experience are focusing more of what the loss of freedom to the advantage of going about the world more expert concerning its deceptions can mean. Symbols present in these texts are often flowers (several roses), with a corollary of related symbols that latch onto not very joyful themes such as thorns (jealousy) and worms (destruction), child labor (The Chimney Sweeper), hatred (A Poison Tree), and poverty (Eternal Winter) (Rosmaidar).

Named Entity Recognition

After cleaning the text, I delved into entity mapping. I was aware that I was not interested in the regular entities spaCy is trained with, so I created my own, focusing on symbolism and the grouping of different symbols. Here are some.

ENTITY_MAPPING = {
'ANIMALS': ['lamb', 'tiger','sheep', 'dove', ...],
'HUMAN': ['shepherd', 'boy', 'girl', 'vagabond', 'crown', ...],
'RELIGIOUS_FIGURES': [
    'angel', 'god', 'divine', 'prays', 
    'jesus', 'soul', 'spirit', ...
],
'EMOTIONS_AND_STATES': [
    'joy', 'merry', 'weep', 
    'pride', 'shame','sorrow', ...
],
'COLORS': ['green', 'white', 'crimson', 'black'],
'DAY_AND_TIME_CYCLES': ['morning', 'night', 'day', ...],
'NATURE': ['lily', 'rose', 'thorn', ...],
}

I did do this manually in order to ensure I would include in my network analysis only the entities, or symbols, that were most interesting to me. I focused on religious symbolism a lot, and on the emotions and states of the human soul. I wanted to see how these symbols are tied to each other by Blake in his poems and in his representation of the complementary poles that are innocence and experience in human life.

The network

Once the entities were all set, I used NetworkX to build the graph. A network, and in this case a weighted, bidirectional network, is primarily composed of nodes and edges (or lines that connect the nodes), and I worked my entities so that the collected symbols would become the nodes and the thickness of the edges would represent how often entities appear together in poems. Then I just chose to represent those nodes connected by edges in the same way more than three times in the text, so that the resulting graph would not look like a big pile of words.

Finally, as my primary goal was to analyze the difference between the two, I created a graph for Innocence and one for Experience. And here are the results.

Network graph for Songs of Innocence

The Innocence graph shows prevalently nodes belonging to the positive pole of emotion-themed entities, merrier colors (green, for nature, and white, for light), religious symbols in the shape of animals (lamb), and is all in all representing a happy version of Blake’s poetic world.

Network graph for Songs of Experience

The Experience graph has more nodes and, although several of these can also be found in the Innocence graph, the ones that differ are the most interesting. More negative emotions (fear, weep, tear) and gloomier contexts (night, winter) are present.

The similarities between these two graphs, having previously discussed Blake’s representation of the antithesis between darkness and light, between the innocence of childhood and the gloom that accompanies the loss of this innocence, might look odd. It is no longer strange once we take into consideration Böhme’s theory and double dualism once again. These dichotomies do not exclude one another, but are complementary. Where there is innocence, there is ingenuousness; where there is experience, there is a dimness of spirits. This opposition is especially visible in the second graph, which offers a better-rounded representation of the themes of Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Conclusion

There is so much that can be added about the symbolism and imagery of Blake’s Songs. This article wants to be a brief analysis of a few of the several layers that the incredible richness of these 18th century works present to their readers, at times hiding it right below the surface. After all, this is what Digital Humanities aim to accomplish: to provide those who look with deeper, and maybe even new, insights into literary depths.

(cover image: “The Lamb”, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. [London, W. Blake, 1794] 54 plates. col. ill. 19 cm. Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

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