William Blake 1789
One of Blake’s most celebrated poems from his 1789 collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Lamb” subtly approaches the subject of creativity and creator alike. While on the surface Blake’s narrator seems to be speaking of the life of a real, physical lamb, in the end one realizes he is layering meaning with subtext derived from both Christian and classical mythology. The lamb is also a symbol of Jesus Christ, both as a child and as a physical incarnation of the deity. The child is both a creation of God and a lamb, one of God’s flock. Blake begins with a simple image and approaches it from differing angles to give the reader a better understanding of his vision of the nature of Divine Creation.
Born in London, England, on November 28, 1757, William Blake was the second of the five children of James and Catherine Blake. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, Blake was born into a family of moderate means. His father was a seller of stockings, gloves, and other apparel. Though he had no formal schooling as a child, Blake was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to engraver James Basire. In 1779, he began studies at the Royal Academy of Arts, but it was as a journeyman engraver that he was to make his living. In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a
vegetable grower. Blake taught her to read and write, and under his tutoring she also became an accomplished draftsman, helping him with the execution of his designs. Throughout his life, booksellers employed Blake to engrave illustrations for a wide variety of publications. This work brought him into contact with many of the radical thinkers of his day, including bookseller Joseph Johnson and fellow artists John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli. Blake drew literary notice at gatherings in the home of the Reverend and Mrs. A. S. Mathew, where he read his poems and occasionally sang them to his own music. In 1783, Flaxman and Mrs. Mathew funded the printing of Poetical Sketches, Blake’s first collection of verse. Around this time Blake also developed his technique of illuminated printing. His method was to produce the text and illustrations for his books on copper plates, which were then used to print on paper. Final copies of the work were individually colored by hand. This laborious process restricted the number of copies Blake could produce, thus limiting both his income and the spread of his reputation.
At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Blake was acquainted with a political circle that included such well-known radicals as William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine, and the democratic revolutions in America and France became major themes in much of Blake’s poetry. In 1790, Blake and his wife moved to Lambeth, where Blake began developing his own symbolic and literary mythology, which used highly personal images and metaphors to convey his interpretation of history and vision of the universe. This mythology is expressed in such works as The First Book of Urizen (1794) and The Song of Los (1795). During this time Blake also wrote the poems included in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Very little of Blake’s poetry of the 1790s was known to the general public, though he continued to work as an engraver and illustrator.
From 1800 to 1803, Blake and his wife lived at the seaside village of Felpham before moving back to London. Upon his return to London, Blake was met with accusations that he had uttered seditious sentiments while expelling a soldier from his garden at Felpham. He was tried for sedition and acquitted in 1804. In 1809, Blake mounted an exhibition of his paintings that he hoped would publicize his work and help to vindicate his visionary aesthetic. The exhibition caused some interest among the London literati, but was otherwise poorly attended. Blake’s later years were distinguished by his completion of Jerusalem, his last and longest prophetic book, and by his work on a series of illustrations for the Book of Job, which is now widely regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. The latter work was commissioned in the early 1820s by John Linnell, one of a group of young artists calling themselves “The Ancients” who gathered around Blake and helped support him in his old age. Blake died on August 12, 1827, in London.
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee;
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight, 5
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?; 10
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek and He is mild; 15
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.
Little Lamb, God bless thee. 20
One of the most famous poems in Blake’s collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Lamb” establishes its theme quickly in the first two lines. When the narrator asks the lamb if it knows who created it, it is not calling attention to the biological parents. The narrator specifically asks about the nature of creation in the divine sense. The narrator does not think the creator is a what, but a whom, and this whom has the power to actually create life.
The narrator implies much more than eating and drinking and the home of this little lamb with these two lines. The fact that the gift of life is connected to the command to live by natural, instinctual means hints at the nature of Divine Law. These lines suggest that life, the natural life of a lamb, is a divine creation. The landscape reinforces the natural over the urban. The fact that Blake fails to mention any kind of restraint upon the lamb may also be significant.
These lines begin to suggest a second layer of meaning pertaining to the image of the lamb. They recall the swaddling cloths of the baby Jesus, and of his hair that was purported to be like “lamb’s wool.” The brightness of the lamb, and the brightness of Christ, comes from within, and also demonstrates their ability to reflect light. The whitest lamb reflects the most light.
The reference to the lamb’s voice suggests a double meaning. Of course, the bleating of lambs sounds very “tender,” but Blake refers also to the voice of Christ. The words and the speech of Christ are often thought of as “tender” because they acclaim love and “rejoice” in life itself. The “vales” also have an additional meaning. Vales are valleys, and so here the narrator once again asks the reader to think about the concept of landscape, surroundings and how one is influenced by them.
With this new repetition, one has a new perspective on the lamb. This repetition emphasizes the largess, the grandeur of creativity. Specifically, one is called upon to contemplate the creation of both a biological lamb and a figurative lamb. One is asked to consider their relationship to each other, and to the Divine.
Only now does Blake introduce his narrator in the form of “I.” One can guess that this “I” could be Blake, or one could suppose that it is the piper represented in “Introduction to Songs of Innocence.” The identity is probably not as important as the idea that this person seems to understand at some level the nature of creation, and is enthusiastic to share with the lamb and with the reader what he or she knows! The repetition hints once again at the double, subtle nature of the lamb as a concept.
Now the speaker brings the double definition of the lamb into a more obvious light. There can be no mistake that not only does the narrator refer to a biological lamb, but he also refers to Jesus Christ in the image of the lamb. Since he is writing about the nature of creation itself, then one can begin to draw conclusions about what Blake believes to be true about the spiritual as well as the mundane. Why does Blake use the word “call” twice? Perhaps, it is to illustrate the idea of being “called” into service of the Divine. Since this is a poem about creation, perhaps Blake hints that to be called to creativity is divine. This is a theme that is seen again and again in Blake’s poetry.
These lines give reference to Christ’s message that “the meek shall inherit the world” and the concept that gentleness and love is the ideal way of behaving in the world. Blake’s narrator also links the behavior of the Divine to the behavior of a little lamb. Then he makes further connection to the idea that the Creator and the little child are one and the same. One also can guess that Blake sees creativity as a childlike occupation. Furthermore, the fact that the Divine decided to actually come into the world, as any child would, gives one an understanding of one’s own nature.
Blake has fun with language in these two lines. The mystical relationship between “I” and “thou”
- Greg Brown’s CD, Songs of Innocence and Experience is arranged and sung by Brown, who also plays guitar. Brown is accompanied by bass, violin and mandolin, button accordion, harmonica, and pan pipes. These tuneful, enjoyable songs have a spontaneous quality and the best of them shed new light on the poems. (Red House Records, originally made in 1986, includes sixteen Songs including “The Lamb.”)
- English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set ten Blake poems from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, including “The Lamb,” for voice and oboe. They are available on a CD entitled Vaughan Williams: Ten Blake Songs; Warlock, etc., with performers James Bowman and Paul Goodwin, released by Meridian (UK) No. 84158, 1997.
- American poet Allen Ginsberg recorded a videotape, Ginsberg Sings Blake: ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, which contains twenty-eight of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience including “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” This is an eighty-minute concert/lecture in which Ginsberg accompanies himself at the mini-pump organ and the bells, while guitarist Steven Taylor and Heather Hardy on electric violin also contribute. Available from Arthouse Inc., One Astor Place, Suite 9D, New York, NY 10003, phone: (212) 979-5663.
- Allen Ginsberg’s set of four CDs, Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Wea/Atlantic/Rhino, 1994 (ASIN: B0000033AN) includes “The Lamb” and many Blake songs, some of which are previously un-released.
- British composer Benjamin Britten’s settings of The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake powerfully evoke Blake’s world of “Experience.” They can be heard on Britten, Vaughan Williams: Songs (soloists, McMillan, Greer), Marquis Records, Canada, No. 127).
- Dover Publications’ Listen & Read: William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1997) is a spoken version on audiotape, which also contains a printed copy of the poems.
- Glad Day and Bright as Fire, performed by the Mike Westbrook Band, one of Britain’s best known jazz ensembles, consist of settings of poems by Blake, including one that combines “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Many of the songs derive from a musical about Blake staged by England’s National Theatre Company in 1971. Westbrook communicates the energy, passion, and variety of Blake’s work with conviction and power. Westbrook’s web site at (http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk/westbrook_blake.htm) contains details.
- The William Blake Archive at http://www.iath.virginia.edu/blake (January 2001) has crystal-clear electronic reproductions of almost all Blake’s work in illuminated printing, and is continually expanding. It also provides transcriptions of the texts, extensive bibliographies and a search engine that can locate words or phrases and even recurring visual images.
has often been the very definition of God. The equivalent value of the child and the lamb, suggests a divine connection and comparison between the human being and the Divine, and the higher consciousness and lower unconsciousness. Remember that psychology as it is understood in the twentieth century did not exist in Blake’s era. This concept of dual consciousnesses may have surprised Blake’s readership. The fact that he emphasizes this idea with the second of the two lines can only serve to tell the reader that there has been no mistake in interpreting the connection. Both human child and animal child have an equal relationship to the Divine in both name and quality.
The repetition here serves to complete this concept with a blessing. The narrator’s revelation is now fully revealed. He blesses the lamb, himself, and the Christ with enthusiasm.
When Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794, he subtitled the book, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The qualities displayed by the child speaker in “The Lamb” are an example of what Blake meant by the state of innocence, which may be found in children but is not confined to them. Perception in the state of innocence is always spontaneous; it does not get bogged down in painful memories of the past or in useless speculation or doubt. It shows an unclouded awareness of the divine spirit that flows through all things.
The speaker of the poem represents this innocent mode of being. He expresses no interest in the difficult, nightmarish, or problematic aspects of life. He only asks questions (“Little Lamb, who made thee?”) to which he knows the answer (“Little Lamb I’ll tell thee”) and he asks only for the joy of explaining what he knows in the simplest of terms.
Because the childlike mind is uncluttered with the mental baggage that adults tend to accumulate in the state of Experience, the child in “The Lamb” is free to experience joy through his senses. He has not learned how to distort his experience into anything less. He enjoys the bleat of the lamb and assumes as a matter of course that everything else in nature (“all the vales”) rejoices in it too. He declares the lamb’s wool to be “clothing of delight,” which can refer either to the delight the child feels when he touches it or the delight he assumes the lamb has in possessing it. It does not take much imagination to suppose that in addition to the child’s sense of touch and hearing, his other senses are also finely attuned to the bliss and delight that shape his perception of the world.
The Unity of Creation
The child has an innocent knowledge and perception of the unity between the different levels of creation. The human and animal worlds are linked to each other by their common source in the divine. The child explains this by referring to the image of the lamb, frequently used in the New Testament to symbolize Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the only son of God. In the Gospel of John,
Topics for Further Study
- Who does the lamb think made it? What would be an animal’s view of God? Write the lamb’s response, in three stanzas, each giving a different aspect of whom it thinks its Maker is.
- Compare this poem to Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse, on Turning up Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785,” written at about the same time. In what ways are Burns’ attitudes toward the mouse different from Blake’s toward the lamb? In what ways are they the same? How do the two poets view a human’s place in the world?
- Aside from the seventeenth line, which directly links the lamb with the speaker of the poem, what clues are there to indicate that the speaker is thinking of himself when talking to the lamb?
for example, Jesus is referred to as “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The child uses this “meek” and “mild” aspect of Christ to explain the unity between Christ and his creation. This is apparent in the three lines,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
In other words, the universe, at least the way the child experiences it, is a seamless web, and the glue that holds it together is the divine figure of Christ. Because Christ took human form and so “became a little child,” the child feels his own connection to the savior. In the child’s mind, the Lamb of God is the divine, life-giving power since he created the lamb and defined its nature. The lamb instinctively knows, guided by the creator, where to find food and drink. There is nothing to darken or disturb this harmonious picture of the tender stream of blessings that the Lamb pours down on his creation, represented by lamb and child. Of course for the child, the joy he feels and the sense that he is under divine protection are not religious concepts but simply his experience. No doubt he has received Christian teachings by schoolmaster or parents, but he shows no desire to probe more deeply into the subject. He is happy with what he knows, and in this sense he is complete. He needs nothing more than what he already possesses, quite unlike the speaker in the companion poem, “The Tyger” in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In that poem, the speaker seeks an answer to the question of who made the fierce tiger: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” For the child speaker in “The Lamb,” safe in the state of innocence, such questions cannot arise.
“The Lamb” consists of two ten-line stanzas which pose a question and give an answer. Each stanza has five pairs of rhyming couplets, where the end word of one line rhymes with the next. Note that Blake often repeats a word to create this rhyme, creating a type of refrain, and twice employs the slant or false rhyme of “lamb” and “name.” Most lines have seven syllables, except for the first and last couplets of each stanza, which have only six syllables. In the second stanza, it is worth noting that the word “called” is pronounced with two syllables, so that it is read “call-ed.”
Literature for Children
When Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the 1780s he was building on a well-established tradition of children’s books. However, Blake fundamentally disagreed with the underlying premises of most of these books, which were influenced by Puritan theology. According to this view, which was shared by the Methodists and the Church of England’s Evangelical movement, children were born into a state of “original sin.” They had to be ruled with a firm hand if they were to overcome their evil tendencies.
Evangelical educator Hannah More, for example, wrote in 1799 (quoted by Zachary Leader) that it was “a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings, whose little weaknesses may perhaps want some correction, rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify.” In the Methodist schools of the period, play was discouraged; hard work and self-discipline were emphasized. Idleness was considered one of the worst sins. The underlying idea was that the child’s will had to be broken, so he could learn to live in conformity with God’s will. These attitudes were reflected in books written for children.
One children’s book that was extremely popular in Blake’s time was Isaac Watts’s Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715). Watts’s attitude to children was considerably less harsh than that of many Puritans. He believed that poems for children should be cheerful rather than weighed down with solemn religious instruction.
Blake objected to the emphasis in Watts’s poems on hard work, reading and studying, and the absence of childlike play or enjoyment. A number of Blake’s Songs of Innocence are direct replies to the poems of Watts. None of the children in Songs of Innocence go to school or work. They simply enjoy being children.
If Blake diverged from the lyrics that were fashionable in his day, he often followed, as John Holloway has pointed out, the metrics of eighteenth century hymns. “On Another’s Sorrow,” for example, is identical in meter and rhyme to “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” by the Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley.
Blake obviously knew Wesley’s work well. Heather Glen has pointed out that Blake’s “The Lamb” echoes Wesley’s hymn for children, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” The difference is that in the hymn the child has to plead with Jesus, the Lamb of God, to permit him to come close:
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
In “The Lamb,” the intimacy between Lamb and child is immediately present. The child does not have to plead for it.
The Child in Romantic Literature
Blake was not alone in his belief that childhood was a time of innocent spirituality and joy. Other English Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Clare shared Blake’s belief. In this they were influenced by the writings of the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau expounded the idea of the “noble savage,” the natural goodness of humanity in its primitive condition. He extended this to include the goodness of children.
Inspired by this novel way of thinking, the Romantic poets replaced the Puritan idea that a child was born into original sin with the idea of the child’s original goodness. In their spontaneity and
Compare & Contrast
- 1789: Publication of Songs of Innocence coincides with the outbreak of the French Revolution, which proclaims the dignity of the common man and ushers in the modern democratic age. Blake supports the goals of the French revolutionaries.
Today: Democratic political systems of varying degrees of integrity and efficiency now cover most of the globe.
- 1798: Wordsworth and Coleridge publish Lyrical Ballads, inaugurating the Romantic period, a new era in English literary history.
Today: Postmodernism tends to scorn the emotional excesses of Romanticism, and unlike the Romantics, few postmodern writers believe in the existence of a universal truth or an overall reality.
- 1790s: Blake is virtually unknown as a poet; few people read Songs of Innocence and of Experience or any of Blake’s other poems. He is little known as an artist.
1863: Publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, twenty-seven years after Blake’s death, leads to a slow growth of interest in his work.
Today: Blake is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest of the English Romantic poets.
purity of perception, children were close to God and to nature. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” wrote Wordsworth in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood” (1807).
The child’s ability to live effortlessly in an imaginative realm made the state of childhood the envy of poets, who regarded it as a rebuke to adult lives that had been reduced to habit, conformity, and dull practicality. Wordsworth in particular praised the child’s imaginative power. According to Wordsworth, a child was able to see the divine light; this gave him wisdom beyond his years. Wordsworth mourned the inevitable loss of this gift as the child grew into adulthood.
Most of the Romantic poets wrote in praise of childhood as adults remembering an earlier time in their lives; it was only Blake, in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, who wrote poems that captured the voice of childhood itself.
“The Lamb,” has long been one of Blake’s most popular and acclaimed lyrics. English poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne notes in his 1906 work William Blake: A Critical Essay that the poem is one of the Songs of Innocence that has “a very perfect beauty”: “All, for the music in them, more like the notes of birds caught up and given back than the modulated measure of human verse. One cannot say, being so slight and seemingly wrong in metrical form, how they come to be so absolutely right; but right even in point of verses and words they assuredly are.” Sir Geoffrey Keynes similarly feels that “The Lamb” is “rightly regarded as one of Blake’s most triumphant poems,” explaining in his 1955 introduction to Songs of Innocence and of Experience that “it is also one of his most transparent. The lamb and the child, both symbols of innocence and of religion, converse together, the child properly supplying both question and answer. They are illustrated together in the design, with a cottage to one side and the oak of security in the background. On either side are delicate saplings arching over the scene without any overtones of Experience.” Many critics have looked at “The Lamb” within the context of the entire collection of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. John Holloway believes that the poem is representative of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which he sees as a harmonic collection with a distinctive form. In “The Lamb” the critic writes in his 1968 study Blake: The Lyric Poetry, “poetic form here merges into explicit statement. The point is that one can virtually assert this poem to have a structure, inasmuch as it has a structure of ideas: and the structure of ideas is a structure of identity, of the merging and inter-fusion which is the ultimate condition of harmonious oneness. In a world of harmony,” the critic adds, “the work of the Creator tends simply towards being a duplication and reduplication of himself: until finally, it is oneness which is blessedness.” Michele Leiss Stepto likewise observes a directness in the subject of the poem, which she believes “makes explicit the identification of the lamb, type of a sacrificial humanity, with the infant Jesus dear to the Christian church.” By contrasting the question of creation posed here with that in “The Tyger” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Stepto suggests in The Yale Review that “The Lamb” “deals with the origin of the victims of evil”: “In calling himself by the name of the lamb, Christ claimed kinship with the suffering victim and promised, by his act of self-sacrifice, to banish both tiger and lamb.”
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published books and essays on English Romantic poetry. In this essay, Aubrey examines how Blake’s poem illustrates his belief in the unity of all life, expressed throughout Songs of Innocence, and the spiritual perception of children.
It is easy to dismiss “The Lamb” as a sentimental or naive poem. Simple in its structure and vocabulary, it leaves no difficulties of interpretation. Unlike some of the Songs of Innocence, it does not force the reader to consider ironies or ambiguities involved in the state of innocence. The only question the child speaker asks (“Little Lamb, who made thee?”) is immediately dissolved, since the child already knows the answer (“Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee”). In light of this disarming simplicity, commentators have had little to say about “The Lamb.” They have preferred to dwell on the complexities of “The Tyger,” Blake’s companion poem in Songs of Experience, with its unanswered question about the darker side of life: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”
The real problem in discussing “The Lamb” is not that it lacks depth, but that the kind of depth it possesses demands a visionary leap from the reader, who must attempt to feel the uncommon (for the adult) reality that the child speaker lives so naturally.
For Blake, childhood was a state not of dependency or ignorance but of spiritual vision. In “innocent” perception, everything in creation is embraced by the tenderness of the divine, and there is no separation between the human self, the natural world, and the divine kingdom. Everything is oneness, or unity, which spreads itself through all the phenomena of nature. In “The Lamb,” the focal point of this unity, the creator, source, and sustainer of it, is the Lamb. The Lamb is Christ, whose loving generosity flows out endlessly into the world. This generosity is emphasized by the threefold repetition of “gave” or “give” in the first stanza, in reference to the gifts bestowed by the Lamb of God on the lamb, the creature that bears his name. The child is spontaneously aware of all these realities, at all times, and it saturates him with serenity and happiness that he simply wants to express.
As a consequence of the child’s innocent wisdom, there is no drama in this poem; it conveys a sense of bliss at play with itself. In play, there are no real questions, since questions are the result of uncertainty or lack. In the world inhabited by the child in “The Lamb,” questions are just a playful pretense. The purpose of these questions is to get the knowledge of the nature of life circulating, so it can make “all the vales rejoice.”
As another way of putting it, in the state of Innocence, there is no gap between what the soul loves and desires most deeply, and what it experiences, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, in the world. Needless to say, this is not the average world in which the average adult lives, which is why, paradoxically, the simple poems in Songs of Innocence may sometimes be trickier to fully grasp than Songs of Experience, many of which are situated in the gritty, distressed world that people usually think of as being more expressive of the human condition.
But Blake says time and time again that there is no reason why this should be so, since it is the inherent ability of what he later called the “Divine Humanity” to see the “Divine Vision” in everything. For Blake there was no sound reason to believe that there must always be a gap between human desire and human achievement. About the same time as he was writing the Songs of Innocence, he wrote in There is No Natural Religion (1788): “If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.” If there was one thing that Blake believed, it certainly was not the eternity of despair. Despair can only be caused by an error in the perception of the way things truly are, always. As Blake scholar Kathleen Raine, in Blake and the New Age, remarked of “Infant Joy,” another poem in Songs of Innocence:“Being—consciousness—bliss . . . such was Blake’s understanding of the essence of life. Joy is not something that happens to the soul, it is the essential nature of every soul.”
The joy world that shines out in “The Lamb” is apparent in Songs of Innocence. “Every thing that lives is Holy” announced Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), and the phrase could almost be a motto for the world depicted in Songs of Innocence, in which life is a continuum of delight and everything is under the divine protection. Take the first stanzas of “Night,” for example:
The sun descending in the west,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.
The moon like a flower
In heaven’s high bower,
With silent delight
Sits and smiles on the night.
Farewell, green fields and happy groves,
Where flocks have took delight.
Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen they pour blessing
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.
It should be noted that the moon does not merely shine; it “smiles,” it revels in “delight,” as do the flocks of sheep in the “happy” groves. Technically these figures of speech are known as the pathetic fallacy, the attribution to inanimate objects of human feelings or qualities. But for Blake they are far more than mere literary ornaments; they are fundamental to his understanding of how bliss, emanating from the divine Lamb, permeates the natural world. Natural processes and cycles are set in motion in order to multiply happiness, just as in “The Lamb,” it is the bleating of the lamb that causes the vales to rejoice, to spread joy.
“The Echoing Green” begins with a similar vision: “The sun does arise / And make happy the skies.” And in the first stanza of “Laughing Song,” human joy interacts with the joy that runs through nature:
When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy
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.
The poem gives the impression that the entire scene is bubbling over with bliss that leaves no corner untouched.
It might be objected that this is merely a child’s view, or an attempt to appeal to the naivete of a child. A laughing world is, after all, not the kind of world most adults live in. But to this objection, Blake in effect responded, Why not? He often liked to challenge the limited nature of what “everyone knows,” especially as far as perception was concerned, as in the following two lines from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”
In other words, if humans learned to liberate their five senses from the dullness of habit and blunted expectations, they might see the world as it really is, or at least as it is according to Blake. Blake never tired of explaining this, trying to coax his reader into seeing the Divine Vision. In Europe (1794), for example, the poet spots a fairy sitting on a tulip, and he asks it a question: “Tell me, what is the material world and is it dead?” The fairy replies, “I’ll sing to you to this soft lute; And shew
“Blake’s belief in the validity of visionary, childlike perception that is everywhere present in ‘Songs of Innocence’ was for him not a theory but a living truth.”
you all alive / The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”
As has been shown, the Songs of Innocence bears ample testimony to this perception of the universe as consciousness alive with joy. And the image of the lamb is central to the vision, since Christ, the Lamb of God, is the source and informing essence of the joy that animates everything in the universe. Lambs appear in other poems in Songs of Innocence. The very first poem, “Introduction,” features a piper, who is also the poet, who encounters a child. “‘Pipe a song about a Lamb,’” the child asks, and the poet replies: “So I piped with merry chear.” At the child’s request, he then sings the same song, and the child weeps with joy to hear it.
The merry piper who sings about a lamb is a clear reference to the poem “The Lamb,” and the song he sings is the eternal reality of the Lamb who is also a child—the very child who is listening to the song. As in “The Lamb,” the poet creates a self-referential loop, in which distinctions of subject and object break down in the fluid intimacy of entwining interrelation.
Seen in this light, another poem in Songs of Innocence, “Spring,” becomes a celebration not only of the seasonal renewal of life but also of the lamb / Lamb / child intimacy. The last stanza reads:
Here I am.
Come and lick
My white neck:
Let me pull
Your soft Wool.
Let me kiss
Your soft face.
Merrily Merrily we welcome in the Year.
Given that this is the vision that animates Songs of Innocence, several details of “The Lamb” become more significant than they might at first appear. The word “bright,” for example, that the child uses to describe the lamb’s coat, seems at first a rather odd adjective to use in this context (even though it provides a rhyme for “delight” in the previous line). However, the word occurs very frequently in Blake and is often used to suggest a kind of radiance that Blake associated with heightened perception, or a fully alive, even divine quality, as in “The feet of angels bright” quoted earlier. Wordsworth, another English Romantic poet who celebrated the purity of childhood perception, also used the word “bright” in this context.
Another detail concerns the illustration to the poem. Since Blake intended his books to be read in the form in which he printed them, in which each poem was accompanied by an illustration, it is always worth examining a poem’s visual aspect. The illustration for “The Lamb” shows a child reaching out to touch a lamb, while sheep graze behind them. There is also a cottage, an oak tree and a stream. But what catches the eye are the two saplings on either side of the illustration, both of which are entwined with vines. The saplings reach up to the top of the frame, and then arch over the entire scene, intertwining with each other in what looks like a riot of jubilation. The cooperative interfusing of nature that is part of the theme of the poem thus receives visual representation.
Blake’s belief in the validity of visionary, childlike perception that is everywhere present in Songs of Innocence was for him not a theory but a living truth. Recent research into childhood gives some support to Blake’s view. In Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood (1993), Edward Hoffman, a psychologist, describes hundreds of accounts of “peak experiences” during childhood, as recollected by adults. These include spontaneous moments of bliss, insights about self-identity, life and death, and startling changes in the way ordinary things are perceived. One woman recalls a vacation at Lake Michigan when she was eight years old:
Open-eyed in the cool water, I lay watching the sunlight reflect and sparkle off the tiny, water-polished stones. I continued gazing and began to notice how the pebbles washed back and forth, right below me, at the shallow edge where the water met the land. . . . Suddenly, I shifted into a state of awareness that was far more acute than usual. I experienced a powerful sense of the beauty of the stones, the sparkling light, the fluid motion of the water, which became so overwhelmingly joyful that I could hardly endure it.
Here, in a real experience, is the joy that underlies “The Lamb” and which Blake called simply “Vision.”
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “The Lamb,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Smith is a writer and editor. In the following essay, she looks at Blake’s poem and its meditation on nature, youthful idealism, and idealized Christian ethics and compares it to another of his poems, “The Tyger.”
Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper, pipe that song again—
So I piped, he wept to hear.
These words are spoken by a shepherd piper, who narrates the introduction to Songs of Innocence. The shepherd piper had been playing songs for his own amusement; his reverie is interrupted by the appearance of a laughing child-angel, who makes the mentioned request. As a result, the piper becomes something more than just a shepherd amusing himself; he becomes a bard, composing poems for others’ enjoyment. The bard is bidden to write in a “book that all may read—.” The child-angel vanishes just as quickly and mysteriously as he arrived, and the bard fashions a pen out of a reed and commences to write his songs. Thus the bard, rather than Blake, becomes the dramatic voice through which all the poems within Songs of Innocence are rendered.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Blake’s creation of a persona to narrate the songs, Blake’s moral presence is deeply felt throughout Songs of Innocence. Rather than being a direct voice of authority, Blake creates personas and songs to spark a poetic “conversation” on the aspects of innocence. Published by Blake in 1789—nearly all of his works were self-published, and illustrated with magnificent original prints—these “songs of happy chear” celebrate the beauties of nature, youthful idealism, and idealized Christian ethics.
The child-angel’s request to hear “a song about a Lamb” has special cultural and religious meaning, for the lamb is a significant image in Christianity. The “Lamb of God” is a common euphemism for Christ. As scholar David Fuller elaborates:
Songs of Innocence accepts what are to Blake the positive aspects of ordinary Christianity, the story of the Incarnation and the idea of Jesus as a child with a child’s freshness and vulnerability. The Lamb is a
What Do I Read Next?
- Blake’s “The Tyger” in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) is a companion poem to “The Lamb.” It poses the question of whether the meek and mild God who created the lamb also created the fierceness of the tiger. It is a question the poem does not answer.
- Written a little later than most of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93) is a rebellious and funny satire that includes the essence of Blakean wisdom in a series of provocative proverbs.
- Peter Ackroyd’s Blake (1995) is the best biography of the poet. It conveys not only Blake’s fierce, lonely determination but also his insecurity and the frustration he felt at his lack of worldly success. Ackroyd also gives a vivid picture of London of the time.
- London Life in the Eighteenth Century by M. Dorothy George (1965) is a classic work that gives a sweeping portrait of the city at the time in which Blake grew up there. George emphasizes how much cleaner, healthier, and more orderly London was at the end of the century than at the beginning.
- Like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (1837), has much to say about the innocent wisdom of children.
- “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth, published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, contrasts the adult and the child’s view of life and death.
- “Fern Hill” (1945) by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is another poem about the delights of childhood, although unlike “The Lamb,” it is written from the point of view of an adult looking back.
crucial symbol: it points to an aspect of Christian myth and ethics which is a real force against violence, which can bring peace in a way that mutual fear and selfish love never will.
“The poem unfolds in staccato lines and a series of ominous questions. The poet asks of the tiger what makes his eyes burn so brightly, what ‘twists the sinews’ of its heart.”
“The Lamb,” one of the poems of Songs of Innocence, elaborates on these symbols and themes. The poem begins with a question: “Little Lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee.” The speaker inquires of the lamb as if he is about to deliver a gentle lesson. He goes on to elaborate on the question;
Gave thee life &bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
The sounds of this stanza are soft and inviting. Along with the gentle AA / BB / CC rhyme scheme, the lines themselves have a singsong quality. Also, many of them, when read together, have a kind of calming effect by virtue of the repeated l sound (little, lamb, life, delight, woolly, I’ll, tell, bless). The words and images presented—stream, mead, delight, softest, tender, and rejoice—are positive and pastoral. One can picture a lamb frolicking in the green grass, wearing a coat of soft wool “clothing.” Even the bawling of a lamb has a pleasing quality to the poet. The stanza ends by repeating the opening question: “Little Lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee.”
The second stanza answers the question posed in the first stanza. Using lines that are structured in a parallel fashion to those that began the poem, the speaker gently says, “Little lamb I’ll tell thee, / Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!” The reader pauses in anticipation of his answer of “who made thee”:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
This is the stanza in which the poem’s allusions to Christianity come into full bloom. The speaker notes that the one who made the lamb is called by the same name as the lamb. Indeed, in the Christian tradition, Jesus, known as the Lamb of God, is idealized with the lamb-like qualities of meekness and mildness. These are qualities that are inviting and reassuring to a child. The speaker also aligns himself with the lamb, noting that they share the common name of Jesus. This stanza gives the poem a joyful and reassuring feeling. It is concluded with a benediction: “Little Lamb God bless thee. / Little Lamb God bless thee.”
Yet this is not the last word on the image of the lamb. This poem, and the volume in which it appears, takes on more complex meaning when compared to the poems of Blake’s companion volume, Songs of Experience. Blake had begun working on Songs of Experience as soon as he had completed Songs of Innocence. Originally Blake intended to pen direct satires of the Songs of Innocence, poem for poem. The innocent—perhaps oversimplified—world of the Songs of Innocence did need to be tempered. However, the poems that evolved in Songs of Experience, while at times correlating to the earlier volume, were often more general in their assertions, and more nuanced, to be direct counterparts. Blake’s biographer Peter Ackroyd described the songs: “These are not pure lyrics emanating from one voice but dramatisations of various mental states and attitudes—or, perhaps, dramatisations of the various selves that inhabited Blake.”
The vision of the Songs of Experience is by its very definition darker and more complex than that of the companion volume. And of the poems in Songs of Experience, “The Tyger” is most commonly linked with “The Lamb.” There could be no two animals more different: one is known for its meekness and mildness, the other for its ferocity. And “The Tyger” begins not with a singsong question, but with a terrifying assertion:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The poem unfolds in staccato lines and a series of ominous questions. The poet asks of the tiger what makes his eyes burn so brightly, what “twists the sinews” of its heart. The lines are fired off with such speed, even accusation, that the poem takes on the feel of a chant, or a kind of panting. The poem culminates in a final image of violence:
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
These last lines are indeed a shock. The poet imagines a creator smiling at destruction. In a final twist, he spins on his heel and invokes the image of a lamb: the echo of the lamb that had been described so compassionately in the previous volume.
However, the images of this poem do not necessarily negate, or defy, the image of the lamb presented in the Songs of Innocence. Rather, the descriptions of the tiger enable the reader to see a more complete picture of the forces inside of all living things. Blake’s contrasting visions are hopeful and pious, as well as primal and violent. Perhaps by presenting these themes in companion volumes can one only gain a sense of their true emotional power.
Source: Erica Smith, Critical Essay on “The Lamb,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Bussey holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she interprets Blake’s poem as a deeply religious poem appropriate for children.
William Blake’s “The Lamb” appears in Songs of Innocence, a collection of poems published alongside Songs of Experience. These two collections are intended to show the dichotomy of human experience as people move from youth to maturity. In Songs of Innocence, Blake depicts childlike, joyful, carefree subjects, while in Songs of Experience, he portrays cynical, mistreated, and elusive subjects. Many of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience are to be read together for contrast. For example, “Little Boy Found” from Songs of Innocence was written to complement “Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Experience. “The Lamb” considers the nature of divine creation and parallels the dark and mysterious poem “The Tyger.” “The Lamb” is often considered representative of Songs of Innocence because it celebrates nature and life as created by a loving God.
Most stories and verse written for children during Blake’s time were blatantly preachy, as they were created to provide moral instruction for life. During the last part of the eighteenth century, many tracts were published with the intention of guiding
“The speaker of the poem is a child—a child who becomes a teacher who explains God to other children in easy-to-understand terms. This technique engages children’s imaginations and builds self-confidence. The poem opens with two questions, which reflects a childlike curiosity.”
young minds in matters of ethics and propriety. Blake, however, understood how uninterested children are in such heavyhanded messages, and as a result, his writing is lighter and more interesting to children. In fact, when Songs of Innocence and Experience was published, it was unconventional and challenged existing children’s literature. Today, Blake’s influence is still felt in this genre, despite the fact that he never considered himself a writer exclusively for children.
The introductory poem of Songs of Innocence tells of the poet happening upon a child on a cloud, who urges the poet to share his songs with everyone. The poem ends with the poet declaring, “And I wrote my happy songs / Every child may joy to hear.” Blake is true to his word, as the ensuing poems are lively and optimistic, and many have a singsong quality that is appealing to children. In “The Lamb,” he expresses a relatively simple idea that can be understood by children, and he does so in a poem that has a light tone, a tender subject, and a straightforward question-and-answer format. Both the style and the content lend themselves to a young audience.
Readers may suspect that Blake is referring to more than a lamb right from the start, although the broader reference is not made explicit until the second stanza. In the first stanza, the speaker asks the lamb if it knows who made it, setting the stage for the poem’s religious musings on the divine creator and the creator’s relationship to mortal creatures. As the speaker proceeds to tell the lamb that the same creator who made the lamb also made the lamb’s natural surroundings, the reader begins to understand the relationship between the lamb and God. The lamb’s creator provides for the animal’s needs and expects it to live peacefully in the lush natural environment.
In the second stanza, the poem’s Christian symbolism is clearly evident, as, in line fourteen, the speaker tells the lamb that the one who made it is also called a “Lamb.” At this point, the reader understands the first stanza in a new light. The lamb is a traditional symbol for Christ. (In John 1:36, the book’s author, the apostle John, has John the Baptist saying, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The lamb imagery recurs in Revelation, which is widely believed to have been written by the same author.) The pure white lamb signifies something divine and innocent of sin, and Blake incorporates multiple references to this symbolism. The “softest clothing wooly bright” of line six is not just the spotless lamb’s coat (which seems to glow with divine light). This line also recalls the swaddling clothes in which the baby Jesus was wrapped, and refers to God’s hair like “pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). Line fifteen (“He is meek and he is mild. . . .”) is a clear reference to biblical scripture, which describes Christ as mild and even tempered, even when facing His enemies. Further, among the Beatitudes is the statement that the meek shall inherit the Earth (Matthew 5:5).
Blake then writes that Christ “became a little child,” referring to the biblical account of Jesus coming to Earth as an infant and maturing into adulthood just like any other man. The mention of becoming a child also refers to Christ’s lesson that people must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17). When the speaker tells the lamb, “I a child and thou a lamb, / We are called by his name,” Blake creates a powerful image of the divine connection among the child, the lamb, and Christ. The speaker essentially tells the lamb (and the reader) that they, humble mortal creatures, are touched by the divine so intimately that they all share names.
Although the lamb as a symbol of Christ is the most compelling religious symbol in the poem, Blake deftly uses other religious elements to provide thematic depth. The structure of the poem is deceptively strict in its organization. Each stanza begins and ends with repetitive couplets. In the first, the couplets are questions, as this stanza is the question section of the poem. In the second, the couplets are statements, as the speaker is answering the question from the first stanza. In the second stanza, when Blake introduces the figure of Christ, the second and fourth couplets each comprise two identical lines, while the center couplet describes Christ as meek and mild, and as a child. The speaker describes Christ in both the past and the present (“He is . . . / He became. . . .”), indicating the timelessness of the subject. This formality in structure is a subtle religious element because the poem, like creation itself, seems on the surface to be spontaneous and unorganized, but in reality has a complex and intentional structure of balanced symmetry.
Other religious elements in the poem are more obvious. The format, with the speaker asking a question and then answering metaphorically, parallels the didactic parables of Jesus as He spoke to His disciples and followers. In line three, the speaker says that the lamb’s creator instructs it to feed in the meadows. This is reminiscent of the Last Supper, when Christ instructed the disciples to eat the bread as a symbol of His body. Blake ends the poem with, “Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee.” These final repetitive lines act as a benediction to the lamb and to the reader, who has come to understand that the Lamb as Christ is closely akin to the figures in the poem and, by extension, to the reader.
Blake’s focused and straightforward message is presented to the reader in light verse that is appealing to children and adults alike. Blake wrote poetry with children in mind, but did not consider himself a children’s writer. At the same time, much of his poetry was not intended for adult readers only. The result is poems like “The Lamb,” which contain profound ideas, yet are written in such a way that they are accessible to a wide range of readers. “The Lamb” is ideal for reading aloud because of its rhythmic composition of short lines and simple words. The subject of a lamb is one to which children are responsive, as it is an adorable, nonthreatening creature often featured in children’s stories. The tenderness of the subject is emphasized by the poet’s use of soft words throughout the poem, such as “wooly,” “lamb,” “bless,” “tender,” and “softest.”
The speaker of the poem is a child—a child who becomes a teacher who explains God to other children in easy-to-understand terms. This technique engages children’s imaginations and builds self-confidence. The poem opens with two questions, which reflects a childlike curiosity. The child’s enthusiasm to answer his own question reflects youthful, innocent excitement at having something interesting to tell. The speaker feels that he has an important insight, and he is eager to share it with anyone, even a lamb. The adult reader knows that the child has only begun to understand the complicated nature of divinity, but the speaker is too young and innocent to grasp this.
For modern-day children, the language may be a bit stilted because of the use of “thee” and “thou,” but the sound and subject of the poem are adequate to interest them. Although very young children will not understand the religious significance of the poem, older children will. Still, children will gain a sense that the speaker is talking to a lamb about God, and as they grow older and revisit the poem, it offers them new insights. It is a poem that grows with children, and is able to do so because the form and tone are so engaging to young ears.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “The Lamb,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Ackroyd, Peter, Blake: A Biography, Ballantine Books, 1995.
Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with an introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Fuller, David, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, St. James Press, 1991.
Glen, Heather, Vision and Disenchantment: Blake’s Songs and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr., Innocence and of Experience: An Introduction to Blake, Yale University Press, 1964.
Hoffman, Edward, Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood, Shambhala, 1993.
Holloway, John, Blake: The Lyric Poetry, Edward Arnold, 1968.
Keynes, Sir Geoffrey, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, 1789–1794, reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1977, Edward Arnold, 1968.
Leader, Zachary, Reading Blake’s Songs, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Raine, Kathleen, Blake and the New Age, George Allen & Unwin, 1979.
Reinhart, Charles, “William Blake,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 93: British Romantic Poets, 1789–1832, edited by John R. Greenfield, First Series, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 16–58.
Stepto, Michele Leiss, “Mothers and Fathers in Blake’s Songs of Innocence,” in The Yale Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 3, Spring 1978, pp. 357–70.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles, William Blake: A Critical Essay, revised edition, Chatto & Windus, 1906.
Adams, Hazard, William Blake, A Reading of the Shorter Poems, University of Washington Press, 1963.
Adams reads the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the light of the symbolic system that Blake used in his later, more complex work. The speaker of “The Lamb” may be a child, but the poem is also an “adult poem” that makes the “ultimate statement of the one life of innocence.”
Bowra, Maurice, The Romantic Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1950.
This contains an illuminating chapter on Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bowra emphasizes how Blake was able to distill complex thought into a few lines, managing at the same time to create the effect of light, melodious song.
Gilham, D. G., William Blake, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Gilham gives detailed readings of many of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He contrasts the simplicity of “The Lamb” with the complexity of “The Tyger”, and argues that the child’s perspective is equally valid and true.
Glazer, Myra, “On the Dynamics of Blake’s Composite Art,” in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, Chelsea House, 1987.
Glazer interprets “The Lamb” in the light of another poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience,“The Little Black Boy,” which also connects God, children, and lambs.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr., Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, Yale University Press, 1964.
This is one of the best introductions to Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Hirsch likens “The Lamb” to “Infant Joy” and “Nurse’s Song,” and praises the artfulness of the poem’s construction.
Johnson, Mary Lynn, and John E. Grant, eds., Blake’s Poetry and Designs, W. W. Norton, 1979.
This is one of the best editions of Blake. It has many color and black-and-white illustrations, excellent notes, and includes many of Blake’s letters, as well as critical essays by contemporary and modern commentators.
Nurmi, Martin, William Blake, Kent State University Press, 1976.
Nurmi argues that the metrical effects and repeated lines in “The Lamb” suggest that Blake intended the poem to be sung.