August 4, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy AA, 1826 (The Fitzwilliam Museum), object 8 The Lamb.jpg
The Lamb[1]
By: William Blake (1789)

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?[2]
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:[3]
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:[4]
Little Lamb God bless thee.
     Little Lamb God bless thee. 20

Notes & Commentary

  1. Perhaps the best example of the Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb” has a child-like narrator—perhaps the naked one in Blake’s accompanying illustration. The lamb is a traditional symbol of innocence and God’s love, and his expression here is joyful, tender, and “thoroughly humantarian” (Battenhouse 1958, pp. 53, 54). There’s a sort of mysticism in Blake’s innocent voice which suggests a deeper meaning (Battenhouse 1958, p. 54).
         Blake’s vision was one of a Romantic intensification of the everyday—of seeing the value in the mundane. These poetic visions a way of consider the observable qualities and, more importantly, filter them through the poetic imagination in order to understand the innermost essence of what is being observed (Tomlinson 1987, pp. 14, 16). Tomlinson explains that “it is when any one individual moment is perceived with such fullness and intensity that it seems to become a moment outside ordinary time, and to last for ever” (Tomlinson 1987, p. 16). Blake thought that this poetic insight could uncover something infinite about the subjects, and it was his duty to help others cleanse these “the doors of perception” (Tomlinson 1987, p. 17). This poetic act might tell us more about the poet than about the object—they are not objective descriptions, but subjective responses—but perhaps they help to develop our own imaginative empathy by challenging our own observations of the world and allowing us to react to the poet’s vision. Blake called alternate visions “contraries” or opposite forces that help to define, to motivate, and to reconcile our own views of reality (Tomlinson 1987, pp. 19–20). Thus, innocence and experience have contraries as their primary focus.
         Compare this poem with its contrary “The Tyger.” Consider what each might symbolize—the lamb seems to be innocence, purity, naïveté, or devotion. Both poems both explore the connection between making and being, both important concepts in Blake’s work: making, Makdidi explains, “marks the convergence of our joys and desires with our imaginations; it is the truest and fullest form of imaginative practice” (Makdisi 2015, p. 112).
  2. The poem’s opening echoes the form of childern’s religious instruction with catechistic questions and answers (Greenblatt 2018, p. 50). Similar questions are mused about by the speaker of “The Tyger,” but the answers remain ambiguous in the poem of experience.
  3. The Lamb is threefold her: a literal lamb, the speaker, and Christ.
  4. Makdisi suggests that “this convergence of I-you-we-he” is part of the making/being theme in this poem: “To make and to be made, at least under certain circumstances, is to participate in this common form of being which Blake called God; and to participate in this common form of being is also to make, to create, to produce.” By being made, one participates in being and that very act of creation (Makdisi 2015, p. 215).

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

Links and Web Resources