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"The Lamb": A Poem by William Blake

William Blake

William Blake

Songs of Innocence and Experience

William Blake's collection entitled “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, subtitled “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, was published as a set of engraved plates between 1789 and 1794. Many of the “Innocence” poems have a counterpart in the “Experience” set, and The Lamb is one of these, being matched with the much better-known The Tyger.

"The Lamb"

The Lamb comprises two stanzas, each of ten lines, the full text being as follows:


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,

Softest clothing, woolly, bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?


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;

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!

Discussion

In the second stanza it is made clear that the words are spoken by a child, who first asks question and then answers them. The diction is simple, with repetition used in a childlike way, not only of whole lines but of individual words in successive lines, namely “clothing” in the first stanza and “child” in the second.


In the second stanza the reader is expected to know what the child is talking about, and this would not have been a problem for Blake’s original readers and most subsequent readers in succeeding generations. However, many modern readers who have not had a grounding in Christian teaching may not be aware of the significance of the imagery used in this poem.


The story of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be God incarnate, and therefore at one with the God of creation, relies on the nature of the sacrifice made at the Crucifixion. This took place at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover, in which lambs were slaughtered in the Temple at Jerusalem in the belief that this act took away the sins of the people participating in the ceremony. The self-sacrifice of Jesus was regarded by him and his followers in the same way, so that one of his titles was “The Lamb of God”.


Blake therefore uses this image to connect the lamb of the poem to the Christian story and to the child, because Jesus became both a child and a lamb. Blake also makes use of the popular perception of Jesus as a man of peace and gentleness (“for he is meek and he is mild”), for which the lamb, as described in the first stanza, is a perfect symbol.


Blake expresses the union between the child, the lamb and Jesus/God very effectively in the second stanza when “He is called by thy name”, in the third line, becomes “We are called by his name” in the third to last line, the two lines bracketing the central part of the stanza.


The Lamb can be better understood by comparing it with The Tyger, and not just because of the linking line in the latter poem: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The Tyger comprises a set of questions throughout, to which no answers are given. That is Experience at work, because the adult knows that not all questions have answers. In the state of Innocence the child will always seek answers and never be satisfied until one is supplied, so The Lamb, which also begins with questions, provides answers, even if these are provided by the child himself, based on his understanding of Christian theology.

It should also be remembered that Blake is exploring the “contrary states of the human soul”, and the contrast between lamb and tiger needs to be seen in a human context. The child who starts off as a lamb, as described in simple, almost naïve, terms, will eventually move away from Innocence to become a tiger of “fearful symmetry”.

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