Friday, February 20, 2009

"The Lamb" (11-20)

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 & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

These lines from William Blake's "The Lamb" (Songs of Innocence, 1789) are among the most famous in all of English literature. They are uttered by the speaker of the lyric, a child-shepherd who is apparently talking directly to his lamb and answering the rhetorical question he had posed at the end of the preceding stanza: "Dost thou know who made thee?" The lines express as clearly as anywhere in Blake the condition of Innocence.

It's important first to recognize the implications of the speaker's initial question, "Who made thee?" This is a poem about Creation, or, more specifically, about the relationship between the Creator and his Creatures. From the Innocence perspective, Creation is very much an act of incarnation wherein the essence of the Creator is preserved in the creatures, thus insuring a form of identity between the Creator and a created world.

Note, for example, the progress of pronouns through the middle lines. The speaker establishes an identity, in name at least, between "He" (the Creator) and the lamb to whom the poem is addressed: "He is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb." The reference is, of course, to the recurrent Biblical trope of Jesus as the "lamb of God." In case we missed the Jesus reference, Blake follows with a nativity image: "He is meek & he is mild, / He became a little child." Since now Jesus is both lamb and child, the speaker can also sketch an identity with himself since he too is a child. The claim, in essence, is that Jesus the Creator is both lamb and child; the speaker is a child talking to a lamb; and the Creator is thus identified with us and we are identified with the Creator: "I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name." And note the collective identity wrapped up in the suddenly plural "We" who are "called by his name." Expressed as a series of equivalences, we might get something like this: If He = lamb and He = child, and further if I = child and thou = lamb, then We = He and He = we.

It may be putting too fine a point on Blake's language, but it is also possible to read the repeated line in the closing couplet as underscoring the speaker-lamb-Creator identity. Blake doesn't engrave any commas into these lines, and this leads to a significant ambiguity. On the one hand, we might read the lines as though there were a comma after Lamb: "Little Lamb, God bless thee." Such would be the most common idiomatic reading. But it is also possible to read the line as though the speaker is blessing a "little lamb-god." After all, the poem has emphasized this unity of creature and Creator, so it makes sense that one aspect of divinity (the speaker) might himself bless another aspect of divinity the (Little Lamb God): "Little Lamb God, bless thee."

It's a beautiful, confident, tender sort of poem--the very essence of Blakean Innocence. It is also a potentially heretical poem. In drawing an identity between Creator and creatures, the poem suggests that the created world has not fallen away from the Divine. I won't draw out the argument here, but in this respect the poem bears close comparison with its Experience companion, "The Tyger," where the act of creation seems to generate a sense of doubt, fear, and alienation in the speaker rather than this more comforting sense of benign unity. The poem might also bear comparison with the pantheistic speculations of another potentially heretical poem on the same lines: Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp."

[As always with Blake, a merely textual, verbal discussion misses the beauty and richness of the engravings. For the full picture--in several incarnations--see the Blake Archive.]

No comments: