“Little Lamb, God Bless Thee!”:
Experiencing Blake’s Lamb

by Ralph Dumain

William Blake's poem "The Lamb" is not bland as some people think. This is the same Blake of those militant, anti-clerical poems from the Songs of Experience that someone else chose to commemorate Blake's birthday this year. I had considered posting the same. A previous post of mine provocatively titled "William Blake Against Capital Accumulation" was designed to get at the roots of ruling class metaphysics rather than to go for the more material forms of class society. For Blake's birthday this time around I chose the introduction to the Songs of Innocence for a reason, rather than his anti-ruling-class poems. Now why do you think that was?

The state of innocence Blake imaginatively recreates is not easy for many people to swallow. In particular, Blake's second most famous poem (next to "The Tyger"), "The Lamb", is deemed by some to be too syrupy and insipid to bear. "Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?" I can't agree. Even though he is not a singer, I think Allen Ginsberg at least captures the rhapsodic joy of those verses. Blake forces us into a mode of extreme simplicity, of extreme innocence—we cannot enjoy the poem unless we are ourselves put into that frame of mind. It takes a very sharp mind to know how to do that. Blake wanted to remind us of that state of being to help get us through hard times.

Now back to the piper in the Introduction to Innocence. It seems as if the piper is being addressed by a child. "Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe" sounds like the impulsive request of a child. And so everything seems so simple: fun for kids. But why is it that the narrator says "I wept to hear." Why would anyone, even a kid, weep to hear doggerel for children? I repeated that line over and over for a reason, for I wept to hear. Why would one be so moved by supposed doggerel that one could be brought to tears? Clearly there is something deeper going on that could effect such poignancy. The kind of joy that yields such results is unbearable, like listening to Coltrane's rendition of "Your Lady". "Excess of joy weeps, Excess of sorrow laughs." I went through a box of tissues reading Blake's Collected Writings last week. There is no other poet on the planet who can do me like that.

For Blake to write two complementary books "The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, shewing the two contrary states of the human soul" was an act of genius unparalleled in history. Blake wants to remind us that innocence persists in the midst of experience; it is the guiding thread that shows us the way through the maze of the contradictions of Experience, where the claim to goodness is a mere pretension. Innocence is the root of the future (transcending the present) as well as of the past. It is that dialectical moment of freedom that Satan cannot find, for he has taken a portion of existence and fancied that all.

What would I be saying if I uploaded only Blake's protests against the ruling class? That the universal is not the new society but merely the deadly overthrow of the old? Would I advocate that people reduce themselves to the level of sullen, dehumanized creatures that know only hate and resentment towards their social existence and nothing more, i.e. to be reduced to a level of, say, . . . a Maoist?

"How wide the gulf, and unsurpassable, between simplicity & insipidity."

— W. Blake, "Jerusalem"

2 December 1995

I must take exception to the allegation that Blake's "The Lamb" is saccharine. I first defended "The Lamb" a year ago. There are many people who cannot take "The Lamb" seriously. I have noticed that many critics cannot respond to the Songs of Innocence without viewing them as ironic, without finding some hidden cynicism or satire in all of them. Although I lose patience with the simplistic religious propagandizing of some, I have to concur that the critic's aversion to the concept of innocence is a symptom of the pervasive unhappy consciousness that plagues intellectuals.

Indeed, "The Lamb" must be unbearable to those who would read or recite it from a psychological standpoint external to its spirit. Its relentless sweet simplicity could be just too much, so sweet as to be sickening, but therein I find the genius of the poem. You cannot recite the poem with any seriousness or conviction unless you enter into the very psychological state the poem embodies. Like a jazz singer, you must become what you sing, or it just won't swing. To recite "The Lamb" you must enter into the state of nearly childlike innocence, and that is the aim and effect of the poem itself. The poem makes you feel that state. This is not the product of a naive mind, but of a very shrewd intellect. The role of the poet is to protect his precious minute particulars, to watch over them and explain them to themselves in a manner congruent with their own state of being. "Little Lamb, I'll tell thee." The poet testifies with words, but he also invites you to clean out your own doors of perception and experience the bleating of sheep or the harmonious thunderings of children raising the joyful noise of pure being up to heaven.

"The Lamb" is not poignant like many other Blake poems. Poignancy is a dialectical state, but such emotional tension does not surface in "The Lamb", because there the dialectic is absorbed by the poet in his relation to the lamb: the poet does the telling, whereas the lamb itself is pure, innocent, infant joy. Still, as in his other poems, Blake recreates this experience for adults, to remind us never to forget the unbearable ecstasy of being alive.

"I wept to hear."

14 October 1996

All text edited & uploaded 18 December 2000.
©1995, 1996, 2000 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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Uploaded 18 December 2000

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