Literature

A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Lamb’

A summary of Blake’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Lamb’ is one of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, and was published in the volume bearing that title in 1789; the equivalent or complementary poem in the later Songs of Experience (1794) is ‘The Tyger’.

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
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!
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 & 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.

The Lamb: summary

A child speaks to the lamb, asking it who made it, and whether the lamb knows. The lamb has ‘clothing of delight’ because of its wool, of course, which is used to make clothes for humans. The lamb is innocent: it has a tender voice (the bleating sound it makes) which brings happiness to everything in the surrounding valleys.

The child answers his own question: God, who through Jesus Christ is often associated with the figure of the lamb, made the animal. Like the creature, God/Jesus is meek and mild; Jesus ‘became a little child’ when he was born to the Virgin Mary and incarnated on earth in human form.

It’s almost like a riddle, crossed with a nursery rhyme, crossed with a religious catechism. The poem has a simplicity to it, with its rhyming couplets and trimeter and tetrameter rhythm (more on the metre below):

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;

‘The Lamb’ can be read and enjoyed by children: few words are likely to be unfamiliar, with only a couple (‘meads’ for meadows, ‘vales’ for valleys) being of a more ‘poetical’ stripe.

The Lamb: analysis

‘The Lamb’ reads like one of William Blake’s most accessible and straightforward poems, but closer analysis reveals hidden meanings and symbolism. The solution to this riddle is: ‘The Lamb made the lamb.’ Christ, known as the ‘Lamb of God’, created all living creatures, including the little lamb – for Christ is not only the son of God but God the Creator.

As he reveals in the poem’s second stanza, the speaker of ‘The Lamb’ is a child, in keeping with the childlike innocence found in much of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. This young speaker addresses the lamb, asking if it knows who made it, who gave it life and its woolly coat, and its pleasing bleating ‘voice’ that seems to make the surrounding valleys a happier place.

In summary, the lamb doesn’t answer. Of course it doesn’t. But the speaker answers his own question: ‘I know who made you.’ It was the Lord God, Jesus Christ, who also – funnily enough – calls himself by the name of ‘Lamb’, i.e. Agnus Dei or ‘Lamb of God’. At several points in the New Testament, Jesus is called a lamb: in John 1:29, John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, proclaims, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Jesus-as-lamb metaphor returns in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament.

Jesus is associated with the lamb for several reasons: because Jesus’ sacrifice echoed the Jewish concept of the ‘scapegoat’, because of the use of lambs in animal sacrifices, and because of the image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ which the New Testament goes some way towards promoting (to counter the smiting and vengeful God, Yahweh, from the Old Testament). This Christian symbolism is integral to a full analysis and understanding of ‘The Lamb’.

But if both the literal lamb addressed in the poem and the ‘Lamb of God’ that is Jesus Christ are associated with each other in the poem, then the poem’s speaker – in being a child – is linked to both: a child is a young person just as a lamb is a young sheep. They are also connected by their innocence.

But the word ‘meek’ in the second stanza recalls Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth’ (Matthew 5:5). The child is exactly the sort of ‘meek’ Christian who might be viewed as an inheritor of the Earth. Speaker, lamb, and Christ are all linked by their innocence – making ‘The Lamb’, among all of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, one of the most innocent of all.

‘The Lamb’, one of the Songs of Innocence, finds its counterpart in ‘The Tyger’ from Songs of Experience:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

In his book Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, the Blake scholar D. G. Gillham observes that whereas the child-speaker of ‘The Lamb’ is confident in, and proud of, his knowledge of the lamb (‘Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee …’), the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is marked by uncertainty. Question after question comes at us, and an answer to any of them seems impossible: ‘the speaker can do no more than wonder’, as Gillham notes. Gillham goes on to observe that this may be because the speakers of the two poems are different: the child who addresses the lamb may be protected, and so ‘cannot take into account the harm from which he is shielded’.

The Lamb: poetic metre

The metre of ‘The Lamb’ is trochaic, which means that it is written in trochees, a trochee being a metrical foot comprising one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, e.g. ‘LIT-tle LAMB who MADE thee’. Many lines are written in trimeter, as in the opening lines, but some have an additional fourth foot which is cut short (i.e. we get the stressed syllable, the first half of a fourth trochee, but not the unstressed). This can be seen in the following lines:

GAVE thee / LIFE & / BID thee / FEED.
BY the / STREAM & / O’ER the / MEAD;
GAVE thee / CLOTH-ing / OF de- / LIGHT,
SOFT-est / CLOTH-ing / WOOL-y / BRIGHT;

Trochaic metre is often used in traditional songs, and Blake’s use of it for ‘The Lamb’ lends the poem a songlike quality. Simple, plain, childlike, the poem is innocent in more ways than one. It will find its counterpart in the tiger-poem, which recalls the earlier poem in the line ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’

If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend the Oxford Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics)For more classic Romantic poetry, see our discussion of Blake’s ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ and our analysis of the Coleridge poem ‘Kubla Khan’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: William Blake’s plate of ‘The Lamb’ (1789) via Wikimedia Commons.

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best William Blake Poems | Interesting Literature

  2. Beautiful :)
    Thank you

  3. Pingback: A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ | Interesting Literature

  4. Pingback: A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ | Interesting Literature

  5. Pingback: A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ | Interesting Literature

  6. Clear and concise

Leave a Reply