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’.
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.
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 tetrameter rhythm. ‘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’ 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.
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.