“The Lamb” consists of two ten-line stanzas which pose a question and give an answer. Each stanza has five pairs of rhyming couplets, where the end word of one line rhymes with the next. Note that Blake often repeats a word to create this rhyme, creating a type of refrain, and twice employs the slant or false rhyme of “lamb” and “name.” Most lines have seven syllables, except for the first and last couplets of each stanza, which have only six syllables. In the second stanza, it is worth noting that the word “called” is pronounced with two syllables, so that it is read “call-ed.”
Literature for Children
When Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the 1780s he was building on a well-established tradition of children’s books. However, Blake fundamentally disagreed with the underlying premises of most of these books, which were influenced by Puritan theology. According to this view, which was shared by the Methodists and the Church of England’s Evangelical movement, children were born into a state of “original sin.” They had to be ruled with a firm hand if they were to overcome their evil tendencies.
Evangelical educator Hannah More, for example, wrote in 1799 (quoted by Zachary Leader) that it was “a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings, whose little weaknesses may perhaps want some correction, rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify.” In the Methodist schools of the period, play was discouraged; hard work and self-discipline were emphasized. Idleness was considered one of the worst sins. The underlying idea was that the child’s will had to be broken, so he could learn to live in conformity with God’s will. These attitudes were reflected in books written for children.
One children’s book that was extremely popular in Blake’s time was Isaac Watts’s Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715). Watts’s attitude to children was considerably less harsh than that of many Puritans. He believed that poems for children should be cheerful rather than weighed down with solemn religious instruction.
Blake objected to the emphasis in Watts’s poems on hard work, reading and studying, and the absence of childlike play or enjoyment. A number of Blake’s Songs of Innocence are direct replies to the poems of Watts. None of the children in Songs of Innocence go to school or work. They simply enjoy being children.
If Blake diverged from the lyrics that were fashionable in his day, he often followed, as John Holloway has pointed out, the metrics of eighteenth century hymns. “On Another’s Sorrow,” for example, is identical in meter and rhyme to “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” by the Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley.
Blake obviously knew Wesley’s work well. Heather Glen has pointed out that Blake’s “The Lamb” echoes Wesley’s hymn for children, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” The difference is that in the hymn the child has to plead with Jesus, the Lamb of God, to permit him to come close:
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
In “The Lamb,” the intimacy between Lamb and child is immediately present. The child does not have to plead for it.
The Child in Romantic Literature
Blake was not alone in his belief that childhood was a time of innocent spirituality and joy. Other English Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Clare shared Blake’s belief. In this they were influenced by the writings of the eighteenth century French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau. Rousseau expounded the idea of the “noble savage,” the natural goodness of humanity in its primitive condition. He extended this to include the goodness of children.
Inspired by this novel way of thinking, the Romantic poets replaced the Puritan idea that a child was born into original sin with the idea of the child’s original goodness. In their spontaneity and purity of perception, children were close to God and to nature. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” wrote Wordsworth in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood” (1807).
The child’s ability to live effortlessly in an imaginative realm made the state of childhood the envy of poets, who regarded it as a rebuke to adult lives that had been reduced to habit, conformity, and dull practicality. Wordsworth in particular praised the child’s imaginative power. According to Wordsworth, a child was able to see the divine light; this gave him wisdom beyond his years. Wordsworth mourned the inevitable loss of this gift as the child grew into adulthood.
Most of the Romantic poets wrote in praise of childhood as adults remembering an earlier time in their lives; it was only Blake, in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, who wrote poems that captured the voice of childhood itself.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, William Blake, Published by Gale Group, 2001.