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Judging by his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake was obsessed with lambs. If you gave him a Rorschach test (where you look at a random pattern of ink and say what comes to mind) Blake would probably say, "Lamb…Another lamb…newborn lamb…Lamb doing gymnastics…" In his poem titled "The Chimney Sweep," he writes that the shape of some poor kid's shaved head is "curled like a lamb's back." This is definitely one of the stranger metaphors we have encountered in any classic poem.
"The Lamb" takes us to the heart of the matter. We learn Blake's two main reasons why lambs are so awesome: 1) they are soft, happy, and make cool noises; 2) they are associated with Jesus Christ, whom the speaker of this poem regards as the savior of the world.
But we're not going to lie, this poem doesn't exactly make us want to head to the nearest petting zoo. If you're reading "The Lamb" out of a textbook or anthology, you might even think it's a bit, well, boring. It sounds like something you might see embroidered beneath an image of the unbearably cute creature and placed in a pretty frame to hang on someone's bathroom wall. The rhymes are gratingly simple and the speaker repeats himself constantly.
But that's not the whole story. "The Lamb" was published in 1789 as part of a larger work, Songs of Innocence, which is itself part of Songs of Innocence and Experience. This collection is Blake's most famous work, and it's more than the sum of its parts. How so? Blake believed that life could be viewed from two different perspectives, or "states": innocence and experience. To Blake, innocence is not better than experience. Both states have their good and bad sides. The positive side of innocence is joy and optimism, while the bad side is naivety. The negative side of experience is cynicism, but the good side is wisdom.
Many of the poems in the Songs of Innocence have counterparts in the Songs of Experience. The counterpart of "The Lamb" is "The Tyger." If you're tempted to call "The Lamb" boring and childish, remember that it's supposed to complement "The Tyger," and vice-versa. The logic of "The Lamb" is that God creates lambs and that lambs are sweet and gentle, so God must be sweet and gentle. The logic of "The Tyger" is that God also creates Tigers, and tigers are savage and terrifying, so…uh-oh.
One other thing to know about William Blake: he is like a graffiti artist in the sense that the meaning of his words oftentimes cannot be separated from their visual appearance. Blake was an amazing painter, and the Songs of Innocence and Experience were published as art books rather than as "literature" plain and simple. Blake's illustrations are actually quite strange and fascinating. For example, check out the illustration for "The Lamb." What's the deal with those curly, intertwining trees? We think Blake gives Dr. Seuss a run for his money, and then some.
Why should you read this seemingly childish poem about a lamb? For that matter, why read its counterpart, "The Tyger," Blake's most famous poem? That lambs have soft fur or tigers like to hang out in forests should come as news to no one. But the division of daily life into periods of "innocence" and "experience" – two sides of the same coin, really – is something that we grapple with every day.
On a very simple level, Blake's conception is similar to the Chinese division of the world into "Yin" and "Yang," forces of light and darkness that can never be fully separated from one another. As Blake puts it, they are "the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." For him, there are no neat divisions between good and evil.
What's your take? In your life, are there clear cut boundaries between innocence and experience, good and evil? Or do you see the world more like Blake did?
Short Lecture on "The Tyger"
A short lecture on "The Tyger," the companion to "The Lamb" in the Songs of Experience.
Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake
The 20th century poet Allen Ginsberg released a CD with songs (kind of) set to the verses of The Songs of Innocence and Experience. We think his version of "The Lamb" sounds like Smurfs singing. (Select "Performance" to hear the song.)
"The Lamb": Blake's Illustration
The illustrated watercolor print of "The Lamb."
Digital Songs of Innocence and Experience
A digital copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we could own any book in the world, this would be high on our list.
Fearful Symmetry, by Northrop Frye
Frye was a giant of 20th century literary criticism and of Romanticism in general. It helps explain the complicated system of myths and symbols that Blake fuses together in his works.
The William Blake Archive
A glorious digital archive with biographical information, copies of illustrated works, and even a tutorial on the art of engraving.
A solid selection of poems and a brief biography of William Blake. Here you can also read part of Blake's prophetic poem about America.