Introduction (I) - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Greek and Roman mythology

Blake makes many references to Greek and Roman mythology in his poetry. This enables him to give deeper significance to the characters and situations in a poem. Myths are more than stories; they are told to suggest some truths about human nature and experiences or to explain how the world has become the way it is.

Piping - The presence of a piper, especially in this rural setting, suggests the PanGreek god Pan, god of rustic music. This reinforces the idea of simple, unsophisticated songs, ‘songs of innocence'.

However, behind Pan lies the image of the great Greek god of music, Orpheus. He could charm nature with the power of his music. For the Romantics, he represented the poet as an inspired singer, possessed by a power or ‘genius' beyond himself. The use of this imagery enables Blake to suggest that his poems are the work of divinely inspired imagination.

Christian and biblical imagery

Blake was concerned to express what he believed was his true understanding of Christianity. He was writing for a public that, for the most part, was Christian and shared Blake's familiarity with the Bible. He could use Christian images which he knew his readers would recognise. However, he can also use them in ways which question how the image is commonly understood. Here, the two images he uses are the lamb and the child:

a lamb – many times in the Bible Jesus Christ is identified with a lamb, an animal commonly used as a sacrifice in the Jewish worship rites laid out in the Old Testament:

  • When he was brought before the Jewish and Roman authorities, Jesus was portrayed as being meek like a lamb before his accusers
  • Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God' who takes away the sins of the world John 1:29-36
  • He is identified as a sacrificial lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7.

Lamb by Keven Law, available through Creative CommonsSo for Blake's readers, a lamb was not just a soft, woolly animal but a sacrificial victim. It is associated with human violence and treachery, with the consequences of evil. Blake uses the image of a lamb to subvert the tendency in some Christian circles to present the Son of God as only a ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.' So a lamb therefore represents what is gentle, meek and tender in life, but also provides a reminder of the vulnerability that goes along with it. Lambs are reared to be eaten. See Big ideas from the Bible > Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

a child – On account of their playfulness and freshness Blake saw children as symbols of the imagination and artistic creativity. He also used them as an image of innocence and gentleness. The child motif emphasises the suggestions of simplicity and lack of sophistication. In the New Testament, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility.

Much of the moralistic teaching of Blake's day stressed the infant and boy Jesus as a figure with whom children could identify. However, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and childhood include experience of human violence and so emphasise the vulnerability of the child:

  • The Jewish ruler, King Herod, wanted to kill the newborn child and ordered all boys under two to be slaughtered (Matthew 2:16-18). The child's parents had to flee with him to Egypt to keep him safe
  • Later, Jesus is acclaimed by an elderly prophet, Simeon, as one who will bring about the fall and rise of many (Luke 2:34-35).

Like the lamb, the child represents gentleness and innocence, together with vulnerability and openness to exploitation.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Look at the way in which your understanding of the poem is changed once you start to think about the ideas associated with the lamb and child imagery in it.


The nature of the artist

Blake is asserting that the artist does not speak with his or her own voice but is under the influence of a guiding spirit, the imagination. He says it is this which provides the true vision of reality.

The nature of innocence

Innocence here is presented as a state of happiness and obedience. The piper is happy to do whatever he is told. He has no fear or suspicion regarding the voice he hears and no reluctance to do its bidding. He is one child responding to another.

Investigating themes

  • Skim through the other poems in the ‘Innocence' sequence to see how the themes of artistic inspiration and innocence are explored in the rest of the sequence
    • Make a spider diagram of the different presentations of innocence
    • Where can you discern differences between the vision of the poem's speaker and the vision of the whole poem?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.