The Lamb - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

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. Thus, he used Christian images that he knew his readers would recognise, but in ways which questioned how the image was commonly understood. Here he uses two images, that of the lamb and the child, and draws on related biblical ideas.

The poem is in the pastoral tradition of an idyllic rural scene, with words suggesting that everything is perfection – ‘delight', ‘softest', ‘bright', ‘tender', ‘rejoice'.

Photo by Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation, available through Creative CommonsBy the stream….an allusion to Psalms 23:1-6, in which God is a shepherd tending his flock and his people are sheep and lambs needing care and protection

For he calls himself a lamb – Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' in John 1:29. He is also called a lamb in 1 Peter 1:19 and is identified as a sacrificial lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. This lamb is not a soft, woolly and cuddly animal but a sacrificial victim. He is associated with human violence and treachery, with the consequences of evil. The context and connotations of these well known references are very different from the image of the lamb in the poem.

He is meek and he is mild – In a famous lesson given by Jesus, known as the Beatitudes, the quality of meekness is praised:

‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth'. (Matthew 5:5)

Jesus is portrayed as meek like a lamb before his accusers in Isaiah 53:7. Again, the context for this meekness and mildness is the experience of human violence and injustice.

He became a little child – at one level, this is an image of innocence and gentleness. In the Gospels, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility. However, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and childhood include experience of human violence and so emphasise the vulnerability of the child:

  • He is acclaimed by the prophet Simeon as one who will bring about the fall and rise of many (Luke 2:34-35)
  • Then his parents become refugees to escape King Herod's attempts to kill Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all boys under two (see Matthew 2:16–18).

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Click the above Bible references
    • How does the biblical context affect your understanding of the way in which the lamb and child images are used in the poem?


The nature of innocence

The poem introduces the theme of the vulnerability of innocence and of the incomplete vision of the innocent speaker. The child's view is limited on account of an absence of awareness of the total reality of human experience.

How the human mind sees the nature of the world and its creator

According to Blake, ‘contraries' are facts about the world and about the nature of the creative force behind it. For example, ferocious power and energy exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Humans falsify their understanding of the creator and of the human beings made ‘in his image' when one of these dimensions is excluded from the picture. This creates unnecessary questions and produces unhealthy splits between what are understood as forces of good and forces of evil.

The child sees the creator only as like a lamb and a child. The reader knows there are other forces at play in creation that the child cannot see. And if they are in creation. are they not also in the creator?

God in man's image

Blake felt that merely human understanding created a limiting vision of the creator, simply as a projection of its own human qualities:

  • Those, like the innocent child here, who see only gentleness and tenderness in nature and in themselves, produce an image of a creator who is mild and gentle but lacks energy and power
  • Those who have fallen into divided selfhood see the creator only in terms of their own capacity for jealousy, cruelty and possessiveness. They create an image of God as a tyrant who is a tyrannical ruler and must be appeased
  • Here, the innocent child can imagine only a tender, gentle creator because this is all he himself knows.

Investigating themes

  • What does the evocation of innocence in this poem add to what you have already gathered from the earlier poems in the sequence?
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