The Little Black Boy - 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 several images and refers to related biblical ideas.

Tree – suggests the Tree of knowledge of good and evil in Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat the fruit of this tree. However, Eve was tempted by the devil in the guise of a serpent, so she ate some and then gave it to Adam. (See Genesis 3) As a result, they fell from innocence, became aware of their nakedness and developed shame about it. They were cast out of Eden.

Blake locates this ‘tree' as being within the human mind in his Songs of Experience. Since the boy learns his lesson about love and endurance under the tree, it suggests its link with fallen versions of reality. The lesson the boy is given may be reassuring but it is a lesson fallen human beings have developed to keep people in control. When it is accepted by the naively innocent, it is therefore perpetuated.

East – the direction of the rising sun, and in Christianity associated with the resurrection of Christ and so with eternal life.

Black body/sunburnt face – This reference would remind Blake's readers of the Old Testament poem the Song of Songs, where the bride, whose face is black and sunburnt, is considered beautiful. (Song of Songs 1:6). The Song of Songs (sometimes called The Song of Solomon) is an unashamedly erotic poem. It is seen by the Church as an image of the spiritual love-relationship:

  • Between Christ and the soul
  • Between Christ and the Church
  • Between God and the Virgin Mary.

In medieval literature, it is used as an image for sexual encounter / sexual relationship. This image underlines the essential equality of the black boy as one who is loved by God. Since the Song of Songs is a poem which is interpreted in ways far removed from its original purpose, referencing it stresses Blake's idea that what humans tell themselves can differ from the reality.

Lambs – The lamb image implies innocence, meekness and the figure of Christ. Jesus is portrayed as meek like a lamb before his accusers in 1 Peter 1:19. He is called ‘the Lamb of God' who takes away the sins of the world in John 1:29 and is identified as a sacrificial lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The context and connotations are very different from the use here. This lamb is not a soft, woolly animal but a sacrificial victim. He is associated with human violence and treachery, with the consequences of evil. In the light of this, we can see that there are other dimensions to being ‘like lambs' of which the boy is unaware, even though his actions make him a sacrificial figure.

Golden tent – The image of a golden tent perhaps conjures up for Blake's readers the golden tent of a monarch celebrating victory after a chivalric tournament. In the Old Testament, God's presence was said to inhabit a tent or tabernacle Exodus 40:34-35

[child] - Underlying the poem, though the term is not used, is the fact that the speaker is a child. All Blake's associations with the image of the child are therefore in the background of the poem and affect our understanding of it.

At one level, the child 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).

Like the lamb, the child is gentle and innocent but, because of this, also vulnerable and subject to human cruelty. The boy in this poem is in just this situation.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What do you think the allusion to the Song of Songs adds to the poem?


The vulnerability of innocence

Lacking awareness, innocence makes itself vulnerable to injustice and exploitation. For Blake, innocence was insufficient if it was also ignorant of the realities of the ‘fallen' world. Such ignorance made innocent people prey to the devouring forces within the ‘fallen' world.

The distortion of Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the approach of some forms of contemporary Christianity. This taught people to accept present suffering and injustice because of the promise of bliss and the absence of all suffering in the next world. Although this was a consistent teaching of the New Testament, Blake condemned it as the perspective of the ‘fallen' person.

Investigating themes

  • What new ideas about innocence do you gain from this poem?
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