The Little Girl Lost - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

There is a dreamlike or fairy tale atmosphere to this poem. Critics have suggested that Blake is making use here of folk-tales about lost children who are found and reared by animals.

Folk-tales and the related form of the Romances often use images of caves and caverns inhabited by wild beasts. They evoke ideas of depth and hiddenness appropriate to the notion of the hidden, inner recesses of the mind.

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, were Christians and shared Blake's familiarity with the Bible. He both used – and questioned - Christian images that he knew his readers would recognise.

Grave the sentence – The picture is of earth serving a term of punishment, serious and long-lasting because of the magnitude of the ‘crime'. This alludes to the biblical narrative of the fall of humankind, when Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation rather than obeying God. See Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Second Adam. The term ‘grave' is associated with death and could also refer to the verb ‘engrave'.

Israelites in the wildernessDesart wild … garden mild – Blake evokes Old Testament images of the Israelites wandering in the desert (after their escape from captivity in Egypt) before reaching the Promised Land. It also hints at the image of Adam and Eve wandering after being expelled from Eden (Genesis 3:23). This suggestion is made clearer by the reference to the ‘garden mild'. This evokes the Garden of Eden, the harmonious paradise in which the first humans lived before falling into self-consciousness and sexual shame.

It suggests, that in Lyca's story, we will be reading about a return to inner harmony, a recovery of what was lost in the Fall. This, too, is a biblical theme (Isaiah 35:1-2). In this way, Lyca herself becomes a symbol of this restoration. These references build on the natural associations of deserts and gardens and the contrast between them.

This tree - Biblical images in the prologue are then picked up in the poem itself in the reference to Lyca sleeping beneath a tree. Usually in Blake, the tree suggests the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat its fruit. Tempted by the devil in the shape of a serpent, Eve eats some and gives it to Adam. As a result, they fall from innocence, become aware of their sexuality and develop shame about it. They are cast out of Eden. Blake locates this tree in the human mind in his Songs of Experience. (See The Human Abstract)

Wild animals - The imagery of leopards, tigers and lions is used not only because these are fierce animals but also because in the prophetic books of the Old Testament they represent dangerous and predatory forces. Blake himself sees these as symbols of the ferocious power and energy within creation, as necessary to it as the gentleness of the lamb. In the Bible, Jesus is pictured both as a lion and as a lamb, combining these contraries.

Sexuality – Lyca's maiden / virgin state is emphasised. Having her bosom and neck licked, being undressed, then ‘convey'd / To caves' by animals are events with sexual overtones. The lion's ‘eyes of flame' can be interpreted as lust whilst the ‘Ruby tears' might symbolise the blood shed as virginity is taken.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Would the poem be as effective if you only took desert and garden as natural symbols of barrenness, fertility and growth?
  • What do you think Blake is conveying through the sexual / animal imagery?


The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that human inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, and were a consequence of the Fall. Working from this distorted perspective, people make their fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws, then enshrine them in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State. Here, Lyca is hindered by her perceptions of her mother's fears and anticipated prohibitions.

Parental care and authority

In Blake's work, parents are often perceived as inhibiting and repressing their children. Their own fears and shame are communicated to the next generation through the parental desire to ‘protect' children from their desires and their sexuality. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care' to repress children and bind them to themselves, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in, and safeguarding, their capacity for play and imagination.

Investigating theme

  • Compare the image of the parents here with that of the nurse in The Nurse's Song (I).
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