A Little Boy Lost (E) - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Lost – The poem's title can be understood in a number of ways:

  • The conventional idea that the boy has ‘lost' his way morally in challenging the teaching of the Bible
  • Lost can be used as a euphemism for dead (as in ‘we lost our father last year')
  • The boy is ‘lost' according to Blake's beliefs, because his fallen viewpoint only relies on reason, thus denying his full humanity
  • The boy will end up a ‘lost soul' after death because he has rejected the way to heaven / salvation
  • The child's insignificance and his parents' powerlessness make him a ‘lost cause'
  • The physical destruction of his body by burning means that his presence / voice is lost to others

Child - At one level, the child is an image of innocence. Children's absence of self-consciousness means that they will also ask the questions or make the statements which adults, aware of consequences and fearful for themselves, do not dare to ask. Blake's contemporaries would be familiar with the Old Testament idea that babes and children will praise God because they recognise him when adults do not. In other words, they have a simple wisdom which contradicts adult cleverness. (See Psalms 8:2 and Jesus' reference to this Matthew 21:16). In the Gospels, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility.

For this reason, however, the child is also potentially a victim of this adult world which is threatened by this wisdom. Blake would be highly conscious of Slaughter of the Innocents, photo by Mattana, available through Creative Commonsthe accounts of Jesus' birth and childhood. These 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. The child Jesus, like the child in this poem, threatens the power of established authority and is, therefore, its victim.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What are the main features of your image of a child?
    • Do they include being wise or being a victim?
      • Does it help you to understand this poem better by including these ideas?


Snares, confinement

Images of confinement abound in the Songs. Blake the revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment' – the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all aspects of human behaviour. He also opposed conventional morality when it confined the natural instincts of humanity. The heavy ‘iron chain' is symbolic of the repression offered by the ‘Priest' here, as is the child's confinement on top of the altar. This also associates him with death and sacrifice

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

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy, Here they have developed into a complete tyrannical system which polices thought as well as behaviour, destroying freedom.

Parental care and authority

The poem illustrates another instance of inadequate parenting, Here parents are weak and unable to protect their children. Their weeping is futile and suggests their entrapment in the oppressive system which is destroying their child.

The perception of children

  • Is the child born free and good, as Rousseau believed, or born sinful, as the Calvinist Christians believed?
  • Or is this opposition the result of fallen human beings' inability to recognise that the capacity for good and evil both belong to humanity?

Blake saw the natural child as an image of the creative imagination which is the human being's spiritual core. He was concerned about the way in which social institutions such as the educational and religious systems crushed imaginative vision. Expressions of this imagination are seen in the child's capacity for happiness and play and to see through, and beyond, the rationale of accepted teachings. The person who keeps imagination alive will be seen as being subversive and open to persecution.

Investigating themes

  • Punishment by burning seems an unrealistic fate for a child in eighteenth century London
    • What point might Blake be making?
    • Do you think Blake's emotive fate for the child enhances or undermines the power of the poem?
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