The Shepherd - Synopsis and commentary


The Shepherd

This poem commends the life of a shepherd. His time is spent following his sheep, praising them for the innocence of the lambs and the tender relationship between lamb and ewe. They can be in peace because they know their shepherd is watching over them.

The concern of the poem with shepherd and sheep places it within the pastoral tradition. That imagery also relates to the many images of shepherds and sheep in the Bible, which are intrinsic to the depiction of God. See Aspects of literature > Impact of the Bible > Big ideas from the Bible > Sheep, shepherd, lamb.


This poem seems a simple poem of praise. Blake's original readers would immediately identify the parallels between the shepherd and sheep and the shepherd / sheep imagery used throughout the Bible to describe the relationship between God and humankind.

Blake's divergence from the traditional imagery

If Blake's shepherd is associated with Christ (described in the New Testament as the Good Shepherd), some important differences need to be noticed:

  • The biblical Good Shepherd is followed by his sheep
    • Here, he follows them
  • In the Old Testament, a famous figure was the shepherd who became a guerrilla leader, then king, David
    • Here, the idea of the shepherd as leader is absent. The notion of Blake's shepherd ‘straying' conveys an air of careless ease and freedom to his days. Although he is watchful, he does not need to worry about his sheep, but can meander along with them
  • According to the Bible and in Christian teaching, it is the shepherd who receives praise from his sheep for his watchful, tender care.
    • Here, the shepherd praises his flock for the tender love between lamb and ewe. They can be peaceful because he watches over them but there is a sense of mutuality. He watches over them but doesn't ‘lord it' over them.

If the poem is read as Blake's shepherd being associated with God, Blake seems to be emphasising the vision of a ‘God alongside people', who loves humankind without demanding obedience in return. He has no association with rules and laws, with leadership and authority, with binding and caging.

A song of innocence

In reality, the job of any shepherd is to be constantly vigilant over his sheep, in the face of danger. But this is a Song of Innocence; there appear to be no overt threats to heighten the shepherd's vigilance. Blake conveys this by having the sheep resting ‘in peace' rather than ‘without fear'. Fear does not seem to be part of the speaker's vocabulary.

In the Bible, the Good Shepherd has to protect his flock against enemies. He is also personally vulnerable - he ‘lays down his life for his sheep' John 10:11. The vision of an innocent lacks this perspective.

Ironically, innocence is always vulnerable to being threatened, devoured and destroyed because it does not understand the existence of what can threaten, devour and destroy.

Investigating the portrayal of shepherds

  • Think about any other poem, play or even nursery-rhyme that involves a shepherd or shepherdess
    • How far does the shepherd in this poem seem like or unlike that shepherd?
      • What are the similarities?
      • What are the differences?
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