The Shepherd - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Blake's version of 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, 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.

Shepherd, photo by Raja Selvaraj, available through Creative Commonsshepherd – This one image controls the whole poem. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as the shepherd of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 40:11; Psalms 79:13; Ezekiel 34:11-24). This is the image of God in the famous Psalm 23 ‘The Lord is my shepherd' Psalms 23:1-6. In the New Testament, Jesus is the good shepherd, who goes seeking after his lost sheep. See Big ideas from the Bible > Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

Literary image of the shepherd

Shepherds are standard figures in English literature, especially in pastoral poetry. Pastoral evokes a past world of rural innocence, such as the Garden of Eden before the Fall of humankind. Men, women and nature live in harmony. The shepherd often represents, too, the goodness of a life close to nature in contrast to the artificial life of the town. Blake is able to hint at this tradition by praising the ‘sweetness' of the shepherd's life.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Read Psalms 23:1-6
    • Make a list of the links you can find between this psalm and The Shepherd


The nature of authority and leadership

This is the central underlying theme of The Shepherd. In other poems, authority is generally represented by parents or parent-figures. Here, the shepherd is someone who is alongside, but does not rule his flock. His care does not repress or direct the sheep but enables them to live fully as sheep. He is full of praise for them rather than demanding obedience from them.

Investigating themes

  • How does this view of authority relate to your own views about it?
  • What is your reaction to Blake's vision of what the authority of God looks like?
  • Watch for new and possibly contradictory views in the other poems.
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