November 20, 2008

How to write a literature essay - William Blake series 2

Here is the second post on the William Blake series in my English Language Resources Online blog. This English Language Resources blog can also help you in your revision if you are doing Literature at "O" or "A" levels or even if you merely have an interest in either writing good literature essays or poetry. Note that the blog is not just about William Blake, and in the sidebar on the right you can see the other poets and other topics relating to general knowledge, literature, history, the history of ideas, and philosophy as well.

In the other earlier post on Blake, I compared and contrasted two poems in my essay. There are many types of essays for literature, and the comparison essay is a major type of essay that you need to know about. In this essay here, I analyse instead images and religious references, as these two are key elements in understanding Blake's literature. Remember to ask questions about the essay and think about how you can improve on my writing.

William Blake’s The Lamb: Religious References and Imagery

"The Lamb" from "Songs of Innocence" is a very symbolic poem. This paper discusses the religious references and imagery that permeate the entire poem and give it its key meaning and essence, because, while apparently a simple Christian poem that is easy to understand and simple in meaning, “The Lamb” has deeper philosophical issues embedded into its structure and symbolism. One can look at the symbols, the structure, the questioning that the little child-speaker uses in the poem, and the answer that he offers for the very difficult and philosophical question and answer of life’s origins.

Firstly, what are the obvious symbols in the poem? The “little lamb” in the poem can superficially and obviously symbolize innocence, childhood, serenity, Jesus, or even a sacrifice, and these are images and devices that are associated exclusively with Christianity. A lamb is a gentle and meek creature that is submissive, and in many ways a lamb is very much like a child. In this poem, the lamb being spoken to can be interpreted literally as a real lamb that the child-speaker is addressing, and simultaneously also be taken to be the symbol of Jesus, because the traditional image of Jesus as a lamb underscores the Christian values of gentleness, meekness, and peace. These are also the very same characteristics from which the child-speaker approaches the ideas of nature and of God, as can be seen in the words “tender”, “rejoice” and the alliterative “meek” and “mild”. These words suggest that both the child and the lamb are gentle, and bring forth the imagery of Jesus and Christianity. In addition, the image of the child, the speaker himself, is also associated with Jesus: in the biblical Gospels, Jesus displays a special care and concern for children, and the Bible's depiction of Jesus in his infancy shows him as vulnerable. Hence, once again, there is an interrelationship between the child-speaker and the lamb, as both of them are very similar, according to Christian belief.

Secondly, how does the structure of the poem contribute to its religious appearance and form? "The Lamb" has two stanzas, each with five rhymed couplets, giving the poem a sense of connectedness, eloquence and fluidity, like a kind of gentle prayer or some chanting. Thus the poet creates a child-like tone through a very song-like form and structure; repetition in the first and last couplet of each stanza makes these lines into a refrain, and helps to give the poem its song-like quality. “Little lamb, who made thee?/ Does thou know who made thee” and “Little lamb, I'll tell thee;/ Little lamb, I'll tell thee” make the poem sound like a song, because of the consistent and lyrical repetition of the phrases. At the same time, the flowing “l’s” and soft vowel sounds contribute to this effect, and further suggest the gentle bleating of a lamb or the soft-spoken character of a little child's chanting or singing. Through the use of apostrophe, where the speaker addresses the lamb which is present and central to the story but not literally within the poem, but instead outside of it, Blake actually attributes human qualities to a lamb, the lamb being the listener and the child being the speaker. Perhaps the lamb can also be considered human, like another little child, even. Once again, throughout the entire poem the lamb and the child are interchangeable, the child is a lamb, yet the lamb is a child. Yet at the same time, “I a child, and thou a lamb/ We are called by His name” suggests clearly that there is a distinction between the child and the lamb, and that the child is cognisant of the fact that he is distinct from the lamb, despite having the same Creator. Hence there is some ambiguity and ambivalence, which characterise William Blake’s poetry. In any case, the poem is thus clearly a child's song, in the form of a question and answer, where the first stanza is where the child asks the lamb about its origins, and the second stanza is where the child tells the lamb the answer, according to his innocent Christian beliefs.

What, then, does the questioning do? The poem actually begins with the immediate and direct question, "Little Lamb, who made thee?" The speaker, a child, asks the lamb about its origins: how it came into being, how it attained its own manner of feeding, its "clothing" made of wool, and its "tender voice", basically rhetorically asking how the lamb got all its beautiful qualities. The child's question is simultaneously both naive and deeply, philosophically profound. The question "who made thee" is a simple one, and yet the child is asking the deep and timeless questions that all human beings have about their own origins and creation. At the same time, the poem's apostrophic form contributes in a sense to an effect of naiveté, since the situation of a child talking to an animal is a believable one, and conjures up very innocent images. What this does is it gives the poem an innocent view in the first stanza, and sets up the answer for the second stanza.

Finally, what are the implications of the answer, and the religious, theological imagery of the answer that the child gives? In the second stanza, the child-speaker attempts an answer to his own question: the lamb was made by one who "calls himself a Lamb," one who resembles in his gentleness both the child and the lamb – in other words, Jesus. It immediately shows the whole connectedness of all things: the creator, the lamb, Jesus, through the use of the extended metaphor. The three lines “He became a little child/ I a child, and thou a lamb,/ We are called by His name” connects the three, child, Jesus and lamb, because it suggests that Jesus was born as a little child, just like the speaker, and the fact that both child and lamb are called by His name links them all together. The child-speaker tells the lamb, which could even come across as a rapt, attentive little child, how Jesus was just like a lamb, using symbolic language, comparing Jesus to a child. This creates a connection once again, as a child is like a lamb, and Jesus is like a child. Yet, at the same time, by answering his own question, the child converts his important question into a rhetorical one, thus counteracting the initial spontaneity of the poem. The child's answer, however, reveals his confidence in his simple Christian faith and his innocent acceptance of its teachings. One the one hand, this can be interpreted as Blake’s interpretation of Christianity; on the other, it is equally valid that this is only how little children perceive Christianity, and that Christianity may be something else altogether.

In conclusion, the symbols, the structure, the questioning and the answer given all contribute to a unified sense of the poem, where “The Lamb” is a Christian poem that is completely self-contained and portrays conventional Christian images and values as beautiful and innocent, answering a little child’s actually very difficult and very philosophical question of where we come from. It is not simple at all, for the richness and varied interpretations of the child, the lamb and Jesus, reflect conventional Christianity while at the same time showing a little child’s weltanschauung of Jesus, very philosophical indeed.

Note that for O level literature or any written examination, your essay does not need a bibliography; but if you are doing A levels or higher level literature or essay writing in particular, you will need a citations section/ works cited section/ bibliography for each and every one of your written essays.


Blake, William, David Erdman and Harold Bloom. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. California: University of California Press 1982.

All the essays on this English Language Resources Online blog are written by or edited or collected and vetted by Shawn Seah and are NOT for sale and NOT for distribution. They are for educational and reference purposes only.


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