William Blake included The Little Black Boy in his collection The Songs of Innocence, published in 1789. The poem is considered to be one of the most uncomfortable of Blake’s lyric poems. This is because it deals with the issues of racism and slavery. The black race suffers in order to teach the white world wisdom, but the black child deplores his own color since it seems to prevent the world realizing his purity of soul.
Blake’s humanism is evident in this poem. In an age when black people were treated worse than animals he makes a black woman and child the guardians of selfless giving which is the essence of true Christianity. While this poem emphasizes the philosophy of Christ, there is yet ambivalence. While in the English countryside, every child has the birthright of divine love, the little black boy has to strive to be worthy of acceptance. The black child has to cast off his colored skin to find friendship from the white child.
The Little Black Boy Analysis
The black child, like the Chimney Sweeper, teaches that life is something to escape from; which means in many ways it portrays a tragic vision but the poem retains its innocence because there is belief in the happiness and redemption. The poem is a poem of transition, a poem of doubt in the heart of the poet as he explores prejudices and racial issues. It is a searching poem, which gives the reader an insight into how Blake saw the world.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
The poem, The Little Black Boy by William Blake, begins with the little black boy himself narrating. The boy tells the reader how his mother gave birth to him in the southern forest of Africa. So, he is black but only his skin is black while his soul is white (the whiteness of course representing purity). His spirit (soul) is as white as an angel. I think the insinuation is that the black child is bemoaning his skin, because it gives the appearance that he is “bereav’d of light”.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.
The second stanza of the poem continues the narration by the black boy. In these four lines, he tells the readers that his mother brought him up and taught him in the shade of a tree in the face of the heat of the sun. Seating herself down facing the heat of day, the mother made her son sit on her lap and kissed him lovingly. Then pointing with her finger to the direction of the east (where the sun rises), the mother started speaking to her child in the following manner.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
The third stanza of four lines contains the statement of the mother to her son. The mother directs the attention of her black boy to look at the rising sun and tells him that God does live there. From there the sun provides light and heat to the creatures of the world. All flowers, trees, beasts and human beings receive from the sun comfort in the morning and happiness at noon. You can see here the christian undertones. Many people would have considered black people to be savages so the idea of them being christian and worthy of gods light would have been alien to them. yet Blake bravely attacks and subverts this dated concept.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
The mother continues speaking to her little boy in the fourth stanza wherein she tells her son that human beings are provided a little space in order to learn to bear the big rays of love. They become worthy of God’s love and illumination. She says that the black bodies and sun-tanned faces are like cloud and like shady groves for them. What this means is that although one might associate a black body with negativity, that it can be likened to a shadow that a shadow is a relief on a sunny day. She is effectively showing her son that despite the colour of his skin he belongs.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
In the fifth stanza, the mother tells the boy that when the bodies of the blacks, like the mother and the son, become accustomed to tolerate the heat of the sun, their souls will be free of the cloud, and they will be able to hear divine voice asking them to come out of the grove to the divine care and love, to move about happily round the golden tent like happy lambs (lambs being religiously associated with the divine). Here in this stanza, the body is seen as a garment of the soul to be worn on earth. Once the child is spiritually prepared to face the brilliance of heaven this material protection is no longer necessary.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
In the next stanza, the boy resumes speaking and tells the readers that his mother kissed him. He then addresses a young white boy. He says that when the black boy and the white boy become free from black skin and white skin, they, like lambs (flocks), will play round the tent of God merrily. “The black boy renders selfless services to the white child for the he has grown through suffering. The white child is frailer spiritually for he has been protected from suffering and experience.” So although both children will make it to heaven, the young black boy will be spiritually ritcher for having endured what he has on earth. For the time this idea would have been highly controversial but in keeping with the liberal nature of many poets.
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
In the last four lines of the poem, the narrator is the little black boy himself. He feels that although his body is black and considered by many to be inferior, his soul, his spiritual self is as fine as white child’s. So it would appear he has taken his mother’s teachings to heart. The poet says that the black boy will shade the white boy from the beams of God’s love. And that acts as a body or garment to the white child’s soul or body. As the black boy has endured greater suffering on earth, he will help the white boy learn to bear the beams of God’s love. After the white boy learns to bear the beams of love, then touching the white boy will become possible. Under the influence of God’s love, they will be perhaps equal and similar. Then in this position of apparent equality, the white boy will instantly love the black boy.
Blake wrote the poem just about the time when the Mission established by the Methodist Society were first founded in 1787, and the trend of religious thought was turning toward preaching the Christian gospel to the black races. Black boys were commonly employed as servants in big English houses. In this poem Blake has pointed out the comparison between the black and the white boy. In the poem, the little black boy accepts his life as a gift from God. He takes it gracefully just as it is given and uses it to good purposes, though that life is not an easy one. He is probably a slave, regarded by his overseer as one “bereaved of light,” a beast of burden destined for an existence of hard toil. No wonder that he cannot refer to God’s gift simply as a delightful one. The “light” and the “heat” are received by “flowers and trees and beasts and men” as comfort in morning, joy in the noonday,” but the “beams of love” are also something that he must “learn to bear.” He is thankful for his life, but knows only too well that it is a hard one.
About William Blake
Born in London in November 1757, William Blake made a modest but promising start as a poet, as a painter, and as a book illustrator. He was the most remarkable poet among the precursors of the Romantic Revival in English. There were five children in his family, he being the second one. It seems that the deprivation and denial of love from the family might have generated in his mind an exotic imaginary world of his own. Between 1789 and 1795, Blake began a series of poems and designs in his illuminated printing that constitute his greatest achievement.
On the whole, William Blake’s poetry is as delightful as it is challenging, and its wide appeal ranges from the deceptive cadence of his lullaby-like songs and pastorals to the troubling notes of the tragedy of the lapsed soul and the stormy music of the prophetic works.