William Blake’s ‘The Little Vagabond‘ is a humorous explanation from a child to his mother about why he is reluctant to attend church. His reasons are, broadly, that the church lacks the warmth and hospitality of the local pub, and he freely expresses the ways in which he feels the church should become more like the ale-house.
The Little Vagabond William Blake Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold, But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm; Besides I can tell where I am use'd well, Such usage in heaven will never do well. But if at the Church they would give us some Ale. And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale; We'd sing and we'd pray, all the live-long day; Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray, Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing. And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring: And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church, Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch. And God like a father rejoicing to see, His children as pleasant and happy as he: Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.
‘The Little Vagabond‘ playfully draws parallels between an unappealing church service and a busy ale-house, and features some of Blake’s most subtly amusing work.
The poem begins with the narrator appealing to his mother that he be permitted to visit the pub rather than have to attend church on account of the jovial atmosphere at the former. The poem grows increasingly farcical as it continues, not only because of the narrator’s apparent youth but because he seems intent on convincing his mother that church services would be better if they more closely resembled a trip to the pub. He goes on to suggest that being able to drink ale in the church would actually please God, for he would be happy to see his worshippers enjoying themselves.
‘The Little Vagabond‘ is taken from Blake’s defining collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and was first published in 1794. Songs of Innocence was initially published on its own, but ‘The Little Vagabond‘ was not featured in it. Given the apparent youth of the narrator, one might expect the poem to be more closely associated with innocence than experience. However, the poem’s focus on critiquing the Church, albeit through humor, ensures that it is concerned with the loss of innocence as the result of having spent time among working adults in the ale-houses. Like many poems in Blake’s oeuvre, ‘The Little Vagabond‘ explores the social divides that the poet observed in society
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use’d well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.
‘The Little Vagabond‘ begins with the narrator desperately appealing to his mother that he be allowed to miss church. This emphasizes the narrator’s youth and ensures the readers’ expectations are subverted when they learn that he wishes to visit the ale-house instead. Modern readers would be particularly sensitive to this, as alcohol is more strictly sold than it was during Blake’s lifetime. The narrator uses the rule of three to celebrate the pub and juxtaposes it against the cold nature of the church. Despite the initial absurdity of the comparison, the poem’s success lies in its ability to showcase how quickly ordinary people can become disillusioned with organized religion.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,
The poem’s satirical tone continues in this stanza, which functions as a manifesto for how church services might become more appealing; it is noteworthy that these suggestions all serve to make the experience more closely resemble visits to the ale-house. However, beneath the humourous comparison, the narrator outlines the fact that the Church offers neither warmth or sustenance of any kind. Given the kind of poverty that Blake witnessed during his lifetime and the comparatively vast wealth of the Church of England, the stanza appears to denounce the Church for its lack of generosity.
Ironically, the metaphorical claim that people’s souls “regale” in the pub implies that visiting the ale-house is a more spiritual activity than attending a church service. Furthermore, the reference to singing in the third line reinforces the notion that the secular gathering point, as represented by the ale-house, can replace the religious place of worship. Finally, the use of the internal rhyme in the third line imbues the stanza with a jovial rhythm to reflect the narrator’s joy at the prospect of visiting the ale-house.
Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.
Stanza three begins by humorously imagining the Parson as a fellow drinker who appears infinitely more approachable to the change in his behavior. Given the fact that it is the role of the clergy to help bring people closer to God, the narrator seemingly implies that were alcohol served in church, the congregation might grow closer to the divine. The poet uses the simile when claiming his suggestions would make people “as happy as birds in the spring” to reiterate the strength of his proposal.
The imagery of birds and spring’s connotations of renewal provides a link to biblical passages, again suggesting that the Church would benefit from modeling its services on the ale-house, and that it may, in fact, be God’s wish that they do. Finally, the decision to reference “dame Lurch” ensures Blake’s critique is extended to the state for its failure to properly educate the masses, instead leaving the responsibility to parishioners.
And God like a father rejoicing to see,
His children as pleasant and happy as he:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.
The use of the simile comparing God to a father is intended to be humourous on account of the fact that God is repeatedly described in those terms in the Bible, yet the narrator seems to be unaware of that fact. This could suggest that the teachings of the Bible were not being applied or proliferated in society, which explains the narrator’s ignorance. The poem’s satire reaches its climax in the poem’s final lines, which suggest that, were the child’s suggestions to be taken seriously, that God and the Devil might be able to settle their differences, thereby eradicating some of theology’s most complex issues. This hyperbolic claim is intended to remind the readers of the narrator’s youth, as children often oversimplify complicated issues, but also encourages them to question whether there were real, tangible changes that could be made to the practice of religion and society in general.
A vagabond is an unflattering name for someone that is homeless or, at the very least, living in poverty. The significance of using such a term to refer to the narrator is that it firmly establishes the child as an outsider to society. This is also important as, according to the teachings of the Bible, it is these people that true followers of God should endeavor to protect, clothe and feed, which are precisely the things the narrator accuses the Church of failing to do.
At the time of the poem’s conception, there was no countrywide system of education. Instead, there were many small ‘dame schools’ which were normally run by a woman in the parish and taught basic arithmetic and grammar. These schools varied enormously in quality, and it is likely that the “dame Lurch” referred to one of the teachers in the local school.
The first stanza has an ABCC rhyme scheme, whereas the three remaining stanzas have an AABB rhyme scheme. Furthermore, all the stanzas contain internal rhymes in their third lines. The increasing use of rhyme gives the poem a musical quality to reflect both the singing of hymns in church and also the drunken singing in the ale-houses. The narrator seemingly implies that these types of singing are interchangeable.
While Blake was a lifelong Christian, he was highly critical of what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of the Church of England and regularly criticized it in his poems. Above all, he believed that the manner in which religion was expressed was stifling and did not capture or celebrate the vitality of human life; this argument can clearly be seen through ‘The Little Vagabond.’
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Little Vagabond‘ might like to explore other William Blake poems. For example:
- ‘London‘ – One of Blake’s most iconic poems, which savagely critiques the divided nature of life in London.
- ‘A Poison Tree‘ – A deeply introspective poem that tussles with questions of rage and forgiveness.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted‘ by Rudyard Kipling – An interesting contrast to ‘The Little Vagabond,’ which also touches on the nature of actual goodness.
- ‘Jesus! thy Crucifix‘ by Emily Dickinson – A wonderful, short poem that implores Jesus to remember the suffering that occurs in the world.