Elod Pal Csirmaz:

“The Little Black Boy”: Reality, Ideology and the Tension in between



William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy”, a part of his Songs of Innocence (1789), contains several apparent contradictions, either on the narrative level, or between the narrative and visual elements in the text, or between the text and the illustration that surrounds it on Blake’s illuminated plates. These dubious points appear to support the interpretation that in the boy the outside verbal argument explaining away his suppressed state conflicts with his first-hand experience of this suppression and inequality, and that this opposition remains unresolved despite the optimistic and naive statements he utters at the end of the poem. This way, Blake appears to ridicule false ideologies and dogmas (like the teachings of the Church of his day, as he perceived them), which, arguably, serve to uphold the current structure of society and provide a cause and a purpose for the sufferings of the suppressed.

In this respect, Blake’s poem can be argued to be similar to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. In the course of this essay, I shall attempt to find parallels between the three works not only on the level of their arguments, but also on the level of the arrangement and representation of the powers and forces that the ideologies presented produce and serve.

The Little Black Boy’s self-image

First, let me attempt to provide a reading of the poem itself. Regarding the speakers, the poem can be roughly divided into three main parts. In the first part, the complaint of the boy (the first stanza) and the introduction of the mother (second stanza) can be found. The second part consists of three stanzas all uttered by the mother. The speaker of the third part is the boy again, talking at first to the English boy, then to an undefined addressee. In this part, the boy interprets the mother’s argument in an optimistic tone, but the interpretation itself turns out to be not fundamentally different from his initial position.

The boy’s argument in the first part appears to suggest that the white[1] child is closer to God. The English child is likened to an angel (I.3)[2] and the boy sees himself as “bereaved of light” (I.4), that is, of the light of God. The fact that he limits his blackness to his outer appearance and holds that his inside, his soul is white (I.2) will be of special importance later.

In the second stanza, the element of the mother, placed close to a ‘tree’ (II.1) may evoke the notions Nature and Mother Nature, which Blake usually presented as an unreliable source of religion and ideology in general.[3] The tree may also be regarded as a notion that structures the world and separates it into layers, thus confining it to a rigid and rational order.

It is a mother such constituted that utters an argument aimed at reversing the initial statements of the boy, proving that he actually is ‘better’ than a white boy. The main argument is presented at the end of the fourth and at the beginning of the fifth stanza. According to it, it is precisely the outer dark skin (“black bodies”, “sunburnt face” [IV.3]) that enables mother and child to stand God’s presence until “our souls have learn’d the heat [God] to bear,” (V.1) for then the cloud of their black bodies will disappear (V.2). The reason why the white child does not need such screens (is it because he is far removed from God or he can already bear God’s light and heat) remains for the boy to decide, for the mother’s argument appears to leave this question unanswered.

The fact that God can be found identified with the Sun, which indiscriminately gives away light and heat (III.2) is of no surprise considering that many critics have suggested that Blake usually presents a non-abstract God. This idea is also supported by God’s being identified with a man at the end of the poem (for he has a knee [VII.2]) and in the illustration on the second plate. Norman Nathan, for example, suggests that for Blake, “God is no universal mind, nor a life force, nor Nature with a capital. God is a person with the personality of all persons.”[4] Elsewhere, he remarks: “Blake’s God is far from abstract. Blake writes of this personal God, ‘It is the God in all that is our companion & friend, for our God himself says: »you are my brother, my sister & my mother. …«’ ”[5]

Interestingly, the rigid, rational order that was supposed to be associated with the mother does emerge in her argument, as in the listing “And flowers and trees and beasts and men” (III.3) a hierarchical ordering of nature similar to the Great Chain of Being can be found.

The third part of the poem shows how the boy interprets the argument of the mother and whether he is able to incorporate it into his self-image. It turns out that his interpretation is burdened by apparent self-contradictions. According to the prophecy of the mother suggesting that after losing the cloud, they will rejoice around the tent of God (V.1–4), the boy tells the English boy that they will both lose their ‘clouds’ (bodies) and will joy round the tent of God (VI.3–4). Thus, the boy generalized the notion of being shaded by a cloud from people of colour to all people. But contradictions surface when the boy suggests that after losing the ‘clouds’, he will shade the white boy from the heat of God (VII.1, note the subordinating conjunction when in VI.3), for if the white boy has lost his ‘cloud’, he has already learnt to bear the heat. Note moreover, that the black boy continues to serve the white boy even in the afterlife, in God’s presence,[6] which suggests that his self-image as subordinated remained intact despite the mother’s words. The phrase “And [I’ll] be like him [the white boy]” (VII.4) in the very last line of the poem poses even more problems. This is because one may suppose based on the line “When I from black and he from white cloud free” (VI.3) and from the above-mentioned notion that the black boy defines himself as white inside, that around the tent of God, the boys stripped of their clouds are already equal. This apparent contradiction again shows that the thinking of the black boy expressed in the first stanza still surfaces. Furthermore, the object position of him suggests that it is the black boy that will be likened to the white boy, not vice versa, which notion echoes the modernist idea (“modernist” from a postmodern perspective) that white serves as an archetype for (wo)man, and as such, can even incorporate blackness; while blackness will always be defined as inferior, derivative non-white.[7] It can also be noted that the very same set-up is echoed by the black boy’s initial notion of inner whiteness.

Although not a clear-cut contradiction, but an interesting shift of focus can be noted if one considers the illustrations that accompany the poem. The second plate shows God, the white and the black boy. The colouring of Copy L, 1795 edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (present location Yale Center for British Art) makes it unambiguous that it is the black boy who stands far from God, possibly touching the white boy’s hair, as expressed in the poem.

The illustration shifts the focus from the process of the black boy’s shielding the white boy, which would show him superior in certain respects, to the result, namely, the white boy’s being able to “lean in joy upon our father’s knee” (VII.2). Since this final state appears in the poem in the form of a time adverbial, while the black boy’s action of protecting the other is expressed in the more salient main clause, it can be suggested that there is some tension between the verbal and the visual representations. The verbal one appears to allow the black boy to have some merits on his own, while the visual scene, representing the black boy as removed from God (just as in the first stanza), cancels all such merits and undermines the credibility of the mother’s prophecy. A similar tension between verbally expressed, ideal statements and the visually represented, harsh reality shall be found in Dürrenmatt’s play.

The poem in Blake’s time

It is of no surprise that Blake was aware of the controversial nature of slavery and the status of African-American people, in the light of, for example, the favourable decision of the courts of England in 1772 in the case of the slave James Somersett. (The courts ruled that “slaves who ran away to the British Isles could not be forcibly removed from England, and thus became free.”[8]) Blake probably was also familiar with various published travel journals that dealt with issues related to African-American people. Ruthven Todd reprints two engravings of his representing African-American people, which, although were executed later than 1789, show that information regarding people of colour were widespread. One of the engravings was made for John Hunter’s An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island in 1793, the other plate was made for J. G. Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, in 1796.[9]

It has also been suggested above that in “The Little Black Boy”, by showing that the boy’s understanding of the teachings of his mother leads to contradictory and naive statements, Blake attacks the teachings of the Church of his day. An apparent parallel between the poem and the teachings can also be found, as it is after death that equality with the white boy is promised to the black one by his mother. Similarly, according to Christian teachings, the poor of this world will be rewarded in Paradise; so accordingly, they should suffer without hoping for a better life, but looking forward to a rewarding death. The idea that Blake does intend to offer such criticism is supported by John Holloway’s suggestion that “ ‘The Little Black Boy’ […] is in exactly the metre of such well-known hymns as ‘Abide With Me’ ”[10] which shows that Blake’s poem not only parodies the teachings by showing their consequences, but also uses one of the forms they are expressed in.

The poem and its parallels in our time

Criticising or even ridiculing moral teachings and statements that are devised to conceal or suppress reality is a re-emerging theme in literature. George Orwell, in his Animal Farm, ridicules the absurdities of socialist regimes and the political events in the emerging Soviet Union. In the novel, it is not the mother who strains to explain away the sufferings, but Squealer, a pig, who frequently rewrites history and persuades the animals not to believe their eyes. He explains to them that a windmill to be built was the leader pig, Napoleon’s idea, who, according to the narrative, stole it from his rival.[11] When Animal Farm engages in trade with humans, he reassures the animals that a resolution against such an action has never been passed, although the contrary is true.[12] And he proves to them with statistics that they are living better now than before, while the animals are starving.[13] These examples show that under the leadership of pigs, the tenets according to which the society of Animal Farm is to function are adaptable enough to explain anything, similarly to the idea of afterlife in Blake’s poem, which can be used to validate any kind of suffering and subordination.

Another parallel might be considered if one takes into account that it is not only the black boy who found it hard to internalise the dogmas related by his mother. Even the basic tenets of the democratic Animal Farm, the ‘Seven Commandments’ turn out to be hard to remember for the animals, thus the leaders have to reduce it to the single maxim “Four legs good, two legs bad”,[14] which maxim is then frequently used to suppress any debate. The Stakhanovite cart-horse, Boxer’s case also shows that in Orwell’s story, ideologies appear unable to be understood and followed by the animals, as they were so for the black boy. Boxer, after failing to defend his side in a debate with Napoleon’s spokespig, Squealer, adopts a maxim to his already fabricated personal motto. As the narrator remarks, “His two slogans, ‘I will work harder’ and ‘Napoleon is always right’, seemed to him a sufficient answer to all problems.”[15] By these slogans, Boxer, and with him all the animals, submit themselves to the pigs in an uncritical manner. Like the black boy, they adopt the teachings presented to them, and joyously accept the same (or worse) status that was theirs at the beginning. The boy joyously and willingly opts to serve the white boy; the animals “knew that life nowadays was harsh and bare […] But doubtless it had been worse in the old days. […] Besides, in those days they had been slaves and now they were free, and that made all the difference.”[16]

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit criticises the modern tenet that everything can be bought; in the play, even justice. Clare Zachanassian, an elderly lady and multi-millionairess, returns to her hometown, Guellen, and promises “a million for Guellen if someone kills Alfred Ill,”[17] who slept with Clara many years before, who became pregnant, but Ill denied paternity in the legal procedure. A scene in which Ill attempts to leave the city, the apparent contradiction between the townspeople’s speech and action provides a striking parallel to the tension between the verbal and the visual on Blake’s plate. In both cases, the verbal sides with deceit, while the visual appears to represent the truer status or intentions: “(The citizens of Guellen flock round Ill.) […] ILL. Why are you all crowding me? MAYOR. We’re not crowding you at all.”[18]

Besides these parallels, what truly connects the three works is their representation of the ideological system and its subjects. Although one would think that this system is twofold, that the Church–congregation, leader–subject, briber–bribee set-ups of the three artworks inherently require a two-layered model, it turns out that all the three artworks make use of a threefold representation. All three works introduce a middle(wo)man who relates the teachings of the superior entity (or act according to it) to the subordinated, to the nonbeliever(s). In “The Little Black Boy”, it is the mother who mediates between the Church, the society and her child; in Animal Farm, it is Squealer who argues with the animals according to the dictates of Napoleon, and in The Visit, it is the townspeople who represent the anti-humanist world order Zachanassian introduced for Ill.[19] This arrangement makes it possible for all three artworks to represent the ultimate power (Church, money–millionairess, Napoleon) personified and as an unreachable, objectively and invariably existing entity at the same time. The fact that the supreme entities are often removed in the artworks also supports this conclusion. In “The Little Black Boy”, God only appears as a goal to be achieved, set in the future, never in the present, and his words are always mediated by one of the speakers. In Animal Farm, Napoleon gradually becomes alienated from the rest of the animals by surrounding himself with guardian dogs and a rooster. It is explicitly stated by the narrator that in harder days, he was nowhere to be seen: “In these days Napoleon rarely appeared in public, but spent all his time in the farmhouse […] When he did emerge, it was in a ceremonial manner, with an escort of six dogs who closely surrounded him and growled if anyone came too near.”[20] And in The Visit, Zachanassian is missing from the scene referred to above, where true intentions and humanist ideals—according to which the mayor of Guellen at first turned down Zachanassian’s offer—clash in a powerful manner.

It can be seen that in order to represent tensions between ideals, ideal teachings and reality, all three authors opted to use a similar, threefold model, according to which the top level defines the teachings according to its own interests, the middle level accepts these teachings and act according to them, and tries to make the bottom level incorporated into this system. But as at the bottom level, the teachings coming from above and experience of reality are in opposition, those who occupy this level cannot identify with the teachings. If they try, their attempts will be self-contradictory and self-deceitful.


In my reading of Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”, I have tried to show that the apparently optimistic ending, which may have made this poem part of Songs of Innocence along with, for example, “The Chimney Sweeper”, is in fact self-contradictory. It has been argued that this is a consequence of the tension between the black boy’s experience and the teachings related to him. This tension makes him unable to supersede his initial way of thinking, which was derived from his experience of reality, from his subordinatedness. Therefore, segregation and subordination surface at the end of the poem, too, where the reader would expect reconciliation, and it was noted that they also surface in the illustration that accompanies the poem.

It was based on these features that the poem could be paralleled with George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. The conclusion has been reached that all three works make use of a similar, threefold model, in which a mediator appears between the controlling ideology and the subject(s) to be controlled. This way the ideology can be personified (subjectified) and objectified at the same time.

Blake, by showing the consequences of one attempting to act according to or internalise deceitful ideologies and by cunningly using the notion of God both as the ultimate reference for the false-hearted teachings of the Church of his time and as the true saviour, father and friend, successfully debases any such system of dogmas. To do this in the very form which is used to praise the Church and its saints makes “The Little Black Boy” the more powerful.


Figure 1: The second plate of The Little Black Boy from Copy L[21]


[1] ‘White’ and ‘black’ are used in this essay instead of ‘African-American’ and ‘Caucasian’ for the purpose of retaining the adjectives of Blake’s poem.

[2] William Blake, The Little Black Boy, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams et al. (New York and London: W. W. Norton &Co., 2000), 45–46. All quotations from the poem are from this edition. The parenthesised references indicate the stanza and line number.

[3] Blake opposed the idea of 18th-century ‘natural religion’ which “bases its religious tenets […] on evidences of God in the natural or ‘organic’ world.” Instead, he derives religious tenets from the idea of a God innate in all people. See Footnote 1 in Norton, 41.

[4] Norman Nathan, Prince William B.: The Philosophical Conceptions of William Blake (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1975), 20.

[5] Nathan, 23.

[6] The notion that the state of being around the tent of God is a reference to afterlife and to Paradise is also supported by the link between grove and grave. See “Come out of the grove” (V.3).

[7] See, for example, Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture (n.p.: Routledge [Taylor & Francis Books Ltd.], 1997), 35.

[8] Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, ed. Carol J. Burwash et al. (Compton’s NewMedia, Inc., 1995), s.v. ‘slavery’

[9] Ruthven Todd, William Blake, the Artist (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971), 34, 45.

[10] John Holloway, Blake: The Lyric Poetry (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1968), 37. Holloway adds that “this particular example of the metre was composed after Blake had written his poem.”

[11] George Orwell, Animal Farm (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 52.

[12] Orwell, 57.

[13] Orwell, 79.

[14] Orwell, 31.

[15] Orwell, 55.

[16] Orwell, 95–96.

[17] Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit: A Tragi-comedy, trans. Patrick Bowles (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 38.

[18] Dürrenmatt, 61.

[19] Please note that while in “The Little Black Boy”, the superior entity is related to the deceitful verbal message, in The Visit, the millionairess is the generator and controller of the real intentions of the townspeople that appears on the visual level. In this respect, the parallel between the two works is not perfect.

[20] Orwell, 66.

[21] Image reprinted from the www.blakearchive.org collection, <http://www.blakearchive.org.uk/blake/ebtdocs/figures/songsie.l.p9-10.100.jpg> (cited 19 Nov. 2005).