William Blake (1757–1827) was an English poet and painter producing art at a tumultuous time. Revolutions took place in America and France as well as in Great Britain’s manufacturing processes, creating political, industrial, and social upheaval. Radical world views, disillusionment, and religious imagery seeped into Blake’s work as artistic, literary, and intellectual movements transitioned from the Enlightenment to the Romantic era. Crucially, this was also the height of the transatlantic slave trade, in which Britain played a major role.
Despite William Blake’s work being dismissed as eccentric during his lifetime, Blake’s poem ‘London’ from his Songs of Experience collection (1794) is featured in GCSE anthologies, which attests to his legacy. In this poem, the narrator notes the ‘Marks of weakness/marks of woe’ etched on the faces of the people they meet as they ‘wander’ through the streets of eighteenth-century London. Here, Blake appears to be a radical champion of vulnerable people such as ‘Infants’, ‘Chimney-sweepers’ and ‘youthful Harlots’. Ed Simon describes Blake as being ‘influenced by non-conformist religious sects … which compelled him to reject slavery as an abject horror’. But in other work, such as ‘The Little Black Boy’ in his Songs of Innocence collection (1789), Blake’s standpoint is difficult to accept. Such contradictions are alluded to in the subtitle of his collections which refer to the poems as expressing ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’.
The poem for this week’s extract, explicitly marks racialised religious symbolism onto the skin and souls of children to explore the vulnerable position of the title’s narrator (a little black boy), who is keenly aware of the conflation of black with evil and white with good. Binary oppositions which were used to justify slavery and condemn black people are reinforced and embedded throughout the poem.
Whilst Blake’s countrymen enslaved and transported African people, the poem speaks of the child’s birthplace as the ‘southern wild’, alluding to Africa and its people as savage and uncivilised. The antithetical second line: ‘And I am black, but O! my soul is white’, exposes his black skin as ‘a cloud, and like a shady grove’ which shields the child’s ‘white’ soul. An exclamatory caesura ‘O!’ expresses his sadness and the hardship of his earthly position existing as a black boy. The ‘English child’, by contrast, is ‘White as an angel’. Radically, we never hear the voice of the English boy, yet his innocent, pure, virtuous status is emphasised. Conversely, the African boy is ‘bereav’d of light’. It appears that, in life, his black skin is associated with death, loss and grief.
The early years of the narrator’s religious education taught him that ‘these black bodies and this sun-burnt face’ is an earthly barrier until ‘our souls have learn’d the heat to bear’. Later in the poem, he reassures the ‘little English boy’ that because of the worldly suffering he has endured as a black boy on earth he is now equipped to ‘shade him from the heat’. The little white boy has not been forced to endure any hardships; therefore, the little black boy offers to protect him until he has learned ‘to lean in joy upon our father’s knee’.
In heaven, ‘When I from black and he from white cloud free’, the narrator acknowledges that both little boys will be free of their earthly skin which has created a barrier. In death, moreover, the little black boy notes that he will be loved by the white boy: ‘I’ll … be like him and he will then love me’. This suggests that the English boy can only love what is like him – an indictment indeed for a Christian child who should love neighbour and strangers alike – leaving us to wonder if it is only in death (when the little black boy’s white soul is revealed) that he can ‘then’ be loved?
When exploring a writer’s work, it’s important to consider a range of poems rather than a single piece, and to reckon with any problematic aspects we might find. There are important conversations to be had when we truly confront a canon, examining it in its complexity and asking how it has shaped the world we inhabit. This is why engaging with a poem like ‘The Little Black Boy’ is relevant today.
As Blake’s poetry continues to be taught and remains an important part of the English literary canon, the devastating question and Blakeian legacy I am confronted with as a woman of colour reading this poem is: do the depths of these racialised ideas etched onto the child’s black skin continue to be ascribed to my own skin? To consider this question and investigate the poem further, I would encourage you to read the poem and explore the themes below.