"The Little Girl Lost" & "The Little Girl Found"

Critics of "The Little Girl Lost" and "The Little Girl Found" generally interpret the poems in one of two ways: as a Neoplatonic allegory, or as a young girl's fall into adolescence/experience. David Lindsay summarizes these critical positions (perhaps too) succinctly in his study of Blake. Occasionally a reader offers an alternative, original analysis: one which, for example, privileges the parents' story over Lyca's, but most interpretations focus on Lyca and the significance of her movement from wakefulness to sleep.

Kathleen Raine's earliest study of the Lyca poems, "The Little Girl Lost and Found" (in De Sola Pinto's The Divine Vision: Studies in the Poetry and Art of William Blake), inaugurates the Neoplatonic reading. The poems are Blake's adaptation of "Porphyry's theme of the descent of the soul into generation" (20). Lyca is a Persephone figure, not human, but "a universal aspect of humanity, archetypal" (46). The poems fail, Raine argues, because Blake relies on traditional sources rather than his own imagination. Taking a different tack by concentrating on Blake's own work (and The Songs of Innocence and of Experience particularly), Robert Gleckner sees Lyca as a younger Thel. According to Gleckner, Lyca's approach to experience is "voluntary and self-sacrificing. It is the right way" (73). The critic undermines his own reading somewhat with his suggestion that Lyca undergoes a rape of experience by the lion. She passes into the dangerous world of experience "with all of its slavery and bondage....its terror, misery, and horror" (222-226). In William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems, Hazard Adams combines both of the earlier readings to a certain degree with his assessment that although the poems present "the actual descent of a child into experience" (210), they are also "a microcosm of the condition of the earth, the point of the introductory stanzas being, then, that Lyca too will be reborn into a holy marriage with her Albion" (220).

Irene Chayes argues against a reductive reading of Lyca in her article, "Little Girls Lost: Problems of a Romantic Archetype." Although Lyca is a Persephone figure, she is, more accurately, a synthesis of a number of images, including "Una, the Christian Kore; a Magdalen who recovers innocence; a second Eve who reverses the Fall...Isaiah's 'little child' as a redeemer, leading the way for others to follow; a foreshadowing of Blake's own persecuted and exiled Jerusalem" (587). If the Greek myth of Persephone is a broad mythological archetype, the Lyca poems are a modified Romantic literary archetype (587). E.D. Hirsch also advocates an acknowledgment of the open-endedness of the poems. His reading (found in Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake) focuses on the possible deaths of Lyca and her family. The lions may kill Lyca and her parents, but the final vision of futurity is "very like a terrestrial paradise" (227). This confusion over the deaths manifests Blake's emergent hope that the divine visionary realm of "the innocent breast is beginning to be connected not just with Heaven but also with a perfected natural world" (228).

John Ingamells's 1963 article, "An Image Shared by Blake and Henri Rousseau" is an anomaly in scholarship on the Lyca poems: a comparative examination between Blake's representation of the protective lion and Rousseau's painting, "La Boehemienne Endormie." Blake's lion draws on Isaiah's, but also symbolizes "guidance, protection and experience" (348); yet Rousseau's lion was just a lion (351). D.G. Gilham (Blake's Contrary States: The "Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience" as Dramatic Poems, 1966) disagrees. The lion is a metaphor for Lyca's parents' interpretation of her sexual adventures. Yet although parents are terrified when "they first see the adult passions manifest themselves [in their children, they] later see that nothing very dreadful has happened, after all" (147). Lyca's parents, finally, "have reached a new equilibrium in regard to her, and we could, perhaps with a slight stretch, regard this as a return to Innocence" (147).

In Blake and Tradition, Raine builds on earlier readings of the Lyca poems, but privileges a Wedgewood vase (which Blake may have seen) that depicts the Mysteries of Eleusis. Raine's absolutism is disturbing; she does not allow for play within Blake's poems but states "the soul, naked without its mortal body, entering the realms of the dead, is the only possible reading of [the end of 'The Little Girl Lost']" (141). Joseph Wittreich responds that the lion, leopards, and tigers which surround Lyca, in fact, introduce a Christian context to the poems; through them, Blake alludes to images from Dante's Inferno and Milton's Comus and Paradise Lost. For Wittreich, the Christian context of the poem surpasses its Neoplatonic frame of reference. Like Wittreich, Chayes (1970) also responds to Raine. Raine overlooks the influence of The Inferno and The Faerie Queene and as well as Blake's creative genius at synthesizing and re-configuring these elements. John Adlard also responds to Raine, not to fault her reading but to answer her question about why Lyca is seven years old. Adlard notes that Blake could have well read The Commentary of Hierocles on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras which states that "the number seven itself is a virgin" (73).

Grevel Lindop's 1973 article is a superficial treatment of the poems. The poems "present a transition between...the spontaneous, imaginative Innocence of childhood and the more complex and mature (but also more dangerous) adult state of Experience" (38). The prophetic voice of the Preludium which urges readers to "put aside their fear and hesitation and accept the God in themselves as Lyca accepts her lover" is Blake's own (39). Yet Stuart Peterfreund emphasizes Blake's ironic consciousness. Although Blake names the girl Lyca, a variation of the Greek "Laikas" or harlot, the lion's advances towards her take her "beyond mundane considerations of good and evil. [Thus, t]he term harlot, if it applies, applies ironically" (136). Thomas Dilworth sees yet another source for Lyca in the English ballad "Babes in the Wood," a song which Blake knew from his copy of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The first engraving to "The Little Girl Lost" is not an illustration, "since nowhere in the song's lyrics does a young man embrace Lyca. Rather, Blake's human figures...seem to be a pictorial allusion to the ballad as it would have been illustrated in Blake's time" (36). Further similarities include bird imagery, the threat of starvation, and the emphasis on the number seven.

Henry Trout's "A Reading of Blake's 'The Little Girl Lost' and 'The Little Girl Found'" breaks with earlier interpretations which understand Lyca as moving from innocence to experience. Trout suggests that the first poem traces Lyca's passage from the beginning of Experience to "the beginning of Higher Innocence" (41) and that the second poem traces her parents' passage to "Higher Innocence" (44). The narrator of the poems, aware of innocence and experience, speaks from the position of Higher Innocence. Michael Ackland also acknowledges the movement towards innocence in this enigmatic fairy-tale-like poem. Lyca's parents following her into the "garden mild" is a reworking of the Genesis myth. Zachary Leader (Reading Blake's Songs) warns of the dangers of failing to read the designs which illustrate the poems. Leader's fairly conventional reading of Lyca's story as "a symbolic sexual awakening" is bolstered by new, close attention to the engravings (for example, the serpent's tongue between stanzas two and three highlights the association of "sleep" with "awakened desires" [186-187]). The Bard who introduces "The Little Girl Lost" rejects the world of the body which Lyca embraces.

Norma Greco's "Blake's 'The Little Girl Lost': An Initiation into Womanhood" combines the Neoplatonic and the fall into physicality intepretations. The symbolic structure of the poem recalls some rituals of initiation into womanhood (145). Like initiates, Lyca ascends to "a more sacred mode of being, representing the triumph of the adult's innocence of wisdom, the spiritual perception possible only through a willful affirmation of life, even -- or perhaps especially -- in the midst of experiential terror" (146). Lyca's initiation into a new Innocence through "the sexual act rends the veil of mystery and death. Though not edenic in itself, it is an initial but indispensable means to Eternity when sexes will cease to be at all, and, as the bard predicts, the earth will rise redeemed" (154). Edward Larrissy concurs that Lyca has passed into the world of experience. Her "seven years" may represent "the seven days of creation, and would symbolize the fact that Lyca had passed beyond the material world" (64). By accepting her sexuality, Lyca passes beyond the mind/body binary and retains her innocence while encompassing the dangers of experience. Stanley Gardner does not read the poems as hopeful. The "tenuous" rhythms and "the mockery of feeling" combined with the "livid colour, the tenuous touch of life in the presence of death, the loneliness, and the alert predator" of the illustrations create an aura of danger (99). The final engraving of Lyca "in an attitude of sleep, or sinuous despair" may indicate the submission of infancy to "the prerogative of power" (102).

Harold Wiener's "Lawrence's 'Little Girl Lost'" agrees that Blake's similarly titled poem is a parable of accepting one's intellect -- but in addition to one's sexuality. In "The Little Girl Found," Lyca's parents do not so much find her as lose themselves in her world. Thomas Connolly's reading somewhat follows Wiener's: when Lyca matures sexually, she rids her parents of their sexual guilt, introducing them to a previously unknown state of innocence. In the last stanza of the "The Little Girl Found," then, Blake reverses the Genesis myth "and Lyca's parents revert from postlapsarian sexual guilt to prelapsarian innocence" (159). Margaret Storch also focuses on the sexual aspects of the Lyca poems, but does not conclude with a clear reading. Instead, Storch gives us bits and pieces of an intepretation. For example, the engraving of the young couple "appears to be the son's fantasy of oedipal fulfillment with the mother seen, as his peer because she has been removed from the hold of repressive law" (40)--but no son figures in the poem. The anguish Lyca's parents experience in "The Little Girl Found" exposes "the child's wish to punish the parents by inflicting pain upon them" (36). When the parents encounter the lion, they are "subsumed into the idealized parents, who have been created to protect the threatened good object upon which the child depends" (40). As Lyca is female, she represents "the desired mother, preserved in her sleeping limbo state between aggression and idealization" (41).

Most scholarship on the Lyca poems has, rather neatly, fallen into two camps. Although this lack of originality might seem to be a problem, I prefer to think of it as an opening. Our predecessors have set up a binary which we must break out of. "The Little Girl" perhaps must be lost again.

--Katherine Montwieler (November 1995)


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