"The Little Black Boy"
Beginning in 1924 with the publication of S. Foster Damon's study of Blake and continuing up to the present day, commentators have demonstrated an ongoing fascination with Blake's poem "The Little Black Boy." This fascination seems to stem in part from the poem's treatment of race and in part from its deceptive accessibility: what the early criticism demonstrates again and again is a series of concerted, yet curiously doomed, efforts to decode the poem's meaning. In his brief commentary on "The Little Black Boy," Damon calls the poem "primarily moralistic," and he also asserts that its final stanza suggests that Blake did not believe in the equality of the races. Damon also identifies a possible source for the poem, Isaac Watts' Horae Lyricae , a source to which later commentators will return.
Two writers in the late thirties and early forties, Richard M. Kain and Wylie Sypher, both mention Blake's poem within the context of eighteenth-century anti-slavery verse. In his 1936 article, Kain discusses a variety of poems contemporaneous with Blake's "The Little Black Boy." Although he mentions Blake's poem only in passing, his comment is worth recording: without qualification of any kind, Kain calls "The Little Black Boy" "the finest poem of the abolitionist movement" (111). Sypher's 1942 book features a chapter entitled "Anti-Slavery Verse," and in here Sypher includes Blake's "The Little Black Boy" in a list of the "few unquestionably beautiful poems [that] were written in the anti-slavery tradition" (157).
In her 1949 biography of Blake, Mona Wilson responds in part to Damon's earlier comment that "The Little Black Boy" demonstrates that Blake was a racist. Wilson counters this claim with, "Are we to infer that he thought the black or white [race] superior? Either inference can be forced out of the details of the picture" (33). Wilson also believes that the poem says "two things: that release from the body, whether black or white, will come when the beams of God's love can be borne, and that then he [the little black boy?] himself will be able to show his love and win that of the other child now estranged from him by the race barrier" (32).
In the fifties, three articles on "The Little Black Boy" appeared, two of which set the stage for much later criticism. In fact, Jacob Adler's and A. E. Dyson's articles, published in 1957 and 1959, respectively, are frequently cited as representative of two pervasive strains of commentary on the poem, that which sees it as a complex work resistant to definitive interpretation (Adler) and that which sees it as a simple work, free from any anxiety or tension (Dyson). Also published in 1957 is a curious note by Ralph D. Eberly, in which he criticizes Blake for using what he sees as muddled and contradictory symbolism in "The Little Black Boy"--specifically the indeterminacy of the meanings of the black/white imagery. Eberly's conclusion is that the poem is, if not a total, at least a partial, failure. At the end of the decade, Robert F. Gleckner's 1959 book includes a brief discussion of "The Little Black Boy," in which he first mentions the striking parallels with the Song of Solomon and then goes on to argue that the poem portrays the superiority of the black child to the white child.
In the early sixties, several book-length studies of Blake were published, three of which included discussions of "The Little Black Boy." In his 1963 book, Hazard Adams points out that the mother's lesson to her son is different from what her son learns. Adams also argues that the poem's little white boy is portrayed as a being who "cannot absorb love or give it" (265), with a "white cloud [that] merely reflects the light of God" (265). Adams sees the little black boy's response to the white boy's condition as poignant and pathetic: the black boy imagines himself superior to the white boy in heaven, but he only craves this superiority in order to gain the white child's love (265-66). Also published in 1963 was Harold Bloom's book, in which "The Little Black Boy" is called "the best poem in the series," and he also remarks that it is "one of the most deliberately misleading and ironic of all Blake's lyrics" (48). Bloom argues that the little black boy accepts all that he is told by his mother as truth, and that the poem thus demonstrates the "inadequacy of Innocence, of the natural context, to sustain any idealizations whatsoever" (48). Like Bloom, E. D. Hirsch also argues that the child in "The Little Black Boy" accepts his mother's argument that earthly life is a life of acute suffering. Hirsch thus views the mother as a "guardian-Christ," the little black boy as "the guardian-Christ of the English child," and "God [as] the ultimate guardian who comforts us through life and then mercifully releases us from it" (180-81).
By the mid-to-late seventies, commentary on "The Little Black Boy" began to pick up pace, starting first with two full-length articles on the poem in 1975 and 1977. In his 1975 article, Hinkel discusses how "The Little Black Boy" exemplifies Blake's theory of contraries; specifically, Hinkel argues that the poem presents "a series of contraries [--in particular the dichotomy of body and soul--] which the mother and child recognize as only opposites" (40). The tragic result of this misreading, according to Hinkel, is that the mother and child view their present, earthly state as something negative, something "un-divine" which simply must be endured, while they look forward to "infinity in the future and divinity in the mysterious Nobodaddy who exists ninety-three million miles away" (42). Manlove's 1977 article discusses "The Little Black Boy" in conjunction with one of the Songs of Experience --"The Fly"--and his point is that the boundaries between the "two contrary states of the human soul" are not impermeable; rather, the "contrary states can be as much within individual poems as between labelled groups" (117). Within this reading, Manlove's view of "The Little Black Boy" is that it is a poem that "is not about innocence, but about a deluded and self-deluding innocence which refuses to face its pain, and in so doing enacts hypocrisies attributable to Experience" (116).
In terms of sheer numbers, the decade of the eighties produced more commentary on Blake's "The Little Black Boy" than any other. First in 1980 came Myra Glazer's article, which voiced a concern for incorporating the graphic elements of Blake's "The Little Black Boy" into discussions of the text's meaning. Glazer compares and contrasts two differently illustrated versions of "The Little Black Boy"--copy B of the separately issued Songs of Innocence and copy Z of the combined Songs --in order to support her thesis--that readers of Blake's texts and drawings have an arduous and a complicated interpretive task ahead of them, for they must examine the ways in which Blake's different versions of illustrations change the meanings of otherwise deceptively stable texts.
Most of the eighties criticism on "The Little Black Boy" centers on two aspects of the poem--race and religion. Critics who hone in on race include Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Stewart Crehan, Harriett Kramer Linkin, and Harold E. Pagliaro. In his 1981 collection of essays, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o mentions Blake's "The Little Black Boy" briefly yet memorably in a section in which he cites writers who have attempted to sympathetically treat the African world. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o argues that, however sympathetic these writers may be, their efforts often represent a desire to smooth over the realities of racial conflict. For example, he sees in the ending of Blake's "The Little Black Boy" "the white liberal's dream of a day when black and white can love one another without going through the agony of violent reckoning" (20). In contrast to Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's reading is Stewart Crehan's. In his very brief discussion of "The Little Black Boy," Crehan mentions that this poem was Coleridge's favorite song of innocence. Crehan also comments that this poem shows Blake "at his most Swedenborgian, especially in its symbolism. . .[as it] prophesies a time of harmony, when the spiritually superior black boy will have taught the white boy the ways of spiritual love" (99). Linkin's 1986 article analyzes how individual patterns of speech--which she calls idiolects, after Umberto Eco--reveal how characters organize their thoughts in Songs of Innocence and of Experience . After commenting that, in several of Blake's Songs , he "systematically presents the speech of children as being characterized by compiled conjunctions" (9), Linkin argues that the mother and child in "The Little Black Boy" use just such speech, "implicating both mother and son in using childish language to construct a willfully, wishfully alternative version of reality" (9). Linkin also argues that the poem "demonstrates a breakdown between questions and answers: although the mother explains why she and her son have black skin, the little black boy really wants to know why skin color is a source of hatred" (10). In his 1987 book, Pagliaro briefly discusses "The Little Black Boy" in conjunction with "The Chimney Sweeper," noting that both of these poems employ a child as speaker and both portray "similar [situations] of social evil and the speaker's psychological escape from that evil" (9-10). Pagliaro also reads the poem's ending, in which the little black boy takes his mother's message of spiritual superiority and envisions himself helping the inferior white boy, as suggesting that the "Black Boy has both accepted the mother's lesson and repudiated it, by using it, inappropriately, to cope with the problem it was intended to transcend" (10).
Critics in the eighties who emphasize the portrayal of religion in "The Little Black Boy" include Zachary Leader, Norma A. Greco, John Ward, and David Simpson. In his 1981 book, Leader first counters critics' previous claims that "The Little Black Boy" demonstrates Blake's racism and then moves on to what he finds most distressing about the poem--its depiction of a mother's lesson to her son of looking ahead to "a world to come" rather than trying to "transform [this] world through vision" (110). Leader also presents a detailed analysis of Blake's drawings for "The Little Black Boy." Here he argues that the first picture for the poem illustrates the state of innocence; the second, of experience. Leader also notes certain characteristics of the drawings for "The Little Black Boy" that he asserts are found nowhere else in the Songs of Innocence ; examples include the rooted tree and muddy water of the second plate, which he says represent repression and man's fallen state, respectively, and the second plate's Christ figure, which Leader identifies as the "'Creeping Jesus,'" "the Christ of the church, of institutionalized religion" (115).
In her lengthy 1986 article, Greco argues that Blake's Songs of Innocence demonstrate an "oppressive mothering principle" (1). Within her reading, the mother in "The Little Black Boy" becomes "a victim of what Blake regards as false Christian doctrine" (8). Greco uses both the text and the illustrations of "The Little Black Boy" to argue that the poem demonstrates the "pernicious effects" that the mother's false religious beliefs--i.e., her beliefs in the duality of body and soul and the inherent evilness of the body--have on her son. One year later, Greco published a note on "The Little Black Boy" in which she explains the possible significance of Blake's inclusion of a willow tree in his second illustration for "The Little Black Boy." Relying on Christian iconography, Greco argues that the willow's associations with spiritual sterility or the "'hopeless closing up of the soul'" (17/14) suggest that "The Little Black Boy" is a poem about a young boy's indoctrination into a false and sinister Christian religion.
In his 1988 article, Ward first pays tribute to Leader's 1981 study of Blake, which, among other things, had warned readers against confusing Blake the poet with the various speakers he creates in his poetry. Ward then presents a reading of "The Little Black Boy" in which he points out the dangers of the mother's lesson to her child to look ahead to heaven for consolation and reward; as Ward puts it, "The terrible irony of the poem is that in doing this she is aiding and abetting a system of oppression which ought to be destroyed" (403). Ward then takes the message of "The Little Black Boy" and demonstrates its contemporary relevance to black Pentecostalists in Britain. His point is that many black Pentecostalists, like the black mother in Blake's poem, "dismiss the world as worthless and concentrate totally on the hope of heaven" (403). In the conclusion to his article, Ward alludes to Blake's Jerusalem , his point being that human beings must work to create the "Kingdom [of Jerusalem] here and now" on earth (404-05). In his 1989 article on teaching ideology in Blake's Songs , Simpson features "The Little Black Boy" as an example of a poem that can be read to "the right or the left" (52), as a poem that "makes sense as a savagely ironic exposure of the quietistic effects of Christian doctrine . . . [or] it can be read by anyone who believes that the next life really does make up for the shortcomings of this one" (51).
Two discussions from the eighties that eluded categorization include Robert F. Gleckner's and Geoffrey Summerfield's. In his 1982 article, Gleckner first rehearses the critical history of "The Little Black Boy," in particular the critical debate about whether the poem is a song of innocence or a song of experience. Gleckner then uses Biblical sources--specifically the Song of Solomon and the first epistle of John--to support his contention that "The Little Black Boy" is "a song of innocence after all" (213). In chapter seven of his 1985 book, Summerfield discusses Blake as a writer of children's literature. Here Summerfield identifies as one source for Songs of Innocence the 1781 work by Anna Letitia Barbauld entitled Hymns in Prose for Children . Summerfield provides a list of correspondences between each of the Songs of Innocence and Barbauld's Hymns . In reference to "The Little Black Boy," Summerfield notes that it corresponds to Hymn VIII of Barbauld's collection, in which a black woman slave with a sick child is heard weeping by God, who pities her.
So far the nineties have produced several article-length studies of "The Little Black Boy." Two of these articles center on questions of influence, examining both texts that influenced "The Little Black Boy" and texts influenced by "The Little Black Boy." In his 1990 article, Paul Edwards discusses the possibility--ultimately unprovable--that Blake's "The Little Black Boy" was influenced in part by a book published in the early 1770s, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars of the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince . Similarities that Edwards notes between the two works include conversations about divinity between an African mother and her child and the narrator's nostalgia about having a close relationship with a fair-skinned and fair-haired companion. Michael J. C. Echeruo's 1992 article is a response to Edwards. Echeruo believes that both Blake's "The Little Black Boy" and Gronniosaw's Narrative may have been sources for William Cole's 1864 poem, "Thoughts in Exile." All three works, according to Echeruo, adopt the motif of theologizing underneath an African tree, leading Echeruo to surmise that this "was probably a more widely used motif in African discourse than the paucity of extant texts allows us to surmise" (52).
Two 1990 discussions of "The Little Black Boy" return, in very different ways and with strikingly different conclusions, to the issue of race relations. Hilton's 1990 discussion of "The Little Black Boy" first emphasizes the presence in the poem of words with several possible meanings, such as "bore" and "beam"; in particular, his reading of the line, "That we may learn to bear the beams of love" as evoking Christ on the cross--beam from "baum"--is intriguing. Hilton then argues that the poem's ending shows that the "black boy [is] just a shadow of the white, a slave to his mother's Sunday-school fantasy . . . [the poem demonstrates] an entire system of encoding in operation as oppositions are glossed over and a little black boy makes himself the image of a white one" (36). Alan Richardson's 1990 article first recapitulates previous critical views of "The Little Black Boy" and then positions Blake's poem within the context of other late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century anti-slavery poems. Richardson finds some significant differences between these other works and Blake's poem, in particular the portrayal of the educational scene in "The Little Black Boy," in which the mother teaches her son about religion and earthly life, and to which the little black boy responds with "a self-affirming discourse of his own" (243). Richardson utilizes both the text and the illustrations of the poem to support his central contention--that "The Little Black Boy" "poses a critique of the colonialist discourse informing antislavery poems and tracts, and offers a paradigm for resisting new forms of social discipline epitomized by industrial children's fiction and tracts for the lower orders, a 'popular' literature imposed from above" (246).
Donald Ault's 1990 article on "The Little Black Boy" attempts to connect the poem's twin concerns with racial and patriarchal issues. Ault asserts that the poem demonstrates a movement away from a "bodily, present, 'real'" mother toward a "utopian, absent, 'imaginary'" father (76). Ault argues that the disappearance of the mother at the end of the poem coincides with a pattern of "visible grammatical and/or semantic destabilization" (83), and he painstakingly enumerates and explores the significance of these idiosyncrasies, concluding that the poem may demonstrate "how the emphasis on one form of oppression (racial) by the violence inherent in benevolent patriarchy implicates (and obscures) another, more universal, form (the subordination of the feminine)" (86).
Lastly, in 1995, Mikihiko Ikeshita published an article on "The Little Black Boy" in which he presents a "phoneme-conscious reading" of it. Ikeshita points out the frequency with which the phonemes /l/ and /b/ occur in both the title and text of "The Little Black Boy." Ikeshita's article goes on to speculate on the significance of the poem's proliferation of these phonemes, concluding that they "have backed up the correlations, or contraries, or, in a way, ambivalence of this poem" (63).
Lisa Kozlowski (December 1995)
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