I was in the mood to read some William Blake today, so I picked up my copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and read the first poem which I had not yet covered in my blog, which was “The Shepherd.” It is very short, so I am including it here in the post.
How sweet is the Shepherd’s sweet lot!
From the morn to the evening he strays;
He shall follow his sheep all the day,
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.
For he hears the lamb’s innocent call,
And he hears the ewe’s tender reply;
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.
This poem seems very simple, yet something about it puzzles me, and the more I think about it, the more puzzled I become. The first thing that struck me was the repetition of the word “sweet” in the first line. It could be that Blake was just going for an alliterative effect, but that doesn’t seem right. He was subtly hinting at something, but I am not making the connection. Then the following line ends with another alliterative: “strays.” Again, something is not sitting right with me about this. The shepherd is not straying; he is staying with the flock. I cannot figure out why Blake chose “strays” instead of “stays.”
The biggest puzzle for me though is that at the end of the first stanza, where it is said that the Shepherd’s “tongue shall be filled with praise.” This seems to contrast the entire second stanza, which to me seems to imply that the Shepherd is Christ watching over his flock. If that is the case, why would Christ follow and praise the flock? It seems that it would be the opposite, that the flock would follow and praise Christ the Shepherd. The only explanation I can come up with is that the Shepherd recognizes that there is beauty, divinity, and holiness in the flock and seeks to nurture and protect that divinity, and to sing the praises of God’s manifestation in humanity.
I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this poem. Do you think that I am searching too deeply for hidden meaning or do you think my questions are valid? Let me know your interpretations. Cheers!!
7 responses to ““The Shepherd” by William Blake”
I love your questions about this poem, but especially like you interpretation of “He shall follow his sheep all the day,/And his tongue shall be filled with praise.” It sounds like a sweet Blake-ish reversal of expectations, and is a completely valid reading.
I’ve taken issue with the sheep/shepherd metaphor in the past, but Blake’s poem with your interpretation of it refreshes it for me. Thank you. 🙂
Thanks for your comment Sarah! A Blake-ish reversal of expectations–I love it!! What a great observation. Thanks again for sharing that. Cheers!
And his tongue shall be filled with praise = I understood it as only good words comes out from his mouth when he followed his flock, I guess we can simplied it as a respect.
From the morn to the evening he strays;
He shall follow his sheep all the day – basically he cannot follow his sheeps if he stay right? 🙂
have a nice day.
Good points, and thanks for your comments!
I absolutely do not believe you are overthinking this poem mate, not at all. Like you, I am puzzled by it. My copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience contains an introduction by Richard Holmes, and from this introduction I quote “Blake was a gentle, kindly, generous man; but never a peaceful or conventional one.” I think that observation can be applied to all the poems in this collection; nothing, with Blake, is ever quite what it seems. And even when his subject is a serene, pastoral, or spiritually ecstatic, there is an undercurrent of tension and mystery; an ethereal dream like quality that is always slightly disturbing
Thanks for your thoughtful response. Pastoral and slightly disturbing. One of the best descriptions of Blake’s poetry that I’ve read. Cheers!
I see this poem as having two layers, one being the way in which children should be treated by their parents, and the other is the view that Blake has of God; both are nurturing and allow their “flock” to explore, yet they are there to pick up the pieces if things go awry. The Shepherd is secure within himself and his authority, so he doesn’t need to abuse it by being controlling — he can let them find their own way and they can be secure knowing that He is there for him. Blake hated the punitive God of the Anglican Church, so this might offer an alternative.