Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know:
And Father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.
The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seiz’d his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the Priestly care.
And standing on the altar high,
Lo what a fiend is here! said he:
One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy Mystery.
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They strip’d him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burn’d him in a holy place
Where many had been burn’d before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such thing done on Albion’s shore?
In this poem, Blake presents us with an image of a boy who is martyred for heretical beliefs. During the first stanza, the boy expresses love for the divine spirit within. He venerates himself because he feels God is inside of him. He also acknowledges that he can never fully understand the essence of God, since God is ineffable and exists beyond the grasp of human thought.
The beginning of the second stanza almost sounds like Cordelia speaking to Lear, but then in the last two lines of that stanza, the boy likens himself to a bird picking up crumbs. I see this as a metaphor for people who follow around priests and pick up only the scraps of wisdom that are doled out to them. I suspect that this is what angers the priest.
The boy is then accused of being “One who sets reason up for judge / Of our most holy Mystery.” On one level, this could be representative of the conflict between scientific inquiry and faith-based church doctrine. But it could also be a reference to Blake’s mythological creation, Urizen. In Blake’s mythology, Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law, and correlates to Satan as expressed by Milton.
The boy is then stripped and bound before being burnt, a punishment too often inflicted upon heretics. In the image accompanying the poem, we see the parents weeping before the flames that engulf their child. Blake also includes an image of ivy vines climbing the side of the page. Ivy has a few symbolic interpretations. It can represent the intertwining between humans and the divine; it can symbolize the indestructible aspect of the human soul and consciousness; and finally, because ivy is poisonous, it could be a symbol of either vengeance or the toxic aspect of organized religion.
Blake ends his poem with a question, which I believe he is posing to the reader: “Are such thing done on Albion’s shore?” He is questioning whether such things are still done in England. I think it is a question that is still valid today. Are such things done in any country? Sadly, yes. People are still persecuted, tortured, and killed in some countries based upon their spiritual beliefs. Hopefully we will evolve as a species, and like the boy in this poem, learn to recognize the spark of divine spirit in all human beings.