The poems of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience appear so simplistic at first blush, they were once interpreted as nursery rhymes; but the juxtaposition of thematically connected poems in Innocence and Experience, respectively, as well as the accompanying visual art, elucidate the complexity of even the most innocent poems. “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found,” for example, appears to be a straightforward, comforting reassurance of God’s infinite love. But the combination of these poems with “A Little Boy Lost” serves as a bitter, blistering indictment of the Church as a hypocritical appropriation, one that uses God’s words of forgiveness as a tool for placing the masses under a merciless doctrine.
The companion poems “A Little Boy Lost”/”A Little Boy Found” appear in Innocence, and together depict a wandering away from the pious path that is subsequently righted by a merciful God. In “A Little Boy Lost,” the child narrator believes he has been abandoned by God, but in actuality has lost his way while following the false idol of earthly pleasure.
Father! father! where are you going?
O do not walk so fast.
Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.
In the corresponding painting, the little boy appears to be following a bright, sunlike light at first glance, but his hand is directly reaching out to a dimmer light that creates the illusion of divine radiance. The deformed, beaten-down trees are pointing the boy towards that illusory light, and he sinks deeper into the “mire” of phenomenal experience until he realizes that his guiding light is nothing more than insubstantial “vapour.”
The night was dark, no father was there;
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, & the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.
The boy has strayed from innocence, as he finds himself embroiled in darkness, “wet with dew,” and bereft of spiritual guidance. But in “The Little Boy Found,” he regains his innocence with the return of his divine “father.”
By contrast, the trees in this painting are straight and steady, framing the relationship between boy and God. The color scheme is brighter, while the child’s face is illuminated and upturned towards a bona fide heavenly glow, rather than half-hidden in a futile quest to touch a transient, just-out-of-reach haze. His innocence has been restored by an equally innocent God, who is tellingly dressed “in white.”
In Experience, however, this innocent God has been perverted by the hypocrisy and harshness of the Church. As a result, the little boy’s fate is reversed; where in “The Little Boy Lost,” he temporarily loses his innocence following a small failure in his faith, in “A Little Boy Lost,” he begins in a guileless place, and loses his innocence as a direct result of his piety.
In this poem, the little boy speaks directly to God, and ingenuously questions the teachings of the Church, particularly the notion of self-abnegation. The priest overhears his prayers, calls him a “fiend,” excoriates him for allowing “reason” to question the “holy Mystery,” and burns him at the stake.
William Blake is known for his religious imagery and motifs, but he was an outspoken critic of the Church. He was influenced by revolutionary thinkers like Thomas Paine, and abhorred the dogmatic and doctrinaire authoritarianism of traditional religion. Although his views softened somewhat over time, Songs of Innocence and of Experience was one of his earliest works, and his indignation at the unforgiving nature of organized religion can be deeply felt in this poem.
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
If Songs of Innocence and of Experience represent the paradisiacal and “fallen” states of humankind, respectively, then true exaltation is found in personal piety, while damnation springs from the idolatry of religious observance (and running parallel is the notion that God himself is merciful, while religion is not). The boy with his “little shirt” remains innocent until the bitter end, while those around him are indicted for their celebration of horrific violence perpetrated against a “weeping child.”
And burn’d him in a holy place
Where many had been burn’d before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?
They ironically burn the child for blasphemy in a holy place, thereby desecrating that holy land themselves. In the painting, the burning child cannot be seen, and while the two foregrounded figures are likely his “weeping parents,” all of the figures appear to be either weeping or kneeling before the fire in reverence. They are all but worshipping hellfire itself, driving home the point that the merciless tenets of religion are the “false idols” that cause worshippers to fall from grace. In the innocent state of humankind, a child could explore and be lost, but find redemption in a gracious God. In our fallen state, an innocent child who searches and questions will be burned at the stake by those who conflate self-righteousness with righteousness.