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Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary and Analysis

by William Blake

"The Little Black Boy"

Summary

A black boy compares himself to a white English boy, and at first finds himself wanting. He claims his soul is as white as the English boy’s, but also sees himself as “black as if bereav’d of light.” He then remembers that his loving mother taught him that his black skin is a result of constant exposure to the sun. The mother explains the sun as God’s gift to mankind, sharing both His light and his heat, both of which are forms of His love. His color, she explains, is a temporary “cloud” to be borne until he can fully learn to dwell in the presence of God’s love. The speaker ends by saying he will tell the English boy this truth and look forward to the day when both of them have put off this cloud and can love one another truly.

Analysis

"The Little Black Boy" consists of seven heroic stanzas, which are quatrains following the ABAB rhyme scheme. The first two stanzas describe the boy's mother and the influence she has had on his life. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas recall the mother's exact words in her lessons to her son. The final two stanzas describe how the black boy communicates his lesson to the white English boy for whom he has a great affection. Stanzas one and two describe the past; stanzas three, four, and five recall the mother's words as if they were being spoken in the present; the sixth and seventh stanzas include the black boy's words, which he “will say” to the English boy in the future. Thus, the poem itself progresses in time from a past (learning), to the present (the lesson itself) and to the future (the implementation or practical outworking of the lesson).

Hints of anti-slavery sentiment and an opposition to racism occur in this poem, but they are not the main message. The equality of human beings is, however, emphasized by the poem in its depiction of God creating the world as an act of divine mercy, giving the sun to shine upon and warm all people everywhere as a preparation for the light and heat of His love. The black boy at first sees his blackness negatively, since he seems to be at odds with his own soul, while the English boy is white on both the inside and the outside. The boy’s mother sets him straight, however; the outward appearance is but “a cloud” to dim the sun’s light and heat until each person is ready to endure it directly.

The black boy accepts this explanation, and even envisions himself as having come through the world’s testing stronger than the white English boy; he strokes the boy’s hair as a mother would her child. While the two boys will one day be equal in love, the poem suggests that the black boy’s trials in this life will result in his being spiritually superior to the untried white boy.

No matter their relative positions in this life or the next, the theme of equality of men before God is strongly prevalent in this poem. The black boy and his mother have voices whereas the white English boy is silent, and both black and white will one day be recognized as pure souls before God. This concept of a future society, usually a heavenly one, in which inequities are resolved is a recurring one in Blake's Songs of Innocence, most notably in the later “The Chimney Sweeper.” In this instance, Blake is not criticizing a mentality that offers platitudes to control the oppressed. Instead, he claims that the very life the boy leads is part of his future perfection.

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