William Blake was the most remarkable poet among the precursors of the Romantic Revival in English. The Little Black Boy is an 18th-century poem from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, in which a Black child attempts to figure out his place in this world and the next, that is, in the spiritual afterlife. The poem is considered to be one of the most uncomfortable of Blake’s poems because it deals with the issues of racism and slavery. The black race suffers to teach the white world wisdom, but the black child deplores his colour since it seems to prevent the world from realizing his purity of soul. The poem says that race will cease to matter when the speaker is united with God in the afterlife and thus argues that divine love transcends race and that all races are equal in the eyes of God.
Blake’s humanism is evident in this poem. In an age when black people were treated worse than animals, he makes a black woman and child the guardians of selfless giving which is the essence of true Christianity. While this poem emphasizes the philosophy of Christ, there is yet ambivalence. While in the English countryside, every child has the birthright of divine love, the little black boy has to strive to be worthy of acceptance. The black child has to cast off his coloured skin to find friendship with the white child.
The speaker starts by talking about his upbringing “in the southern wild,” an allusion to Africa. The boy himself states that though he “bereav’d of light” his “soul is white.” Blake here is playing into the idea of white and black as symbolic concepts, with whiteness or light that is, an absence of darkness being associated with goodness, purity, and love. The speaker here is stating a claim to these positive attributes, and the poem is insisting that he, too, is worthy of God’s love.
The speaker then recounts how his mother taught him to associate God with the sun, and that the purpose of earthly life is to “learn to bear the beams of love.” In other words, the sun’s rays are the rays of God’s love, and the speaker “bears” more of these beams than the white “little English boy”. The speaker’s “sun-burnt” skin thus becomes a mark of his closeness to God rather than a source of shame. In reality, having dark skin has nothing to do with being “sun-burnt”; Blake is trying to make a point with his imagery here, rather than a scientific argument about skin colour.
The mother’s story concludes with the idea that identity is only temporary -blackness or whiteness is just “clouds” that people wear during earthly life. Racial differences disappear in heaven, where the two boys will finally become free and equal, and “like lambs rejoice”. The speaker restates this idea and suggests that in heaven he will provide shade to the “little English boy”.
Blake intends this as a vision of equality and joyful communion, but note that this is at odds with how the speaker, even in heaven, “shades” the white boy. In a sense, the poem argues that the speaker through his experience of God’s “beams of love” is better prepared, perhaps due to his experience of suffering in life, for a spiritual relationship with God -and thus must help the white boy when they both meet in the full brightness of God’s love. At the same time, this image makes the speaker deferential to the white boy even in death.
And, of course, readers never learn of the English boy’s response. In the end, the speaker might be taken as presenting an innocent but ultimately naive perspective. As a child, the boy perhaps hasn’t yet fully encountered the brutality of society’s racist evils, and so can still buy into hopeful but unrealistic visions of the future.
Even as the poem ostensibly seeks compassion and equality, the poem itself embodies many of the racist attitudes common in the 18th century with treating Africa as a “wild” or, uncivilized, place is just one example. The speaker also seeks the approval of the English boy and remains subservient to him even in the afterlife -meaning that race does not float away after death and that the speaker remains subject to the prejudices he faced on earth even in heaven. Blake might have been aware of this, and, again, was purposefully seeking to make an ironic commentary on the young speaker’s naivety. Elsewhere in Blake’s work, he does indeed condemn the promise of an idyllic afterlife as a means to excuse earthly mistreatment.
The poem presents a vision of the Christian afterlife and argues that people’s identities on Earth are only temporary. Here, as in other Blake poems, an idealized vision of the afterlife explains and informs the meaning of earthly existence -that to be alive is, in effect, to be passing through the earthly world, and that before too long people will be reunited with a fundamentally loving and kind God. The poem is a poem of transition, a poem of doubt in the heart of the poet as he explores prejudices and racial issues. It is also a poem which gives the reader an insight into how Blake saw the world.
Theme and Content
The poem narrates the story of a young African boy who, under the guidance of his mother, develops a profound understanding of God’s love that transcends racial boundaries.
Imagery and Symbolism
Blake uses vivid, almost biblical imagery, built around childlike innocence and the harsh realities of racial discrimination. The references to the heat of the sun and the shade are deeply symbolic.
Form and Structure
Composed of rhythmic quatrains with a regular AABB rhyme scheme, the poem weaves a rhythmic verse that mimics a nursery rhyme, providing a stark contrast to the gravity of its theme.
Language and Tone
The language and tone used in the poem are simple, yet deeply philosophical, with the thoughtful words of the boy and his mother presenting a philosophical outlook towards racial prejudice.
This poem acts as a critique of society’s racial prejudices, while also offering a spiritual exploration of equality and divine love.