"The Little Vagabond": A Poem by William Blake
Innocence and Experience
Blake wrote two sets of poems, “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” which he published together, having the byline: “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Several poems can be matched, as between the two sets, with some having the same title in each. However, The Little Vagabond does not have a direct counterpart in “Songs of Innocence”.
It has sometimes been thought that Blake celebrated innocence and castigated experience, but that is too simple a view. For Blake, innocence cannot last, nor should it, and experience is necessary in order for true wisdom to exist. There is no road back to innocence, only a road forward through experience to a comprehensive vision. The Little Vagabond therefore needs to be seen in that context.
The Little Vagabond
The poem comprises four stanzas, all except the first consisting of two rhyming couplets. The third line in each stanza contains a “half-way” rhyme with the end of its own line and the fourth line.
The poem is written in the voice of a child who is uncomfortable and cold during the service in church, but who thinks that he (presumably, but “she” is also possible) has a solution that would please everyone, including God.
Stanzas One and Two
Dear mother, dear mother, the church is cold,
But the ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.
But if at the church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the church to stray.
A modern reader might be shocked at the idea of a young child having a close acquaintance with the ale-house, and a desire to drink some of its product, but this was an age when ale was safer to drink than water and children would be introduced to it (in a low-alcohol form) at an early age. At any event, the child here is able to spot the contrast between the cold church and the warm ale-house very easily, and he knows where he would rather be. He even, somewhat cheekily, calls God as a witness for his case, as he is sure that a merciful God would not want young children to freeze.
Incidentally, the child’s suggestion of a “pleasant fire” is not all that outlandish, as some English country churches did have fireplaces and chimneys, although it was most likely to be the squire’s private pew that had the benefit of it!
In the third stanza the child’s reasoning is expanded to include the parson, and presumably the rest of the congregation:
Then the parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
The assumption must be that “modest Dame Lurch” is the schoolmistress who regularly resorts to the birch to control the “bandy children” in her charge. By “bandy” can be understood “argumentative”, as in the “bandying” of words back and forth.
In the fourth and final stanza the general state of happiness envisioned by the child goes all the way to the top:
And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.
But of course this is going too far! In the child’s view, the widespread consumption of ale in church would obviate the need for churches altogether, with God and the Devil no longer being adversaries. Within Blake’s theological compass, influenced as it was by Milton and mystics such as Swedenborg, the division between good and evil is nothing like as clear-cut as traditional Church thinking liked to portray it, and the child’s conclusion is one of which Blake himself would probably have approved.
It was noted above that The Little Vagabond has no equivalent in “Songs of Innocence”. That is because it represents both innocence and experience within the same poem. The child can be seen as having experience of the ale-house, which he proposes to apply to his current predicament, but he is also an innocent in that he sees his situation with a child’s eye, with his problem-solving taking the form of the application of child-like logic in ways that ignore all the circumstances that are beyond his knowledge and experience.
As it stands, the poem brings a smile to the face of the adult reader, and there is none of the sense of horror and tragedy that is excited by some of the other “experience” poems. It therefore sits between the two collections, ultimately belonging to neither.