"The Shepherd"


Criticism of "The Shepherd" generally falls into one of four categories: (1) The poem’s simplicity requiring little commentary; (2) the vision of innocence demonstrated by the shepherd’s protection of and spirit of oneness with his flock; (3) the more complicated undertones implied in the vision of innocence; and (4) the poem’s pastoral elements.


S. Foster Damon in William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols: "To most of us this poem needs no comment." Damon quotes E. J. Ellis, who in a Facsimile of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (viii) "identifies the Shepherd with Tharmas." Damon brushes off this comparison of the innocent shepherd with a more complex figure by saying that Ellis had to "justify his statement that ‘there is no book of Blake’s so difficult to thoroughly understand’" (268).

Sir Geoffrey Keynes: This second poem ["The Shepherd"] is a simple one and needs little comment. The shepherd has now put down his pipe and holds a crook instead, the sign of his calling. The two stanzas express the relationship of the ewes and their lambs with their guardian, the shepherd. All is Arcadian peace and trustfulness" (133).

Victor N. Paananen: "Attempts by critics to make the Songs of Innocence ironic, to suggest that Blake undercuts or even mocks the perspective and language of innocence, are based on an inadequate grasp of Blake’s thought. The state of Innocence, possessed by each of us in childhood or in fantasy, is the proof that we possess the powerful, creative, and Divine Imagination. Experience is, on the other hand, the analytic state of mind that finds the limits of the world that our fallen perception gives us. . . . In the Songs of Innocence, pastoralism is the controlling convention; but Blake attains far more with his use of pastoralism than the simplification of relationships that the convention usually achieves. For Blake, the shepherd-sheep relationship and the special world inhabited by shepherd and sheep become the way of representing the characteristic mode of perception in the state of innocence. Poems like . . . ‘The Shepherd’ [among others] . . . project the innocent’s ability to recast his world imaginatively into one where we can not only be at home but also be cared for by a loving shepherd. It is pointless to object that such a world does not exist in what seems to be the world of common sense and ‘experience’: such an objection would be raised by a Bacon or by a similar advocate of ration perception" (74-75).

Innocence Demonstrated by the Shepherd’s Protection and Spirit of Oneness

Philip Gallagher: "The first two Songs of Innocence (in Erdman’s ordering)—'Introduction' and 'The Shepherd'—transcend the secular tropes of conventional pastoral poetry that they clearly embody and point toward the Bible. The shepherd persona of Innocence is enjoined (104). The same speaker, who naturally (if naively) believes that 'sweet is the Shepherd’s sweet lot' ('The Shepherd'), may echo Jesus’s trenchant metonymy ‘I am the good shepherd’ (John 10.11,14) and its eschatological adaptation in 1 Peter 5.4: ‘When the chief shepherd [i.e., Christ] appears, you will be given the crown of unfading glory" (105).

Myra Glazer: "Most of Blake’s work concentrates on the struggles of the divided world and the task of reintegration. Only the Songs of Innocence portrays the psyche ‘prior to the separation of things’" (172).

Robert Gleckner: "The Shepherd" is a "song of praise . . .for the creation and continuation of this state of irresponsible gaiety" (92); it is listed as among "the more happy songs" (291). "’The Shepherd,’ which follows the Introduction after 1815, also uses these elements of innocence but it is concerned mainly with the protection provided in innocence for the children (or lambs)" (300).

Heather Glen: "[In] the vision of an unmoralized, unhierarchical reciprocity and harmony . . . [the] central [figure such as the shepherd]] would be expected to represent guidance and instruction (68).

E. D. Hirsch: Hirsch quotes Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s "variation of the Twenty-Third Psalm: ‘Behold the shepherd of the flock. He taketh care for his sheep, he leadeth them among clear brooks, he guideth them to fresh pastures. . . . But who is the shepherd’s Shepherd? Who taketh care for him? . . . God is the shepherd’s Shepherd. He is Shepherd over all.’ (Hymn 111). Mrs. Barbaud departs from the Twenty-Third Psalm in making man as well as God a shepherd, but in her analogy the emphasis is entirely on God: ‘Who is the shepherd’s Shepherd?’ ‘God is the shepherd’s Shepherd.’ The catechism is a hymn of praise. In Blake’s analogy between the shepherd and God in the Songs of Innocence, the religious affirmation is considerably more complicated. If the shepherd were a symbol only for God, and the sheep only for men, then it ought to be they, not the shepherd, whose ‘tongue shall be filled with praise.’ Yet the shepherd is obviously a symbol for God; his sheep are in peace when they know he is nigh. On the other hand, it is the shepherd’s lot that is sweet; he follows the sheep all the day. And whom does he praise? The shepherd is both shepherd and flock, and is shepherded not only by his Shepherd, but also by his Sheep. God is both Shepherd and Lamb; man is both Lamb and Shepherd. ‘Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. . . . And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one’ (John 17:21-23). The poem is less simple than it appears because it subtly expresses a religious perspective in which man and God are not simply analogous but essentially one. God became a man; He became a little child; He is a Lamb. Man is a Child, and a Lamb, and to others, a Shepherd. Ultimately, Shepherd and Sheep, Father and Child are the same" (28-29).

John Howard: "In ‘The Shepherd’ the implied analogy between the shepherd’s protection of the sheep and God’s protection of man is given pictorial form as the guardian shepherd watches over his huddled flock" (48).

Zachary Leader: "Though the poem’s religious implications are impossible to miss (‘The Shepherd’ is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 23), Blake carefully avoids explicit reference to Christ or the Lord. ‘We are free,’ writes Gilham, ‘to see a relationship between the shepherd and Christ the Shepherd if we wish, but we are expected, first, to see the operation of watchfulness and protection on which the relationship is based.’ Our attention is focused on a single, literal shepherd and the literal lamb and ewe under his charge. The symbolic identity of the shepherd, like that of the child on the cloud, is made to shine through or emerge out of a divinity which is recognizably human. The same is true of the symbolic identity of the lamb. Though the shepherd’s praise can be understood as praise for Christ the Lamb, Blake wants us to begin on a literal level. . . . We must look for Christ in men on earth, in guarded as well as guardian. Man, the earthly shepherd, protects Christ on earth by protecting the lamb, just as Christ protects the human shepherd who is part of his earthly ‘flock’" (76-77).

Anne Kostalenetz Mellor: "In ‘The Shepherd,’ the mortal shepherd evokes the heavenly shepherd of Psalm 23. Just as the ewes reply to the ‘lambs innocent call,’ so the shepherd responds to the needs of his flock and God answers the prayers of man. And all achieve peace, for ‘they know when their Shepherd is nigh.’ Here, a spiritual fusion of man and God is implied both in the inclusive pronoun (‘they’ can include lambs, ewes, and mortal shepherd) and in the capitalization of shepherd (which thus includes both the mortal and the divine shepherd)" (4).

Martin Price: "This participation in one life is nicely stated in "The Shepherd," where the freedom of the shepherd ("From the morn to the evening he strays") is consonant with his watchfulness, for he is himself a sheep watched over by his Shepherd with generous love. The condition of peace is security without restraint" (42).

Innocence with More Complicated Undertones

Harold Bloom: "The same theme of a primal oneness between the human and the natural, is exemplified in the traditional Christian pastoral of ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Shepherd,’ but a disturbing element begins to enter as well. . . . The Shepherd inspires a confidence in his flock which is entirely dependent upon his actual presence" (3).

Leopold Damrosch: "The passage [in Jerusalem] that speaks of ‘wars of life, & wounds of love’ goes on to present an unexpectedly pastoral vision of Eden:

. . . we behold as one,
As One Man all the Universal Family; and that One Man
We call Jesus the Christ: and he in us, and we in him,
Live in perfect harmony in Eden the land of life,
Giving, receiving, and forgiving each others trespasses.
He is the Good shepherd, he is the Lord and master: In Eden: in the garden of God: and in heavenly Jerusalem.
(Jerusalem 34:18-25, E178/K664-665).

. . . Beulah imagery is always equivocal in Blake’s poems, even when one speaker or another imputes it to Eden. The speaker here is the fallen Los attempting to express the mutual contentment of the Universal Family; to do so he chooses traditional images of innocence, of gardens and protective shepherds. Once again we are compelled to reflect upon the nature of symbols, which suggest the truth but are not themselves the truth" (236-7).

Zachary Leader: Leader acknowledges not only the spirit of oneness and protection between the shepherd and his flock, but also a darker sense implied primaarily through the design for the poem. "The design manages to sound not only the poem’s dominant note of protection and security, but also the delicate intimations of threat and danger implicit in its stress on guardianship. What Erdman calls the ‘luxuriant density of the flock, emblem of close content and comfort,’ is watched over by the shepherd, and both shepherd and flock are nestled within an enclosure of trees, rich and healthy with vegetation, which block out most of the distant landscape. Though the tree to the right of the shepherd provides a further note of protection, the creeper or flowering vine which twists around the trunk reminds us of the vine-entwined tree on the title-page. That there are little flowers growing from this vine, however, mutes the sinister intimations of the previous plate. We sense only the faintest echo of a knowledge inimical to innocence. If the vine-entwined tree is meant to suggest experience, then it is of a protective not a threatening variety—hence the resemblance of vine to shepherd’s curving body, and tree to upright crook. The turbulent and energetic sky also recalls the title-page. A large bird of paradise (we expect a dove in this ‘valley of the shadow’), similar in appearance and position on the plate to the bird found below and slightly to the left of the initial ‘s’ of the word ‘SONGS’ on the title-page, soars over and is irradiated by a fiery sun. The sun’s shafts of light, bright with bold-leaf in the original, stretch from the distant hillside almost to the light wash of sky in which the words of the poem are set. Even the branches of the protective tree look as if they are being stirred by a breeze from the right side of the plate. We are left with the impression of a world of energy and motion, one from which the peaceful shepherd and his flock are cut off" (77).

". . . If it is Christ we are seeing in the figure [of the shepherd] on this plate, then some part of his divinity (or divinely human beauty is sexual. For Blake . . . the notion that a human being can be healthy, young, beautiful, and sexless is a blasphemous impossibility. . . . The subtle sexuality of the shepherd’s appearance, like the disturbing implications of the sun’s rising or setting, occupies no more than the briefest moment of our attention. Nor is it in the least likely to undermine the larger sense of innocent security both text and design convey. It does, however, work against any complacent or limited conception of innocence. . . . Gradually, imperceptibly, Blake is calling our assumptions into question" (78-79).

David Simpson: "What looks at first like a happy little poem about protection begins to fragment under careful scrutiny. Carrying over the tone of uncertainty from the page before, one is justified in stressing the first line, with its strange tautology. ‘How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet lot?’ He strays, instead of the sheep, and he follows, instead of leading. But he is watchful, and the implication is that this has something to do with their being at peace. What is the connection? Are they at peace precisely because he is watchful, waiting to restrain them at the first sign of unrest, as an adult overseeing children? Or is the shepherd watchful of things other than the sheep, ready to fend off any threat from outside the flock? The latter reading makes him the perfect authoritarian, prepared to follow where he is led until such time as protective functions might be called upon; he is not nursing unacted desires. This reading, moreover, seems to fit in best with the details of the first stanza. If he is simply an inept shepherd, following rather than leading, then it is hard to incorporate the fact of his watchfulness into a coherent relationship with this imbecility. But to answer the question of what sort of a shepherd we are being faced with, we must first ask it, and we can come to see that the lot of this shepherd is ‘sweet’ only because he has submitted his role to a higher examination than that implicit in the metaphor of leadership at its crudest. The turn of meaning, one might almost say the ‘joke’, is at the expense of the experienced reader and his expectations of what the business of shepherding involves, and it is the contradiction of these expectations in the presentation of a passive authoritarian which begins the quest for a different sort of meaning. The first line, then, can be punctuated "How sweet is the shepherd’s "sweet lot"?’, where ‘sweet lot’ represents the traditional pastoral trope and its place in the standard poetic diction, which is precisely what Blake is qualifying. Thus we end up punctuating the text for ourselves, in a gesture of ‘filling in’ wherein the ‘unfinished’ state of the poem operates as a metaphor of inclusion inducting the reader into a creative relationship with the page before him—and this must work whether or not my ‘interpretation’ be admitted as the correct or exclusive one. For the shepherd is also one of the familiar metaphors for the author, or poet; in turning around the expected order of priorities, Blake is also pointing out that he himself, imprisoned on the page or bound to the tree in a sense which is as positive as it is negative, is obliged to follow where his reader leads him, providing the raw materials of a ‘meaning’ in whichever interpretative pastures the flock might happen upon. What the larger protective function might be for the author as shepherd is a teasing question, touching as it does on the issue of where the author can determinately intervene to block interpretation, and where he is totally under the control of his reader’s intentionality" (87-88).


Wallace Jackson: "During the middle years of the eighteenth century, a body of poetry appeared that is loosely classified as meditative-descriptive. It includes work by James Thomson, Thomas Gray, the Wartons, Goldsmith and other lesser figures. To some extent this poetry incorporates elements of pastoralism and primitivism, and it provides some essential reality principles that Blake’s Songs challenge, satirize, and repudiate—a rejection in effect of certain articles of faith dear to the mid-century poets. In surveying the traditional pastoral of innocence, the poetry of Arcadian idyll, Renato Poggioli proposes that the form ‘tends to express itself in collective, or plural, terms’ and may therefore ‘look at the human condition from the standpoint of the family.’ Clearly aware of this tradition, Blake writes such Songs of Innocence as ‘The Shepherd,’ ‘The Little Black Boy,’ and ‘A Chimney Sweep,’ in which a loving guardianship is evident. Yet even as he accepts the principles governing the pastoral of innocence, in the Songs of Experience he turns the tradition upside-down to write deliberately antipastoral—and hence antiThomsonian or antiWartonian—poems" (109).

David W. Lindsay: "Pastoral is an urban mode of Alexandrian origin, which achieves its effects by imaging a rural world notably different from that inhabited by author and reader. Its implications are at once idealistic and satirical, and despite its classical origins it lends itself to Christian reinterpretation. Medieval artists associated the Golden Age with the Garden of Eden, and used pastoral devices to honour Christ as the Good Shepherd. In Reformation literature the shepherd and his flock are often emblematic of the clergyman and his congregation. Christian humanist ideals found expression, in Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England, through important subgenres like the pastoral romance, the pastoral drama and the pastoral lyric. Two of Blake’s juvenile poems echo the attenuated pastoralism of the young Alexander Pope, but the pastoralism of Songs of Innocence is Elizabethan rather than Augustan. Blake’s songs follow those of Shakespeare in celebrating not an idyllic landscape but an integrated humanity, and the pastoral technique of implied comparison thus makes the book an imaginative interpretation of the Fall of man." Lindsay quotes Dike who "finds in Songs of Innocence a ‘convincing reminder that pastoral, as a way of relating the human realities, can be toughly honest’. In [Hirsch’s] discussion of ‘The Shepherd," [he] stressed the ‘radically immanental Christianity’ of Songs of Innocence, arguing that this poem defines ‘a religious perspective in which man and God are not simply analogous but essentially one’. By fusing the ‘Old Testament symbol of the Shepherd with the New Testament symbol of the Lamb’, Blake here communicates the sense of trust and mutual responsiveness which is promoted by the divine presence in every feature of its pastoral world" (23). "The pastoral strategy of poems like ‘Spring’ and ‘The Shepherd’ assumes that the reader has experienced the psychic and social disorders represented by Tiriel’s empire; and the cruelty and hypocrisy occasioned by those disorders are threatening presences behind the speakers of ‘The Chimney Sweep’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’" (64).

Leroy Searle: "So far from the Songs of Innocence, pastoral ambitions are doomed when all one’s companions are either ‘monsters’ or ‘Gods,’. . . ‘Is this to be A God far rather would I be a Man / To know sweet Science & to do with simple companions / Sitting beneath a tent & viewing sheepfolds & soft pastures’ (Four Zoas IV: 51, 29-31)" (47).


Adams, Hazard. Wiliam Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle: U of Washing P, 1963.

Baine, Rodney M. The Scattered Portions: William Blake's Biological Symbolism. Athens,GA: Author, 1986.

Bloom, Harold. "Introduction" William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 1-28.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Boulder: Shambhala, 1979.

---. William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols. New York: Peter Smith, 1947.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.

Gallagher, Philip. "Songs and the Bible" Approaches to Teaching Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989.104-108.

Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: Athlone, 1986.

Glazer, Myra,. "Why the Sons of God Want the Daughters of Men" William Blake and the Moderns. Albany: State U of New York P, 1982. 164-211.

Gleckner, Robert. The Piper & the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.

Glen, Heather. "Blake’s Criticism of Moral Thinking in Songs of Innocence and of Experience" Interpreting Blake: Essays. Ed. Michael Phillips. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. 32-69.

Hagstrum, Jean H.. William Blake: Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Chicago: U of Chicago P., 1969.

Howard, John. Internal Poetics: Poetic Structure in Blake’s Lambeth Prophecies. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1984.

Jackson, Wallace. "The Grounding of the Songs" Approaches to Teaching Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989. 109-114.

Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. "Introduction and Commentary" Reproduction of Willaim Blake’s Illuminated Book The Songs of Innocence and of Experience. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake’s Songs. Boston: Routledge & Kegan, 1981. Lindsay, David W.. Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1989.

Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Blake’s Human Form Divine. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.

Ostriker, Alicia. "Metrics: Pattern and Variation" Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 10-29.

Paananen, Victor N. William Blake. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Price, Martin. "Blake: Vision and Satire" William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Raine, Kathleen. The Human Face of God: William blake and the Book of Job. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Searle, Leroy. "Blake, Eliot, and Williams: The Continuity of Imaginative Labor" William Blake and the Moderns. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt. Albany: State U of New York P, 1982. 39-72.

Simpson, David. Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979.