Artless Art

The Lamb         Little Lamb, who made thee?         Dost thou know who made thee?  Gave thee life, and bid thee feed  By the stream & o’er the mead, Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing, wooly, bright, Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice?         Little Lamb, who made thee?         Dost thou know who made thee?           Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,         Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee; He is callèd by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb. He is meek, & he is mild, He became a little child. I a child, & thou a lamb, We are callèd by his name.         Little Lamb, God bless thee!          Little Lamb, God bless thee!      William Blake   Nothing is harder to comment on than a piece of art which successfully pretends to artlessness, to be “merely” transcribing what a voice utters — or seems to utter: in real life nobody actually converses in rhyme, but readers of rhymed or rhythmic poetry accept the pentameters of “To be or not to be” as Hamlet’s “natural” way of speaking, just as audiences of opera accept the convention that whatever Rodolfo is “saying” to Mimi will be conveyed in song. In the rhyming lines of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” we hear a single voice speaking, in rhyme; there is no narrator, no editorial comment, no concluding summary. And no self-revelation by the artist-author. Although Blake was fiercely concerned with politics, and within a few years was to write long poems called The French Revolution and America, his little illustrated booklet called (and I imitate the original typeface) SONGS of Innocence, which appeared in 1789, offered poems of a simplicity that was hailed then (and sometimes even now) as “pure,” “childlike,” “transparent,” “sweet,”

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