The Shepherd

shepherdHow sweet is the shepherd’s sweet lot!
From the morn to the evening he strays;
He shall follow his sheep all the day,
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

For he hears the lambs’ innocent call,
And he hears the ewes’ tender reply;
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their shepherd is nigh.

Summary

The poem commends the life of a shepherd who has no fixed workplace, must only follow his sheep, and constantly has “songs of praise” on this tongue. The sheep can be in peace because they know their shepherd is watching over them.
The poem fuses Christian and pastoral elements. Blake isn’t interested in the direct observation of nature. The natural elements in his poems are symbols. The pastoral form imagines a rural world that is notably different from the one the poet and his readers inhabit.
Blake’s own disenchantment with the city is implied here in his paean to the shepherd’s rural life. In contrast to the busy life of the urban dweller, the shepherd needs only to follow his sheep, listening to their innocent cries and singing songs of praise.

Speaker

Blake shifts from the first-person shepherd of the “Introduction” to a third-person description of the idyllic shepherd’s lot in life.

Language and tone

christA lot depends on the intonations of lines 5 and 6, “which correspond to the different voices of the lambs and the ewes”. The lamb’s uncertainty is answered by the ewe’s reassurance. On a human level this is reflected in the sheep’s reliance on the shepherd. “What is being portrayed is a culture in which even economic relationships (herdsman and flock) mirror natural instincts.” All of this in a poem of 8 lines.
The shepherd’s blessed life is not one merely of relaxation, however. “He is watchful,” Blake writes, emphaising the shepherd’s role as protector of his flock. In response, the sheep are “in peace,/For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.” The capitalization of “Shepherd” throughout the poem suggests the Divine Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who watches over his people “from the morn to the evening”.

The language emphasises that everything is idyllic – ‘sweet’, ‘innocent’ ‘tender’ ‘peace’. There is little to disturb the tone of praise and peacefulness. The phrase: ‘his tongue shall be filled with praise’ is an allusion to Psalm 51: 15, a song traditionally ascribed to King David, Israel’s king.

Oppositions

Nelson Hilton writes that:
Orthodox Blake criticism takes “The Shepherd” as an evocation of familiar themes, with apparent parallels in traditional and contemporary devotional verse. But for Blake, always ready to read “white” where we read “black” (E 524), the poem may also invite us to reconsider what the sheep herd heard. To begin with, the cloying repetition (unique for Blake) in “How sweet is the Shepherd’s sweet lot” seems, literally, too sweet; and with the odd image that not the sheep, but the shepherd “strays,” brings up nagging associations of error, deviation, lack of guidance. “For he hears the lambs innocent call” offers a lame rationale for praise, and the curious logic culminates in the awkward grammar of the conclusion:
He is watchful while they are in peace, For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.

Songs is filled with such worrying verbal and graphic minute particulars (the stance and expression of the illustrated shepherd make for another) which, if we let them work, tease us into thought — in this case all the more if we consider the dissonance with the biblical allusion, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is. 40:11). It seems likely that one part of this glee reflects Blake’s already longstanding meditation on the indictment penned by Milton at a similar age of earlier faithless “pastors” with their “lean and flashy songs” (Lycidas 123).

Structure and texture

The poem is composed of two quatrains, rhyming ABCB DEFE. The basic metrical form of the poem is anapaestic.

Imagery and symbolism

Shepherds are standard figures in English literature, especially in pastoral poetry. Blake’s original readers would immediately have seen the allusion to the biblical imagery of shepherd and sheep that describes the relationship between God and humankind.

If Blake’s shepherd is being associated with God, Blake seems, rather unconventionally, to be emphasising the vision of a ‘God alongside people’, who loves humankind without demanding obedience in return. He has no association with rules and laws, with leadership and authority, with binding and caging.

Themes

Innocence

In reality, the job of any shepherd is to be constantly vigilant over his sheep, in the face of danger. But this is a Song of Innocence; there appear to be no overt threats to heighten the shepherd’s vigilance. Blake conveys this by having the sheep resting ‘in peace’ rather than ‘without fear’.

Ironically, innocence is always vulnerable to being threatened, devoured and destroyed because it does not understand the existence of what can threaten, devour and destroy.

The nature of authority and leadership

In other poems, authority is generally represented by parents or parent-figures. Here, the shepherd is someone who is alongside, but does not rule his flock. His care does not repress or direct the sheep but enables them to live fully. He is full of praise for them rather than demanding obedience from them.