The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found
7 mire: wet, low-lying ground.
8 vapour: will-o’-the-wisp, i.e. a phosphorescent or shining light, seen over boggy ground, often thought to be created by marsh gases. This is the “wand’ring light” of the companion poem, line 2.
3 ever nigh: always near.
These poems come from William Blake’s illustrated poems The Songs of Innocence (1789), for which he later made a companion volume The Songs of Experience. The form of the poem is essentially that of a nursery rhyme, that is to say, it appears like a very simple song, a very simple lyric. In fact, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience have provoked the most extensive and complexly learned commentaries. Critics agree that even the simplest of these poems have depths of meaning.
In the first poem here, “The Little Boy Lost”, a small boy follows after a will-o’-the-wisp by mistake, loses touch with this father, and so finds himself completely lost and alone. The “vapour” that deceives him is some kind of will-o’-the-wisp, i.e. a phosphorescent or shining light, which he follows assuming he is following his father. The boy finds himself in the mire, i.e. in deep or boggy ground. He is frightened and alone.
In one sense, these events are wholly real and literal, but they can also be read figuratively. The boy has chased after something unreal, leaving behind the reality and solidity of human relationships (the only really real things), and so he ends up lost, emotionally and spiritually. Pursuing something unreal instead of something real and getting lost, could be an allegory for the spiritual life gone wrong, whether we have chased after riches or power or luxury.
Blake was sharply aware of reality: in real life once a person is “lost” (whether to drugs or drink or other cravings and unrealities) then they often stay lost and never recover. But these poems are from his Songs of Innocence, which, to some extent, portray his ideals, his deepest spiritual convictions. So here, in the companion poem, “The Little Boy Found”, the boy does not stay lost: he is rescued by God who appears in the form of his father. Complex theological (religious) ideas are at work here. Blake did not believe that God was some great giant or superhuman old man up in the sky. He saw God as, from one aspect, like an “ordinary” human being, only a perfected one (i.e. completely kind, good, and unselfish). Here the child cannot rescue itself, but God comes to it in the form of its father, comforts it, and leads it back to its mother.
The two poems have an archetypal simplicity: the human being lost, and then found and rescued by God. It may remind us of the story of the Prodigal Son in the Bible, or simply the way in which all people on earth are lost in what Auden called “the usual squalid mess called history”, our world of wars and confusion. We all need to be led to safety by really loving relationships, whoever is our “God”, our close friends and companions. To be “lost”, in this sense, is to be out of touch with other people (here symbolized by the figures of mother and father). Before taking the child back to its parent, God kisses it, showing great tenderness and affection.
There is one interesting anomaly in the poem’s story: the child gets lost with the father, and is then led back to the mother who has come to look for it. Where is the real human father? For Blake this would have been a silly question. Certainly the literal father was also looking for the child, but God as father could not lead the child back to his earthly father without scaring him. Here God is that which brings the child back to the mother, who is already searching for it: God is the glue, as it were, binding people together.
But, then, in the first poem, why did the child get lost? Was it the child’s fault that it followed after the unreal “vapour” ? or (given the opening lines) was it the father’s fault for walking too fast? Certainly, there is an interesting difference here. In “The Little Boy Lost” the father appears to be striding away from the child who has problems keeping up. In “The Little Boy Found” the mother comes “through the lonely dale” (7) clearly in the direction of the child. The relationship is split and then reunited. There has been a little emotional “death” that has now been healed.
Compare Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” with Wordsworth’s “The Affliction of Margaret”.
The moment we start to think about this poem in relation to “The Affliction of Margaret” big differences begin to emerge. Blake’s poems are visionary: it is hard not to read their extreme simplicity in allegorical and religious terms. These are mysterious poems of religious faith, suggesting that when we are “lost” there is a God “ever nigh” always ready to come to our rescue. We could say, in other words, that Blake’s poems enact themselves at the level of religious faith, and are to some extent statements about that faith.
By contrast “The Affliction of Margaret” is more objective or realistically descriptive: it suggests the words of a real mother lost in distress at the thought of her son who has apparently vanished. There is no simply happy ending for her, at least not in the time frame of the poem itself. Her voice at the end of the poem is as distressed as her voice at the poem’s start. We have overheard five minutes, perhaps, of her upset and grief, but we are sure that her suffering is going to continue for as long as her son is a “missing person” – that might be for a long time, or indeed for ever.
It is not that Blake’s poems are unrealistic and that Wordsworth’s poem is realistic. The difference here is more complex than that, more nuanced. Blake’s poems are more like prayers: they are about hope, how Blake would like the world to be – they aspire to an ideal vision where things will be made right, where the things that go wrong will be healed. In this world of religious vision, to use the language of the Gospel, the “lost sheep will be found”. Wordsworth’s poem is written in a different mode, or at a different kind of emotional level. It is asking us to look with sympathy at the suffering of other people, and to learn generosity and kindness of heart from meditating on others’ pains and troubles. We can sense that “The Affliction of Margaret” really is based on one particular widow whom he, and his wife and sister, knew. It is a realistic portrait, taken from life to some extent. Blake’s poems are, by comparison, visionary and mystical, written from within the depths and questionings of his religious faith.
On the Web, it is very easy to find and see the illustrations that surrounded Blake’s original poems. These can form another point of departure for discussion and analysis