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Battle Cry Explained

As no one answered my post about the poem A Little Boy Lost (featured on my sidebar), I've decided to explain my take on it.

In the first two stanzas, the boy questions God and Christianity. In the first, he doesn't see how he could know about or understand God, when all he has to work with are his lesser (compared to God) thoughts. In the second, the boy proposes that he should love all of God's creations equally, which all share the Earth with him. Thus, he cannot love the Priest more than a bird.

In the third stanza, the Priest grabs the boy, angry at his blasphemy. Questioning the faith is not looked upon favorably. But there's something else here too: the observers, the other members of the church, do not see the Priest as attacking the boy, but only as helping him. Even when the Priest uses physical force, nothing seems amiss to the faithful.

The fourth stanza is the money stanza. Here, the Priest declares the boy a fiend, and spells out his offense. His offense was using reason to examine and judge church doctrine. The Priest considers his doctrine a "holy mystery" which is not supposed to be explained or thought about rationally.

The final two stanzas describe the brutal punishment of the boy. It's not clear if he's literally burned to death, or only metaphorically. But it is clear that he is badly hurt, and that the church turns a blind eye to the boy's parents' tears. Also note that Albion is England.

The final line is a very powerful one. Everything up to this point tells a tragic story where the Priest is clearly wrong (I suppose this may not be so clear to everyone; feel free to discuss that in the comments). Phrasing the line as a question is very important. There are no accusations to deny. There are no claims to refute. There's nothing to argue with. There's just a question to ponder. Are such horrid things done in England? Certainly they have been. And certainly some people still trumpet faith over reason. Maybe they don't burn blasphemers any longer, but how different are the suppressions of reason in favour of faith that do take place?

Elliot Temple on November 10, 2003

Messages (1)

It's a superb poem and a great battle cry. Interestingly, though, Blake was no friend of Reason, and of its practical manifestation in England in particular:


"Blake saw Sir Isaac Newton as one of the chief symbolic creators of the modern human condition.

To Blake, Newton represented the enthronement of reason; he was the mythic author of the mechanistic universe that gave rise to the tyranny of materialism, which spread from England to the rest of the world."

Blake hated Newton, and Locke ... and not to put too fine a point on it, he was a mystical idiotarian of the first magnitude.

Yet this is not his only great poem. All this is a good illustration of the fact that great heights can be reached on 'foundations' of pure sewage. Great truths can be discovered from within the worst of frameworks.

David Deutsch at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2003 | #595 | reply | quote

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