The Theme of Alienation in William Blake's 'the Little Vagabond'

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Zahid Islam

Instructor-ELT

18th Century English Literature

10 April 2011

The Theme of Alienation in Blake's The Little Vagabond

Thesis: The central character in William Blake's poem becomes alienated from society because

of the hardships and ill-treatment he has to undergo at the hands of people in authority.

Zahid Islam

Instructor-ELT

18th Century English Literature

10 April 2011

The Theme of Alienation in Blake's The Little Vagabond

The concept of alienation is a common theme in Anglo-American literature of the 20th

century. For some reasons, books dealing with this subject, such as, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in

the Rye or William Golding's Lord of the Flies have had a special attraction among teachers for

using them as text-books at the senior high-school level. How does a person come to be

alienated from society, as well as from those around him? The chief reason has always been want

and poverty, and the inability or unwillingness of those in authority to improve the situation.

Look at the foot-soldiers of those terrorizing the world today. They are mostly teen-aged

children who never had the luxury of enjoying three meals a day, or of having lived in a room

with electricity. But they keenly observe how the government officials, assigned to look after

their welfare, move about in latest air-conditioned cars totally unconcerned about their most

basic needs. It is only a matter of time when such neglected and ignored young men and women

will harbor a feeling of not belonging to the society, and may react negatively.

At the time when William Blake wrote The Little Vagabond (1794), the French Revolution

was still gathering steam and would continue for another five years. The Reign of Terror in
Paris had just ended, but everybody in Europe was feeling threatened and insecure. As in

France, the gulf between the rich and the poor had widened in England, too. As a sensitive

and observant person, Blake had shown even earlier in his Songs of Innocence (1789) how

accepted traditional beliefs often led to situations where the powerful could easily exploit the

weak. During his lifetime, Blake was not considered an important poet but just a precursor of

the romantic school dominated by Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Today we look

at Blake differently and are somewhat amazed to find how his thinking resembles those of ours

in the present century. Thus, while the poems of his contemporaries may now appear stale and

dated, a poem, such as, The Little Vagabond, would appeal to us on account of its content which

is at once modern and relevant. This is how the poem begins:

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold

But the Ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm:

What was Blake's reason for calling the child a 'vagabond'? Is the child really a vagabond by

choice, or has he been turned into one by those who exploit naïve and simple folks in the

name of religion. It is clear that the child has experienced life both inside the church where he

felt cold and miserable, as well as inside an ale-house where he felt 'pleasant and warm'. The

third and fourth lines convey a different message:

Besides, I can tell where I am used well,

Such usage in heaven will never do well....
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