“The Little Vagabond” is a famous poem by William Blake. In this poem, the little vagabond tells his mother that the Church is unkind and unconcerned with the needs of the people. For him, the alehouse is warmer and more pleasant for there the customer is accorded a grand welcome. The rigid codes that the Church imposes on its member (to fast and pray) are being denounced by the boy in his inexperienced state of childhood. Provided the Church proffers food and clothing for the poor, the boy says, they will pray for all their life and stick to the rules and regulations of the Church. Then the Church may be considered a wholesome and blithe institution spreading waves of happiness. Furthermore, Dame Lurch the caretaker of the orphanage shall have no deformed or bandy boys in her charge. The boy himself wants drink and apparel and it seems to him that he, like the devil, has incurred the hostility of God. The boy’s innocent mind even goes to the extent of reckoning that God, seeing his children as merry as the vernal birds, shall kiss the devil and never object to drinking. He will also provide clothes to the devil, he thinks.
This is a poem slightly satirical and humorous in which the gypsy boy puts forth his opinion of the Church. The boy is presumably in need of food, clothing, and drink. People generally shut their eyes at the widespread evils of society. But the unsophisticated, naive child speaks out and in his well-meaning suggestions, we find the element of mild satire. He compares that heaven is far better than the Church. The Church is un-Christian in terms of its lack of catholicity and charity.
As Blake has expounded in his other “Songs of Experience”, here too he highlights the idea of contraries. “There is no progression without contraries. Attraction and Repulsion, Love and Hate, Reason and Energy are essential to human existence. The same concept is valid for the age-old religious concept of good and evil, and even God and Devil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from energy, Good is Heaven and Evil is Hell”
“The Little Vagabond’ is touched with satire, but not the sort of satire we find in John Dryden or Alexander Pope; here it is blended with the natural innocence of the child who is unconscious of the artificial nature of a society based on religious conventions, taboos, and fallacious social decorum. The child’s spontaneous outpourings are, in fact, the most Christian and catholic. Even Christ admits that for a hungry man food is the most essential thing and it is his God. And if by the term ‘Church’ we imply the institution to promote the teachings of Christ in ‘The Little Vagabond” the institution is no more a church. Christ supplies his disciples with pieces of bread and wine when they suffer from hunger but in this poem, the boy finds no such generosity from the Church authorities. To his mind, the Church could be a means of unifying Christian folk only if its rigid regulations are hurled away and it comes forward to treat the members of the congregation kindly. The boy turns out to be a blessed seer’ and in his world of equality and fraternity, he finds no distinction between God and Devil. The satire lies in that the Church always reminds its parishioners to beware of the Devil who is constantly endeavoring to mislead them the followers of the God Shepherd’ from their right path. But for the boy, there is nothing extraordinary, nor anything incongruous in God’s kissing the Devil. It is not irreligious. No clergyman can dream of a God who is yoked with the Devil or who readily extends his helping hand towards his stock antagonist. The boy is, in fact, embarrassed at the divisive nature of the conventional religion the impenetrable barriers between God and the Devil, Church and the ale-house. He stands for the reconciliation of the divided rather than for any more sub-divisions. He hurls his derisive words also at Dame Lurch. The bandy children as in her charge undergo starvation and flagellation which is inhuman and un-Christian. And what emerges from this piece is, James Thomson maintains, that though Blake was a mystic, “he (and the same may be affirmed of Jesus) was unlike common Christians as thoroughly as he was unlike common atheists: he lived in a sphere far removed from both.”