Critical Analysis of The Shepherd by William Blake
Summary: The poem tells about of a Shepherd who cares for his flock, and it only includes positive language about the relationship between shepherd and sheep. The shepherd has no fixed workplace, must only follow his sheep, and has “songs of praise” on this tongue constantly. He has nothing to listen to but the “innocent call” of the lamb and the “tender reply” of the sheep. He follows his sheep ‘all the day’, he ‘hears’ everything and is ‘watchful’. The flock is ‘innocent’, ‘tender’ and ‘in peace’. The Shepherd’s presence gives them this ‘peace’, while their innocence affects him by giving him a ‘sweet’ life, and filling his tongue with ‘praise’. The dependent and caring inter-relationship of shepherd and sheep seems peaceful, then.
Critical Analysis: There are two places in this poem where some minor hesitation is left hanging, however. First, in line 4 we are told that the Shepherd’s ‘tongue’ is ‘filled with praise’, but we are not told whether he praises the sheep, or God. The Shepherd himself, with his watchful and loving role, can be seen as symbolic of God; and no higher or divine power is mentioned in the poem. Secondly, the final two lines are linked by the logical conjunction ‘For’, which proposes a conditional relationship between the flock’s ‘peace’ and the Shepherd being present.
Style: The style of ‘The Shepherd’ is very simple, with no punctuation-breaks within the lines, rhyme between the second and fourth lines of each stanza, and untroubled and uncomplicated style enhances the simple and positive picture presented. It is also written in regular anapests, a metre which gives it a more bouncy and tripping rhythm than ‘Introduction’. The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABCB. It has two stanzas. The first stanza involves the shepherd actively making noise, as his “tongue” follows the sheep to direct them throughout the day. The second stanza shifts to the peace of nighttime, when the shepherd is quiet so that he may “hear,” a word repeated twice in this stanza, and be “watching” over the sheep. The tone moves from one of energetic joy to one of somber peacefulness.
Development of thought: The shepherd’s blessed life is not one merely of relaxation, however. “He is watchful,” Blake writes, indicating the shepherd’s role as caretaker over 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 church “from the morn to the evening” while constantly creating beauty, just as the poetic shepherd does in Blake’s present work. It is a religious statement by Blake that reveals his personal belief in the nature of the Creator, presented through the stylistic devices of symbolism and imagery in the poem. The Shepherd is an age-old symbol for God, the Creator, and the two rhythmically conventional verses glorify the shepherd in his simple way of life. It is simple spiritual exposition.
Image: Blake describes the image of God, the Shepherd, as “watchful” over his sheep, mankind. As a shepherd, he is an overseer of his flock, not an enforcer. Consequently, the watchful shepherd puts forth no real effort to keep his flock in direction. The sense of loss expressed here illustrates the fact that, even in these poems of innocence and freedom from harm, there is still at time a new sense of hazard.