The Little Vagabond
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.
Then the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.
Commentary by Jeff Gillett
This poem satirises the joylessness and hypocrisy which Blake perceived in the church of his day. To the little vagabond who is the speaker here, 'the church is cold' and he compares it very unfavourably with 'the Ale-house', which, he says, is 'healthy & pleasant and warm'. He also feels that he is ‘used well’ in the alehouse, but that such treatment ‘will never do well’ in Heaven, which he associates with the narrow restrictions of the church.
He then offers a picture of a warm, loving and welcoming church, in which parson and schoolmistress encourage all-comers to sit and drink by a roaring fire, whilst a benevolent God looks on. It is difficult to take this literally: the idea of a parson who will happily ‘preach, & drink, & sing’, while his congregation drink, sing and pray, is no more probable now than it was in Blake’s day (despite the existence of priests or vicars who are alcoholics!) Nor does it seem likely that God ‘Would have no more quarrel with the devil’. The image conjured up here is comical because of its gleeful distortion of conventional morality. However, it should also be remembered that Blake’s own views of Heaven and Hell were far from conventional. He did not accept the existence of a Hell created by God for the punishment of sinners, since this would totally contradict the idea of a loving God. Moreover, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he equates ‘evil’ with ‘energy’, linking it to inspiration, in opposition to the restrictions of Reason.
It is interesting that the little vagabond envisages this more welcoming and tolerant God as being ‘like a father’. Elsewhere in the Songs of Experience, God and father alike are oppressive, intolerant and authoritarian.
It is also interesting to consider what difference it might make that the speaker here is described as a ‘vagabond’ – a word with negative connotations, suggesting a scamp or rogue. How reliable does this make him? Or should we see him as one of the victims: deprived of his freedom like The School Boy, or disadvantaged and exploited like The Chimney Sweeper in both the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience?