Blake (“Little Lamb, God bless thee”)

Allen Ginsberg on William Blake continues . Today Allen pays particular attention in his musical setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb”.  (“Little Lamb, God bless thee”)

[The Lamb]

Little Lamb who made thee/Dost thou know who made thee/Gave thee life & bid thee feed/ By the stream & o’er the mead;/Gave thee clothing of delight,/Softest clothing wooly bright;/Gave thee such a tender voice,/Making all the vales rejoice!/Little Lamb who made thee/Does thou know who made thee/   Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,/Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!/ He is called by thy name,/ For he calls himself a Lamb;/He is meek & he is mild,/He became a little child:/I a child & thou a lamb,/We are called by his name./Little Lamb God bless thee./Little Lamb God bless thee.” – [Allen continues, repeating this last line as a refrain] – “Little Lamb God bless thee./Little Lamb God bless thee….”

The reason that I made a repeated thing is that if you were following the iambic, or whatever, or the classical accentual Har and Heva meters, the meters out of the vales of Har, it would have wound up, [reading with leaden rhythm:] “I a child & thou a lamb,/We are called by his name./ Little Lamb God bless thee.” – or something like that. It would have been very hard to find what the meter is unless you actually think of it as speech or song and divide it equally among “God”, “bless”, “thee”, as if you were saying emphatically, “God bless thee”.  If you were doing it in forced sound and few notes, it would wind up as it wound up in grammar school, I presume, (if you got this poem in grammar school), “The Lamb”, nobody knowing how to pronounce the last line  – “Little Lamb God bless thee”  –  because the rhythm would have been – “Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,/ Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!/ He is called by thy name,For he calls himself a Lamb;/He is meek & he is mild,/He became a little child:/I a child & thou a lamb,/We are called by his name./Little Lamb God bless thee./Little Lamb God bless thee.”

There’s some funny kink there.  You really would have to slow down and actually pronounce it.  Does that make (sense)?  Do you understand what I’m saying?  When I was in grammar school I never could figure that out.  “Little lamb God bless thee”  – what the rhythm of that was.

Student: Well, maybe there’s a rest like in the meter.

AG: Yeah, well, “Little lamb … God bless thee,” I think.  Or how would you do it?  What’s the alternative do you think?

Student:  “I a child & thou a lamb,/ We are called by his name./ Little Lamb, God bless thee./Little Lamb, God bless thee.”    So that the length of the line …

AG: Yeah.

Student: … is regular.

AG: Yeah.

Student: And you have a little rest, but a comma.

AG:  But I was thinking, if you were actually saying to somebody, “God bless thee,” would you say, “God BLESS thee”?  How would you say “God bless thee” to somebody?  See?  How do you say “God bless….”

Student: I think it would sound nicer if you stretched it out a little bit.

AG: Well, no, what I’m saying, aside from the poem, how would you say it in actual speech if you were saying it?

Student: Accent on “bless”.

AG: Yeah.

Student: Yeah.

AG: Oddly enough.  But if you were to do it in any kind of regular meter, even given the halt you were giving, you wind up skipping the “bless”.  It’s “God bless thee” still.  So that’s why I said the whole thing had to be stopped.  The whole process has to be stopped and begin with the speech and find out what the speech sound would be to determine how you would sing it.  If you were going to sing it, at any rate.

In other words, what you wound up with was trying to fit it into the meter.  (It) was still “God bless thee,” and it still was too fast for the ordinary bless-ing, if you were blessing it in a speech.

Student: Yeah.

AG:  I thought about that a lot, and I said, “It’s got to be different than “God bless thee” and it’s got to be….

Student: I think if it was slow, like “God … bless … thee” …

AG: Um-hmm.

Student: … or something like that, than it would bring across …

AG: Um-hmm.

Student: … what’s apparently being said there …

AG: Yeah.

Student: … musically.

AG:  So how could you say (it)?  Well, in music what we did was just slow it down. “Little lamb, God … bless … thee.”  In speech, “I a child & thou a lamb,/We are call-ed” — I was thinking “call-ed” probably.

Student: Yeah, that fits in well, but….

AG: “We are call-ed by his name./Little lamb, God … bless … thee./Little lamb, God … bless … thee.”  (It) must have been. For the speech.  In other words, the thing must be very varied or not totally metronomic, not totally automatic.  You would have had to have some special attention to the word “bless” …

Student: Um-hmm.

AG:  … and oddly, in grammar school, they never did pay any special attention to the word “bless”,  that is to say, the speech quality,  the absolute quality of talk.

Student: That’s the way it’s said usually. It’s “God … bless … thee.”

AG:  Is it?  Well, when you speak it.

Student: Yeah.

AG:  But not in the….

Student: (indecipherable)

AG: Yeah, “God bless thee.” But when the grammar school teachers recited this poem, they never used that.  The point I’m making is that when my grammar school teachers …

Student: Um-hmm.

AG:  … when this poem was taught, it was taught sort of automatically and the quality of speech was ignored, much less the quality of song.

Allen Ginsberg in 1969 performing “Little Lamb”

[Our Lady With the Infant Jesus Riding on a Lamb with St. John – William Blake (1757-1827) from the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

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