This poem is an indictment of those institutions, namely family, the church, and the government, for their hypocrisy and failure to protect their most vulnerable citizens, despite claims that they act for the betterment of society.

 

The first line of the first stanza, “a little black thing among the snow” invokes the image of a dead bird, or something lying strewn and forgotten. A little black thing is something not immediately identified as a child, and the fact that it is black means it was dirty and forgotten. The second line quite clearly states that the child is crying miserably, and the author asks what has happened. The third line, where the author asks exactly where the “thing’s” mother and father are make clear the fact that they are not present and the child is alone, outside in the cold. This, combined with the next line where the child (we may assume it is a child at this point) states that both his mother and father are up at the church praying point to an institutional condemnation of the church and the condemnation of the parents who abandoned their child. They have gone to the church in order to pray, and yet are behaving in an unkind and ungodly manner by abandoning their child alone, in the snow, in order to do so.

The second stanza begins with the child talking to the author, stating that the reason he is weeping and alone is because he was a happy, smiling child- again a condemnation of the parents who abandoned him while contrasting his current state with the image of what he should be acting like as a child, which is happy and free. His implication that because he was happy and free, singing innocently among the white snow, that he is now clothed in death and taught to sing notes of woe is terribly depressing and sad. Furthermore, the words “clothes of death” relate both to the black color and the notion that these children were sold into a profession that would quickly and brutally kill them.

The third stanza also condemns his parents as well as any other adults around him. This relates back to the notion that even if these children may not be visibly miserable in their day to day lives, it does not mean they have been done no harm. The fact that they still may act like children does not excuse the actions of the adults who have wronged them. The next line is an indictment of organized religion and the government- for the parents have gone to praise God, the Priest, and their King, for essentially selling their child into a certain death. And these institutions, which are supposed to bring good things and structure to the world, are implied as being the root of them, making up a heaven of misery. This last line in particular speaks directly to Blake’s opinions about institutions and their general ineffectiveness.