By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Bad poetry inspired by people’s babies gave us one useful legacy: the phrase ‘namby-pamby’. Used to describe something weak, ineffectual, and slightly pathetic, the term was originally coined in reference to the work of the poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749), who was widely mocked by his contemporaries for his babyish verses written in celebration of the offspring of the great and good.
But poets have occasionally got it right, and succeeded in writing memorable and moving poems about babies. Here are five of the very best baby poems.
William Blake, ‘Infant Joy’.
A baby is born, a little miracle with the gift of life. But what should the infant be called? ‘Joy’, of course, in honour of the joy of new life a baby represents! ‘Infant Joy’ is noteworthy for being spoken by both the newborn baby and its mother: ‘I am but two days old’, speaks the joyous infant, while another voice – as we learn from the second stanza, the voice of the infant’s mother – responds with the question, ‘What shall I call thee?’ (Of course, ‘Joy’ can be a noun denoting delight but also, happily, a girls’ name.)
An infant may be without a name but it is also without a voice, as the very word attests (from the Latin infans, ‘unable to speak’). As with so many of his poems, in ‘Infant Joy’ Blake is giving a voice to the (literally) voiceless.
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Read the rest of the poem by following the link above. ‘Infant Joy’ was published in Blake’s 1789 collection Songs of Innocence, and like many of the poems that appeared in that volume, it had a counterpart in the later Songs of Experience, ‘Infant Sorrow’, which can be read here. But as the title suggests, that’s a less happy baby poem than the one we’ve included here.
Christina Rossetti, ‘I Know a Baby’.
This is one of the best lullabies in the English language, if we grant that by ‘best’ we mean ‘written by one of the best poets’. If you favour something a little more sentimental, look no further than this charming piece of poetry by one of the Victorian era’s foremost poets:
I know a baby, such a baby,
Round blue eyes and cheeks of pink,
Such an elbow furrowed with dimples,
Such a wrist where creases sink …
W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred:
Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’.
It might surprise you to find Philip Larkin appearing in a list of the best baby poems. And yet this poem is refreshingly frank about the wishes we have for newborn children and our hopes for the sort of people they might grow up to be.
Written for Sally Amis, the first daughter of Larkin’s close friend Kingsley Amis and his wife Hilly, Larkin composed ‘Born Yesterday’ the day after Sally’s birth, although of course the title resonates with that phrase’s other meaning (Larkin did, after all, publish a collection titled The Less Deceived).
Instead of expressing his hopes that Amis’s baby will grow up to be beautiful and remarkable, he wishes for normality and ordinariness for the newborn daughter – if that is the best way of catching happiness in this uncertain world.
Don Paterson, ‘Waking with Russell’.
Written by one of the greatest contemporary poets, ‘Waking with Russell’ (2003) is about waking next to his four-day-old son and the joy it brings to the poet. Tender, without being mawkish, with its use of the same rhymes acting almost like a gently rocking cradle.
If you enjoyed this pick of some of the greatest poems about babies, then you might also enjoy our pick of the best poems about childhood. For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.