By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Infant Joy’ is a poem that was first published in William Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence. Like many of Blake’s poems from the two Songs collections, ‘Infant Joy’ is fairly straightforward and its meaning is reasonably plain – and yet the poem requires a little analysis to tease out its deeper ambiguities and subtleties.
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!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
‘Infant Joy’: summary
A newborn infant speaks, telling us that it was born just two days ago and has not even been given a name yet. Someone – presumably the mother – asks the infant what she should call it. As it is happy, the infant suggests that it should be called Joy. The mother blesses her child, asking that sweet joy befall it in life. The second stanza develops this idea of the infant’s future happiness.
‘Infant Joy’: analysis
‘Infant Joy’ is instantly recognisable as part of William Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence. The emphasis is on joy, wonder, and innocence, whereas the corresponding poem from the later Songs of Experience, ‘Infant Sorrow’, will strike a very different note.
But ‘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.
The second stanza of ‘Infant Joy’ is spoken exclusively by the infant’s mother, praising the child’s prettiness and sweetness. The naming of the infant as ‘joy’ binds together the infant and the idea of joy and happiness, in a hopeful act intended by the new mother to hold good omens for her child’s future life.
Of course, as the corresponding poem from Songs of Experience will show – ‘Infant Sorrow’ – such hope is misplaced, and some infants don’t even get a good start in life, let alone a positive experience thereafter:
My mother groan’d! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father’s hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.
But ‘Infant Joy’ is an upbeat song to the newborn baby and the joy it brings its mother.
About William Blake
William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the Lake Poets.
Blake’s key themes are religion (verses from his poem Milton furnished the lyrics for the patriotic English hymn ‘Jerusalem’), poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society. He is not a ‘nature’ poet in the same way that his fellow Romantics are: he seldom writes with the countryside in mind as his principal theme, but draws on, for instance, the rich symbolism of the rose and the worm to create a poem that is symbolically suggestive and clearly about other things (sin, religion, shame, cruelty, evil).
In form and language, Blake’s poetry can appear deceptively simple. He is fond of the quatrain form and short lines (usually tetrameter, i.e., containing four ‘feet’). But his imagery and symbolism are often dense and complex, requiring deeper analysis to penetrate and unravel their manifold meanings.
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.