By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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’ 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. But ‘Infant Joy’ is an upbeat song to the newborn baby and the joy it brings its mother.
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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.