By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Cradle Song’ is intended to be sung by a mother to her newborn child in order to lull the baby to sleep. The repetition of ‘Sweet’ at the beginning of many of the poem’s stanzas (or perhaps we should say, the song’s verses) helps to create a soothing effect. One wonders how many infants have been eased into dreamland by maternal recitals of Blake’s poem.
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O’er thy cheek, and o’er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.
O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.
‘Cradle Song’ is not only about sleep: it is performative in the sense that William Blake is trying to use his song as a means of inducing sleep in the listener. And ‘listener’ would be the right word here: someone hearing this ‘cradle song’ recited or, preferably, sung to them as a means of lulling them into dreamland.
Alliteration plays a crucial part in this, offering a soothing sound-pattern to complement the metrical rhythms of Blake’s trochaic tetrameter (the preferred metre for songs in English ‘literature’): ‘beauty bright’, ‘sorrows sit’, ‘secret smiles’. Blake doesn’t overuse such a device, instead supporting this alliteration with relaxing repetition (‘Sleep, sleep’, ‘Secret joys and secret smiles’, ‘O’er thy cheek, and o’er thy breast’) and assonance (beautifully present in ‘Little pretty infant wiles’).
‘Cradle Song’ was part of Blake’s 1789 Songs of Innocence, but how innocent is the infant in the poem? ‘Secret joys and secret smiles, / Little pretty infant wiles’ coexist, with ‘wiles’ implying that the child is already growing up and will soon be an adult – sooner than the mother would wish. The reference to ‘cunning wiles’ later in the poem only reinforces this.
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.