By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Infant Sorrow’ is the counterpart to ‘Infant Joy’: whereas ‘Infant Joy’ appeared in William Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence, ‘Infant Sorrow’ was published in his 1794 volume Songs of Experience. Before we proceed to an analysis of Blake’s poem, here’s a reminder of ‘Infant Sorrow’.
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.
‘Infant Joy’, the earlier counterpart to this poem, 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?’
‘Infant Sorrow’ is quite different. In summary, a baby tells us about its birth: its mother groaned with the pain of childbirth, but its father also wept, possibly because the father knew the full horrors of the world the infant was being born into. Indeed, the infant tells us that the world it was born into was dangerous. But the infant, too, contains a hint of menace, being like a ‘fiend hid in a cloud’. The unexpected simile here is striking: angels go on clouds, not fiends, and newborn infants are associated with angelic innocence rather than fiendish possession.
The infant tells us it struggled as its father held it, disliking the swaddling bands of cloth that enclosed it. As the infant is ‘bound’, almost in chains, and tired from its fruitless struggles, it resigns itself to sulking in its mother’s breast.
That’s all that needs to be said about ‘Infant Sorrow’, so far as summarising it goes. But what about its meaning? What is William Blake saying with this poem? Part of the confusion arises from the fact that Blake leaves much in the poem out of the poem, if that makes sense: much of its meaning is implied rather than explicitly stated. For example, we as readers are left to infer the reasons as to why the infant’s birth might have been accompanied by tears and pain rather than joy and comfort (as is the case in the companion-poem, ‘Infant Joy’): the infant’s parents are presumably unhappy, with the father weeping, because this is an unwanted infant. This would go some way towards explaining the idea of the infant as a ‘fiend’: something unpleasant and undesirable. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Blake is probably using ‘fiend’ in a more neutral sense here: not necessarily a little devil but a beast possessed of great spirit or energy. Perhaps the parents are poor and are worrying about having another mouth to feed. But none of this is stated or confirmed. Perhaps the child was planned, but the parents are apprehensive about bringing the infant into such a ‘dangerous world’.
The central question is why the birth of a baby might not be the happy occasion we expect it to be, but Blake refuses to say why the world might be considered so dangerous or why the parents would greet the birth of their child with such misery. Bringing a child into an uncertain world, even if that child is planned and wanted, is not a matter of unalloyed happiness: fear and foreboding, about this new responsibility of mother and father for another life, play a part, too. In the last analysis, then, ‘Infant Sorrow’ – aptly, given the origins of the word ‘infant’ – refuses to say exactly why the infant’s lot is so unhappy. Given Blake’s interest in poverty, and in highlighting the conditions of the poor (see ‘London’ or ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ for two notable examples), this is one potential reason. But Blake refuses to reduce the poem to such a reading, and refuses to make unhappiness the sole province of the poor.
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.