My wife has recently given birth to a handsome son (must take after his dad) so birth and babies have been on my mind. I wanted to post a poem on the theme here, and the following poem by Blake came to mind. Blake filters out all the harsher aspects of birth – the pain and gore, the anxiety, the bad hospital food and (in his day more than ours) the genuine threat of death – and concentrates on the joy of new life.
‘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.
Very nice – anodyne, even. But that is the point – Infant Joy is from Songs of Innocence. For Blake innocence is a mode of perception, and to fully appreciate it we must be ignorant of pain and death and disappointment, at least for a short time. And this lets us focus on joy. Well, why not sometimes, eh?
Blake shows us the opposite mode of perception in Infant Sorrow:
My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.
Part of me thinks, well, that’s more like the real thing – the groaning, and the weeping, the helplessness, the nakedness, the struggling, striving, the sulking on mother’s breast: all this stuff smacks of reality. And that, again, is the point, for this is from Songs of Experience, whose poems betray knowledge of the world, showing us a point of view born of experience, often experience of sorrow, loss or pain.
And, for me, Infant Sorrow is the better, more memorable poem. It’s over the top, yes – but even the demonic imagery contains truth. ‘Like a fiend hid in a cloud’ – what an evocative line, and all in one-syllable words. It’s quite right as well isn’t it – one moment the baby is hidden away behind a layer of flesh, the next there (here, rather) and impossible to ignore. Koreans like to say that when a baby is born ‘hell-gate’ opens. Blake seemed to think so too! The ‘fiend’ line, by the way, is also the perfect summation of Blake’s craft – power and complexity concealed in apparent simplicity.
But even if Infant Sorrow is the better poem, it isn’t necessarily the truer. To think that Songs of Innocence’s poems are somehow fatally naive, and that they are ‘corrected’ by a wiser viewpoint in Songs of Experience would be to misunderstand the relationship between the two books. The two perspectives are different, but equally important aspects of consciousness. Yes, sometimes there are ironic foreshadows of sorrow in the Songs of Innocence, often Songs of Experience’s wiser, sadder viewpoint will help us see things more clearly. But equally, innocence can be a corrective to tired cynicism or world-weariness. I think Blake’s description of the child ‘sulking’ on his mother’s breast is more than a little tongue in cheek – and the humour is underscored by the slightly trite rhyme, best/breast. Is Blake perhaps mocking this weary, experienced point of view? The humour of the poem comes not just from the wicked aptness of the imagery, but the jarring effect of hearing of a baby’s experience told in this way.
Comparing the two poems, ‘Infant Sorrow’ is a more accurate guide to what happens when a baby is born, but we find the innocent point of view closer to a different kind of truth – what we feel in our hearts: sweet joy, after all.