Tag Archives: William Blake

Worms and Caterpillars

The June issue of the Wanderer Magazine is now available online.

It includes my second column, this month exploring the use of worms and caterpillars as metaphors for corruption down the ages, from Beowulf to Isaac Rosenberg, through Shakespeare, William Browne of Tavistock, William Blake… and the Lambton Worm

Please read it here .

And do stop by to look at the rest of the magazine, which includes some interesting articles from Krishna Prasad, John Looker and Indira Parthasarathy.



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Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow

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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.

Infant Joy

‘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!

Pretty joy!
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:

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.


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The Poison Tree

 I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.


And I water’d it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.


And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.


And into my garden stole,

When the night had veil’d the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


William Blake


Like last week’s poem, The Poison Tree has its roots both in common sense English proverbs, the Bible and fairy tale. Starting with a folksy reflection on the dangers of keeping ones grievances to oneself, it ends with a frank and gleeful confession of murder. As with many of Blake’s poems, its apparent simplicity belies a hidden complexity and ambiguity.

The opening stanza, one suspects, began life as a self-contained epigram, of which Blake penned so many. It works as the kind of moral lesson that we tell young school children as we instruct them in the ways of human nature, and there is a kind of basic truth in it: how often, when we keep our hurt emotions to ourselves, our sense of grievance grows out of proportion to the crime that inspired it.

In the stanzas that follow this grievance – or ‘wrath’- is described as a sort of plant which the speaker grows with tears and smiles, a fitting metaphor for the way we cosset and nurture our grievances and they grow in our imaginations.

And after that, the imagery becomes all the more ambiguous and hard to interpret. The tree grows an apple, of which the speaker’s foe grows envious. The foe steals into the speaker’s garden for the apple and lies dead (or anyway lies) at the tree the next morning. Just what is this all about?

My edition has two notes, first tracing the origin of the phrase ‘night had veil’d the pole’ to the William Cowper poem ‘On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ about the demise of a poor woman’s bullfinch at the paws of a cat… More pertinently, it notes a parallel of the last line with these lines from Milton’s Paradise lost, as Adam lies on the ground cursing his life and his crime:

                     … on the ground

Outstretched he lay, on the cold ground, and oft

Cursed his creation, death as oft accused

Of tardy execution…

Reading a semi-messianic (strictly unorthodox) Christian poet like Blake, you can’t fail to notice the Biblical echoes of walled gardens and forbidden fruit; but why are they here in this poem, and what do they signify? Is Blake, rather blasphemously, making a God of the speaker whose enemy plays the role of Adam taking the forbidden fruit? Surely not.

More likely, the speaker – in his pride and resentment – parallels Satan: smilingly, patiently, he leads his enemy to his downfall by tempting him with a mortal crime, just as Satan led Adam to the forbidden fruit and rejoiced in man’s downfall. Is Blake warning us that such cruel, devious behaviour puts us in the company of the evil one himself?

It is interesting that, in comparison to Milton’s epic poetry (and some of Blake’s more cosmic poetry), the setting of this poem is so very homely and mundane. But this is only fitting: the battle between good and evil takes place in every man’s soul in everyday life. Unorthodox he may have been, but Blake was Christian enough to believe that.

And the very homeliness – and yet uncanniness – of the poem’s setting brings to mind to the atmosphere of a fairy tale – of long held grudges, secret curses and poison apples – of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, basically. The Grimm version of the story – the story we know today, wasn’t around when Blake wrote this poem – they published it in 1812, and this poem was in Songs of Experience of 1793; but it’s entirely possible that Blake was familiar with another variant of ‘story 709’, and many others that contained poison apples, walls, woods and wicked stepmothers… and murderous jealousy: especially jealousy, because pride, jealousy and resentment is at the heart of this poem, at the heart of ‘Snow White’ and at the heart of ‘the fall of man’.

And come to think of it, though we often use ‘Disneyfication’ pejoratively, the Disney witch in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ was one of the scariest villains in early celluloid – I remember being distinctly spooked by her as a child: it’s the way that she is, I think, motivated by such recognisable human emotions, and yet demands monstrous things and she takes on, in the end, such a monstrous guise, that so disturbed my four year old self . Indeed, she follows the same trajectory as this poem – from ordinary human foibles, to gleeful, murderous vanity.


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The Sick Rose


A conventional poem about flowers and mortality would say much what Waller did in the subject of my last post, Song: “Look, see that flower? Look how beautiful it is. Just like you’re beautiful, right?… There’s no use hiding your beauty away – it’s there to be admired, like the flower. And beauty, doesn’t last forever, now does it? You have to enjoy it – and let it be enjoyed – when it lasts.”

William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’, is not such a conventional poem.


The Sick Rose


O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


The Rose is not suffering from the ravages of time exactly, but from the attentions of the ‘invisible worm’, who is besotted with her. There are echoes of Genesis here – the serpent that brought sin into paradise, thus begot corruption and death. There is a distinct sexual overtone to the imagery too, with the worm having sought the rose’s bed; and he hardly sounds like a gentle lover, the ‘crimson joy’ making the relationship sound like one of feeding and bloodletting – the worm a parasite, feeding on and destroying the young rose. Yeah, we all know guys like that, sighs one world weary female reader. Blake’s lament is a fateful one: she who is beautiful must be defiled and her beauty destroyed by he who desires her. Edmund Waller didn’t mention that bit in Song!

We needn’t over-emphasise the sexual element in the poem, however. It can be read philosophically too, as embodying, in a somewhat lurid form, Blake’s dualistic beliefs, in which ‘innocence and ‘experience’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and even ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are two necessary aspects of the same universe.

Like many of Blake’s poems, the plate metal worker Blake made a plate to go with The Sick Rose. I’ll leave it to you to decide which interpretation of the poem his picture supports…

The Sick Rose

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