William blake

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INFANT SORROW: A baby speaks of its entry into the world, which brought pain to its parents. The world it came into seemed dangerous. It was helpless, vulnerable, noisy, encased in its body like a devil hidden in a cloud.

The baby struggled against the confinement of its father's hands and the swaddling in which it was wrapped. Unsuccessful it resigned itself to sulking on its mother's breast.

For Blake, a fiend was not to be regarded as evil – it was an embodiment of energy and instinct. So here the baby comes into the world not as a peaceful, meek being but as one filled with positive energy and instinctual life. However, the response of the parents is ambiguous. Do they groan and weep because

  • Of the physical anguish of childbirth?
  • The baby has arrived, suggesting it might not be entirely welcome?
  • They are aware of the ‘dangerous world' into which the child has been born?

Whichever it is, the birth of the child is not a source of joy but of fear and pain.

Similarly, the care of the parents (exemplified by the father's hands and the swaddling bands) is not experienced as safety and concern. Instead, it is portrayed as restraining and imprisoning. The child must fight against the limits imposed by the parents. Defeated in its first struggles, the baby then sulks upon the breast, so that what might be interpreted by the mother as rest and trust is, in fact, resentment.

Infant Sorrow is a companion poem to Infant Joy in Songs of Innocence, in which we see what the mother imagines are the baby's feelings. However, readers should not be tempted to say that one is ‘true' and the other a false view. Blake recognises that both states co-exist in human beings.

LANGUAGE: The language of the first stanza contrasts with that of the second. The first stanza emphasises the littleness and vulnerability of the baby - ‘helpless', ‘naked', ‘piping' - and the threatening nature of the world into which it is born – ‘dangerous'. The latter is emphasised by the negative reactions of the parents – ‘groan'd', ‘wept'. The notion of a ‘fiend in a cloud' seems incongruous at this point. However, the active verb ‘I leapt', rather than the usual passive form of ‘I was born', indicates that a fully formed and independent individual has arrived.

The second stanza conveys the baby's desire to be free and to fight constraint. This is surprising, considering the previous picture of vulnerability. Its response to its situation is forceful rather than submissive.

However, our expectations are once more contradicted. Rather than continue fighting, the baby settles into resentment by sulking, as though nurturing plans for future rebellion. This seems the antithesis of the nurture it should be receiving from its mother. It gives substance to the idea of a ‘fiend in a cloud'.

The infant's aggressive tone is enhanced by the emphatic alliteration of ‘Struggling' and ‘Striving', whilst the frequent sibilance in the second stanza suggests the association of snake / evil / fiend.

The regularity of the rhyming couplets is given liveliness by the use of present participles in the second couplet of the first stanza and the opening couplet of stanza two – ‘ piping. ….Struggling.. Striving'. The inversion of the normal word order, in the second line of stanza one and the third in stanza two, emphasises the dangerous nature of the world and the feelings of the baby.

In stanza two the finite verb (‘thought') is delayed until the third line. Thus we see the active struggling of the baby before its collapse in sulking. In this way the verse imitates the order of the actions but also emphasises the unexpected conclusion.


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