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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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Describe in detail the poem "Infant Sorrow" by William Blake.

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William Blake's poem "Infant Sorrow" is an eight-line poem taken from his collection Songs of Experience. The poem is written from the perspective of a baby being born into the world, which is usually (hopefully!) a joyous occasion. Yet as the title implies, Blake focuses on negative emotions. "Infant Sorrow" is a demonstration of the darker side of childbirth, where none of the parties involved - not even the baby - are happy.

The poem is composed of four rhyming couplets divided between two stanzas. The first stanza sees the baby being born:

"My mother groand! my father wept. / Into the dangerous world I leapt. / Helpless, naked, piping loud, / Like a fiend hid in a cloud."

Right from the start, we can tell that the parents are not happy about the birth of their child. We're not sure exactly of the reason, but the second line, referring to the "dangerous world" that the baby now inhabits, gives us a clue. The parents know that the child is being born into a cruel, harsh world and lament that they will be exposed to it.

Take into consideration that this poem is from the child's perspective and not the parents'. Babies are not born with an awareness of themselves (or anything, really), so how can the child know that he is entering a dangerous world? And for that matter, if the baby knows the world is dangerous, it's safe to assume he also knows that his mother's womb is the opposite- comforting and soothing. It's interesting that Blake gives this level of consciousness to a child, and more interesting that the child's perspective seems to match that of its parents.

Also of note is the poem's comparison of the child to a "fiend"- is Blake suggesting that the child is a little devilish? And if so, is that what the parents are upset about?

The second stanza shows us what happens after the birth:

"Struggling in my father's hands: / Striving against my swaddling bands: / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mothers breast."

Blake describes the child as rambunctious, not able to sit still while it's father holds it. Again, this supports the "devilish child" idea from the first stanza - the child's been born for only a few minutes and is already a handful. The child does calm down, though, and "sulks" on their mother's breast. The word "sulk" is not only phonetically close to the word "suckle" (meaning to breastfeed), but also implies that the child is somber - another negative emotion for what should be a happy event.

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"Infant Sorrow" is one of Blake's Songs of Experience, a series of poems which contrast and complement the Songs of Innocence. Though I won't go into it in this answer - which, I might add, will be too short to do full justice to Blake's complex, concise poem - you really need to read its 'companion poem', Infant Joy, in Songs of Innocence.

The poem is written in tight little rhyming couplets, and lines of iambic tetrameter (though it's not always regular!):

My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

The first stanza describes the birth being a "leaping" into a "dangerous world". The poem imagines the birth of the baby (who narrates the poem, we presume, in the first person) as a movement from safety into a dangerous world - and a world in which he is helpless, naked, and "piping loud". Does that mean crying - or singing? It's difficult to tell.

And, while the infant is born, Blake focusses our attention on his weeping father (why is he weeping - shouldn't he be happy?) and his "groaning" mother (is she experiencing a particularly painful birth?) rather than on the joy of the occasion.

Most scarily of all, the baby is described in a simile as like a devil ("a fiend") hid in a cloud. What does that mean? How might the baby be like a devil hidden under a (traditionally angelic!) cloud? Is birth a little demon breaking out into the world.

Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.

The baby, in the second stanza, is struggling against the boundaries of the world: against his father's hands, against his 'swaddling bands' (the clothes used to wrap a new born baby in). The baby is restricted and "bound", and tired, and so he sulks on his mother's breast.

If the baby really is a "fiend", is he bound for good reason? Will something awful happen when he is unbound? Or is this a poem about the awful restrictions the world puts on people's freedom?

Questions, questions. Blake's poem is hugely ambiguous - and it 'means' a whole variety of things. Just remember, as you put together your own interpretation, to choose evidence from the text!

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