Poetry Review, William Blake, Infant Sorrow

10 Jan

William Blake was a visionary.  While many literary critics tend to lump him in with the Romantic writers, his work is far more idiosyncratic than that (and that’s saying a lot) and also he was quite a bit older.  At the same time his poetry bears almost no relationship to the age of reason fuddy-duddies that he was peer to.  (I don’t dislike the Age of Reason poets, they just speak to the head more than the emotions and are extremely thinky in good and bad ways.)    The reason that William Blake is considered a sort of father to the romantics is that he had all of their qualifications in hand, he believed in individualism, his religious views were very broad and very based on his personal experience, he went towards emotional expression rather than dictums, reasoning (as the enlightenment folk thought of it), and rules.  Though he probably thought that his work was good for people’s morality because it brought out emotion, he never wandered to the preachy, morals quoting side of the aisle.  Well I could talk about him all day, but let’s look at the work.

First, even the title is a bit eyebrow-raising–“Infant Sorrow” because sorrow seems like such a complicated emotion for a baby to have, sure a baby can cry out of need, but sorrow is a feeling of loss.  The question it brings up is, “why would a baby have a feeling of loss?”

So we start out in a not all the way positive birthing process:  “My mother groaned, my father wept—”  These were the first sounds that this baby heard.   The groaning would be from the birthing process and the weeping?  Well, there are tears of joy, however, considering that this is “Infant Sorrow” we’re talking about, the father might be weeping out of fear for his wife’s life, also that the baby might not be quite welcome.

“Into the dangerous world I leapt,”  Although the birthing process gave the baby no choice but to be born, it’s interesting with the leaping, as if this baby was eager to get out into the world.  There’s a note of disappointment though, the dangerous world, not looking before you leap. I’m imagining looking forward to being born and then you’re in this room where there’s groaning and weeping, I suppose signs of danger to a little one.

He’s also “helpless, naked, piping loud” so making a lot of noise but unable to do anything else.  The next line is very surprising “like a fiend hid in a cloud.” If we go for symbolism, the baby is the fiend, and he was hidden in his mother’s womb.  Also there’s a level of bad intent here, a fiend in a cloud can hide what he’s doing, and he’s certainly up to no good.

“Struggling in my father’s hands, Striving against my swaddling bands,”  So the baby is trying to fight constraint, but he is not strong enough.

“Bound and weary, I thought best/to sulk upon my mother’s breast.”  So after wearing himself out, he sulks.  (The “I found best” bit is a little bit of irony, since the baby had very little choice, perhaps he would not sulk, but where he was and what he was doing beyond that was completely out of his control.)

So why read a poem about an unhappy baby?  Naturally, Blake isn’t writing a poem about what babyhood is like, but how life is like for us.  Aren’t there times where we are perfectly constrained, and all the fighting in the world won’t get us our freedom?  I’m thinking about recovering addicts, who have exactly this kind of sorrow, or people who are bedridden by something like a broken bone.

Helplessness.  We are taught to fight against it, to not acknowledge it, we confuse helplessness with victimhood.  However, it’s foolish to fight against certain things, like elephants and bulldozers or brick walls.  We’ll just end up frustrated and sulking and worn out over wasted effort.  Aren’t there some things better to surrender to?  (Oh but we hate that passivity, we should be proactive!)  And this is the infant sorrow–the realization that we do not have all power over all things, in fact we don’t even have power over ourselves completely.  Occasionally we can make an illusion for ourselves that we have great power, but sooner or later the real world comes in and swaddles us back up.   Knowing where our power isn’t is paradoxically the first step towards true freedom in life, bringing us from the mind of an infant to a small child.

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