Poetry Review: William Blake, Infant Joy

29 May

Sometimes we focus so much on the serious poetry that we have a tendency to ignore the happy stuff, which is really a shame because poetry is one of the best places to celebrate something.  I bet you could find a million articles on “Infant Sorrow” but very few on “Infant Joy.”

“I have no name/I am but two days old.”    We start in a tiny poem in a call and response cycle, the baby speaking–the first is just a statement of fact.  I half think in Blake’s world the response to this statement means everything–the baby is like something extremely soft and fragile and moldable–any response is likely to set them off in their direction.

“What shall I call thee?”  This is a good response to that first statement (as we shall see.)  First, asking someone what they would like to be called (if they were adult) is a form of respect–also the more formal “thee” adds a certain proper formality to bringing a new one in the world.

I happy am/Joy is my name.”  I like the inversion of the first line, it seems like a baby would say it that way.  Also, I have to stress, the very act of giving courtesy is what makes this child joyful–the first line is a statement of fact, but there’s no joy yet, it’s not until the response comes from the very accepting other that Joy can become what she/he is.

“Sweet joy befall thee!”  This is the one odd line in the poem that isn’t immediately understandable–it can be interpreted as Joy’s announcement of being in the family, or the family wishing the baby joy.  The use of the word befall is archaic, and packed with meaning–first befall means as if by an act of fate, though usually it’s used as an act of bad fate–it’s indicating that this child is fated to be joyful however.  The old meaning was also to come, as by right.  So Blake is saying that it is the right of this baby to be joyful, that is its place in this world.  If we take this to be an ideal coming into the world experience, the  baby can take its birthright of joy because the family recognized it in the first place.

“Pretty joy!/Sweet joy, but two days old,/Sweet joy I call thee;/Thou dost smile,/I sing the while/Sweet joy befall thee!”  This is the family’s response, firming up the identity of Joy–the lovely lullaby cadence here opens the poem up into full celebration–the recognition of this baby, and the role he/she will play in the world is an echo and a confirmation.   By being so attentive to this baby the baby can take these traits.  The poem basically moves from a tentative remark to full expression of happiness.  I can’t think of anything cozier or better.

One Response to “Poetry Review: William Blake, Infant Joy”

  1. weslo cadence treadmills July 19, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Awesome article.

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