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Reflections on ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’

Our latest contributing - author, storyteller, writer and educator - Marion Leeper reflects on her childhood, teenage and adult encounters with William Blake through two of his paired poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

You don’t need to be a scholar or an expert to find a connection to Blake’s poetry. These two short poems have grown with me all my life.

I first met Infant Joy aged about six: I had to copy it, in careful copperplate, for handwriting practice. It wasn’t until I went to college that I discovered Infant Sorrow.

Infant Sorrow

‘Infant Sorrow’
Artist: William Blake
Image (public domain): Wikipedia

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

These words mirrored how I saw my teenage self, a free soul leaping into the world, struggling my way to freedom and adulthood from the fetters of family life.

Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

It was the second verse, though, that spoke to me as a young mother, discovering how powerful a baby is, a being that can be too much for two grown adults, in the sleep-deprived stretches of the night. Blake looks so intensely into the moment: he captures exactly the way a baby lifts up its head to look out at the world, but then, finding the effort too much, falls back and nuzzles the mother’s shoulder.

Infant Joy

Infant Joy’
Artist: William Blake
Source (public domain): Wikipedia (click image to link)

Infant Joy, that piece of copperplate writing, took me much longer to love. My tutor at college warned me not to underrate Songs of Innocence. Misery and experience are easy to put into words: innocence is much harder. I didn’t buy it. Infant Joy seemed banal and sentimental to me.

I have no name,
I am but two days old --
What shall I call thee?

But when I started teaching, I began to understand the poem’s power. The poet asks questions of the child – ‘What shall I call thee?’ – and listens to the answer!

I happy am
Joy is my name --
Sweet joy befall thee!

An adult valuing a child’s ideas: that seemed to me a radical idea in education then, and – with a recent Ofsted report questioning the value of play in the education of young children – no less radical now. Blake, who saw angels on every tree on Peckham Rye, depicts a baby’s smile, an infant’s knowledge of joy, as a precious gift for humanity.

Pretty Joy,
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee.

The infants in both poems are born rich, strong and powerful, to borrow a phrase from the educators of Reggio Emilia. The babe in Infant Sorrow is already bound: like too many children still today, destined for a life of hardship simply by the situation into which they are born. But the child in Infant Joy, with an adult that recognises and shares in that joy, symbolises a hope for the future.

My tutor was right. It’s too easy to accept the bound child. It’s much harder to fight for the innocent child, and their right to a world of joy. That’s why I think Blake deserves to be celebrated now, this poet who can see heaven in a grain of sand: the hardships and social injustices which cut him like knives are still hurting us today. But Blake sees beyond them to what might be, and tells us, loud and clear, that we don’t have to put up with injustice.


Notes

Marion Leeper is a storyteller, writer and educator. Based in Cambridge, England, she grew up in a family of actors, raconteurs, tellers of tall tales and downright liars. She has been listening to and telling stories (true and less true) for longer than she can remember. She tells stories for children of all ages, and specialises in multi-sensory storytelling for the very young and for people with learning difficulties. She has toured her adult shows to clubs and festivals around the country and internationally. Based in Cambridge, Marion and her amazing story mat are familiar visitors to museums, schools and libraries around the region. You can find out more at marionleeperstoryteller.co.uk

Stories in the Dark, from Marion Leeper

The Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education is a student-centered philosophy. “At its core is an assumption that children form their own personality during early years of development and are endowed with ‘a hundred languages’, through which they can express their ideas. The aim of the Reggio approach is to teach how to use these symbolic languages (e.g., painting, sculpting, drama) in everyday life. It was developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy, and derives its name from the city.” (Wikipedia) You can discover more at the Reggio Children website, where you will also find The Hundred Languages, a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy (translated by Lela Gandini).

You can find many of William Blake’s poems, including Infant Sorrow and Infant Joy at pages listed in our More Resources pages.

Visiting Lida

In our latest post, artist Linda Richardson describes a recent Finding Blake visit to the workshop where William Blake's new headstone is being created by a master of the craft. "I recently had the great privilege of visiting Lida Cardozo Kindersley in the workshop on Victoria Road in Cambridge. She had begun to lay out the words on the Blake stone and James had come to film the process."

It has secretly been a long held desire of mine to visit this hallowed ground of letter cutters. For a few years, I had a stone masonry business of my own, where I learned not only the hefty art of lime rendering but also the fine art of letter cutting. Letters Slate Cut, one of Kindersley’s publications, was a great inspiration as I was learning and I used to drive past their workshop holding my breath, like someone passing the house of their favourite movie star.

Beautifully cut stones of all kinds

It was an overcast day but the workshop was bright, not only with daylight but with cleverly sited electric lighting. All around the walls and on every available worktop and shelf there were beautifully cut stones of all kinds, with many different fonts and inspiring words. In this place are held decades of lovingly crafted work, a tribute to the skill and care of generations of crafts people who not only produce some of the best letter cutting in the world, but remain grounded and humble. 

Lida was busy taking calls and then she had to spend some time with a sculptor who was making a clay likeness of Lida’s head. We chatted to her sons and after a little while Lida arrived completely unflustered, and calmly apologised for keeping us waiting. Then she settled herself in front of the huge piece of Portland stone and began to talk us through the composition and placement of the letters for the new Blake headstone. 

Letters drawn on stone:
Lines from William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion’
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

 

It was a joy to chat with her while she drew on the words, rubbed them off, drew them on again, rubbed them off again, put them on again, brandishing her specially cut pencils like magic wands. I was deeply gratified to see that she worked in exactly the same way as I did, writing and erasing, moving the words up, moving them down, erasing the whole lot and starting again. It gave me such a thrill to realise that I had been creating in exactly the same way as this highly skilled artist, but had thought myself incompetent because of all the erasing and re-drawing.

Where work takes as long as it takes

At break time everyone in the building stopped and met around a large refectory style wooden table where drinks had been prepared to everyone’s direction and a tin of biscuits was passed round. Amid plenty of convivial conversation and laughter, some of us tackled the Telegraph crossword and after half an hour, without a bell ringing or a word spoken, the company broke up to continue work. It was like a well oiled, well maintained machine that could run and run because nothing was over worked or stressed but all worked together like a beautiful clock. 

In the highly stressed, highly mechanised world we live in, it is a delight to visit crafts people and artists like this, where work takes as long as it takes and people are allowed as much time as is necessary to do their work to their highest potential. Without a doubt William Blake would have loved this place.

Since our visit, Lida has moved on to the cutting of the letters — a truly significant moment for the project of bringing William Blake’s new headstone to creation, and one which Finding Blake has been proud to document in these photos — with video footage to follow.

Lida Kindersley cutting the letters into Blake’s new headstone
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

 


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides and escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

In a later post — coming soon — James Murray-White will summarise the whole process whereby Lida is creating the new headstone for William Blake, with further posts looking in more detail at some of the main steps.

You can find out more about the Cardozo Kindersley workshop in Cambridge at their website, and the publication Linda that mentioned: Letters Slate Cut – workshop philosophy and practice in the making of letters.

There is a series of readings of the full text of Blake’s Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion on YouTube — part of a series of readings to be found in the Blake Society’s Voice pages, although this one was missing at the time of writing. As always, Wikipedia has an informative page on this book, “the last, longest and greatest in scope of the prophetic books written and illustrated by the English poet, artist and engraver William Blake,” which is not connected with Blake’s more famous poem Jerusalem.

The Unfolding and Unveiling

In this post, Finding Blake founder James Murray-White shares some of his encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present, including the recent Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House.

My first encounter with William Blake happened fleetingly — as a boy, in  the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I have been there again recently, and of their huge archive of Blake prints and pictures, only four seem to be on permanent display — high on an upper gallery. Maybe it was these I saw, or possibly a temporary exhibition, although my overriding memories of childhood visits there were to the Egyptian mummies and the knights in armour on horseback! I feel my encounter with Blake was a fleeting ‘seeing’ that became an acknowledgement of the work, and a storing up for later.

Frontispiece from ‘Songs of Experience’: William Blake, 1825
Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York

That unfolding and unveiling of the glory and depth of Blake’s works and thought has emerged for me over the past few years: at a summer festival two years ago, with a group of 20 or so in the woods late at night, round a roaring fire — when the guitars and chatter paused, I piped up and said “does anyone know the words to Jerusalem?”, and we all were surprised that we all did, and sang many a rousing versions of it for a communal hour or two.

Then just last year, as I was walking on my way to film an interview with the ex-President of Tuvalu in the Amnesty Bookshop in Cambridge, I was stopped on the street by a friend who I knew to be a member of the Blake Society, who said he had a project to run by me. When we made time to meet properly and discuss, it turned out that the Blake Society had commissioned a new gravestone for Blake, and it was to be made here in Cambridge by renowned letter cutter Lida Kindersley. I had met Lida years before while researching for a play on artist Eric Gill (Lida’s husband David had been Gill’s chief apprentice, and is in the lineage of master crafts folk within the world), so I very quickly felt hooked in and knew that my time to ‘get into Blake’ was beginning.

Blake in Sussex

Then followed a year of deep-time research. I gathered as much material as I could — all the biographies, from Kathleen Raine to Peter Ackroyd, through to the latest (and very good) one by Tobias Churton, as well as books of images and his poetry — and got stuck in. My antennae are always active to Blake-related activities, and one of the highlights was a whole day’s walk led by writer Henry Eliot  a member of the Blake Society committee who also has an interest psychogeography and leads walks on writers works and lives. The walk was divided into the four themes around Blake’s The Four Zoas — characters in Blake’s prophetic work, The Four Zoas: The torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man.

This was a blast of Blakean energy — on the streets he knew well and trod daily, to the places he lived (most demolished or built over, apart from the South Molton Street flat). A highlight of this day was access to the Tyburn Convent, close by Marble Arch, once site of the infamous Tyburn Cross; London’s hangings took place here, which Blake was well aware of.

Fast forward to more recent blasts of Blake, including a trip to the wonderful ‘Blake in Sussex’ exhibition at Petworth House in West Sussex, followed the next day by filming the Blake Society’s visit to Lida’s studio to see and approve her lettering for the grave.

Twice so far this year I’ve found myself face to face with an original painting, and often a new one to me that I’ve not seen reproduced. There were a few highlights of ‘Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House, particularly the depth and dimensions of The Sea of Time and Space (vision of the circle of the life of man) from 1821 (owned by The National Trust). Moving from the man in red to the angelic woman, pointing in opposite but aligned directions, through to the connections between tree and sea and sky and flesh and blood… On reflection it feels now that maybe the piece of art, or the creative form, appears to us right at the moment we need it to, and here was this ethereal vision.

The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) by William Blake, 1821. Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper, 
Source: National Trust

A nature-based energy

It feels very special to have seen this gathering of images and words in this location, honouring William and Catherine Blake’s three years out of the grime and chaos of London. Although his time in Felpham came to a crushing end with his trial for sedition, the work he produced there — much of it commissioned by William Hayley or Lady Egremont (hence the Petworth connection) — I feel has an edge: a nature-based energy, connecting elements and exploding the human form.

After the exhibition, I felt doubly blessed to be shown the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a few miles from Petworth. This is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, owned and managed by the National Trust, with sweeping views around and down into a huge area of heath and woods, and out over Surrey towards London from the top of Gibbet Hill. My guide, Mark Goldthorpe, speculated that the Blakes might have come this way on their journey from London, and had a taste of this spectacular beauty too. I hope so.

Seeing the letters written out on Blake’s ‘new’ grave also feels special — to have been part of this journey from seeing Lida choose the stone, to now being at the point where she will start to cut the letters, makes a wonderful connection in craft and physicality. I’ve only come into this at a very late stage: the Blake Society have been trying to get this grave made for at least a dozen years, and it was an honour to be with them as they gathered round it and saw the design coming to fruition. More of that as the project progresses: do keep coming back to the site for updates.

This is a little of my connection to Blake, and my ‘deep time’ dive into his works and vision. I’ll write more of the project, and its aims and timeline, in a further post. Please feel free to share your connection to Blake with us here, with anecdotes and images: we’d love to hear.

Notes

You can find out about the recent exhibition, Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and the history of Petworth House at the National Trust’s site. And there is information about William and Catherine Blakes’ cottage in Felpham at the Blake Cottage Trust site. The Guardian and Telegraph both have interesting articles on the recent exhibition: Maeve Kennedy’s Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived (10/1/18) and Alistair Sooke’s The pastoral interlude that influenced a visionary (12/1/18).

The Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey is part of the National Trust’s Hindhead Commons and Devil’s Punch Bowl property.

Blake’s The Four Zoas are among the wide range of topics that American poet Robert Bly explored in a 1980s interview for New Dimensions Radio, William Blake and Beyond, which we’ve added to the Blakean articles collection in A Blakean Archive.