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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.