At first, the twin poems “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” seem to present contrary understandings of childhood. The infant in “Infant Joy” knows only happiness, presumably because he is just two days old and has no experience of the world. Indeed, the child’s separation from earthly reality is conveyed by the illustration, which suggests the child is closer to heaven than earth. The child, its mother and an angel are all cradled inside a flower, which represents the natural world. It is notable that trees, which are so prominent in Songs of Innocence, are absent from every illustration Blake made for “Infant Joy”. This suggests that the child has not yet gained knowledge of good and evil and instead exists in a state of prelapsarian harmony with the natural and divine worlds.

The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is depicted in an entirely human world. Like the infant in “Infant Joy,” it is with its mother, but there is no obviously divine element in the illustration. The real difference is what this infant is saying and how. It knows that the world is dangerous and painful. Its description of itself as “like a fiend hid in a cloud” suggests both that it is more cunning and self-aware than the baby in Infant Joy, who simply says: “I happy am/ Joy is my name.”

However, given the infants are roughly of the same age (as infants were both named and swaddled early), how can we explain why the child in “Infant Sorrow” has such a negative self-image? Experience is an unsatisfactory answer because while does explain the child’s knowledge of pain and danger, it is difficult to cite experience as the cause of the infant’s resignation (“I thought it best”) and self-perception this early on. The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is like a little adult to the extent that it comprehends and speaks like an adult, whilst the child in “Infant Joy” says how it feels directly and simply. It’s no coincidence that first infant is given simple words and the second infant complex ones.  Although the poems seem to present one innocent and one knowledgeable infant, the way these two depictions work together eventually suggests that our preconceived ideas of childhood are what Blake is really getting at.

In both images the child is with its mother and both are contained, just one by the swaddling bands and one by the flower. The swaddling bands and the flower represent different contemporary attitudes towards children. The flower suggests that children need to grow up as themselves, which was the philosophy Rousseau espoused when he wrote that “Nature wants children to be children before being men.”  On the contrary, swaddling forces the child to conform to the adults’ wishes. Blake also puts adults’ words in the infant’s mouth in “Infant Sorrow.” It seems nonsensical that an infant could view itself as a fiend, but it was also a contemporary position that children were born in sin and had to be disciplined. Both infants are framed by societal attitudes, so it is only with knowledge of them that we can guess at why the infants in both poems express themselves as they do. Although “Infant Joy” seems more simple and charming at first, when we look at it with “Infant Sorrow,” we can seethe the two poems acknowledge the mysteriousness of childhood and that we can only interpret it in relation to ourselves as experienced adults. As infants cannot speak as clearly as the infants in these poems, we are left wondering whose thoughts Blake’s infants are expressing. And as we cannot remember infanthood as we remember other parts of our lives, it is harder to draw on as a form of experience. The poems suggest that we imagine childhood more than we experience it. The two representations can be so fundamentally different because there are some aspects of life that experience cannot fully help us to understand.

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