The Origins of Happiness: Examining the Memory of Birth in Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow
Of the paired poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, nearly every pair seems to progress from innocence to experience. There is an inherent sense of loss about them that bemoans the human condition. Unlike the others, Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow can be read as progressing from Experience to Innocence, at the very least in the chronological sense. Both are told from the perspective of the newborn child, but Infant Sorrow takes place on the day the baby is born, and Infant Joy takes place two days after.
The “Experience” of Infant Sorrow is the birth of the speaker, who describes it in the first stanza as:
“My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I lept
Helpless naked piping loud
Like a fiend hid in a cloud” (Blake 200)
The child already seems to have a grand discomfort towards being in the world. This makes sense though, when you consider that the only experience this speaker has had is that of their own birth, which is an inherently stressful event on both the part of the mother and the child.
Matt Simpson describes Infant Sorrow as “a knowing poem” (23), and says it “expresses a willful consciousness… in the intentionality of ‘sulk’ and ‘leapt’” (23). The second stanza seems to embody this knowingness more completely:
“Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.” (Blake 200)
It almost sounds as if the child is submitting to the parents’ calming tactics to wait out until it can get revenge. However, over the time between Infant Sorrow and Infant Joy, the child seems to have drastically changed from that state of Sorrow. I think this could represent either one of two things: that happiness comes from forgetting the bad or that happiness comes from appreciating the current times in comparison to the bad.
In evidence of the former, I think the obvious point in the situation of birth is that none of us remember our owns births. People who claim to have such memories are regarded with plenty of skepticism. Indeed, many memories from our early childhood are lost, or even false memories are ingrained in the mind from events like dreams. For example, I vividly remember getting lost in the mall when I was seven, so much so that when my parents claim it never happened I think they’re lying to me, even to this day. Only having been two days though, I find it hard to say that the child would have forgotten the birth.
I personally believe the latter, although I agree that there is some value in the former. A large part of constructing our happiness seems to come from comparing our current situation to the ones of the past. In the case of birth, the child is being expelled from the only place it has ever known, where it was warm, quiet, and where it was being directly provided with everything it needed. Then it comes out and has its airway cleared, starting the cycle of breath that lasts until death, it has to smell the nasty world, eat food on its own, hear all the loud sounds the world offers, and deal with harsh light. With the memories of being in the womb, this experience must certainly seem horrible; it is basically an attack on all five senses, and that’s if everything goes right with birth. Two days forward though, in Infant Joy, the child is happy again. So while losing childhood memories is obviously possible, I think this child retains its memory but is now comfortable enough in the world to be happy again. Things have not gone back to the perfection of the womb, but compared to birth, they have gotten a lot better.
Simpson says that if the more ominous implications of Infant Sorrow are true then in Infant Joy it “turn[s] its weaknesses- helplessness, nakedness, piping- into awe- some weapons- ‘a little bundle of anarchic will, whose desires take no account of either the social or the natural order’” (26). This implies that the infant never gets over their experience of birth, but no one ever takes revenge on their parents for being born. The infant wonders at its name in the poem, saying:
‘I have no name:
I am but two days old.’
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee! (Blake 185)
The progression it has taken from Infant Sorrow seems to be in the direction of happiness. The infant started life in Experience, which clearly extends to everyone. The primary state of life then for everyone is Experience, and the childlike Innocence only comes afterwards, albeit quite soon afterwards. The infant has not forgotten the experience of its birth, its existence now is just comparatively better. The Joy it has is not feigned, it is not a tactic to bide its time to get some kind of revenge, it genuinely enjoys its existence.
But what does this say about the Songs of Innocence and Experience as a whole? I say that it says there’s hope. Innocence is not a natural state, so the loss of it is not quite as dramatic or woeful as it is usually seen to be. Even in knowing and experiencing, the memories of Innocence still have plenty of value and impact on our more contemporary states of life. In the midst of all the loss of Innocence in the poems, this one focusing on the youngest of children shows that Innocence comes after Experience. Happiness or unhappiness is constructed from the comparison of “now” to “then,” regardless of age. Experience is not a bad thing either, it is a necessary thing. The infant’s happiness only comes after its birth, and remembering that stressful experience is what enables it to appreciate the current circumstances.
Damrosch, David, Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Susan Wolfson, and Peter Manning, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. Print. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.
Michelfelder, James. Woman with Newborn Child. Digital image. Fit Pregnancy. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2017. <https://www.fitpregnancy.com/pregnancy/labor-delivery/what-expect-after-giving-birth-hospital>.
Simpson, Matt. “Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience.’” Critical Survey, vol. 4, no. 1, 1992, pp. 22–27., www.jstor.org/stable/41555619.