“Infant Sorrow” by William Blake is an illustrated poem from his Songs of Experience collection. The Songs of Experience are a collection of poems that are not only more experienced pieces of work, but also represent life in a more experienced manor. In “Infant Sorrow”, a baby is born into the world. However, in contrast to its counterpart “Infant Joy” from the Songs of Innocence, the poem portrays the negative and uncensored perspective of life. Despite the poem creating a sense of sorrow as the title would suggest, the painting is bright, vibrant and full of life. This contrast is likely to cause the readers to not only think about the poem, but other topics as well.
Blake’s color choice could be depicting a sense of reality. When a baby is born, they are completely oblivious to everything that is happening around them. Blake may have wanted to represent this sense of reality in the painting to supplement, as well as contrast, the text of the poem. Due to this plate being part of the Songs of Experience and not the Songs of Innocence, it portrays a more well-rounded perspective due to the duality of the perspectives. Another possible benefit of depicting this sense of innocence is to attempt the reader to not only think about the innocence of a baby, but also to reevaluate the world around them. Although the painting appears to depict the baby in what appears to be an at least semi-wealthy home, not everyone was as fortunate.
Although slavery is not directly depicted in this poem, it is possible to interpret it as an analogy for slavery. The baby is unwillingly born into the world; much like a slave is unwillingly forced into slavery. Christine Gallant makes the point that “While the text of ‘Infant Sorrow’ presents the inner thoughts of the infant, the design pictures the child protesting but still free of the mother who is moving to bind him. The posture of this infant is that of the slave on Wedgwood's abolitionist seal”. This moment is after the baby is born and its mother is going to pick it up. The baby attempts to resist, but finally gives in. Likewise when a slave is forced into slavery, they will usually resist for a while, then after failing, will give in. To tie this in with the illusion generated by the vibrancy of the painting, this could be one of the social norms that Blake is trying to get people to reevaluate.
This can be supported ever further in the fact that the mother’s dress is red. According to Wassily Kandinsky, “red light stimulates and excites the heart” (Kandinsky 25). Although this could be taken plainly to show that the mother loves and cares for her child, but it can also be extended to taking care of others. Blake could be using this mentality to try to get readers to think about how they, as well as society, treat others. Instead of forcing others into slavery, they should be at least caring for them enough to realize they are human beings and not personal slaves.
Another aspect of society that Blake felt was lacking love and care was child labor. Although child labor is not directly mentioned in the poem or painting, child labor is not that much different than slavery so by extension, the poem can also be viewed as an analogy for child labor. There are also a few poems in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience that dealt with child labor at face value such as “The Chimney Sweeper” in the Songs of Innocence and its counterpart “The Chimney Sweeper” in the Songs of Experience. Although the child in those poems is clearly depicted as from a lower class family, which the child in “Infant Sorrow” does not appear to be from, it does show Blake’s negative views on child labor.
Another interesting aspect of the painting is that the color most used is green, which Kandinsky says that green “is the most restful colour that exists” (Kandinsky 38) and “the effect [that green has] on the soul through the eyes is therefore motionless” (Kandinsky 38). This is ironic since the baby is struggling in the poem to stay out of the binds of its mother. The baby does however end up giving up at the end. However since the moment depicted in the painting the baby has yet to be bound by its mother, the motionless of the green coloring has to be showing something else. One interesting possibility for interpreting the motionless is not in a sense of physical movement, but rather in a sense of time. Although slavery and child labor do not exist in most of the world anymore, there are other social norms in today’s world that Blake may want us to reevaluate. In other words, the world we live in is not a utopia in everyone’s eyes, so regardless of the time period there will always be topics to consider the repercussions of. For example, if Blake lived in the modern day United States, his poems may be depicting same sex marriage or abortion instead of child labor. Likewise in the future, there will be other debatable issues. This sense of motionless can also be extended to represent that not only is it time independent, but it is also location independent. Although the issues may not be the same everywhere, there are questionable norms or ideas everywhere.
There are also timeless and location independent problems that Blake brings up in his poems. In the Songs of Experience version of “The Chimney Sweeper”, there are the lines “Where are thy father and mother? say? / They are both gone up to church to pray”. This could be interpreted as the somewhat common thought of if there is a God, why would they let this happen. There are basically two possible explanations to this, either there is no God or that there are bigger concepts that we are oblivious to. This could be something else that Blake could want us to reevaluate. Although there does not appear to be anyway to concretely tell which path Blake wants the reader to choose, there are several poems dealing with religion. Due to this, exploring the latter possibility seems like a good place to start.
While exploring the path that we are oblivious to bigger concepts, we are much like a baby. Like a baby, we have a sense of innocence, just a different degree of innocence. The next obvious question would be related to what we are oblivious to. A possible exploration that fits nicely with Blake’s work is that we need to formulate a utopia ourselves; otherwise we will find ourselves falling back into the issues people have faced in the past, what we are facing in the future, and what people will face in the future. Loosely, this can be translated to the common expression “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. If there were no struggles, it would not be able to repeat them, but it would still be possible for them to arise. Although the end result of a utopia conflicts with the time independent nature mentioned earlier, realistically it is not possible for a world to be a utopia in everyone’s eyes unless everyone has the same opinions on everything. In a realistic sense, a society where everyone has the same opinion on everything sounds more like a brainwashed totalitarian society than a utopia. Even with a brainwashed society the closest realistically conceivable society would be the one depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, but even in that society there are people that have to be brainwashed again for having opinions that did not line up with the brainwashers. Since realistically a utopia is not possible, a better explanation of the bigger concept could be to get as close to a utopia as physically possible. Although no one can be sure whether there is or is not a God and if there is, what the bigger message or concepts are, this is the one that makes sense with what Blake’s work appear to portray.
If you use the poems in isolation, it is also possible to interpret them as a depiction that higher beings do not exist, but after researching William Blake’s life, this does not appear to be a possibility. Blake claimed to have has several visions of religious and spiritual beings in his life. “The first of these occurred one day when Blake was walking in the countryside near London and saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. Later in his life he had vague memories of having been visited by Jesus and Socrates” (“William Blake”). It appears to be fairly obvious that William Blake had believed that there were higher beings since he claimed to have had visions including both angels and Jesus. Due to these visions, it seems likely that Blake wants us to think about the bigger message or concepts of the higher beings rather than doubting their existence. What are more interesting however, are the non-religious visions that Blake claimed to have had. Aside from Socrates, he also had visions of “The visions continued throughout his life; in them he was visited by poets, including John Milton, and biblical prophets, such as Ezra“ (“William Blake”). Although there are still religious visions from prophets in the list, there are others in the list such as poets. “According to Gilchrist, Blake believed he saw [his brother] Robert's spirit ascending through the ceiling, ‘clapping its hands for joy.’ Later Blake had a vision in which, he claimed, Robert visited him and showed him the technique of ‘illuminated writing,’ or relief-etching” (“William Blake”). Throughout his life he had claimed to have had visions from a spectrum of different people and religious beings.
In today’s society, Blake would probably be sent to a mental institution to check for any brain damage, but in the past, having visions was not viewed as delusional. Regardless of how you want to view these visions, Blake was trying to portray a message in the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. He was no happy with the way society operated and wanted to have people reevaluate society. The painting for ”Infant Sorrow” shows this clash of feelings against the poem to have the reader think about the poem and painting at a deeper level. After reaching this deeper level, the reader will be likely to go back through not only the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience, but also their daily lives. The use of the mother’s dress expands on the clash of feelings to represent the love and care for others that Blake believed was missing is society. The overwhelming use of green in the painting is to represent that this is a timeless concept and there are always things to be improved.
Gallant, Christine. "Blake's Antislavery Designs for Songs of Innocence and of Experience." Wordsworth Circle 39.3 (2008): 123. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Oct. 2014. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE|A193098806&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w&asid=3e3c2fda630af986b6bdf16509106524>.
Kandinsky, Wassily, and M.T.H Sadleir. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1977. Print.
"William Blake." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. N. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Oct. 2014. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE|H1000009282&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w&asid=c1ada0be26190922392ac386e268a50f>.