Humble Beginnings and Endless Possibilities

In William Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow,” the speaker describes the memories that he has of a time when he was a small child and fought against the restraints of his parents. While this seems like a fairly innocuous poem, I argue that it actually serves a far more complicated purpose. The speaker works to draw a comparison between the actions of a small babe and the Romantic poets of the eighteenth-century, and he does so in this way: The Romantics, much like the baby in the story, are fighting against the imposed rules and structures of the older generations of society and working to create a new world in which different and revolutionary ideas can be explored. The musical quality of the poem, which is reflected in its rhyme scheme, allows the words of the poem to truly pervade the minds of readers and the frustrated language that the speaker uses stresses the importance of the ideas that he wishes to share and his feelings of disgruntlement when he is not being properly understood. 

Blake’s lyric poem follows an AABB rhyme scheme, which offers a sing-song-like quality to the work, making it accessible to both adults and children. It is almost reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, which is befitting a story that is all about the struggles of a small child. The speaker states: “Into the dangerous world I leapt —/ Helpless, naked, piping loud” (l. 2-3). A baby, of course, would come into the world this way. While the Romantic poets would enter into society in much less dramatic fashions, the same level of vulnerability is shared between both a newborn baby and the Romantics. The ideas that the Romantics were sharing—such as those that promoted a deeper connection with nature and forced individuals to reassess the ways in which they interacted with the world around them—were revolutionary, and thus, controversial. The world is “dangerous” for the Romantics who wish to go against the status quo. The commas that are used in line three represent the frustrations that the Romantics felt towards those who misunderstood their ideas and refused to acknowledge what they were trying to say. They also mimic the gasping cry of a baby, as the breaks in the line offer a sense of choppiness to the words and add a sense of urgency to the poem. The speaker shares his struggles as an infant, admitting to “struggling in [his] father’s hands,/ Striving against [his] swadling bands” (l. 5-6). The speaker’s father is an oppressing force, and if this is read in a larger, metaphorical context, the argument could be made that the Romantics are fighting against many of the patriarchal social structures that English society was firmly built upon. The speaker’s rhyming of the words “bands” and “hands” also adds to the emphasis that he places upon the oppressive nature of those that are older than him. The speaker states that he is “bound and weary” from the fight that he is putting up against his father, much like how the Romantics grew tired of old ways and wished to refashion the ideas of the past.  

Blake’s speaker offers an alternative view to that of Wordsworth’s, in the fact that Blake’s speaker seems to hold the young in high regard, as there are endless possibilities for a child that has yet to be corrupted by the prejudices and beliefs of older generations. Wordsworth, on the other hand, states in “Old Man Travelling” that he believes the old should be “envied” because they have been able to acquire “perfect peace” with their aging. While the poets value different things, they emphasize a similar idea: it is necessary to work towards eliciting change, no matter who you are.  

2 thoughts on “Humble Beginnings and Endless Possibilities”

  1. I think the connections you drew between the romantics and the newborn in the poem are interesting. When I read the poem, I thought of a more general conflict between humanity and vulnerability, more of an internal struggle than a literal historical one. I like the context you drew from to interpret this poem, and I think that despite the sorrowful title, the poem still carries some hope about youth.

  2. I am convinced by your connection between the Romantics and the Baby! and the conclusion you make at the end, that this contrast with Wordsworth’s perspective is also very interesting. It would be very neat to see this theme traced throughout Romantic poetry. Also, I am curious what exactly is the opposition the Romantics are facing and how is it represented in their poetry? To be fair they were very successful and popular, so understanding where they faced opposition and how they perceived it, would be interesting.

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