The Individual or Society?

Infant Sorrow

BY WILLIAM BLAKE

My mother groaned! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud; 
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my fathers hands: 
Striving against my swaddling bands: 
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

 

William Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow,” presents a debate present in the Romantic era of literature (1780’s to 1830’s), namely, who is responsible for criminal actions: the individual, or society? The Enlightenment thinkers constructed laws to set society in a kind of judicial balance. Individual cases of lawlessness were to be judged by rational thinking judges to determine guilt. The only problem was that, sometimes, the guilty went free while the innocent were sent to the gallows. The Romantics, demoralized by injustice, sought to reinterpret the individual’s relation to society, especially the “criminals.” The task wasn’t easy though; many still struggled with who the finger should point to when tragedy struck.

The first line establishes the dismal tone of the poem in that the parents weep over their new born infant. The child “leapt” in to the “dangerous world” when it was conceived (line 2). If the world is indeed dangerous, then the speaker is hinting that society is no place for individuals who desire harmony and sustenance. It is a “dog eat dog” world in that anything goes and you do not know who will be out there to take advantage of you. This idea is definitely common in some of Blake’s other poems that speak of the rampant injustices of society such as bleak working conditions, religious fanaticism, and so on. The child is “helpless” (line 3) despite its rebellious struggle against the “swaddling bands” (line 6). The speaker is virtually chained to authority at the expense of his comfort. And this domination causes the speaker to be “bound” and “weary” (line 7). Happiness eludes his grasp since he lives in a world void of justice and security. Freedom is not an option, and neither is rest for his spirit. Because of how society is structured, he cannot reach a sense of peace.

But if the speaker would be viewed as the cause of his own despair, that would be an entirely different matter completely. Is it possible that the parents weep over the child’s existence? Blake uses a very interesting simile to describe the speaker’s state of being when it is born: he sounds like “a fiend hidden in a cloud” (line 4). Usually in his poems, Blake adores infants as the source of all kinds of good. But this poem suggests that the child is demonic. And to what purpose? If the fiend is hidden in a cloud, then its true being would not have been detected, shielded under a false guise of blessing. The parents, believing the child to be God send, are devastated to find the child is not as wonderful a thing as they thought. The child is even destined to be irresponsible and immature since its only response for a cruel existence is to “sulk and suck on my mother’s breast” (line 8). Such a person shouldn’t have the right to blame society because of their own foolish choices. They do not have the moral fiber to function around others and deserve their just desserts when life does not work out for them.

   

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