Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Blake’s autonomous newborn: Neonatal mortality in “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow”

Zoya Gurm
Detroit, Michigan, United States

Virgin and Child. Artwork by William Blake, 1825. Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection.

William Blake (1757–1827) was an artist, poet, and progenitor of the Romantic era. Romanticism represents the artistic and intellectual movement responding to the Enlightenment, industrialization, and political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.1 A prominent theme in the work of Blake and other Romantic poets is an idealization of childhood as the natural, uncorrupted state of man. In “The Search for a Science of Infancy,” Joseph Kett writes that for these poets, “adulthood meant a deprivation of children’s emotional and spiritual response to nature,” and that a child was both “a symbol of creativity” and “living witness against the social convention.”2 Blake wrote several works on childhood and childbirth; his poems “Infant Joy” (1789) and “Infant Sorrow” (1794) notably offer distinct perceptions of the neonate in its earliest days of life. Through the two works, Blake portrays a transition in neonatal autonomy that differs from how the infant is perceived today. While “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” can be read as representing the induction of child into sinful society and the corruption of birth, an alternative reading guided by an understanding of infant mortality can elucidate the relationship between the poems and speak to transcendent anxieties around a newborn’s health.

“Infant Joy” was published in Blake’s illustrated collection Songs of Innocence in 1789. Written as an interaction between infant and caretaker, the two stanza poem relishes in the joy and beauty of a young child:

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!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while—
Sweet joy befall thee.3

The voice of the poem is at times ambiguous; in the first stanza, lines 1, 2, 4, and 5 represent the voice of the infant, while lines 3 and 6 may be spoken by either a caretaker or the infant herself. Regardless, both child and caretaker are partaking in expression of the infant’s innocent joy, mirroring each other.

Due to the age and unnamed status of the child, the poem is often read in the theological context of baptism. In “Infant Joy: Blake’s Revolutionary Riddle-Poem,” Thomas Dilworth writes, “Blake’s riddling infant says basically this, ‘I am unbaptized … yet I am so happy that I am Joy,’” posing a challenge to the belief of the time that “innocence is a condition attainable only through faith.”4

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the infant is emblematic of joy because she has not yet encountered the oppression of societal convention to diminish her; at just two days old, she is in her purest state, thus without limitation.5

From a medical perspective, perhaps the joy and specific age of two days hold significance for the mere fact of infant survival. In the late 18th century, nearly a quarter of infants died in the first year of life.6,7 While data regarding antepartum and intrapartum death in the Romantic era is difficult to ascertain, in part because deaths of infants prior to or during birth were typically undocumented, one may imagine that childbirth and the first day of life were of particular anxiety.8 Thus, the joy expressed here between mother and child may be rooted not only in the Romantic purity of the child, but in the survival of both mother and child through the birth. Certainty of the child’s health enables the act of naming and the exchanges of tenderness seen in the poem.

A reading of Blake’s “Infant Joy” in the context of neonatal mortality can be underscored by a partner poem, “Infant Sorrow.” Published in Songs of Experience in 1794, the poem offers the neonate’s perspective of birth:

My mother groand! 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 swadling bands;
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.9

In contrast to the lighter tone of “Infant Joy,” “Infant Sorrow” relays the anxiety and uncertainty of birth. From the opening lines, the “dangerous” world is filled with sounds of suffering—groaning and weeping as both “weary” child and mother are at risk. In a moment often depicted by adult witnesses—parents, doctors, midwives—we read the independent thoughts of an infant presumed to be thoughtless; in this way, Blake complicates perceptions of newborn thought and action, portraying both as intentional, rather than instinctual.

“Infant Sorrow” offers a similar portrait of an innocent being placed in a world of corruption. “In Innocent Monsters: The Erotic Child in Early Modernism,” Elizabeth Boa writes that in Blake’s work, “what befalls the child is an ethical measure of the social world, and the suffering of children is a call to action.”10 What adults may perceive to be a moment of great love—holding a child, enabling its entrance from womb to world—for this child is a moment of great suffering and fear. The sorrow of the neonate then is a warning of what is to come, a “fiend” mirroring society back upon itself.10

If “Infant Sorrow” is read as indicative of the act of birth corrupting the newborn, this is inconsistent with “Infant Joy” representing the two-day old infant as pure and innocent before a later corruption. Given the time span between the publication of these poems, this may be a revision of Blake’s own former idea, or they may offer two separate stories indicative of a similar thesis. In either case, the timeline of infants presented in the two poems is consistent with a reading guided by anxiety regarding infant mortality. As “Infant Sorrow” represents the alienation of the newborn in a fearful unknown; “Infant Joy” shows connection and care once survival is more certain. Additionally, in those two days, a groaning mother transforms into a singing, loving caretaker.

The poems portray different levels of neonatal autonomy: while “Infant Joy” is a conversation, “Infant Sorrow” represents the sole perspective of the newborn. Blake’s sorrowful, autonomous neonate chooses to leap out into the world and sulk upon breast, while in “Infant Joy,” the infant is acted upon by the caretaker through being named and sung to. Between these two points in time, the locus of autonomy shifts, and the infant becomes directly acted upon rather than independently acting. The caretakers have recovered from the anguish of childbirth and are now able to tend to the child. Initially, the autonomous infant must navigate a cold, dangerous world alone, whereas, once the moment has passed, she may relish in the joys of being loved, even if that love involves joining a corrupted society.

William Blake’s portrayal of the newborn deviates from our current idea of newborn consciousness as well. While infants are still considered innocent and pure figures, they are not considered to be this way due to their independence or divine wisdom, but rather their lack of understanding and naiveté. Still, the emotional atmospheres of both “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” resonate today, when, despite significant decreases in infant mortality, the immediate environments of birth and the days following still often generate anxiety, followed by immense joy. Blake’s work thus offers insight into the ways our society’s relationship to the neonate has shifted, but also highlights how parenthood and childbirth have remained consistent emotional experiences centuries later.


  1. Casaliggi, Carmen, and Porscha Fermanis. Romanticism: A Literary and Cultural History. Routledge, 2016.
  2. Kett, Joseph. “The Search for a Science of Infancy.” The Hastings Center Report 14, no. 2 (1984): 34-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/3561883.
  3. Blake, William. “Infant Joy.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Era, 10th edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 133. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
  4. Dilworth, Thomas. “Infant Joy, Blake’s Revolutionary Riddle-Poem.” English Language Notes 38, no. 2 (2000): 43-47. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/10.1215/00138282-38.2.43.
  5. Minot, Walter. “Blake’s “Infant Joy”: An Explanation of Age.” Blake 25, no. 2 (1991).
  6. Sankar MJ, Natarajan CK, Das RR, Agarwal R, Chandrasekaran A, Paul VK. “When do newborns die? A systematic review of timing of overall and cause-specific neonatal deaths in developing countries.” Journal of Perinatology 36, suppl. 1 (2016):S1-S11. doi:10.1038/jp.2016.27.
  7. Roser, Max. “Mortality in the past: every second child died.” Our World in Data, June 11, 2019. https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-in-the-past.
  8. Dehler, Tamie. “Genealogy: Ancestors plagued by high rates of infant mortality.” Tribune-Star, April 3, 2021. https://tribstar.com/features/valley_life/genealogy-ancestors-plagued-by-high-rates-of-infant-mortality/article_f047e01f-42af-50c3-b2dc-450aae32cdea.html.
  9. Blake, William. “Infant Sorrow.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Era, 10th edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 143. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
  10. Boa, Elizabeth. “Innocent Monsters: The Erotic Child in Early Modernism.” In: Modernist Eroticisms: Palgrave Studies in Modern European Literature, eds. AK Schaffner and S Weller. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137030306_2.

ZOYA GURM is a poet and medical student at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. She is interested in narrative medicine and hopes to pursue residency in neurology. She has a BS from the University of Michigan, where she majored in both English Language and Literature and Cellular and Molecular Biology.

Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest

Spring 2023



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