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“Infant Sorrow” and Robert Greene’s Menaphon

The origins of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in eighteenth-century children’s hymns, nursery rhymes, cradle songs and the like are by now well documented, but cradle songs in particular were a popular Renaissance genre (the lullabies of Dekker and Gascoigne being the best known), and there is a source here for one of the Songs, “Infant Sorrow,” that was suggested long ago by Foster Damon but has never, I think, been explored.11 S. Foster Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (1924; rpt. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958), p. 282. The source is “Sephestias Song to Her Childe” from Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Menaphon. In particular, the opening lines of Blake’s song,

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I lept
recall the opening lines of the last stanza of Greene’s: 2 My text is from vol. 6 of The Life and Works of Robert Greene, ed. A. B. Grosart (1881-86; New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), p. 44. The poem may also be found in several anthologies, such as The Oxford Book of English Verse.
The wanton smilde, father wept;
Mother cride, babie lept.2
The echo here is plain enough, but I want to suggest that there are two ways in which “Sephestias Song” makes a particularly interesting context in which to read “Infant Sorrow.”

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The first is that “Sephestias Song” as a whole lends support to Norman Nathan’s point that childbirth not only initiates the infant into sorrow but also brings sorrow upon the parents.33 Norman Nathan, “Blake’s ‘Infant Sorrow,’ ” Notes and Queries, 7 (1960), 99-100. The stanza just quoted from, for instance, continues thus:

More he crowde, more we cride;
Nature could not sorowe hide.
He must goe, he must kisse
Childe and mother, babie blisse:
For he left his pretie boy
Fathers sorowe, fathers joy.
Weepe not my wanton, smile upon my knee,
When thou art olde, ther’s grief inough for thee.
The last line here, with its warning of what is in store for the child, might almost serve as a motto for the Songs of Experience, but it is the father’s sorrow and joy that dominate the poem. In context, the father’s tears are occasioned by his imminent parting from his son as a result of having been banished from that archetypal domain of innocence, Arcadia. The family has been cast adrift on a stormy sea, and it is after surviving a shipwreck that Sephestia sings this song, in which she recalls the joy of her husband (now presumed drowned) at the birth of a son, and his tears at the prospect of losing him. In short, the sorrow is as much the father’s as the infant’s.

The second point of contextual interest is that Greene goes on to develop the father’s sorrow in an unexpected way. By means of various contrivances, Greene has the child (Pleusidippus) grow up to fall in love with Sephestia (now calling herself Samela) without knowing that she is his mother, and he becomes in due course a rival of his own father (Maximus,44 He is called Maximus at the beginning of the story and Maximius at the end. alias Melicertus), who in fact survived the wreck and has ended up courting Sephestia without knowing that she is his wife. Greene in his usual fanciful way asks us to accept the proposition that because Sephestia’s identity is concealed she can find herself being wooed by her husband, her son, and even her father (Democles) at the same time. Given that commentators now tend to read “Infant Sorrow,” both in its Songs version and in its longer Notebook version,55 For an oedipal reading of the Songs version see, most recently, Diana Hume George, Blake and Freud (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 89-90, and of the Notebook version, Stewart Crehan, Blake in Context (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984), pp. 113-14. as a poem which hints at the oedipal conflict between father and son (“Struggling in my father’s hands”), it is interesting that this is precisely what Menaphon builds up to as its climax. Father and son angrily confront each other in single combat, and, in Greene’s phrase, “they fell toughly to blowes.”66 Menaphon, p. 133. That fight is eventually stopped by Democles and the two are imprisoned, but all is at length resolved by the timely intervention of a sibyl. Sephestia is reunited with her husband, and her son craves “pardon for the fondnesse of his incestuous affection.”77 Menaphon, p. 144. He also apologizes to his father, then marries someone else.

While it seems certain that Blake knew “Sephestias Song,” it may be that he knew little of its context: and yet, considering its appropriateness to his own nascent theme in “Infant Sorrow,” we can perhaps surmise that he sensed in Greene’s lullaby the suggestion of potential oedipal conflict, and carried that suggestion over into his own song. Greene and Blake make, at first sight, an improbable coupling, but in the matter of Blake’s sources we are repeatedly, it seems, like Lyca’s parents on finding an angel in the eyes of a lion, “Filled with deep surprise.”88 For some other out-of-the-way sources of Blake’s Songs see especially chapter 2 of John Holloway’s Blake: The Lyric Poetry (London: Edward Arnold, 1968).

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