Variations on a Theme in Two Lullabies

William Blake's "A Cradle Song" is a remarkably different lullaby compared to the similarly named "A Cradle Hymn" by his contemporary Isaac Watts, despite the fact that both are religion-themed poems that address a sleeping infant. "A Cradle Song's" tone, diction, and structure differ from those of Watts's poem, and these techniques help Blake emphasize the compassion--instead of the humility--in religion and confirm the divine nature of humanity.

The tones of the two poems differ from the outset. Watts begins with an imperative "HUSH!"(1), a harsh, silencing word that helps to establish the didactic tone of his poem. Later, the author also commands the infant to "See his Face, and sing his Praise!"(52). Compared to "A Cradle Song's" mellifluous muttering, this poem has many exclamatory phrases that signify a raising of the voice that would potentially disturb the infant. The author has to assure him thus: "Soft, my Child; I did not chide thee, / Tho' my Song might sound too hard"(25-26). In comparison, "A Cradle Song" proves far more soothing because the sentence fragments and verses are shorter and do not vary much in length, the meter even-toned as if emulating the narration of a lullaby. This effect is heightened by the presence of soft alliterative sounds such as ""sweet sleep"(5), "sweet smiles"(9), and finally "sleep sleep"(17). The repetition helps supply the poem with a sense of continuity, serenity.

The diction of the two poems also contribute to the different effects of the poems. While both evoke the image of the Christ child, Watts's poem does so in a manner that bespeaks of chastisement and humiliation. His use of words such as "brutal"(19), "cursed"(22), "affront"(24), "shameful"(29), "angry"(32), and "bitter"(47) produces a strong sense of uneasiness for the reader, if not for the infant. Compare these words to the ones Blake selects: there are eleven instances of "sweet" or "sweeter," five of "happy," and nine of "smiles" or "smil'd" not to mention words like "delight"(10), "dovelike"(13) or phrases like the wonderfully pleasing "happy silent moony beams"(4). These words and their constant presence throughout the poem contribute to its comparatively gentler, more uplifting tone.

Structurally and thematically, too, Blake's poem differs from Watts's. His religious instruction is one that emphasizes compassion and the divine aspect of human beings. Rather than indirectly blaming the infant for Christ's suffering as Watts does, Blake tells the child: "Thou his image ever see, / Heavenly face that smiles on thee"(27-28). The compassionate tears that Blake's Christ sheds proves a much softer image than that of Watts's "abus'd"(30) Christ. The weeping "mother"(10) in the poem serves the same purpose. Structurally, "A Cradle Hymn" draws the line between human and divinity quite sharply. The reader can always tell when the author is talking to his child and when he is talking about Christ. The distinction is not so clear in Blake's poem. Blake addresses the infant "my happy child"(8), yet the descriptions of the child's "infant crown"(6) and the hovering Angel in the same stanza cast doubt on which infant Blake is describing. While Watts emphasizes the difference between the fortunes of the poem's child and Christ, Blake tells the infant that "in thy face, / Holy image I can trace"(21-22) and that "Infant smiles are [Christ's] own smiles"(31).

Comparing Watts's "A Cradle Hymn" and Blake's "A Cradle Song," it is evident that though the two poems have similar motifs they are actually vastly different. Blake adopts gentler, more soothing tone and diction in order to emphasize the compassion in religion, while the poem's ambiguous structure and a few of its explicit lines illustrate that Blake sees divinity in humanity rather than the distinction between "blest Redeemer"(48) and prostrate worshipper that Watts describes.