November 22, 2008

How to write a literature essay - William Blake series 3

Here is my third post on the English Language Resources Online blog for William Blake poetry specifically, in my series on Blake. In my earlier posts, I compared and contrasted poems for Blake (in a compare and contrast essay) and I also wrote about religious images and references in Blake's poetry.

This is another William Blake literary analysis sample essay for your learning, education and information. You can get a better understanding of the poem as well as a better understanding of how to write a good literature essay, if you follow the blue instructions within the essay and ask yourself questions about how to improve your writing and your literary style consistently. Have a good look at the essay here below and remember to bear the essay title in mind as you read the essay. Also, a very important essay writing tip to bear in mind here is that: every time you write an essay for an examination or a test or an essay deadline, be sure to bear the question always in mind and focus on answering the question.

William Blake’s A Cradle Song: Is This Poem Truly a Cradle Song?

The question is: is William Blake's poem "A Cradle Song" really just about a cradle? You can see here in this essay that the question is asking for you to dispute and/ or prove that the above statement is true.

William Blake’s poem, “A Cradle Song”, is delightfully ambiguous and multifaceted. On first glance, one might be immediately tempted to simplistically and superficially say that this is just a poem about a little baby going to sleep, or that this poem is simply as the title banally suggests, a song sung merely for a baby to sleep. However, on deeper analysis, the question is: is this poem truly just a cradle song? This question suggests that this song is not what it appears to be, in the sense that it is not just merely a song to send little babies to sleep, but that it is a philosophical stance of what is wrong with the world, and that sleep brings some sort of respite, escapism perhaps, as represented by a sleeping baby in an apostrophe, and that the title masks the true underlying poignancy of the poem. Yes, on the one hand, the song is ostensibly merely about a speaker singing a little baby to sleep; on the other hand, the reality is that this poem is about a philosophy of life, and has a take on sleeping and its relationship with escapism and happiness. This analysis will look at the second possibility in greater depth than the first.

After telling your readers what the poem is about and what you are going to tell them, then do tell the readers in the course of the body of the essay what you promised them in the introduction of the essay.

The poem opens with the sibilance and alliteration of “sleep, sleep, beauty bright”, where the word “bright” seems rather ironic given that night is supposed to be dark, and conjures up a conflicting image. Perhaps Blake intended that the baby is the one both beautiful and bright, which he later intends to contrast with the harsh reality of the world. Yet the positive aspects of sleep are definitely highlighted as the alliteration of “beauty bright” accentuates a certain beauty of sleep, and a beauty of night. “Dreaming in the joys of night” suggests clearly a baby sleeping happily and joyfully in the night, with sweet dreams. Yet, at the same time, there is a sinister “little sorrows sit and weep”, where there are some sad happenings personified to be crying. Perhaps, this can be seen easily as the child not feeling any sorrow when it is asleep, but at the same time, it could simultaneously mean that sleep can also be the residence of those sorrows. There is therefore an ambivalent ambiguity here. This does not set the tone for the rest of the poem, but the atmosphere is immediately seen to be not really just a cradle song, but a song with some melancholy underlying it, conveying a deeper message.

The speaker beholds the baby and addresses it with tender care: “Sweet babe, in thy face/ Soft desires I can trace” clearly shows tenderness and love, just like any parent would do while singing a lullaby to a loved baby, where the title “Cradle Song” is actually justified, as the speaker sings to the baby lovingly. “Secret joys and secret smiles/ Little pretty infant wiles” have many meanings, but the repetition of the word “secret” and the words “little pretty… wiles” suggest that the baby is dreaming of things that secretly make it happy. The word “wiles” is interesting, as it can mean both charm and tricks, where on the one hand, there is a feeling where the baby is charmed by all sorts of beautiful things, perhaps, and on the other hand, the little baby might be imagining all sorts of cunning tricks that he would love to do. Nonetheless there is definitely a positive image here that contrasts starkly with the earlier stanza.

The speaker sees that “Smiles as of the morning steal/ O'er thy cheek” and this could immediately conjure up the image of a smiling baby in its delightful sleep, or the word “steal” could suggest something more sinister. There is a sense that the little baby has stolen some respite from the sad and harsh world in its sleep, where the extended meaning is perhaps that the world is a harsh place and only in sleep is there true respite, even for a little baby. The phrase “thy little heart doth rest” does imply that the poem is a cradle song and is intended for a little baby, but at the same time, there is a sense of resting from the cares of the world, as suggested by the word “heart”. Hence, the literary evidence seems to be piling up in favour of this poem being more than just a mere song.

Therefore, the meaning of the last stanza actually becomes clear: “O the cunning wiles that creep/ In thy little heart asleep!” is an interesting exclamation where the speaker sees the subconscious happiness of the little baby sleeping coming through as the baby sleeps. This clearly means that sleeping is preferable to being awake, because of the happiness and pleasure that somehow fills the baby as it peacefully slumbers. The final two lines corroborate this idea strongly: “When thy little heart doth wake/ Then the dreadful light shall break”. The waking of the little baby brings about some bad thing, because the word “dreadful” is a negative word with negative connotations, and the word “break” is negative as well, suggesting something discontinued abruptly or destroyed, where on the one hand, the coming of the light is the superficial meaning, and on the other, the light of daybreak is not something to celebrate and be happy about, but an abrupt return to sad reality. Hence, the meaning of the poem, built slowly, line by line, suggests that this is indeed a cradle song sung to babies, as perhaps a form of lullaby, but the deeper underlying meaning is that real happiness and pleasure comes from sleeping where there are no worldly cares, for once daybreak comes, reality comes back.

Reiterate the question and the answer. In the terminology of my English Language Resources Online blog, you ask the Knowledge Based Problem and then answer it via the Thesis. You can go back here to the earlier article on how to write an excellent essay via structure to refresh your memory if you like. Here you summarise and then conclude, and hence that is why this is called the conclusion of the essay.
Is this poem just a cradle song? No, it is far more than merely that – it is a cradle song that actually speaks of the inherent sadness and melancholy in the wider world that can only be avoided and escaped from by the beautiful happiness that comes from night. It is a sombre and darkly philosophical topic for a cradle song.

As usual, either you have a bibliography in your essay and writing (writing a major paper, writing for A levels and writing for university), or you do not have a bibliography in your essay and writing because it is not required ( as in during an examination, informal work, non cited work, etc).


Blake, William, David Erdman and Harold Bloom. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. California: University of California Press 1982.