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Infant Innocence

Old poems

Infant Innocence

Maria S. Mendes

 

Infant Innocence

 

The Grizzly Bear is huge and wild;

He has devoured the infant child.

The infant child is not aware

He has been eaten by the bear.

 

A.E. Housman, “Infant Innocence”, The Penguin Book of Light Verse, ed. Gavin Ewart. London: Penguin Books, 1980. 

 

 

I think this poem should not have been forgotten as it is a good pocket poem, only apparently silly, and perfect to be used in a variety of circumstances. In the poem, the image of the huge bear is opposed to that of the smallness of the child, while the wildness of the animal contrasts with the child’s innocence. If a feature of wild animals is that they tend to eat whatever is available, with certain lack of concern for whether or not is it ethical to consume small babies, a characteristic of babies seems to be the fact that they understand very little, which is why they seem to be unable to realize that they are about to be or have been eaten by a bear. This means that both bears and babies seem to be alike in their lack of awareness of what is happening to them and that eating and being eaten are similar forms of innocence.

The bear ignores the fact that it is committing murder; whereas the child is unaware that being eaten usually implies dying, as that would involve understanding death as concept, something a small baby would be unable to do. Despite the parallelism between lines, the title could point to the fact that only infant children are innocent, but, in fact, the term infant innocence could represent the bear’s behavior, which devours others without knowing why.

The silliness of the form, and its simplicity, could thus cover two seemingly incompatible moral standings. On the one hand, it refers to how those who are wild and huge tend to eat those who are small (and they really shouldn’t), and to those who are too powerless to avoid being eaten. So a good occasion to make use of the poem and to quote it appropriately would be in those occasions of life in which we see powerful people manoeuvring those who are not. On the other, “grizzly” names a large race of brown bears native to North America, but also a child who cries fretfully, which is a very annoying thing for a child to do, as we all know. In this sense, there is some justice in the ghoulish action of the bear, which means that the poem could be read to those who complain noisily about something, but also as a warning to a misbehaved child. 

Maria Sequeira Mendes


Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. She then promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.