‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. As is common within Duffy’s work, there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, there are a few moments of repetition in the lines which connect the first stanza to the last.
The phrase “goo goo goo” is repeated, with a slight change, in the first and third stanzas. It is the nonsense babble of an infant and represents the superiority of Christ and eventually Mary’s fears. Repetition occurs a few more times in the text, including with another phrase “I am God.” These are the words spoken by Christ, and most definitely not spoken by other infants his assumed age. The line appears twice, in the first and fourth stanzas.
Explore The Virgin Punishing the Infant
Duffy wrote this piece after a particular painting by the artist Max Ernst. His work is tilted in full, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter. It was painted in 1926 and depicts exactly what the title describes. Mary is seen in all red, with the “Christ Child” across her legs. Her right arm is raised at a distorted angle to spank him while three men look on. The painting can be seen here.
You can read the full poem The Virgin Punishing the Infant here.
Summary of The Virgin Punishing the Infant
The poem begins with the speaker, a neighbor of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child explaining that the child spoke early. What he said wasn’t the normal nonsense, it was “I am God.” While Mary tried to understand this and the situation she’s in, Joseph went off to the workshed to carve.
Over the next stanzas, Mary becomes more and more unnerved by the child she has. The neighbors feel resentful about his uniqueness but then turn to superiority, claiming their children are better for being simpler. This is something that Mary believes too, at least to an extent. One time after saying that he is God, Mary spanks the child. The neighbors look on, fascinated as Mary cries and the child doesn’t.
Analysis of The Virgin Punishing the Infant
In the first stanza of ‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’ the speaker begins by describing the very early life of Jesus Christ. He states that “He spoke early.” This short statement preludes a larger realization on the part of the parents, Mary and Joseph, that their child was not normal. He did not speak as some parents might assume. Jesus didn’t say “goo goo goo” as other infants would.
Instead, the first thing he said was “I am God.” This poem gives the reader an interesting perspective on the story of Christ, but at the same time, it has a lot to say about parenthood, and most especially motherhood.
While Mary took note of this strange feature of her child, Joseph was the stereotypical distant father. He spent his time in the workshed,
a silent Pinocchio
Joseph does not try to help. Instead, he sees that the child is more complicated than he expected and says that he is “a simple man” and “hadn’t dreamed of this.” He leaves Mary to deal with the divinity of their son.
While Mary might’ve been passive about the child’s destiny at first, by the time he was two years old she “grew anxious.” She spent a lot of time praying to the angel Gabriel, probably asking for the guidance of some sort. The village spent time gossiping about the child. They said that,
The child was solitary,
his wide and solemn eyes could fill your head.
It’s clear that even as a baby, for one reason or another, Christ had an impact on his neighbors. No one knew quite what to make of him.
Another occurrence in the child’s young life that set him apart from other children was his ability to walk before “normal children crawled.” The speaker reveals himself in this line. He says the children still crawling were “our” children. Duffy is writing from the perspective of a father looking into the lives of Mary, Joseph, and the child.
He adds that the parents told Mary that Jesus was only going to ‘bring her sorrow.” This came as a reaction to the superior seeming Christ child and the initial resent the wives felt. They comforted themselves by saying that that it is,
better far to have a son
who gurgled nonsense at your breast. Googoo. Googoo.
The mundanity of these interactions shows that the true emphasis of this piece is on the difficulties of motherhood and how social bonds are formed and broken.
In the last stanza of ‘‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’ the speaker uses the child’s words, “But I am God” again. This statement is there is a reminder that the child is different, for a very large and important reason and there’s nothing that Mary can do to change her fate, or his. Although, she does try.
When the speaker and the other parents “heard the smacks” of Mary spanking Jesus they looked through the window. They couldn’t resist. It was a “commonplace” occurrence, something which probably happens in their own homes. But, something strange results. The child does not cry and the mother does.