The Wordsworthian Child: A Symbol for Romantic Idealism in “We Are Seven” and “Intimations of Immortality”
The turn of the 19th century was a morbid, dark time period: death was a common visitor, as plagues and diseases diminished the children, and the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars diminished the overall population. In response to such loss, humans became relegated to a number in a new, practical system of population management, as government officials went door to door, inquiring of the household size. Idealism and childlike views of nature and one’s place in the universe were viewed as radical, liberal ideas in this age of pragmatism and rigid logic. Additionally, this era of industrialization left no room for a childlike passion and appreciation for nature. In the midst of this culture, William Wordsworth came forward, using poetry to propose an alternate lens to view the world. According to Wordsworth, in his famous essay that set in motion the Romantic Era of literature, “the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature” (Wordsworth “Preface” 174). These views of nature as the key to seeing beauty in an imperfect world were reminiscent of childhood, as Wordsworth felt that children possess the ability to see the world in this romantic way he idolized. Thus, children are major players in Wordsworth’s poetry as a tool to explain the world in this romanticized way he felt it should be perceived. Two of his poems in particular, “We Are Seven” and “Ode to Intimations of Immortality”, strongly provide a juxtaposition between the grim realities of the early 19th century and the aforementioned Wordsworthian romantic illusions.
Prior to the Romantic period, children were regarded with much less emotional attachment from their parents than what is considered normal today, a perspective that is largely due to the child mortality rate. As Wordsworth knew from personal experience, in the late 18th century, “on average, one in four children died within a decade of birth, less than in previous generations but a stark reality nonetheless; rare was the family that hadn’t lost a child” (Rovee 2). Because of this reality, parents seldom allowed themselves to become too attached to their offspring, as they accepted that they will inevitably have to bury one or more young children. Wordsworth, employing emotional rhetoric in his poem, attempted to elicit loving feelings for children, portraying them as charming embodiments of innocence. This is seen especially in the poem “We Are Seven”, which depicts a disagreement between a child and a census collector. The child, originally one of five siblings, has two siblings who now “in the church-yard lie, / [her] sister and [her] brother” (Wordsworth l.21-22). Despite the speaker’s insistence that the dead siblings no longer count toward the family size, the child adamantly repeats that “nay, [they] are seven” (l.59), while continuing to describe her time spent with her siblings each day as she plays and eats her meals alongside their graves in the church yard. Through this narrative, Wordsworth is creating a child who is “embodying innocence, immediacy, and uncultivated vision…an idealized construction offering a model for the male poet seeking to redeem the dying-away light and joy” (Rovee 1). The child in this poem is providing a new perception: the joy of the child, despite the death that surrounds her, and the love she has for her separated siblings, suggests that children have an understanding of love that overpowers the pessimism brought by a culture infiltrated with death.
Indeed, the lack of attachment and appreciation toward children was a cultural norm that Wordsworth felt was problematic, as he continually challenges this status quo in his poetry. The Romantic poet’s’ “concern with childhood is not strictly psychological. On the contrary, [he] conceive[s] it as a period of communion with Nature, a time of sensory preparation and spiritual awareness” (Gatti-Taylor 250). Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations of Immortality”, therefore, uses a child to urge the audience to find joy despite the grief brought by death and suffering. This poem is thought to be Wordsworth reminiscing on his own childhood, and it begins with the poet appearing “hopeless, and own[ing] a sense of nostalgia, for he is not a child anymore. Therefore, he cannot enjoy nature in a way a child does” (Rowhanimanesh 181). Wordsworth then praises childhood for its innocence and ability to recognize beauty despite being surrounded by grim realities. The speaker in this poem refers to “delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest, / With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast” (Wordsworth l. 141-143). By making the claim that childhood’s “creed” is “delight and liberty”, Wordsworth changes his mood and “becomes hopeful. Although those days [of childhood] are gone, joy will never die”: Wordsworth has come to the realization that “joy and love give meaning to life” (Rowhanimanesth 181). Also worth noting in this poem is Wordsworth’s image of a child being “fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses / with light upon him by his father’s eyes” (Wordsworth l. 89, 90). This affectionate scene between child and parent that Wordsworth illustrates is contrary to the detachment of children from their parents that was the most common dynamic of parent-child relationships during this period, largely due to the frequency of child deaths. It stands to reason that the close relationships between parents and their children that is normal today, as well as the view of children as the untouchable innocents, is attributed to Wordsworth’s lasting, romantic influence.
The pre-romantic view of children additionally revolved around their functionality: children were miniature adults, therefore capable of working in the factories as soon as they were physically able. The small size of children was not regarded as charming but purely practical to this industrialized era, as they were able to more easily clean inside small crevices such as chimneys, a chore which resulted in a higher child mortality rate due to complications such as asthma, stunted growth, accidents, and “chimney-sweep’s cancer” (Mayhew 351). The acceptance of this practice was one example of how industrialization dominated the culture of thought in the early 19th century: children were not nurtured or protected as if they had inherent value, but treated as merely laborers. Wordsworth opposed this mindset, believing instead that children are inherently “incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of Nature” (Wordsworth “Preface” 174). Thus, instead of depicting children in the context of labor, he focuses on the free spirit of children existing in communion with nature. In “We Are Seven”, the child is shown playing freely around her sister’s grave (line 55) and running and sliding in the snow (line 57, 58). Not only is this ideology shown through the actions of the child, but additionally “poets who referred to this theory sometimes treated it under the guise of imagery” (Gatti-Taylor 255). This might explain why Wordsworth, in line 9 of the poem, describes the child as having “a rustic woodland air”. Wordsworth is making a profound connection between nature and the beauty of childhood, further asserting his ideology that children are not designed to be workers meant to further industrialization; rather, they are sacred representations of nature’s divinity.
Indeed, Wordsworth was strongly opposed to the ill effects of commercialization on a society, and therefore “central to Wordsworth’s romanticism is the role of poetry to combat the evils of industrialization” (Brennan 38). Therefore, “Ode to Intimation of Immortality” similarly paints childhood in the context of oneness with nature, separate from modern industrialization. Instead of referring to child’s small stature in terms of functionality in the workforce, the speaker describes the child romantically as a “six years’ darling of pigmy size” (Wordsworth l. 87). The speaker continues to describe the child’s vocation not as a laborer but as an imaginative actor who creates a “humorous stage” (l.104) that is filled “with all the persons / …that life brings with her in her equipage” (1.105, 106). The speaker suggests that it is as if the child’s “whole vocation / Were endless imitation” (l. 107, 108). In other words, instead of the child’s purpose being to immerse himself in labor, the child is meant to embrace creativity in which “the child’s creative spirit can be summarized as follows: it abandons itself to the external objects, penetrates them, contemplates itself through objects, and discovers with naive wonder the qualities in Nature which it has partly imparted to it” (Gatti-Taylor 255). Indeed, this poem romanticizes childhood as a time not for the burdens of labor or industrialization, but an ambrosial season of life meant for play and freedom.
With the demands of factory work, and the low life expectancy as a result of the conditions therein, came a degree of pragmatism that was contrary to Wordsworth’s romantic idealism. Part of this took form in the surgence of a census count in 1798, in which prior to “there had never been a complete and accurate count of Britain’s population” (Robbins 202). In response to a goal proposed by Parliament, government officials would visit each home to inquire about the “number and circumstances of [the] family”; families who refused to answer would be given “the discipline of the horse pond” (Robbins 202). This attempt at regulating the population is arguably a practical one, but it left no room for idyllic illusions, instead “reducing individual subjectivities to numbers and categories” (Robbins 204). “We Are Seven” gives a clear illustration of these contrasting ideologies, as the poem is thought to be representative of the first census of Britain. The census collector asks the young girl how many people are living in her home, and she insists on including her deceased siblings. This response offends the rational sensibility of the speaker, who insists that “they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” (Wordsworth l. 55, 56). The child is not deterred by this attempt at reason, instead acting “as if she is a philosopher…she says they are seven. She believes that the dead are still alive…the girl’s imagination helps her come to that conclusion” (Rowhanimanesh 181). In this respect the young girl serves as a symbol for the Romantic period and how the tenets of romanticism were viewed as radical and irrational in the eyes of the staunch pragmatists of the era.
Wordsworth continues to use children as a symbol for romantic ideas in “Ode to Intimations of Immortality”, in which he reminisces on childhood when “meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth and every common sight, / To [him] did seem / Apparell’d in celestial light” (Wordsworth l.1-4). This description of childhood is one when the ordinary aspects of nature appear extraordinary, as if “children own powers that enable them to enjoy the beauty of nature in a way that adults will not be capable of doing so” (Rowhanimanesh 183). To the child, the meadows, streams, and other common facets of nature are not merely accidents of evolution but divine instruments that contain a supernatural presence. Wordsworth further empowers the child symbol by stating that he is “glorious in the might / Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height” (Wordsworth l. 126, 127); the implication being that the child is granted inherent innocence and freedom by nature itself. This idea would be considered preposterous to believers in pragmatism who viewed nature, like children, as merely functional rather than divine.
Accompanying the value of reason was the view of one’s presence in the universe to be solely the literal, physical space one occupied. Wordsworth and his fellow romantics adhered to an idea of transcendental presence that trespassed the boundaries of physical space. In this invisible world, “the glory of the soul becomes visible when the impressions of sense are forcefully usurped by an upsurge of power” (Davidson 1994). This idea of spiritual presence is especially prominent in “We Are Seven”, as the census collector attempts to gather information about the physical occupants of the child’s home. The child not only insists that her deceased siblings are still part of the family, by describing them as part of the seven that simply “in the church-yard lie” (Wordsworth l.31), but she also includes her two other siblings who are “gone to sea” (l.20). It does not matter to the child that her siblings are not physically present in the home, and it is the job of the adult in the poem to “conjure up within himself a child-like sensibility, in order to project once more upon his own thoughts as well as upon the external world, the attitude of wonder that transforms an ordinary sight into a vision” (Gatti-Taylor 259). It is this childlike wonder that allows her to view her siblings as truly present and active participants in her family, even if they are no longer physically present. This contrast between physical presence and a sense of transcendental presence is representative of the contrasts between radical Romantic ideas versus reason.
Possibly one of the most gruesome realities of the early 19th century from which the Romantic era of literature sprung was the Napoleonic wars, in which the French army performed a series of invasions on the British front. One of the most prominent threats of this era was “the Great Terror of 1803-1804”, in which “all of Great Britain entered a state of high alert as the threat of an ambitious French invasion loomed” (Matlak 21). It is said, therefore, that “Wordsworth’s poetry of spring 1804 seems inspired by the political climate and his witness to patriotism” (25). Wordsworth published “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” in 1804, which can therefore be considered a response to the aforementioned political climate and fear that reigned over Britain. In this poem, Wordsworth laments being an adult who is aware of the surrounding horrors brought by war and destruction, rather than being a child who is able to “undergo such childhood experiences” of nature. (Rowhanimanesh 181). This nostalgia is felt in the following lines:
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The pansy at my feet Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (51-57)
Later in the poem, however, Wordsworth has an epiphany in which he is able to “expand on the concept of child’s special powers of vision” (Lawrence 44), and he once again sees nature through the eyes of a child:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
the years that bring the philosophic mind. (184-192)
In the midst of human suffering, Wordsworth is able to recall his innocence and summon that power inherent in childhood that allows one to see the beauty in the world despite being surrounded by an abundance of human suffering. For Wordsworth, this poem seems to be a therapeutic escape from the war torn Britain and a way of reconciling the nostalgia of his childhood.
Suffice it to say, the many ideologies present in Wordsworth’s poetry have had lasting effects on the viewpoints that dominate the culture today. No longer are children viewed as strictly functional, miniature workers; rather, society has maintained the image of children as embodiments of all that is innocent and pure and everything that is contrary to the horrific realities that plague modern society. Throughout the wars that dominated the turn of the 19th century, Wordsworth used his poetry to fight a war of his own against a culture that he felt diminished the goodness that can be found in nature and everyday life. Using children as his constant, consistent example and symbol, Wordsworth by large won this battle, inflicting a change of heart and providing a new lens through which to see the world. Indeed, the 21st century can be thought to be a continuation of the Romantic Era, as Wordsworthian ideologies are present in all parts of the modern culture.
Brennan, Matthew C. “Simms, Wordsworth, and ‘The Mysterious Teachings of the Natural World.’”
Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 37-47.
Davidson, Graham. “Wordsworth and the Absolute.” The Coleridge Bulletin. vol. 3, 1994. n.p.
Gamer, Michael, and Dahlia Porter, editors. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800: Samuel Taylor
Coleridge & William Wordsworth. Broadview Editions, 2008.
Gatti-Taylor, Marisa. “The Myth of the Child in Wordsworth and Pascoli.” Essays in Literature 4, 1977, pp. 250-264.
Matlak, Richard. “Wordsworth and the ‘Great Terror’ of 1803-05.” Wordsworth Circle, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 21-26.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919.
Robbins, Hollis. “‘We Are Seven’” and the First British Census.” English Language Notes vol. 48, no. 2, 2010, pp. 202-213.
Rovee, Christopher. “The Romantic Child, c.1780-1830.” Representing Childhood, http://www.representingchildhood.pitt.edu/romantic_child.htm. Accessed 10 October 2016.
Rowhanimanesh, Mohammadreza. “British Romantic Poetry and the Concept of Childhood.” Studies in
Literature and Language. vol. 2, no. 2, 2011, pp. 179-184.
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