Introduction | The Governess | Working-Class Children  | Children's Literature | William Blake and the Child | Wordsworth and the Child

“The Youth . . . still is Nature’s priest”: Wordsworth and the Child of Nature

William Wordsworth, English Poet Laureate from 1843 to 1850, is often credited with discovering the Romantic child. In presenting this figure in his poetry, Wordsworth created a cult of childhood during the Romantic era, which continued well into the Victorian period and beyond. Wordsworth’s conception of childhood is often thought to be ahistorical and apolitical, especially in contrast with William Blake's deeply contextualized presentation of children in his poetry. The Wordsworthian child most often acts as a child of nature. For Wordsworth, Nature is both the best parent and the best possible teacher for a child. Wordsworth's autobiographical Prelude, inspired by Rousseau's Emile, focuses on the development of the poet largely through his interaction with Nature beginning in childhood. There is little need for a human instructor when a child can go out into Nature and be taught by imagination and experience.

Childhood becomes a central stage of life for Wordsworth and for the adults portrayed in his poems. In "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold" he states "The Child is father of the Man." Childhood, ironically, begets the adult because childhood becomes the psychological and emotional foundation for adulthood. Yet, as adults we can never fully re-enter the psychological state of our childhood. In fact, the adult is forever exiled from the innocence of childhood. The perspective of the child is incredibly important for the adult but remains strangely inaccessible. Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality" provides an example of the proximity and estrangement which he observes in the stages of adulthood and childhood. The adult speaker bemoans that "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." Yet, he has visions of a "Child of Joy" who enables him to "hear, I hear, with joy I hear!" However, once the vision ends the speaker is left asking "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" The child is present but simultaneously unreachable for the speaker. In denying the child’s history, Jerome McGann argues that Wordsworth depoliticizes the child by making him or her universal, rather than specific to the historical moment in which he is writing. The Wordsworthian child is the product of the adult's nostalgia and memory as much as he or she is the product of nature.

Stephanie Metz

Select Bibliography

Austin, Linda M. “Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and the Romantic Legacy.” Studies in Romanticism 42.1 (2003):
     75-98. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 March 2012.

McGann, Jerome. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1983. Print.

McGavran, James Holt. Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations. Iowa City:
     University of Iowa Press, 1999. Print.

Plotz, Judith. Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood. New York: Palgrave, 2001 Print.