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How is the theme of Childhood presented in The Lyrical Ballads

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  • Category: Childhood

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The Romantic era ushered in a whole new way in which children were perceived. Romantics did not believe in the “Seen but not heard” attitude towards children. The Romantics often busied themselves trying to understand what made a man, what shaped a person’s personality to create the adult. Three poems in The Lyrical Ballads, all by Wordsworth, deal exclusively with the theme of childhood. They are We are Seven, Anecdote for Fathers and The Idiot Boy. A famous quote by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau states that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”.

By this he meant that we are all born without any laws or morality and that these are ideals we gain only as we age and get exposed to them by society. This sentiment is reflected in the aforementioned poems, as this belief is one of the reasons children were so celebrated by the Romantic movement, they were untainted by the societal rules forced upon them, and so were a part of nature in a way an adult could not be. In We are Seven, Wordsworth relates a conversation between the poem’s narrator and a young girl.

The young girl claims to have sixth brothers and sisters, however she says that two of them are dead. Despite the narrator’s attempts to convince her that makes only four brothers and sisters, five overall, he eventually concedes that is “Throwing words away” as the girl is not able to truly comprehend the realities of death. In this poem Wordsworth juxtaposes the cynicism of the narrator’s view of death with the innocence of the young girl’s view. The narrator’s view is that although she did have six brothers and sisters, she now only has four.

The girl’s brother and sister are no longer alive and thus cannot be considered human, and equally can no longer be the girl’s brother and sister in any real sense, so he only recognises her as having four siblings. The girl however does not see death in that manner. Although she is aware that they are dead, she is not able to properly understand what this means. As the author says “What should it know of death? ” To her, even though they are dead, they are still her brother and sister, just as much as her others and so she sees herself as one of seven children.

In the poem Wordsworth gives a vivid description of the girl, referring to her as “rustic” and having a “Woodland air”, which overtly links her to nature. The fact that the narrator says that her beauty “makes me glad” shows that Wordsworth is indirectly calling the girl, her innocence and nature, which the girl is close to, a wonderful thing which should be celebrated. Both The Idiot Boy and Anecdote for Fathers deal with the imagination. In Anecdote for Fathers the narrator asks his son whether he prefers their home at Kilve or Liswyn Farm.

The child clearly has never contemplated this, however as his father originally praises Kilve more than Liswyn Farm, he says that he prefers Kilve, as he believes that is what his father wants to hear. His father however questions his answer, which the child is not prepared for. Looking around in panic he sees a weather vane and responds with “At Klive there was no weather-cock, and that’s the reason why”. The narrator is ecstatic with his son’s answer, as he sees his son’s ability to imagine an innocent answer so easily. The father wishes that he could “Teach the hundredth part of what from thee I learn”

The tone of excitement in the father’s response seems to stem from Wordsworth lamenting the fact that although he is able to understand how children are able to use their imagination in such ways, he is unable to mimic them, as he has already succumbed to the social ideals. In The Idiot Boy Wordsworth the effect of society on an adult by comparing the imagination of a child and his mother. In this poem a woman, Betty, is caring for her sick friend, Susan. Although Susan requires urgent medical care, Betty cannot leave her alone in her state, so she sends Johnny, the “Idiot Boy”, her mentally handicapped son.

She gives him very clear instructions that he is to go straight to the doctor and straight back and not stop. Hours later he has not returned and Betty begins to worry about “sad mischances, not a few”. In the end Betty decides to go and look for him. As she is out calling his name, she starts to imagine her son being dead or hurt based on what she sees. For example when she sees a pond she imagines that her son may have drowned in it. Eventually she discovers that Johnny is safe and well, and has merely been playing for hours, imagining himself picking stars out of the sky, being a hunter and being a warrior.

The contrast between the imagination of a child, with an extra layer of innocence due to his mental handicap, and his mother is incredibly stark. While Johnny’s imagination has kept him content for hours, Betty’s has, in a shorter space of time, made her start to contemplate suicide due to the grief it instilled within her. We then find that Susan has recovered for exactly the same reason that Betty felt such despair, all she was able to think about were horrible ways in which Betty and Johnny could’ve been hurt and was able to draw strength from her sadness at being unable to help.

In the end, when asked what he had been doing for hours, Johnny merely replies “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, and the sun did shine so cold”. Wordsworth called this response Johnny’s “glory”, which very accurately sums up the Romantic ideal of childhood and innocence being a thing to cherish, which was one of the messages Wordsworth and Coleridge tried to present with the Lyrical Ballads.

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