During the romantic period views on childhood dramatically changed from the previous. The enlightenment involved people having the belief that children should have no respects and as a result were ‘seen and no heard’. This dramatically changed to children being a source of learning, so children could teach adults ways of life. This essay will discuss the different aspects of childhood and look at Wordsworth and Coleridge’s views.
From a romantics point of view children were seen as pure, simple and innocent human beings, which had great importance to the world’s teachings. Wordsworth gives the idea that a child is simple in the poem ‘We are seven’ (pg 59) when the opening line says “a simple child, drear brother Jim”. The poem idealises childhood, describing a little girl to be a “sweet maid”.
The young girl lives out in the countryside, which at that time would be seen as a good thing, people who were raised in the countryside would be seen to have more moral than those brought up in towns. Rousseau believed that humans were born into the world innocent, with great potential for goodness, and that it was the adult world of organised religion, which corrupted them. He believed the idea of the “noble savage”, something/one that is compatible with nature. The idea of this ‘noble savage’ is presented in this poem, where Wordsworth introduces this young “sweet maid”.
In this poem you can also clearly see how innocent and simplistic a child really is compared to an adult, who is full of life’s experiences. This is displayed evidently in the poem when Wordsworth asks, “What should it know of death” in the first stanza, making reference to the young girl he meets in the next line. Children, even now are obviously extremely naive and simple about death because of their lack of experience and knowledge. In stanza six the “sweet maid” explains where her brothers and sisters are; “two of us in the church yard lie”.
She does not give a direct statement saying that her two siblings are actually dead suggesting that she either doesn’t want to accept their death or that she doesn’t actually understand they have gone forever. Another example showing this is how she says, “I sit and sing to them” suggesting she believes they are listening and can hear her. She is persistent there are seven siblings all together even though two are “in heaven” which would mean there are five.
Wordsworth in two of his poems, “We are Seven” and “Anecdote for Fathers” presents a patronising attitude towards children, in a way that he continuously asking them things, questioning their thoughts, how they feel and what they believe;
“My little boy which you like more?” (pg 57. Anecdote for fathers)
” ‘Yet you are seven; I pray you tell
‘Sweet maid, how this may be? ” (pg 60. We are Seven)
This suggests that Wordsworth disagrees with Rousseau idea and believes that adults cannot learn from children because they lack life’s experience resulting in naivety and simple outlooks on life. In contrast, at the end of Anecdote for Fathers, Wordsworth attempts to establish the theme of innocence, being a child and how this can have influence on man, as well as mans influence on the child.
“Of what from thee I learn” (pg 58)
These two poems do also present children to have a stubborn attitude in the way that as Wordsworth persistently prompts both children to alter their thoughts and feelings they stick to their initial beliefs. The main example is in Anecdote for Fathers where Wordsworth is trying to change the boys mind on where he would rather be living;
“Our home by Kilve’d delightful shore,
Or here at Liswyn farm?” (pg 57)
The young boy says, “At Kilve I’d rather be / Than here at Liswyn farm” (pg 57). However the boy has to think up a totally random and spontaneous reason for his choice to keep his father happy;
“At Kilve there was no weather-cock, And that’s the reason why.”
The idea that adults can learn from children is also presented in Coleridge’s poem, The Foster Mothers Tale, when the foster mother says; “…and make me learn all you had learnt in the day.” The child discussed in the poem is described as “a pretty boy”, which shows that children are idealised as being beautiful. This boy is a prime example of Rousseau’s idea of the ‘noble savage’, being brought up with nature. His association with the natural world enables him to understand the names of birds easily and is familiar with all their calls, suggesting his intelligence.
“But knew the names of birds, and mocked their notes”
However, the foster mother criticises him, saying he is “unteachable”, because he rejected religion and wouldn’t learn his prayers, showing a very narrow minded view on what education is. As a child the boy is found “wrapped in mosses” by a friar who raises him and taught him to stick to his beliefs and not to change them for others. It is suggested that the boy is only able to learn from the friar, which shows a significance towards the idea that we learn better from the ones we love.
From the four poems I have discussed in Lyrical Ballads, the idea of Jean Jacques Rousseau has a major influence on the presentation of childhood given by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Also there is the idea that a child’s innocence in easily taken away by an attempt to teach them to be more worldly and sophisticated.