«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
204 Although the frightening manifestations of imagination have a "cure," they originate from "archetypes" which cannot be evaded, especially in childhood. See Lamb's "Witches and other Night-Fears" in Eliaand
the Lasl/:"ssm's 0/ Elia, The Works a/Charles and Mary Lamb, 1903-5, cd. E.V. Lucas (London:
Methuen, 1912), II, 78.
many children's books of the time, including the very book which, as the heading of this chapter shows, claims to champion the child's individuality. In Sinclair's Holiday House (1839), Laura describes her motivation for self-punishment: "I never take my own way without being sorry for it afterwards, so I deserve now to be disappointed and remain at home. ''205 The "individuality" of the child is dangerous, and as Locke writes, comes from the child's "natural wrong Inclinations." Hence, Lear's non-conformists are in this state of untethered, dangerous imagination before it has been controlled by outside society. The Lambs might sympathize with the eccentrics, but happiness and balance only come with an acceptance of the real world and the social flock.
The Romantic construct of the child, as exhibited in the Romantics' works not intended for children, is the only one which approaches the individuality and nonconformity of Lear's characters. It relates to Blake's idea that the child (and the adult) should be spared the "denigration of the human soul through the denial of Man's individuality and his 'Imaginative Vision'. "206 Wordsworth's position is similar in a letter to an unknown correspondent around 1804 or 1806, describing the child as naturally "independent and sufficient for itself. "207 By "independence," Wordsworth is not referring to Rousseau's pejorative picture of the separate state of childhood, one which is "empty" and waiting to be informed; this independence is a child's blissful state of fullness, which is the universal ideal. In Wordsworth's "Ruth" the child is orphaned at seven years old and becomes "Herself her own delight." Hartley Coleridge, in ''To H.C., Six Years Old," is similarly an individual "And fittest to unutterable thought / The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol" (II. 3-4). The carol, the glorious song of childhood, is the child's individual creation; it is "self-born," and does not rely on the teaching of adults. As
Coleridge remarks in a letter to Thomas Poole, of 14 October, 1803, describing Hartley:
"like the Moon among thin Clouds, he moves in a circle of Light of his own making--he
alone, in a Light of his own," and also his daughter Sara: "she smiles, as if she were basking in a sunshine, as mild as moonlight, of her own quiet Happiness. ''208 It is appropriate at this point to clarify one of the major changes between Rousseauistic and Wordsworthian views of the child. This conceptual difference drastically affects all aspects of the perception of the state of childhood, yet may initially appear a similarity. Rousseau liberated the concept of childhood, giving it an individual identity, but this recognition of a separate, and "special" state encouraged analysis of exactly what that state was. The Romantics inherited Rousseau's observations of the child's accordance with nature, innocence, and purity, but to varying degrees they attributed these and other qualities to a different source from Rousseau. As Wordsworth writes in Ode (''There was a time... 'J, the child enters the world "not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come" (11. 62-63). Rousseau's child comes into the world with nothing, which is reflected in all his actions. For Wordsworth, a child's feelings, inclinations, and perceptions are the result of the child's elevated position and the child's "fullness," or positive attributes, as opposed to Rousseau's conception, which sees the child's attributes more as a result of the child's vacuity, and lack of mental capacity and ability. Childhood contains the "substance," which Lear and Wordsworth saw "dried up" in later life. 209 Thus, in Wordsworth's Ode, he admires in children ''The fullness of your bliss" (1. 41, my italics). Rousseau saw the same results from the cause of absence, which Wordsworth saw from the cause of abundance. For Rousseau it is a time to be treasured, but only for what it does not (or should not) have, being a time of vacuous ignorance.
Rousseau would never have deemed the activities of children worthy of poetry, but Wordsworth used the children he met and their activities as the basis for serious poetic works. Part of Wordsworth's innovation in focusing on the individual child comes from this faithful observation of real children and their activities. Many Wordsworth poems, 208The Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), II, pp. 101--l-, 1015.
209 See Introduction, part 2. This "substance" may be related to what Richardson calls the "I~)wer" which be sees Wordsworth attributing to children. He writes, "Rousseau, who shares Wordsworth's suspicions regarding conventional methods of socialization, views the child as originally innocent but emphatically not as strong or powelful" (p. 3--l-).
aside from the autobiographical ones, are based on children he knew and real events. For instance, "Anecdote for Fathers" shows Basil Montague's child (the Wordsworths' ward) in what Wordsworth claims was a real incident. Hartley Coleridge's uniqueness, vivacity, and other-worldliness inspired both Wordsworth and Coleridge to write some of their most well-known poems about the child. Other poems, such as "We Are Seven," "Ruth," and "Alice Fell" purportedly record real events. 210 Several of his poems, somewhat like Bums's, are for or about his own children, such as "Characteristics of a Child three years old" and "Address to My Infant Daughter, Dora on Being Reminded That She Was a Month Old That Day, September 16" (1804). In most of these poems, especially the earlier ones, the children are shown to be individuals worthy of poetic consideration--often far more worthy than the adults accompanying them. While Wordsworth is nearly always concerned with the effect of childhood on the adult, he attempts to give considerable, if not equal, weight simply to showing the qualities of the child now as opposed to their effect on the adult later. Of course, a child portrayed in a poem is not real, and Wordsworth's poems related to childhood ultimately only show his vision of the child. However, his attempts, as outlined above, come closer than most writers of his day to showing a more accurate image of the child.
Contrary to Jonathan Wordsworth's claim that the child is mainly a "symbol-child who has nothing to do with personal experience, and little enough with observation,"211 Wordsworth seems dedicated to creating what he would claim to be a more mimetic child construct. Though there is not room in this thesis to show the great care Wordsworth took in portraying children, one need only to look at the psychological reality behind the little girl in "We Are Seven," the boys' antics in "Idle Shepherd-Boys," and the physical description of the child "tricked out" in "beggar's weeds" in "Nutting." One of Wordsworth's more striking, and telling, practices was to include the actual names, 21 OSee the Fenwick notes in the De Selincourt edition of Wordsworth for details on the events these poems are based on (1, 360-3~ II, 509-1O~ 1,359-60).
21110hathan Wordsworth, William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1()~2). P 90, and passim. Wordsworth is discuss~ng the Intimations Ode in particular here. but his rcading tends to see all of the poet's child figures ex-e1uslvely as symbols.
sometimes full names, of his child characters. Hence, ''Rural Architecture" (1800) begins
in this unique fashion:
This poem, like most, based loosely on fact, boldly gives the full names of the characters in the first line--something unheard-of in poems about children. 212 The result is that the children, no taller than a "Counsellor's bag," are given distinct individual identities and an importance far greater than their height. The narrative voice implies that we should already know this famous trio. Their actions are appropriate to such a grand beginning: they not only build, christen, and maintain the stone figure "Ralph Jones," but are compared to the builders "In Paris and London, 'mong Christians and Turks" and, it seems, found to be more noble. Compare Wordsworth's use of names with Isaac Watts's, for instance, in the poem "Innocent Play" found in his Divine and Moral Songs for Children( 1715): "But Thomas and William, and such pretty names, / Should be cleanly and harmless as doves or as lambs / Those lovely sweet innocent creatures" (Moral Songs, Song II). It is almost as if Watts's children are merely names rather than sentient beings. Nor do the names define individuals, for Watts was trying to appeal to all boys, rather than to describe any particular ones. Names are given here in order to generalize, not to specify. Other Wordsworth poems which include the names of children are ''The Pet-Lamb: A Pastoral" (1800) in which we find young Barbara Lewthwaite (1. 13)213 and Dorothy Wordsworth's ''The Mother's Return" (1807). The inclusion of complete names of children is one telling example of how Wordsworth (and his sister) promoted the image of the powerful, important, and individual child. 214 212A not-unexpected exception is in Blake's ''The Chimney Sweeper," which names "little Tom Dacre."
213The Fenwick note states that this was not the real name of the girl who inspired the poem (I, 364).
214As Wordsworth aged, his portrayal of the child became victim to what would be the Victomn stereotype of the frail, angelic child. See, for example, ''To ---. llpon the birth of her first-born child. March, 1833" His ideas had turned around so much in this stage of his career that he included the doctrine of origInal sin.
so inimical to his earlier ideas, in poems like "Sonnet 20" in Ecclesiastical Sonnets (both poems in De Selincourt).
Wordsworth's concept of the child, reflected in Lear's depiction of the anxieties of individuality, is also not without ontological angst: there is a tension between infinitude and nothingness in the individual soul. 215 In The Prelude Wordsworth implies that humanity shares a soul which is diffused throughout the world by the "Sovereign Intellect" (V, 11. 14-17). On the other hand, by reading imaginative works, the child "doth reap / One precious gain--that he forgets himself' (V, 11. 368-69). This tension between having an allpervasive soul and at the same time experiencing an absence of individual selfconsciousness is certainly cause for such anxiety as Lear implies. Characteristically, with Wordsworth and Lear, the tension is left unresolved.
However, the child and the adult must still assert their individuality, which means relinquishing ties to what Keats called the "habitual self," or "custom." In The Prelude childhood is described as:
Custom is the enemy, the force that has not yet fully descended on the child, but "Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, / And custom lie upon thee with a weight, / Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" (Ode, ''There was a time... " II. 129-131). The child should not live as if life were "endless imitation," (1. 107) but instead should be free of society'S stereotypes and role constructs. The Romantic child can well understand, at least on a non-rational level, what it means to be an individual unencumbered with the habitual and could therefore readily accept and revel in the eccentrics of Lear's nonsense.
215 Elizabeth Sewell suggests that "Nonsense has a fear of nothingness quite as great as its fear of everything-ness" (p. 12..t.).
The characters represented by Lear's nonsense are frequently depicted as "wild" in two related senses of the word: first, "wild" as in rollicking, happy, misbehaving children~ second, "wild" as in favourably compared to nature, and especially animals. The world of nonsense is joyous and irreverent, demanding of its audience a sympathetic response. 216 To be able to enjoy and relate to nonsense, Lear's assumed "nonsense child" is unlike all other child constructs emerging from previous children's literature. As Cammaerts recognizes, the child must be "healthy," meaning the "child is by nature, sufficiently imaginative, exuberant and irresponsible to enjoy the visions of Wonderland.,,217 Such a child is like Coleridge's description of his son in a letter to Southey on May 6, 1801: "A little child, a limber Elf / Singing, dancing to itself."218 This child is full of joy but also is "a faery Thing," meaning it can be mischievous while still remaining innocent. Lear wrote to David Richard Morier on 12 January, 1871 that he was constantly proud that he could "make half a million children laugh innocently.,,219 In Lear's nonsense, children will harmlessly enjoy the reflection of their own innocent passions and violence. Catherine 216rhough some of Lear' s works. especially the later lyrics. are tinged with melancholy. the majority of the poems demonstrate joy. even in the face of opposition. See. for example. 'The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo" (pp. 237-2-U).
Cammaerts, p. 19.
218Coleridge Letters, II. 728. This was attached to the end of Christabel.
Sinclair, in her preface to Holiday House, denounces contemporary mechanistic education and discusses the need to rediscover this "wild" child. She finds children's minds are stuffed with the type of practical, factual information the utilitarians would feed to children, observing: "no room is left for the vigour of natural feeling, the glow of natural genius, and the ardour of natural enthusiasm....In these pages the author has endeavoured to paint that species of noisy, frolicsome, mischievous children which is now almost extinct" (pp.
vii_viii).220 Sinclair, writing imaginative, though didactic prose, joined Lear in the crusade to promote what they saw as a more realistic image of the joyous and "bad" child.
The characters of Lear's limericks display joy, as well as insubordination and violence, in uninhibited emotional outpourings of happiness, dance, and song. Opening to almost any page reveals the eccentrics, poised on tip-toe, with blissful smiles, dancing in
celebration. Such an indi vidual is the Old Person of Ischia: