«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
With legs akimbo, long fingers, and a frog-like mouth and chin, the squatting figure certainly resembles a frog, not just in his appearance but also in his diet of spiders. The old person looks and behaves like a frog, is insulted by the text, yet appears perfectly content amongst his crust and spiders. A similar transformation occurs with the Young Lady of Portugal (p. 10) whose beak-like nose and flowing gown greatly resemble a bird. Nor are these ~he only characters to behave animalistically. In many limericks we find the protagonists up a tree or in a bush, perched like the birds around them, such as with the people of Lucca (p. 29) and Dundee (p. 35). Even when the characters and animals are distinct, a great proportion of the limericks include the usually favourable relationships between them. The Old People are fond of riding creatures (Old persons of Ware, Dunluce, Rye) teaching them (Dumbree, Dundalk, France) feeding them (Corsica, person in gray), entertaining them (Bute, Bray), or simply existing with them harmoniously (Ealing, Hove, man with an owl). Occasionally the animal world threatens, as with the young lady in white, whose heart is filled with "despair" by the "birds of the air" (owl ), but uch cases are less common. While the roles played by animals in the limericks ary the tran f rmations, the moments of pecies mixture, are usually advantage u for the haracter being tran f rmed.
similar treatment of children, such a close and favourable association with the animal kingdom breaks down the barrier between animal and human to the advantage of both.
the "wild" nature of the child. Because children generally do misbehave, they have often been portrayed as doing so, which naturally leads to an animalistic comparison, but it is the treatment of such behaviour which is important. The roots of the portrayal of children as wild animals goes back to classical figures such as Aristotle, Horace, and Plato, but in
most cases the comparison is explicitly deprecatory. For example, Plato claims in Laws:
And just as sheep, or any other creatures, cannot be allowed to live unshepherded, so neither must boys be left without the care of attendants... Now of all wild young things, a boy is the most difficult to handle; just because he more than any other has a fount of intelligence in him which has not yet 'run clear', he is the craftiest, most mischievous, and unruliest of brutes. So the creature must be held in check.... 237 Children are "creatures," "things," and "brutes," and, like animals, they must be penned up. Plato also likens children to animals by claiming that both are creatures of crude sensation, that they are impelled only by pain and pleasure, a sentiment to which Aristotle agrees, adding that the child has no natural love for its parents. 238 This view of the child proves to be the most common, as can be seen much later in both Locke and Rousseau.
Locke recognizes that children exhibit "Inadvertency, Carelesness, and Gayety," but these are "foolish and childish Actions" (p. 141), "childish" here meaning ''unworthy of notice."
Locke would train a child to pass this wasted stage of life; it is acceptable and good in infants, but such bold promotion of it in children's literature would not be tolerated.
According to Locke, reading for the child should "draw him on, and reward his Pains in Reading~ and yet not such as should fill his Head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay 237Plato, Laws, trans. A.E. Taylor (London: 1.M. Dent; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960),808, p. 193.
238George Boas, The Cult of Childhood (London: The Warbur~ Institute, U~versity.of London, 1966), p.
12. Plato bases his whole education system on "pleasure and pam... the domaIn ",herem the soul first acquires virtue or vice." (Laws, 653, p. 29). For more on the classical portrait of the c.hild,. see Boas, pp.
11-15 and also Robert Pattison, The Child Figure in English Literature (Athens: Uruverslly of GeorgIa Press, 1978), pp. 1-19.
the principles of Vice and Folly" (p. 212). Rousseau's Emile is, like Plato's image of the child, more negatively animal-like, experiencing only pleasure and pain, experiencing the world like a cat, instinctively (p. 57). He would understand this portrayal of the nonsense child's attributes and celebrate the joy of the limericks as the unthinking joy of childhocx:l.
The violence and "bad" actions would be proof to Emile that "Before the age of reason we do good or ill without knowing it, and there is no morality in our actions... " (p. 34). It would make sense to Emile that children would accept this violence, if not with laughter, then at least with ignorant toleration, but with the coming of reason, the child should see the error of such ignorance. Such "bad" actions simply are not sensible or useful, and by promoting them, Lear is not "preserving the heart from vice and from the spirit of error.,,239 The children portrayed in the Lambs' Poetry jor Children (1808-1809) are just such good little girls and boys against which Lear rebelled. A typical poem in this volume is ''The First of April," in which a boy plays an April-fool's joke on a little girl. His mother
sees signs of guilt, and she asks the boy what is wrong. He answers:
This is the absurdly good, repentant child, which Sinclair and Lear were struggling against, the same child who is now in Mrs. Leicester's School, telling "the story of my foolish and naughty fancy" (p. 375). This child, so Lear's nonsense would imply, has forgotten the joyous, boisterous side of herself--a side which is to be cherished, and even promoted--not to be observed with a smile of condescension and derision.
The Lambs' Poetry jor Children, however, is an exception when seen against Romantic period writing about (rather than for) children. The positive image of the "wild" child, both in the misbehaved and naturalistic senses, was prevalent in Romantic writing.
In Wordsworth's poetry alone, the word "wild" is used in conjunction with children in Rousseau, p. 57.
240Charles and f\larv Lamb, Poetry for Children, 1809, in Books for Children, The Works of Charles and Man Lamb, 1903-' ed. E\' Lucas (London: \ IethUI'I1, 1912), III, -l16.
dozens of instances. 241 From "youth's wild eye" of An Evening Walk (1. 23, composed 1788, published 1793) to the "wild, unworldly-minded youth" of The Prelude (IV, 1.
281), the child is almost always "wild" in one sense or another. This child also appears in
Dorothy Wordsworth's ''The Mother's Return":
What distinguishes this use of the wild child is that nearly all of these comparisons are favourable, rather than the conventional derogatory references to cleanliness or misbehavior. Coleridge shared this image of the child, especially in reference to his son Hartley, whose odd behaviour he described, using Wordsworth's phrase, as " 'exquisitely wild'! An utter Visionary! ''242 Though Coleridge's and Wordsworth's view of the "wild" child would change considerably during their lives, and not usually in the child's favour, these earlier, more favourable models were the most influential in the Victorian period.
In contrast to most eighteenth-century portraits of the child, and indeed, much Victorian writing as well, only the Romantic child exhibits such positive joy and capriciousness. Blake glorifies this type of child, a creature displayed with no sentimentality, "no fragile innocence, not regretful, nostalgic, static, or deadening. ''243 In
The Prelude Wordsworth describes his vision of what real children are:
241This can be explained partly by the easy rhyme of "wild" and "child," but there are far more occasions than this coincidence would warrant.
242Griggs, II, 525. p. 101.+.
243Coveney. p. 56.
In this complete picture of the child, Wordsworth stresses the joy, in the face of ''wrong'' actions and "life's mysterious weight," that a child experiences. 244 As with many of Wordsworth's portrayals of children, there is also a hint of melanchol y and death in the comparison of the children to "withered leaves," implying decay and death, yet such awareness reflects more on the adult's conception than the imagined child's consciousness. 245 While the child may be innocent, it is anything but angelic, at least in outward appearance and action.
The essence of Wordsworth's child construct, its creative soul, is inextricable from
rebellion, as we find in Book II of The Prelude:
The child's soul is "unsubdued" by social custom because he retains a childlike imagination, a "plastic power" which acts rebelliously against soul-deadening custom. His imagination is also ''wild'' in another sense, as Wordsworth likens it to a "local spirit," implying the child is intimately related to nature. In this case, the imagination is like a spirit of the woods, whether bear, river, or tree. This spirit is "at war / With general tendency" but, somewhat like Emile, is "subservient strictly" to "external things." Of course, Wordsworth is not talking about raising a child here, but about the tendency of the child's imagination, which, he claims, though rebellious, needs the "external things" or images of nature to make them its own. The passage continues by describing how, through the 244For Wordsworth the child was closer to divinity, and this instinctive relationship dignifies the child's actions. This essential trait of the Wordsworthian child relates more to the imagination, and is discussed in Chapter 5.
245S ee also 'The Kitten and the Falling Leaves" (published 1807). It is in these wistful moments that Wordsworth's resemblance to eighteenth-century writers about children becomes more apparent. c.f. Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." For the important differences between Gray and Wordsworth, see Paul H. Fry, "Thomas Gray's Feather'd Cincture: The Odes" in Poets of Sensibility and the Sublime.
cd. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), pp. 89-118.
"auxiliar light" of imagination, the child is able to enhance and intensify the images he receives from nature. This dialectic relationship of imagination and external stimuli will be dealt with in more detail in Chapter 6, but for now I simply note the "wildness" of the child's imagination, whether regarding its allowed rebelliousness or its animalistic tendencies.
Wordsworth frequently shows examples of a child behaving badly, or, to be more precise, children behaving in a manner which was considered unacceptable by conventional portrayals of the child. More often than not, the child in Wordsworth's poems is breaking rules, whether natural or societal. In The Prelude alone there are numerous instances of this in the "spots of time," from the boat-stealing, to raven's nest plundering, to fishing, yet the child is rarely, if ever, condemned. Directly after the boat-stealing episode, we find the child Wordsworth climbing the "lonesome peaks" in search of ravens' nests to plunder.
He describes, in the heroic language he often uses with such childhood adventures, "when the vales / And woods were warm, was I a plunderer then / In the high places, on the lonesome peaks" (1,11. 335-37). However, he does add one disclaimer: "Though mean / My object and inglorious, yet the end / Was not ignoble" (1,11. 339-41). Even in this brief recognition that stealing eggs or baby birds is "inglorious," there is a stress on the "end," which is just the opposite. During such moments of thievery,
For this cruel act, the child and the reflecting adult are rewarded with a spiritual vision.
Forgotten is the "meanness" of thievery; this activity, like the others in the poem, is glorified because of its results. In an observation which, though describing "The Danish Boy," could easily be applied to the above passage, Babenroth observes, 'the passage is rather, in all its beauty, an interpretation of the nuances which nature vouchsafes, not to the mighty hunter, who is bent upon capturing his prey, but to the sensitive boy who responds to spiritual suggestions of external nature. ''246 It seems that most "spiritual suggestions" occur after base actions.
In popular nineteenth-century children's writing, such activities as "nesting" or fishing were bitterly condemned in countless moral tracts, and Wordsworth's lax attitude could have been viewed as scandalous. 247 Cruelty to animals was one of the most common themes of children's literature and can be found in texts from Rousseau's time, to Sarah Trimmer's Fabulous Histories: Designed/or the Instruction o/Children, respecting their Treatment 0/Animals (1778-89), to Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872) and beyond. To take one example from Ann and Jane Taylor's Original Poems/or In/ant Minds (1804-1805), we see the result of "nesting" in a poem entitled 'The Bird's Nest," in which the child is intended to feel like a stolen bird.
Nor did this trend of verses condemning cruelty to animals fade. In light of such didactic work, Wordsworth's mitigating and elevating portrayal of "bad" childish behaviour stands out all the more.
Wordsworth illustrates such "wrong" actions in ''To a Butterfly" (written 1802), in which he relates happy memories of a child being cruel to other creatures: "A very hunter did I rush / Upon the prey;--with leaps and springs" (De Selincourt, 11. 14-15). Rather than viewing childhood cruel ty as, in Spiegelman's view, the "beginning of potential 246Babenroth, pp. 72-73..
2470f course, ThePrelude was not children's literature, but it still might have caused alarm had It been published in the early half of the nineteenth century. It was not published until 1850 (after \\"ords~orth' s death), at which time the new "boy's" books were already transgressing many of the taboos of earlIer children's literature.
2--lX Ann and Jane Taylor, Original Poems, I, 5-6.