Victorian literature was remarkably concerned with the idea of childhood, but to a large degree we must understand the Victorian concept of childhood and youth as being, in some way, a revisionary response to the early nineteenth century Romantic conception. Here we must, to a certain degree, accept Harold Bloom’s thesis that Victorian poetry represents a revisionary response to the revolutionary aesthetic of Romanticism, and particularly that of Wordsworth. The simplest way to summarize the Wordsworthian child is to recall that well-known line from a short lyric (which would be appended as epigraph to later printings of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality, from Recollections of Early Childhood”) — “the child is father of the man.” Here, self-definition in adulthood, and indeed the poetic vocation, are founded in the perceived imaginative freedom of childhood.
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
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! (Wordsworth, “Ode”)
To a certain degree, Wordsworth was introducing a new subject for poetry here, and offering a new place of origin for the poetic voice. Yet Victorian poetry in some way represents a reaction against the potentially liberatory Wordsworthian version of childhood. It is remarkable to discover that Matthew Arnold singled out the Wordsworthian vision of childhood as one of the chief flaws of his work:
Even the “intimations” of the famous Ode, those cornerstones of the supposed philosophic system of Wordsworth — the idea of the high instincts and affections coming out in childhood, testifying of a divine home recently left, and fading away as our life proceeds — this idea, of undeniable beauty as a play of fancy, has itself not the character of poetic truth of the best kind; it has no real solidity. The instinct of delight in Nature and her beauty had no doubt extraordinary strength in Wordsworth himself as a child. But to say that universally this instinct is mighty in childhood, and tends to die away afterwards, is to say what is extremely doubtful. In many people, perhaps with the majority of educated persons, the love of nature is nearly imperceptible at ten years old, but strong and operative at thirty. (“Wordsworth” 16)
Arnold’s claim that the Romantic vision of childhood in Wordsworth’s poetry “has no real solidity” is, in itself, a good indication of the overall revisionary strategy of Victorian poetry. Through a close reading of poems by Matthew Arnold and A.E. Housman, I hope to demonstrate that the Victorian ethic insisted upon real-world or concrete applications of the Wordsworthian mythos of childhood. The way whereby the Victorians revise the Romantic conception of childhood is twofold: the first is by subsuming childhood within a more general category of “youth” (which, in an era when adolescence arguably did not yet exist as a separate category, problematizes the concept of childhood altogether), and the second is by considering childhood as a subject problematized largely by its relationship to the question of education.
Matthew Arnold, as a poet, was deeply influenced by Wordsworth — as a critic, his essay in praise of Wordsworth’s poetry ranks Wordsworth in importance with Shakespeare and Milton. At the same time, Arnold came of age at a time when Wordsworth — who had laid out the template for a new conception of childhood both as a subject of poetry and as a means of self-definition — had aged into a monolith of Victorian tedium, the Queen’s poet laureate was bewailed by Arnold’s contemporary Robert Browning as a “lost leader.” Arnold would therefore already stand in a problematized relationship to Wordsworthian ideas of childhood: it is difficult to assert that “the child is father to the man” when the man has become (like Wordsworth) a reactionary publishing sonnets in favor of the death penalty. To some extent the Romantic view of youth promulgated in Wordsworth’s most influential work had already been subverted by the younger Romantics — Byron and Shelley in particular — who were unsparing in their criticisms of Wordsworth, and who had the added attraction of dying young while Wordsworth lived on. For Arnold’s generation, then, the Romantic ideals of childhood had already been subverted by the youthful rebellion and early death of the younger Romantics — Arnold would memorably dismiss Shelley as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain” — and by the old age of Wordsworth himself. But the conception of childhood in Arnold’s work must be understood in light of a larger concern, both in Arnold’s work and in his life, with education. Arnold’s own father was the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, and was concerned with reforming the moral and religious aspects of education; as Lytton Strachey would wryly note in Eminent Victorians, the paternalism of the elder Arnold was perpetually mystified by the refusal of children to behave, although it was brought into lines with a typically Victorian melioristic view of the “childhood of the human race” which was perpetually advancing toward a state of greater moral enlightenment:
One thing struck him as particularly strange: “it is very startling,” he said, “to see so much of sin combined with so little of sorrow.” The naughtiest boys positively seemed to enjoy themselves most. There were moments when he almost lost faith in his whole system of education, when he began to doubt whether some far more radical reforms than any he had attempted might not be necessary, before the multitude of children under his charge — shouting and gamboling, and yet plunged all the while deep in moral evil — could ever be transformed into a set of Christian gentlemen. But then he remembered his general principles, the conduct of Jehovah with the Chosen People, and the childhood of the human race. (Strachey, “Dr. Arnold”)
This account of Arnold’s father is necessary to understand Arnold’s own career — not merely as a poet, but in his work as the Inspector of Schools for the British government, concerned with the education of the poorer classes. Knickerbocker has noted that “certain similarities are, of course, quite apparent even in the most casual comparison of the work of the two men; their interest and efforts, for instance, in the development of the British educational scheme” (Knickerbocker 399). But we can see that Arnold’s own life had a revisionary sort of pattern to it: backing away from the Christianizing and moralistic approach to education marked by his father, while at the same time engaging in the same typically Victorian social meliorism by working toward the education of the less privileged sectors of society. It can therefore be said that Arnold had a serious professional investment in the Victorian idea of childhood — but it is worth questioning how this view relates to Arnold’s own poetic work, and his poetic genealogy. It is noteworthy that, for all the emphasis placed on childhood in Wordsworth’s work, there is no comparable emphasis or interest in education. Indeed, the Wordsworthian child is defined largely by what is done away from school, and the few references in The Prelude to Wordsworth’s time spent at Cambridge indicate that formal education was not to be considered his metier. It might be seen as a defining feature of Victorian poetry that it is concerned with the practical or real-world applications, or responses, to issues raised by the Romantics.
If the Romantic child is a creature of imagination and freedom, then we might begin by understanding the Victorian child as being defined by the limitations or constraints placed upon such imagination and freedom. Arnold’s sonnet “Youth’s Agitations” can be viewed as typical of the Victorian reaction against Romantic valorization of youth. Here, the passional or imaginative self that Romanticism attributed to the young is seen as turbulent and unstable:
When I shall be divorced, some ten years hence,
From this poor present self which I am now;
When youth has done its tedious vain expense
Of passions that for ever ebb and flow;
Shall I not joy youth’s heats are left behind,
And breathe more happy in an even clime”?
— ?Ah no, for then I shall begin to find?
A thousand virtues in this hated time!
Then I shall wish its agitations back,
And all its thwarting currents of desire;
Then I shall praise the heat which then I lack,
And call this hurrying fever, generous fire;
And sigh that one thing only has been lent
To youth and age in common — discontent.
(Arnold, “Youth’s Agitations”)
There are several things worth observing about Arnold’s construction of youth here. For a start, the imagery itself seems to insist upon the failure of youth to offer concrete or tangible advantage: the crucial phrase is “tedious vain expense / of passions that for ever ebb and flow.” The constant movement of passion is not troped as an imaginative freedom, but rather as its own form of routine — like the “ebb and flow / of human misery” in Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the tidal image here is one of senseless repetitiveness. In “Dover Beach” it is the senselessness that Arnold emphasizes, where Victorian religious doubts render the landscape into a melancholy locus where the only human meaning must be consciously constructed. But here, the “ebb and flow” of the emotional life of youth is understood as meaningless in a different way: the crux is clearly located in the word “expense.” Arnold is clearly allowing the word to play with a double-meaning, one of which is concrete and financial, and the other of which is plainly sexual (as in Shakespeare’s “expense of spirit”). The “passions of youth” here are not only dull (“tedious”) but also empty of meaning (“vain”). But what is most remarkable about the construction of “youth” in this sonnet is the way in which it already anticipates its own extinction: the poem is about “youth” that looks forward to the absence of youth “some ten years hence.” The sonnet’s concluding couplet manages to elide the distinction between youth and age by finding that they are both defined by the feature that they have in common, “discontent.”
But in terms of the representation of actual childhood, Arnold is again seemingly concerned with relating it to questions of responsibility. This is the overwhelming impression given by the incantatory addresses to the children in Arnold’s lyrical monologue “The Forsaken Merman”:
Children dear, was it yesterday
(Call yet once) that she went away?
Once she sate with you and me,
On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea,
And the youngest sate on her knee.
She comb’d its bright hair, she tended it well
When down swung the sound of the far-off bell.
She sigh’d, she look’d up through the clear green sea.
She said “I must go, for my kinsfolk pray
In the little grey church on the shore to-day ‘Twill be Easter-time in the world — ah me!
And I lose my poor soul, Merman, here with thee.”
I said, “Go up, dear heart, through the waves.
Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves.”
She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay.
Children dear, was it yesterday?
What is interesting here is the way that the idea of responsibility is being constructed in this poem. Arnold’s Merman has been forsaken by his human lover, who leaves him with (seemingly) a brood of children — the poem is constructed out of repeated addresses to those children, urging them to call to their mother: “Children’s voices should be dear / (Call once more) to a mother’s ear; / Children’s voices, wild with pain. / Surely she will come again.” Yet Margaret does not come again: her responsibility is to the sort of Christian piety which the elder Arnold found essential to education, but which Arnold himself (in “Dover Beach”) understood as being in decline. What is most curious, here, is the erasure of a sense of time: the Merman’s repeated questions to the children all seem to hinge upon the sense of time (“Was it yesterday?,” “Were we long alone?”). It is also worth noting that, in many ways, the scenario depicted in the poem seems to reverse our expectations — this is something that Thais Morgan singles out in discussion of “The Forsaken Merman,” arguing that
Matthew Arnold struggles with the relation between poetry and the feminine under domestic ideology throughout his career. His work often represents men and women interacting but always from a male point-of-view. “The Forsaken Merman” raises questions about the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres within a distanced setting of fairy taleâ€¦.Familiar gender roles are reversed: the mother ventures out into the social world while the father takes refuge with the children in the “kind sea-caves.” (Morgan 205)
But the idea of childhood, like the Merman himself, seems to exist curiously out of time here. We do not get the sense reading the poem that these are children that will grow up to become adult Mermen and Mermaids. Instead, the fairy-tale undersea world exists rather like the idea of a free and Wordsworthian childhood, which Arnold rejects as having “no real solidity” — it is an imaginary realm, devoid of actual responsibilities, and it is, like the siren-songs attributed to Mermaids in myth, seductive but dangerous. The song of Arnold’s “Forsaken Merman” is the song of a view of youth that must be resisted, even as it may be indulged for its musical qualities: the poem itself is seemingly written to suggest why Margaret should have fallen for the Merman in the first place, but also to explain why she might want to escape him, and the excessive-seeming number of children.
If Arnold’s visions of youth and childhood are distanced from the Romantic valorization of them, it is worth noting that A.E. Housman to a certain degree allows Romanticism to creep back into the picture, but in unexpected ways. Leggett, in a reading of Housman, has noted the way in which his poems frequently turn “structurally on the speaker’s sense of his present state in terms of what he remembers of his youth. No poet since Wordsworth, with the possible exception of Thomas, has been so obsessed with the theme of the child as father of the man” (Leggett 160). Certainly Housman signposts his affinities for childhood and youth even in the title of his best-known book, A Shropshire Lad. But the difference here is that Housman derives no sense of optimism from the contemplation of the freedoms of youth — instead, he derives an almost total pessimism. In some ways, critically, Housman’s pessimism has been viewed as fundamentally juvenile — Harold Bloom quotes Edmund Wilson’s sharp critique that “Housman has managed to grow old without in a sense knowing maturity.” (Bloom 11). And indeed George Orwell slighted Housman’s verse as being specifically tied up with matters of male adolescence:
Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems the woman’s point-of-view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip. (Orwell 224)
These criticisms seem like they may be directed at what is perhaps Housman’s best-known poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young.” But here, youth is, to a certain extent, aestheticized. By dying before reaching adulthood, Housman’s athlete is able to avoid the inevitable decline that attends upon age; death here is figured as a kind of perfection:
Now you will not swell the rout?
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran?
And the name died before the man.
In some sense, this is the Wordsworthian Romanticism returned, where the child is seen as being, in some way, the superior being that brings forth the adult. The difference here is that Housman’s athlete avoids the fate that befell William Wordsworth himself — there can be no embarrassment over the way that “the name died before the man.” What Matthew Arnold prefers to trope as a fairy-tale realm, where the question of adult responsibility avoided or evaded becomes difficult to resolve, Housman instead tropes as the superiority of death, which manages to evade adult responsibility altogether. Randall Jarrell in particular thinks that the criticisms of this as a fundamentally adolescent view are unjust: he believes that Housman wants to make the honest argument that “â€¦death is better than life, nothing is better than anything. Nor is this a silly adolescent pessimism peculiar to Housman, as so many critics assure you. It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born — said a poet approvingly advertised as seeing life steadily and seeing it wholeâ€¦” (Jarrell 168). But for Housman, it becomes a way of aestheticizing life to fixate on young people who have died. We might consider the well-known shorter lyric:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
For many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping,
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
What is noteworthy here is that all of the imagery used to describe youth — in this remarkably compressed and consistent lyric — is traditional in terms of describing impermanence as well as beauty. If these childhood friends are “golden,” surely a classicist of Housman’s eminence has in his ear the idea of the “Golden Age,” a mythical time of Edenic perfection in human history which could not last. If the girls and boys of the poem are described in terms of roses and light feet, then it is worth noting that roses are bound to wither and die, and physical agility (as in “To an Athlete Dying Young” also) is something that does not improve with age. In some sense, this is a natural consequence of our thoughts about youth altogether — once childhood is seen as a state that can end, then it is only logical for Housman to aestheticize it to the point where the life that ends in childhood is, paradoxically, a life that has been perfected. Yet this seems to be, in itself, a revolt against Romanticism which, at the same time, brings the Romantic impulse back in to the poem. For Housman, the liberation offered by contemplation of youth is only accomplished by viewing it as a liberation from life itself. For Arnold, by contrast, the liberation of youth is illusory and dangerous. But in both case, we can see the central current of Victorian poetry consists in a reaction against the strong valuation of the liberated quality of childhood as depicted in Wordsworth. Both Arnold and Housman know that the responsibilities of adulthood inevitable: but for Arnold, adulthood is faced with grim duty, while Housman prefers to contemplate instead the end of childhood as being like the end of life.
Arnold, Matthew. “The Forsaken Merman.” Web. Accessed 15 April 2012 at: http://www.bartleby.com/101/747.html
Arnold, Matthew. “William Wordsworth.” In Steeves, H.R. (ed.) Selected Poems of William Wordsworth, with Matthew Arnold’s Essay on Wordsworth. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921. Print.
Arnold, Matthew. “Youth’s Agitations.” Web. Accessed 15 April 2012 at: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/12118/
Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” In Bloom, Harold (ed.). Bloom’s Major Poets: A.E. Housman. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.
Housman, A.E. “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Web. Accessed 15 April 2012 at: http://www.bartleby.com/103/32.html
Housman, A.E. “With Rue My Heart Is Laden.” Web. Accessed 15 April 2012 at: http://www.bartleby.com/123/54.html
Jarrell, Randall. “Texts from Housman” In Davis, Garrick (ed.) Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008. Print.
Knickerbocker, William S. “Matthew Arnold at Oxford: The Natural History of a Father and Son.” Sewanee Review 35:4 (1927).
Leggett, BJ. “On the Allegorical Nature of ‘Hell Gate’.” In Bloom, Harold (ed.). Bloom’s Major Poets: A.E. Housman. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.
Morgan, Thais. “The Poetry of Victorian Masculinities.” In Bristow, Joseph. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Orwell, George. “Inside the Whale.” In A Collection of Essays. New York: Harvest, 1981. Print.
Strachey, Lytton. “Dr. Arnold.” In Eminent Victorians. Web. Accessed 14 April 2012 at: http://www.bartleby.com/189/301.html
Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality, Recollected from Early Childhood.” Web. Accessed 14 April 2012 at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ode:_Intimations_of_Immortality_from_Recollections_of_Early_Childhood
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