The Romanticism of Childhood: Emergence of ‘Childhood’ as a Theme in Literature

“O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!”

Henry Vaughan [‘The Retreat’]

The theme of childhood, as a leitmotif in English literary traditions, emerged during the culminating years of the 18th century, with philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau investigating into the nature of human understanding and early childhood education, thereby establishing the long-drawn distinction between ‘Nature’ and ‘Nurture.’ Early on during Romanticism, John Locke presented the idea of tabula rasa, according to which a child’s mind is to be seen as a blank slate onto which external impressions and vivid sensations are imprinted through the course of their life. Social training and ‘nurturing,’ therefore, played an important role in how a child’s understanding was shaped. Locke’s view contrasted with that of Rousseau, who believed in naturalness instead of the sociality of education—a child should be under minimal influence of the precepts of civilization, and must be more inclined towards instincts and intuitions. This, he believed, could be instantiated most effectively within a rural setting by virtue of the simplicity of life and existence there. Such an enquiry rendered the idea of ‘childhood’ as a locus point around which major literature was written; the notion of innocence, purity and the motifs of nostalgic recollections of the days of infancy became recurrent themes in literary works of poets such as William Wordsworth, William Blake, et al.

Such debates enunciated into the later years of the Romantic era, thereby placing a child as an individual, autonomous being, constituting his/her own subjectivity and reality. A child was also seen as a faithful repository of purity and innocence associated with the days of infancy and cocooned away from the corruptions of the external modern world and its vices; in effect, greater value was attached to a child’s experiential reality, as opposed to the preceding centuries wherein a ‘child’ was merely considered to be an extension of the family unit. In effect, ‘childhood’ became a recurring motif in literary texts and a sort of a channel through which poets and artists undertook a process of self-reflection and personal introspection.

William Wordsworth, the pioneer of the English Romantic movement and perhaps, the most remarkable poet writing on childhood, posits the theme of nostalgia and mystical longing for the years of childhood vigour and joys of infancy. His poetry finely represents the blooming and flowering of the 18th century socio-philosophical attitude towards childhood. In his poem titled, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Wordsworth undertakes the exercise of recollection of the lost days of glory, which he equates with a spiritual pre-existence of the soul. Along the strain of Rousseau’s doctrine of ‘original goodness,’ he idealized the visions of childhood that had been corrupted by the disillusionment and estrangement of modern life. He, who had witnessed moments of visionary splendour and sublime joys of life, is overcome by the grief and sorrow at having lost them forever. He associates the memory of childhood with a sense of emotional spontaneity and clarity from which one feels alienated in his adulthood, and so, he mourns the loss of extraordinary meta-natural quality—the ‘visionary gleam’ as he calls it. As he writes,

“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

The passage from childhood to adulthood, therefore, represents the transition of a child as a naturalistic figure to a social creature, burdened by the memory of his current existence; paradoxically, however, Wordsworth relies on the faculty of ‘memory’ to recapitulate the emblematic instances of innocence associated with infancy. And even though he mourns the loss of a ‘glorious dream,’ he negotiates it with the consolations of a communion with Nature. Nature, as the sole nurturer of human soul, is capable of nourishing those lost memories which the poet feels deprived of. As a spiritual healer, Nature becomes the solace that attunes the spirit of the poet with his untainted childhood ‘self.’

Like Wordsworth, several other poets engaged in the expressions of early childhood recollections and the idealization of a ‘child’ as a wanton wonder of Nature. Childhood in itself, therefore, was an extremely Romantic phenomenon that apotheosized moments of childlike bliss that brought one spiritually closer to God and Nature alike. While Romanticism found shelter in the nurturing power of Nature, the poet nostalgically looked back at his childhood as a means to shelter himself from the outcomes of English industrialization that severed the individual connection between Man and Nature by fostering the value attached to technology and science. A ‘child,’ therefore, began to represent that state of human existence in which the human mind and soul was instinctual, primordial, and free from the stains of modernization and scientification of life. Literature, as an archetypal archive of the times, represents this romanticized phenomenon in all its essence, as reflected in the works of the eighteenth-century poets and extending well into the nineteenth-century bildungsroman form of the novel.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Focusing on Literature and Lifestyle of the Urban Youth of the Country, LitGleam is a monthly magazine, an intrinsic part of BlueRose Publishers.

Within its pages, our readers find provocative essays on literature and lifestyle, guidance for getting published and pursuing writing careers, in-depth profiles of poets, fiction writers, and writers of creative nonfiction, and conversations among fellow professionals.

More Stories
Down the (Nostalgic) Rabbit Hole