Childhood in English Literature and Art
IT was the saying of the Swedish seer Count Swedenborg that a Day of Judgment was to come upon men at the time of the French Revolution. Then were the spirits to be judged. In whatever terms we may express the fact, clear it is to us that the close of the last century marks a great epoch in the history of Christendom, and the farther we withdraw from the events which gather about our own birth as an organized nation, and those which effected such enormous changes in European life, the more clearly do we perceive that the movements of the present century are mainly along lines which may be traced back to genetic beginnings then. There was indeed a great awakening, a renaissance, a new birth.
The French Revolution was a sign of the times : it furnishes a convenient name for an epoch, not merely because important changes in Christendom were contemporaneous with it, but because they were intimately associated with it. Then appeared the portent of Democracy, and the struggle of humanity has ever since been for the realization of dreams which came as visions of a great hope. Then began that examination of the foundation of things in science and philosophy which has become a mighty passion in intellectual life.
I have said that every great renaissance has left its record in the recognition which childhood receives in literature and art. I add that the scope and profundity of that renaissance may be measured by the form which this recognition takes. At the birth of Christianity the pregnant sentences, “ Except ye become as little children ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” “ For of such is the kingdom of heaven,” “ Verily I say unto you, their angels do always behold the face of my Father in heaven,” sound a depth unreached before. They were, like other words from the same source, veritable prophecies, the perfect fulfillment of which waits the perfect manifestation of the Son of Man. At the Renaissance, when mediævalism gave way before modern life, art reflected the hopes of mankind in the face of a divine child. At the great Revolution, when, amidst fire and blood, the new life of humanity stood revealed, an unseen hand again took a little child and placed him in the midst of men. It was reserved for an English poet to be the one who most clearly discerned the face of the child. Himself one of the great order of angels, he beheld in the child the face of God. I may be pardoned, I trust, for thus reading in Western fashion, the meaning of that Oriental phrase which I find has perplexed theologians and biblical critics. Was it any new disclosure which the Christ made if he merely said that the attendant ministers of children always beheld the face of the Father in heaven? Was it not the very property of such angelic nature that it should see God ? But was it not rather a revelation to the crass minds of those who thrust children aside, that the angels who moved between the Father of spirits and these new-comers into the world saw in their faces a witness to their divine origin ? They saw the Father repeated in the child.
When Wordsworth published his Lyrical Ballads, a storm of ridicule fell upon them. In that age, when the old and the new were clashing with each other on every hand, so stark a symbol of the new as these ballads presented could not fail to furnish an objective point for criticism which was born of the old. Wordsworth, in his defensive Preface, declares, “ The principal object proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting, by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature; chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable ; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
Every one of these reasons, unless the last, which I do not understand, be excepted, applies with additional force to the use of forms and images and incidents drawn from childhood; and though Wordsworth takes no account of this in his Preface, it is more to the point that he does freely and fully recognize the fact in his poetry. The Preface, with its dry formality, was like much of Wordsworth’s poetry, — Pegasus on a walk, his wings impeding free action. It is one of the anomalies of nature that a poet with such insight as Wordsworth should never apparently have discovered his own pragmatical dullness. It seems to me that Wordsworth’s finer moods were just those of which he never attempted to give a philosophic account, and that he did not refer to childhood in his Preface is an evidence of his inspiration when dealing with it.
All the same, his treatment of childhood accords with his manifesto to the British public. Could anything be more trivia], as judged by the standards of the day, than his ballad of Alice Fell, or Poverty ? — of which he has himself said, “ The humbleness, meanness if you like, of the subject, together with the homely mode of treating it, brought upon me a world of ridicule by the small critics, so that in policy I excluded it from many editions of my Poems, till it was restored at the request of some of my friends, in particular my son-inlaw, Edward Quillinan.” What is the motive of a poem which excited such derision that the poet in a moment of alarm withdrew it from publication, and when he restored it held his son-in-law responsible ? Simply the grief of a poor child, who had stolen a ride behind the poet’s post-chaise, upon finding that her tattered cloak had become caught in the wheel and irretrievably ruined. The poet makes no attempt to dignify this grief; the incident is related in poetic form, but without any poetic discovery beyond the simple worth of the grief. It is, perhaps, the most audaciously matter of fact of all Wordsworth’s poems; and yet, such is the difference in the audience to-day from what it was in Wordsworth’s time that Alice Fell appears as a matter of course in all the anthologies for children, and is read by men and women with positive sympathy, with a tenderness for the rorlorn little girl, and without a question as to the poem’s right of existence. The misery, the grief of childhood, is conceived of as a real thing, measured by the child’s mind into which we enter, and not by our own standards of pain and loss.
Again, recall the poem of Lucy Gray, or Solitude. The story is far more pathetic, and has an appeal to more catholic sensibility: a child, sent with a lantern to town from the moor on which she lives, that she may light her mother back through the snow, is lost among the hills, and her footsteps are traced at length to the fatal bridge through which she has fallen. The incident was one from real life; Wordsworth seized upon it, reproducing each detail, and with a touch or two of genius made a wraith. He discovered, as no one before had done, the element of solitude in childhood, and invested it with a fine spiritual, ethereal quality, quite devoid of any ethical property, — a subtle community with nature.
How completely Wordsworth entered the mind of a child and identified himself with its movements is consciously betrayed in his pastoral, The Pet Lamb. He puts into the mouth of Barbara Lewthwaite the imaginary song to her lamb, and then says for himself, —
This song to myself did I oftentimes repeat ;
And it seemed, as I retraced the ballad line by line,
That but half of it was hers, and one half of it was mine.
Again and once again did I repeat the song ;
Nay, said I, more than half to the damsel must belong,
For she looked with such a look and she spake with such a tone
That I almost received her heart into my own.”
His second thought wns best: more than half did belong to the child, for he himself was but the wise interpreter.
Wordsworth’s incidents of childhood are sometimes given a purely objective character, as in Rural Architecture, The Anecdote for Fathers, The Idle Shepherd Boys; but more often childhood is to him the occasion and suggestion of the deeper thought of life. A kitten, playing with falling leaves before the poet and his child Dora, leads him on by exquisite movement to the thought of his own decay of life. But what impresses us most is the twofold conception of childhood as a part of nature, and as containing within itself not only the germ of human life, but the echo of the diviue. There are poems of surpassing beauty which so blend the child and nature that we might almost fancy, as we look upon the poetical landscape, that we are mistaking children for bushes, or bushes for children. Such is that one beginning
He drew images from his children and painted a deliberate portrait of his daughter Catharine, solemnly entitled, Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old.
Yet, though Wordsworth drew many suggestions from his own children and from those whom he saw in his walks, it is remarkable how little he regards children in their relation to parents in comparison of their individual and isolated existence. Before Wordsworth, the child, in literature, was almost wholly considered as one of a group, as a part of a family, and only those phases of childhood were treated which were obvious to the most careless observer. Wordsworth — and here is the notable fact — was the first deliberately to conceive of childhood as a distinct, individual element of human life. He first, to use a truer phrase, apprehended the personality of childhood. He did this and gave it expression in artistic form in some of the poems already named; he did it methodically and with philosophic intent in his autobiographic poem The Prelude, and also in The Excursion. Listen how he speaks of his infancy even, giving it by anticipation a life separate from mother and nurse. “ Was it for this ? ” he asks, —
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And, from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams ? For this, didst thou,
O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.”
Still more minutely does he disclose the consciousness of childhood in his record of the mind of the Wanderer in The Excursion, in the lines beginning: —
In summer tended cattle on the lills.”
It may be said that in all this Wordsworth is simply rehearsing and expanding an exceptional experience ; that his recollection of his own childhood passed through the alembic of a fervid poetic imagination. Be it so ; we are not so much concerned to know how the poet came by this divination, as to know that he should have treated it as universal and common to the period of childhood. Again and again in descriptive poem, in direct address, in indirect allusion, he so uses this knowledge as to forbid us to regard it as peculiar and exceptional in his own view ; and a poet’s attestation to a universal experience is worth more than any negation which comes from our individual blurred recollection. Wordsworth discovers in childhood the germ of humanity; he sees there thoughts, emotions, activities, sufferings, which are miniatures of the maturer life, — but, he sees more than this and deeper. To him the child is not a pigmy man; it has a life of its own, out of which something even may pass, when childhood is left behind. It is not the ignorant innocence of childhood, the infantile grace, which holds him, but a certain childish possession, in which he sees a spiritual presence obscured in conscious youth. Landor in one of his Imaginary Conversations stoutly asserts a similar fact when he says, “ Children are not men or women; they are almost as different creatures, in many respects, as if they never were to be one or the other; they are as unlike as buds are unlike flowers, and almost as blossoms are unlike fruits.” 1
In all this again, in this echo of the divine which Wordsworth hears in the voice of childhood, there is reference, psychologically, to his own personal experience. Yet why should we treat that as ruled out of evidence, which only one here and another there acknowledges as a part of his history ? Is it not fairer, more reasonable, to take the experience of a profound poet as the basis of spiritual truth than the negative testimony of those whose eyes lack the wondrous power of seeing? In the preface to his ode, Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Early Childhood, Wordsworth declares with great earnestness : —
“ To the attentive and competent reader the whole sufficiently explains itself; but there may be no harm in adverting here to particular feelings or experiences of my own mind, on which the structure of the poem partly rests. Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being. I have said elsewhere —
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death! ’
But it was not so much from feelings of animal vivacity that my difficulty came, as from a sense of the indomitableness of the spirit within me. I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah, and almost to persuade myself that, whatever might become of others, I should be translated, in something of the same way, to heaven. With a feeling congenial to this, I was often unable to think of external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in my own immaterial nature. Many times, while going to school, have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from the abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we all have reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character.”
Here Wordsworth defends the philosophy of the poem by making it an induction from his own experience. There will be found many to question its truth because they have no recollections which correspond with the poet’s ; and others who will claim that the poem is but a fanciful argument in behalf of the philosophic heresy of a preëxistent state. In my judgment, Wordsworth’s preface is somewhat misleading by its reference to this theory, although he has furnished hints in the same preface of his more integral thought. As I have noticed before, his artistic presentation is truer and more final than his exegesis. Whoever reads this great ode is aware of the rise and fall of the tide of thought; he hears the poet reasoning with himself ; he sees him passing in imagination out of childhood into age, yet constantly recovering himself to fresh perception of the immortality which transcends earthly life. It is visible childhood with its intimation of immortality which brings to the poet, not regret for what is irretrievably lost, but firmer faith in the reality of the unseen and eternal. The confusion into which some have been cast by the ode arises from their bringing to the idea of immortality the time conception ; they conceive the poet to be hinting of an indefinite time antedating the child’s birth, an indefinite time extending beyond the man’s death, whereas Wordsworth’s conception of immortality rests in the indestructibility of spirit by any temporal or earthly conditions, — an indestructibility which even implies an absence of beginning as well as of ending.
he declares. It is the investment of this visible life by an unseen, unfelt, yet real spiritual presence for which he contends, and he maintains that the inmost consciousness of childhood bears witness to this truth ; this consciousness fades as the earthly life penetrates the soul, yet it is there and recurs in sudden moments.
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”
In thus connecting childhood with the highest hope of the human race, Wordsworth was repeating the note which twice before had been struck in great epochs of history. This third renaissance was the awaking of the human soul to a sense of the common rights and duties of humanity, the dignity and worth of the Person.
The poetic form, while most perfectly inclosing these divinations of childhood, and especially suited to the presentation of the faint and elusive elements, is less adapted to the philosophic and discursive examination of the subject of childhood. It is, then, an indication of the impression which the idea had made upon men that a prose writer of the period, of singular insight and subtlety, should have given some of his most characteristic thought to an examination of the essential elements of childhood. De Quincey was undoubtedly strongly affected by Wordsworth’s treatment of the subject; he has left evidence upon this point. Nevertheless, he appears to have sounded his own mind and appealed to his own memory for additional and corroborative testimony. In his Suspiria de Profundis, a sequel to the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he offers an account of his recollections of infancy, together with many reflections upon the experience which he then underwent. If it be said that the opium-eater was an untrustworthy witness, since his dreaming might well lead him to confuse the subtle workings of a mature mind with the vivid remembrance of one or two striking events of childhood, we may consider that De Quincey’s imagination was a powerful one, and capable of interpreting the incidents and emotions brought to it by memory, as a more prosaic mind could not. We are compelled, of course, in all such cases, to submit the testimony of such a man to the judgment of our own reason, but that reason ought, before pronouncing a final verdict, to be educated to perceive the possibilities of a wider range of observation than may have fallen to us individually, and to submit the results to a comparison with known operations of the human mind. Above all, it should be borne in mind that a distinction clearly exists between a child’s consciousness and its power of expression. De Quincey himself in a note says with acuteness and justice : —
“ The reader must not forget in reading this and other passages that though a child’s feelings are spoken of, it is not the child who speaks. I decipher what the child only felt in cipher. And so far is this distinction or this explanation from pointing to anything metaphysical or doubtful, that a man must be grossly unobservant who is not aware of what I am here noticing, not as a peculiarity of this child or that, but as a necessity of all children. Whatsoever in a man’s mind blossoms and expands to his own consciousness in mature life must have preëxisted in germ during his infancy. I, for instance, did not, as a child, consciously read in my own deep feelings these ideas. No, not at all ; nor was it possible for a child to do so. I, the child, had the feelings; I, the man, decipher them. In the child lay the handwriting mysterious to him ; in me, the interpretation and the comment.”
Assuredly this is reasonable, and since we are looking for the recognition of childhood in literature, we may wisely ask how it presents itself to a man like De Quincey, who had peculiar power in one form of literature — the autobiographic-imaginative. He entitles the first part of his Suspiria, The Affliction of Childhood. It is the record of a child’s grief, interpreted by the man when he could translate into speech the emotion which possessed him in his early suffering; and near its close, De Quincey, partially summing up his philosophy of the subject, declares : —
“ God speaks to children, also, in dreams and by the oracles that lurk in darkness. But in solitude, above all things when made vocal by the truths and services of a national church, God holds communion undisturbed with children. Solitude, though silent as light, is like light the mightiest of agencies; for solitude is essential to man. All men come into this world alone ; all leave it alone. Even a little child has a dread, whispering consciousness that if he should be summoned to travel into God’s presence, no gentle nurse will be allowed to lead him by the hand, nor mother to carry him in her arms, nor little sister to share his trepidations. King and priest, warrior and maiden, philosopher and child, all must walk those mighty galleries alone. The solitude, therefore, which in this world appals or fascinates a child’s heart, is but the echo of a far deeper solitude, through which already he has passed, and of another solitude,deeper still, through which he has to pass : refles of one solitude, prefiguration of another.
“ Deeper than the deepest of solitudes is that which broods over childhood, bringing before it, at intervals, the final solitude which watches for it, within the gates of death. Reader, I tell you in truth, and hereafter I will convince you of this truth, that for a Grecian child solitude was nothing, but for a Christian child it has become the power of God and the mystery of God. O mighty and essential solitude, that wast and art and art to be ! thou, kindling under the touch of Christian revelations, art now transfigured forever, and hast passed from a blank negation into a secret hieroglyphic from God, shadowing in the hearts of infancy the very dimmest of his truths ! ”
I must refer the reader to the entire chapter for a full exposition of De Quincey’s views on this subject. Despite the bravura style which makes us in our soberer days listen a little incredulously to these far-fetched sighs and breathings, the passage quoted bears testimony to that apprehension of childhood which De Quincey shared with Wordsworth. Both of these writers were looked upon in their day as somewhat reactionary in their poetical philosophy ; so much the more valuable is their declaration of a poetical and philosophical faith which was fundamentally in unison with the political faith that lay behind the outburst of the French Revolution. The discovery of this new continent of childhood by such explorers of the spiritual world marks the age as distinctly as does the discovery of new lands and explorations in the earlier renaissance. It was indeed one of the great signs of the period ushered in by the French Revolution and the establishment of the American republic, that the bounds of the spiritual world were extended. When poverty and childhood were annexed to the poet’s domain, the world of literature and art suddenly became larger.
At such times there are likely to be singular exhibitions of genius, which are ill-understood in contemporary life, but are perceived by later observers to be part and parcel of the age in which they occur. Something like this may be said of the pictures and poems of William Blake, who was a visionary in a time when a red flame along the horizon made his spiritual fires invisible. He has since been rediscovered, and has been for a generation so potent an influence in English art that we may wisely attend to him, not merely as a person of genius, but as furnishing an illustration of some of the deep things of our subject.
No one acquainted with Blake’s work has failed to observe the recurrence of a few types drawn from elemental figures. The lamb, the child, the old man, — these appear and reappear, carrying the prevalent ideas in this artist’s imagination. Of all these the child is the most central and emphatic, even as the Songs of Innocence is the most perfect expression of Blake’s vision of life. It may be said that in his mind childhood was largely resolvable into infancy, and that when he looked upon a babe, he saw life in its purest form, and that most suggestive of the divine, as in the exquisite cradle song, into which is woven the weeping of the child Jesus for all the human race. The two short antithetical poems, The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found, reveal the depths which Blake penetrated when engaged in his solitary voyage of discovery to the little known shores of childhood. They have, to be sure, the teasing property of parables, and it would be hard to render them into the unmistakable language of the understanding ; but they could be set to music, and like the Duke we exclaim : —
It must always be borne in mind that Blake’s contribution to the literature of childhood is through highly idealized forms. It is spiritual or angelic childhood which floats before his eyes, so that the little creatures who dance on the green, the little chimney sweep, the children filing into St. Paul’s, are translated by his visionary power into the images of an essential childhood: they cease to be individual illustrations.
We are told that in the fearful days of the French Revolution there was an eruption from the secret places of Paris of a vast horde of poor, ignorant, and vicious people, who had been kept out of sight by lords and ladies. One may accept the fact as symbolical of that emergence into the light of Christianity of poverty and degradation. The poor had always been with the world, but it is not too much to say that now for the first time did they begin to be recognized as part and parcel of humanity. Wordsworth’s poems set the seal upon this recognition. Dickens’s novels naturalized the poor in literature, and as in the case of Wordsworth, poverty and childhood went hand in hand.
Dickens, however, though he made a distinct addition to the literature of childhood, rather registered a presence already acknowledged than acted as a prophet of childhood. The great beneficent and humanitarian movement of the century was well under way, and had already found abundant expression in ragged schools and Sunday-schools and in education generally, when Dickens, with his quick reporter’s sight, seized upon salient features in this new exhibition of humanity. He was quite aside from the ordinary organized charities, but he was moved by much the same spirit as that which was briskly at work among the poor and the young. He was caught by the current, and his own personal experience was swift to give special direction to his imagination.
Besides innumerable minor references, there are certain childish figures in the multitude of the creations of Dickens, which at once rise to mind, — Paul Dombey, Little Nell, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield in his earliest days, and the Marchioness. Dickens found out very soon that the power to bring tears into the eyes of people was a surer road to success than even the power to amuse. When he was drawing the figures of children, their tenderness, their weakness, their susceptibility presented themselves as the material in which he could skillfully work. Then he used the method which had served him so well in his larger portraiture ; he seized upon the significant feature and emphasized it until it became the unmistakable mark of the person. Childhood suggests weakness, and weakness is more apparent when there is a foil of mental prematurity; so he invented the hydrocephalic Paul Dombey. It suggests tenderness ; he appealed to an unhesitating sympathy and drew for us Little Nell, intensifying her nature by bringing her into contrast and subtle companionship with her imbecile grandfather. It is the defect of Dickens that by such characters he displayed his skill in morbid conceptions. The little old man in Paul Dombey is not without its prototype in real life, but Dickens appears to have produced it as a type of tender childhood, much as one might select a consumptive for an illustration of extreme refinement. Tiny Tim is a farther illustration of this unhealthy love, on Dickens’s part, of that which is affecting through its infirmity. That art is truest which sees children at play or in their mothers’ arms, not in hospitals or graveyards. It is the infirmity of humanitarianism and of Dickens, its great exponent, that it regards death as the great fact of life ; that it seeks to ward it off as the greatest of evils, and when it comes, hastens to cover it out of sight with flowers. This conception of death is bound up with an overweening sense of the importance of these years of life. There is a nobler way, and literature and art are slowly confessing it, as they devote their strength to that which is eternal in life, not to that which is perishable. Wordsworth’s maiden in We are Seven, with her simple, unhesitating belief in the continuity of life, the imperishability of the person, holds a surer place in literature than Paul Dombey, who makes the ocean with its tides wait for him to die.
It is only fair to say, however, that the caricature to be found in Dickens is scarcely more violent an extreme to some minds than is the idealism to be found in Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Blake an opposite extreme to minds otherwise constituted. The early life of Wordsworth, passed, as he tells us, in the solitude of nature, explains much of his subsequent attitude toward childhood and youth. It is out of such an experience that Lucy Gray was written. In like manner the early life of Dickens discloses something of a nature which reappears afterward in his pictures of childhood. A wounded sensibility is unquestionably the pathetic history of many, and Dickens has contributed to the natural history of childhood a distinct account of this feature.
The first appearance of a new form in literature produces an impression which can never be repeated. However freshly readers in this decade may come to the works of Dickens, it is impossible that they should have the same distinct sensation which men and women had who caught up the numbers of The Old Curiosity Shop as they fell from the press for the first time. There can never again be such a lamentation over Little Nell, when men like Jeffrey, a hardened old critic, made no concealment of their tears. Yet I am disposed to think that this does not give a complete account of the phenomenon. Just as Wordsworth’s Alice Fell is now but one of a procession of forlorn maidens, though at the head of it, so the children of Dickens are merely somewhat more vivid personages in a multitude of childish creations. The child is no longer a novelty either in poetry or in fiction. It is an accepted character, one of the dramatis personœ of literature.
For when all is said of Dickens’s work, taken only as the product of a mind singularly gifted with reporting what it has seen, there remains the noticeable fact that scarcely had the echoes died away from the voice of Wordsworth, who ushered in the literature of the new age, when a great man of the people came forward, in the person of Dickens, and found it the most natural thing in the world to give men pictures of child-life, and that after the first surprise attendant upon novelty was over, writers of all sorts were busy modeling these small figures.
The child once introduced into literature, the significance of its appearance thereafter is not so much in individual instances as in the general and familiar acceptance of the phenomenon. At least so it appears from our near view. It is not impossible that later students may perceive notes in our literature of more meaning than we now surmise. They may understand better than we why Tennyson should have made a babe the heroine of The Princess, as he acknowledges to Mr. Dawson that he did, though only one or two critics had discovered the fact, and why Mr. Swinburne, who is supposed to scoff at a literature virginibus puerisque, should have devoted so much of his lyric energy to childhood. The stream which ran with so broken a course down to Wordsworth has spread now into a broad, full river. Childhood is part and parcel of every poet’s material; children play in and out of fiction, and readers are accustomed to meeting them in books, and to finding them often as finely discriminated by the novelist as are their elders.
Meanwhile from the time when childhood was newly discovered, that is to say, roughly, in the closing years of the last century, there has been a literature in process of formation which has for its audience children themselves. I called attention briefly, at the beginning of this series of papers, to the interesting fact that there was a correlation in time, at least, between childhood in literature and a literature for children. A nearer study of the literature of this century shows very clearly that while the great constructive artists have been making room for the figures of infancy and youth, and even consciously explaining their presence, a host of minor writers, without much thought of art, have been busy over the same figures for other purposes. Not only so, but in several instances the great artists themselves have distinctly turned aside from their ordinary audience and appealed directly to children.
Where was the child in English literature before Goldsmith ? and where before Goldsmith’s time was there a book for children ? There have been, it is true, nursery tales in all ages ; ditties, and songs, and lullabies ; unwritten stories, which mothers in England told when they themselves could have read nothing ; but there came a time when children were distinctly recognized as the occasion of formal literature, when authors and publishers began to heed a new public. It was impossible that there should be this discovery of childhood without a corresponding effort on the part of men and women to get at it, and to hold very direct intercourse with it.
By a natural instinct writers for children began at once to write about children. They were moved by educational rather than by artistic impulses, so that their creations were subordinate to the lessons which they conveyed. During the period when Wordsworth, Lamb, De Quincey, and Blake were idealizing childhood, and seeing in it artistic possibilities, there flourished a school of writing for the young which also dealt with childhood, but with a sturdy realism. This school had its representatives in Mrs. Barbauld, Mr. Day, the Aikens, Maria Edgeworth, Ann and Jane Taylor, and holds a place still with Evenings at Home, The Parent’s Assistant, Hymns in Prose for Children, Hymns for Infant Minds, Frank, and Sandford and Merton. The characteristics of this literature are simple, and will be recalled by many who dwell with an affectionate and regretful regard upon books which they find it somewhat difficult to persuade their children to read.
These books were didactic; they assumed in the main the air of wise teachers ; they were sometimes condescending ; they appealed to the understanding rather than to the imagination of the child, and they abounded in stores of useful information upon all manner of subjects. They contained precursors of a long series of juvenile monitors, and the grandfathers who knew Mr. Barlow had children who knew Mr. Holiday, Rollo, Jonas, and Mr. George, and grandchildren who may be suspected of an acquaintance with Mr. Bodley and his much traveled and very inquisitive family.
Yet, the earlier works, though now somewhat antiquated, were not infrequently lively and even humorous in their portraiture of children. They were written in the main out of a sincere interest in the young, and by those who were accustomed to watch the unfolding of childish nature. If they reflected a somewhat formal relation between the old and the young, it must he remembered that the actual relation was a formal one; that the young had not yet come into familiar and genial relation with the old. Indeed, the books themselves were somewhat revolutionary in a small way. Much that seems stiff and even unnatural to us now was quite easy and colloquial to their first readers, and in their eagerness to lure children into ways of pleasant instruction, the authors broke down something of the reserve which existed between fathers and sons in the English life which they portrayed. Yet we cannot help being struck by the contrast between the sublimated philosophy of Wordsworth and the prosaic applications of the Edgeworth school. Heaven lies about us in our infancy ? Oh, yes, a heaven that is to be looked at through a spy-glass and explained by means of a home-made orrery. It would seem as if the spirit of childhood had been discerned with all its inherent capacity, but that the actual children of this matter-of-fact world had not yet been fairly seen by the light of this philosophy.
The literature which we are considering was indeed a serious attempt at holding intercourse with childish minds. It had the embarrassment of beginnings ; there was about it an uncertain groping in the dark of childhood, and it was desperately theory-ridden. But it had also the mark of sincerity, and one feels in reading it that the writers were genuinely indifferent in most cases to the figure they might be cutting before the world ; they were bent upon reaching this audience, and were unobservant of the larger world behind. In most cases, I say. I suspect that Mrs. Barbauld, with her solemn dullness, was the victim of a notion that she was producing a new order of literature, and in this she was encouraged by a circle of older readers; the children probably stared at her with sufficient calmness to keep her ignorant of their real thoughts.
How real literature looked upon the dusty high-road laid out across the fields by some of these writers may be read in the letters of the day. Coleridge jibed at that “pleonasm of nakedness,” Mrs. Bare-bald, and Lamb in a letter to Coleridge speaks his mind with refreshing frankness : “ Goody Two Shoes,” he says, “ is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld’s stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newberry’s hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf when Mary asked for them. Mrs. B.’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. B.’s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learned that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such like ; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil ? Think of what you would have been now, if, instead of being fed with tales and old wives’ fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history ! Hang them ! I mean the cursed reasoning crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.” Yet Lamb and his sister both took a lively interest in genuine books for the young, and their own contributions have, alas ! gone the way, for the most part, of other worn-out literature. It was mainly as a direct educative power that this new interest in children first found expression ; with it, however, was mingled a more artistic purpose, and the two streams of tendency have ever since been recognizable, sometimes separate, oftener combined. The Lambs’ own work was illustrative of this union of the didactic and the artistic. It is outside the scope of these articles to dwell at length upon this phase of literature. It is enough to point out the fact that there is a distinct class of books which has grown up quite within the memory of men now living. It is involved with industrial and commercial interests ; it invites the attention of authors, and the infrequent criticism of reviewers ; it has its own subdivisions like the larger literature ; it boasts of cyclopædias and commentaries ; it includes histories, travels, poems, works in science, theological treatises. It is a distinct principality of the Kingdom of Letters. It is idle to complain of the present abundance of children’s books, as if somebody were to blame for it. There has been no conspiracy of publishers and authors. It is worse than folly to look with contempt upon the movement; the faithful student will seek rather to study this new force, and if possible to guide it into right channels.
The distinction between books for the young and books for the old is a somewhat arbitrary one, and many have discovered for themselves and their children that instead of one poor corner of literature being fenced off for the lamb, planted with tender grass which is quickly devoured, and with many medicinal but disagreeable herbs which are nibbled at when the grass is gone, the whole wide pasture land is their native home, and the grass more tender where fresh streams flow than it possibly can be in the paddock, however carefully planted and watched. This community of possession is more recognizable in the higher than in the lower forms of literature. It is still more clear in pictorial art. Art is by its nature more closely representative of childhood than literature can be, and Gainsborough and Reynolds made no innovation when they painted children, although the latter, by his evident partiality for these subjects, does indicate a susceptibility to the new knowledge which was coming upon the world. There are other influences which reinforce the artistic pleasure, such as the domestic sense, the pride of family, the ease of procuring unconscious models. No one can visit an English exhibition of paintings without being struck by the extraordinary number of subjects taken from childhood. It is in this field that Millais has won famous laurels, and when the great body of book illustrations is scanned, what designs have half the popularity of Doyle’s fairies and Miss Greenaway’s idyllic children ? I sometimes wonder and speculate why this should be the case in England, while in America, the paradise of children, there is a conspicuous absence of these subjects from our galleries.
When all is said, what is the meaning of this movement in literature and art and education? How are we to account for this new advent of the child and for this multitudinous illustration of the subject in great and in little ways ? for Wordsworth and the latest contributor to a child’s magazine have something in common which was wanting in earlier art. There seems something half grotesque in speaking of childhood and the French Revolution in one breath, but I think that the incongruity is only superficial. There is a close, a vital connection ; the perception that the child had divine relationships was one form of the new consciousness of the worth and dignity ot man ; the sense of the child’s need was a part of that new cry for the rights of man. Above and beyond the accidents of social life the man stood revealed to the opening understanding. The fierce democracy of the French Revolution was a wild, passionate bursting of old bonds, but beneath all the turbulence of the period one may discover the solemn, resistless movement of the idea of essential equality, which has become the latest birth in the soul of man. Again, as before, those who took heed might find the new truth which was intoxicating men to be but a new reading of the eternal principle which had been declared by the Son of Man.
rings out as the refrain of the songs of the time, but the whole life of the Christ had been in witness to it. To make good this vision of equality has been the struggle of the nations ever since, and in it is involved the conception of childhood as possessing rights and claims. It is true that the tares have grown up with the wheat, and an insolent, braggart counterfeit of equality, which in reality is an assumption of superiority for the base and ignoble, has challenged the honor of men. So, too, in this confused, struggling development of the principle, there has been a conspicuous travesty of childhood, and we have been forced to see a vulgar, noisy youth which elbows age out of the way, and a thoughtless, indulgent generation which suffers itself to be overridden by a pushing, precocious crowd of the young. These things are sufficiently reflected in books, and we are too well acquainted with the offensive young American, whose speech is as slovenly as his morals, and whose feverish imitation of maturity indicates the utter ignorance of what youth means on the part of the literary copyist who has transplanted the living objects into the pages of his books.
These coarse travesties of a true equality and freedom should not blind our sight to that which is genuine and abiding. We turn again to a childhood which represents the hopes and wishes of men, a childhood which retains the gift of heaven, and is constantly inspiring men with the promise of a better life for this world. It is noticeable that a philosophy of the day, which professes to have gone beyond the bounds of Christianity, is disposed to rest its hopes in children, and to find in them the immortality which it has cast off for itself. The instinct by which we turn to childhood is as old as the human race, but this age has embodied its hopes and its labors in the child with a passionate earnestness. We are told that when the Christ was on earth mothers brought their children to him to bless ; that his disciples would have thrust them back as out of place, but that be forbade them, saying, “ Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The mothers of that day did not need the word ; they never have needed it, but to-day I think we may say that the disciples also have come into some recognition of the truth.
Horace E. Scudder.
- Epicurus, Leontion, and Ternissa.↩