Coping with the Loss of Childhood

Thomas Gainsborough, “Shepherd Boy Listening to a Magpie”

Thomas Gainsborough, “Shepherd Boy Listening to a Magpie”

As I have been writing on dreams of lost innocence and the challenges of growing up, I thought I’d write on one of the great poems on the subject. In “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrestles with his deep sense of loss. (You can read the entire poem here.) But while grieving that loss in matchless poetry, he also claims that he can find “strength in what remains behind.” I will devote today’s post to examining his guidance on how to deal with the loss of innocence.

“There was a time,” Wordsworth begins

when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light.

Apparently Wordsworth is not only speaking metaphorically here, the way we might if we were trying to describe how fresh and innocent the world seemed to us as children. Commenting on the poem, Wordsworth wrote that sometimes, as a child, he would slip into states where, as he put it, “I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature.” He felt so in touch with the world around him, he writes, that sometimes he would have to grasp a wall or a tree to ground himself.

But even if we haven’t had Wordsworth’s out-of-body connectedness experience, we may be able to relate to how fresh and new the world seems at that age. We may also feel, with Wordsworth, that “the things which I have seen I now can see no more.” And “that there hath past away a glory from the earth.”

As Wordsworth sees it, we are not just losing touch with nature. We are losing touch with soul. We were in full connection with soul in the womb and retain some of that connection when we are born: “Trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home.” As a result, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” And then, ominously, “Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy.”

Desperately wanting to regain a sense of connection, Wordsworth tries to do it vicariously through a shepherd boy, whom he calls a “Child of Joy,” a “best Philosopher,” a “Mighty Prophet,” and a “Seer blest.” “Ye blessed Creatures,” he says in an address to shepherd boys,

I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heaven laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath is coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.

The poet’s joy is only momentary, however, because he then remembers that he doesn’t have the direct experience that these boys have.  In fact, they remind him of what he has lost. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?’ he proceeds to ask. “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

The poet’s despair builds. The glorious sun of our youth has “fade[d] into the light of common day.” As children we are forced to adjust to society, “conning” parts as if our “whole vocation/Were endless imitation.” “Full soon,” Wordsworth darkly informs the shepherd boy,

Thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

The panic over this loss, I have been arguing in the last couple of posts, can bring out the worst in people. In striving to possess innocence, they can deny the subjectivity of others, as Humbert does with Lolita. They are capable of great cruelty, as when people engage in acts of genocide against those of impure races—and for that matter, as when people murder abortion doctors.

Wordsworth, however, provides reassurance. First, he says that we never lose touch entirely with soul innocence:

Oh joy! That in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!

Second, losing our direct connection with innocence makes us appreciate it that much more. Wordsworth says that he loves nature now more than he did when he was a boy. Okay, so the direct, full-throated radiance is no longer there. Okay, so “nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” Yet a “primal sympathy” remains:

I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet . . .

We can draw upon this primal sympathy when we are suffering. During those moment when, somehow, we sense that there is a bit more to life than everyday reality; when we have “obstinate questionings/Of sense and outward things”; when we have shadowy recollections; we can rest assured that our intimations of immortality are true. And we must hold to them. They can be the foundation of our faith, the “fountain life of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” helping us handle a daunting world and “look through death.”

I’m not saying that it’s easy. It takes maturity, and heroism as well, to deal with tainted life and not simply wish we were innocent children again. Wordsworth himself is doing all he can to resist giving way to despair and bitterness. But he shows us it’s a struggle worth having.

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  1. Julia Bates
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I think of Katherine Norris’ Acedia again. She notes that people caught in this sloth/boredom/mild depression can’t see things freshly. Perhaps we only grow depressed, not older and wiser, as we age? Julia

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Well, Wordsworth did have depressive episodes. As did most of the Romantic poets. In his poem “Tintern Abbey” he claims to have found “abundant recompense” for what he feels he has lost. Here’s what he describes:

    I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things.

    So he either finds he way back to childhood freshness or through depression to freshness but, in either case, I find the poems gripping because of the struggle it takes to make the world seem new.


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