recess radio program

4/07/04
Wordsworth's Child
    by John Cech

It's the birthday today of William Wordsworth, who was born in 1770, and was one of the leading British Romantic poets. He wrote a poem called "The Rainbow" in 1802 that, in some respects, has shaped our thinking about childhood ever since:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

That the child had anything to teach the adult was a radical position to take two hundred years ago, and perhaps, for some, it still is. But Wordsworth's and the Romatic's idea provided that first awareness of how important early childhood was. It's what Tolstoy meant when he said, a hundred years after Wordsworth, "From myself as a five-year-old to myself as I now am there is only one step. The distance between myself as an infant and myself at five years is tremendous."

"Heaven lies about us in our infancy," Wordsworth would write in his famous "Ode (Intimations of Immortality)" -- the child we once were and that we hopefully preserve within us connects us with something eternal and infinite -- and offers us comfort and perhaps a way of coping with the tired, jaded adult world that, in Wordsworth's phrase, is "too much with us." Yet Wordsworth also realized that childhood wasn't all fun and games and rainbows, that it could be pretty rough and tumble, and involve a powerful swings of emotions and experience. That was why adults, Wordsworth believed, should make every effort to encourage children to stay close to their amazing, inner resources, through sensitive and expansive tutoring that brought children in contact with the wonders of the natural world -- and not burdened with the "mass of little things" that often passes for education. Most of all, Wordsworth felt, we adults who have been taught by our own lessons of the spirit from childhood, should enable children to become "habituated to the vast," to the awesome infinities that present themselves to us -- in a mountain, or in a rainbow . . . or in ourselves.

Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."