Poets of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century concerned themselves with childhood and its various experiences, but the particular historical and aesthetic contexts within which different poets wrote affected their perspective on the matter greatly. As literature moved from Romanticism to naturalism, the tone poets took when considering children and their place in society changed, because where children previously existed as a kind of emotional or romantic accessory, they soon became subjects in their own right, with their own experiences and perspectives. By examining William Wordsworth's "Michael," William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," and W.B. Yeats' "A Prayer for my Daughter," one is able to see how the gradual transition from Romanticism to naturalism brought with it a less exploitative consideration of children, one that better reflected their place in the rapidly changing world.
The first poem to examine is William Wordsworth's "Michael," because it fall squarely in the realm of Romanticism and thus offers an ideal starting point from which to chart the aesthetic and ultimately ideological shift that is the focus of this study. First published in 1800, "Michael" is about a shepherd of the same name, who loses his son to corruption and misfortune. The poem is effectively an adaptation of the parable of the Prodigal Son from the Bible, except the son leaves not with his own fortune in hand but rather because his father has lost most of his, and rather than return after meeting failure and scandal in the city, the son is forced to leave the country (Wordsworth 234). Upon cursory examination one might be inclined to give Wordsworth the benefit of the doubt, and assume that his focus on poverty's affects on childhood might be for some larger purpose, but in the end, the impoverished, disgraced son merely serves as a means to sharpen the father's misery, to the point that he does not feel much like a real character.
Instead, the son (named Luke) serves as a kind of inanimate object, useful for Michael to pour out his emotions into but otherwise lacking any autonomy or agency. Wordsworth almost says as much when states that "Of the old Man his only Son was / the dearest object that he knew on earth" (Wordsworth 218). In fact, Luke is so absent as a character that he essentially has no lines or dialogue in the entire poem, but instead merely stands and listens as his mother and father speak. Wordsworth is not concerned with representing or considering childhood, but rather revels in showing the way children can serve merely as a means for their parents to feel their lives have mattered and as someone to live vicariously through.
From the perspective of the poem, the tragedy of the poem is not that Luke is the impoverished son of a shepherd whose poverty forces him to leave his family and work elsewhere, but rather the fact that Michael is unable to force Luke to become a shepherd in the way he always dreamed. The central image of the poem, that of the unfinished Sheep-fold, reiterates this point, because it is the eternal symbol of career coercion gone off the rails; for Michael, the sheep-fold represents his inability to force his son to return home. This is ultimately why the poem must have Luke give "himself / to evil courses," so that "ignominy and shame / Fell on him"; if the child's responsibility is to do whatever his parent wants, then Luke must be punished for escaping the fate of shepherding (Wordsworth 234).
Wordsworth's treatment of Luke is indicative of Romanticism's tendency to shy away from the uncomfortable truths of the society it represents, and instead focus on the melodrama of existence, as viewed from the perspective of the powerful or privileged. In the case of "Michael," the poem serves to confirm and reassert the patriarchal power of the father by demonstrating the "tragedy" which occurs when the father's wishes are not fulfilled. This stands in stark contrast to the latter two poems to be discussed here, which begin to give children some actual agency and value beyond stoking the pride of patriarchy.
Having seen how Wordsworth robs his child character of any agency while completely disregarding the tragedy of his situation in favor of a focus on the father's petty, self-serving worries, it is now possible to examine the work of William Blake and W.B. Yeats, because these poets imbue their child characters with far more agency, purpose, and humanity. For example, William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" may be viewed as a kind of muckraking poetry aimed at revealing the horrors of chimney sweeping, so long as one considers both version of the poem alongside each other. Blake actually wrote two seemingly distinct poems called "The Chimney Sweeper," with the first published in 1789 in Songs of Innocence and the second published in 1794 in Songs of Experience, and examining both of these poems in conjunction will reveal how Blake, though often considered a seminal figure in the Romantic movement, actually predicted and developed some of the stylistic and thematic details that would come to define naturalism and realism.
The first thing to note when considering both versions of the "The Chimney Sweeper" is how different they are in terms of tone and argument, even as the subject matter is largely the same. The version published in Songs of Innocence is essentially a justification for the cruelty and inhumanity child chimney sweepers were forced to endure, as the children are informed by an angel that after they have died from their labor, they will get to go to heaven (Blake 12-13). The later version of the poem, published in Songs of Experience, takes the exact opposite tack, and chastises the church and adults in general for leaving children to this fate, either by selling them into chimney sweeping directly, as was common at the time, or else by ignoring the practice altogether in favor of empty piety (Blake 69). However, both poems nevertheless give children far more agency and respect than Wordsworth.
In both versions of the poem, children are the central focus, rather than the emotionally-laden MacGuffin, and they are allowed to express themselves. The contrast between the two versions actually serves to demonstrate Blake's own evolution in his perspective on children, and particularly their relation to society and the church, because where the first version of the poem essentially chastises children for making their opposition to chimney sweeping know, the second version revels in this opposition, and actually takes up the argument itself. In the first version of the poem, a little boy cries when his bright white hair is darkened by the soot of chimneys, and so he is given a strange dream wherein he sees the fate of all the chimney sweepers who have died (Blake 12). following this, an angel tells Tom that "if he'd be a good boy, / he'd have God for his father and never want joy" (Blake 13). Thus, while the first version of the poem still gives agency and psychology to the child characters, it nevertheless views their existence as subservient to patriarchy, and in this case, a kind of "ultimate" patriarchy.
The first version of the poem is published in Songs of Innocence, but they might as well be songs of naivete, because the second version of the poem shows that Blake has essentially grown out of his "innocent" deference to patriarchal and religious authority. Where the first poem offers hope in the form of a magical father, the second poem decries both parents and the church. The child in second poem criticizes his parents, who "are gone to praise God and His Priest and King / who make up a heaven out of our misery" (Blake 69). Blake uses the child in order to criticize the religious and social system that perpetuates evils like child chimney sweeping, and his decision to allow the child to make this criticism without rebuttal or equivocation demonstrates a respect for child autonomy and legitimacy of experience that was largely not recognized by Romantic writers such as Wordsworth.
Finally, Yeats' poem represents the kind of end point of the conflicting aesthetic modes of Romanticism and naturalism, because it offers a particular blend of contemplation and anxiety that characterizes the literature of the early twentieth century. Written in 1919, during the Irish War of Independence, Yeats' poem does not include his daughter as a genuine character, but his prayer for her demonstrates a remarkable evolution in the thought and treatment of children in poetry. Yeats opens the poem by noting that "once more the storm in howling," and he takes the occasion of this literal and metaphorical tumult to think for a moment about the wishes he has for his daughter. In the context of this study, the most remarkable thing about Yeats' prayer is the fact that he does not actually have that many wishes for his daughter.