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Victorian literature was remarkably concerned with the idea of childhood, but to a large degree we must understand the Victorian concept of childhood and youth as being, in some way, a revisionary response to the early nineteenth century Romantic conception. Here we must, to a certain degree, accept Harold Bloom's thesis that Victorian poetry represents a revisionary response to the revolutionary aesthetic of Romanticism, and particularly that of Wordsworth. The simplest way to summarize the Wordsworthian child is to recall that well-known line from a short lyric (which would be appended as epigraph to later printings of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality, from Recollections of Early Childhood") -- "the child is father of the man." Here, self-definition in adulthood, and indeed the poetic vocation, are founded in the perceived imaginative freedom of childhood.
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life! (Wordsworth, "Ode")
To a certain degree, Wordsworth was introducing a new subject for poetry here, and offering a new place of origin for the poetic voice. Yet Victorian poetry in some way represents a reaction against the potentially liberatory Wordsworthian version of childhood. It is remarkable to discover that Matthew Arnold singled out the Wordsworthian vision of childhood as one of the chief flaws of his work:
Even the "intimations" of the famous Ode, those cornerstones of the supposed philosophic system of Wordsworth -- the idea of the high instincts and affections coming out in childhood, testifying of a divine home recently left, and fading away as our life proceeds -- this idea, of undeniable beauty as a play of fancy, has itself not the character of poetic truth of the best kind; it has no real solidity. The instinct of delight in Nature and her beauty had no doubt extraordinary strength in Wordsworth himself as a child. But to say that universally this instinct is mighty in childhood, and tends to die away afterwards, is to say what is extremely doubtful. In many people, perhaps with the majority of educated persons, the love of nature is nearly imperceptible at ten years old, but strong and operative at thirty. ("Wordsworth" 16)
Arnold's claim that the Romantic vision of childhood in Wordsworth's poetry "has no real solidity" is, in itself, a good indication of the overall revisionary strategy of Victorian poetry. Through a close reading of poems by Matthew Arnold and A.E. Housman, I hope to demonstrate that the Victorian ethic insisted upon real-world or concrete applications of the Wordsworthian mythos of childhood. The way whereby the Victorians revise the Romantic conception of childhood is twofold: the first is by subsuming childhood within a more general category of "youth" (which, in an era when adolescence arguably did not yet exist as a separate category, problematizes the concept of childhood altogether), and the second is by considering childhood as a subject problematized largely by its relationship to the question of education.
Matthew Arnold, as a poet, was deeply influenced by Wordsworth -- as a critic, his essay in praise of Wordsworth's poetry ranks Wordsworth in importance with Shakespeare and Milton. At the same time, Arnold came of age at a time when Wordsworth -- who had laid out the template for a new conception of childhood both as a subject of poetry and as a means of self-definition -- had aged into a monolith of Victorian tedium, the Queen's poet laureate was bewailed by Arnold's contemporary Robert Browning as a "lost leader." Arnold would therefore already stand in a problematized relationship to Wordsworthian ideas of childhood: it is difficult to assert that "the child is father to the man" when the man has become (like Wordsworth) a reactionary publishing sonnets in favor of the death penalty. To some extent the Romantic view of youth promulgated in Wordsworth's most influential work had already been subverted by the younger Romantics -- Byron and Shelley in particular -- who were unsparing in their criticisms of Wordsworth, and who had the added attraction of dying young while Wordsworth lived on. For Arnold's generation, then, the Romantic ideals of childhood had already been subverted by the youthful rebellion and early death of the younger Romantics -- Arnold would memorably dismiss Shelley as "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain" -- and by the old age of Wordsworth himself. But the conception of childhood in Arnold's work must be understood in light of a larger concern, both in Arnold's work and in his life, with education. Arnold's own father was the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, and was concerned with reforming the moral and religious aspects of education; as Lytton Strachey would wryly note in Eminent Victorians, the paternalism of the elder Arnold was perpetually mystified by the refusal of children to behave, although it was brought into lines with a typically Victorian melioristic view of the "childhood of the human race" which was perpetually advancing toward a state of greater moral enlightenment:
One thing struck him as particularly strange: "it is very startling," he said, "to see so much of sin combined with so little of sorrow." The naughtiest boys positively seemed to enjoy themselves most. There were moments when he almost lost faith in his whole system of education, when he began to doubt whether some far more radical reforms than any he had attempted might not be necessary, before the multitude of children under his charge -- shouting and gamboling, and yet plunged all the while deep in moral evil -- could ever be transformed into a set of Christian gentlemen. But then he remembered his general principles, the conduct of Jehovah with the Chosen People, and the childhood of the human race. (Strachey, "Dr. Arnold")
This account of Arnold's father is necessary to understand Arnold's own career -- not merely as a poet, but in his work as the Inspector of Schools for the British government, concerned with the education of the poorer classes. Knickerbocker has noted that "certain similarities are, of course, quite apparent even in the most casual comparison of the work of the two men; their interest and efforts, for instance, in the development of the British educational scheme" (Knickerbocker 399). But we can see that Arnold's own life had a revisionary sort of pattern to it: backing away from the Christianizing and moralistic approach to education marked by his father, while at the same time engaging in the same typically Victorian social meliorism by working toward the education of the less privileged sectors of society. It can therefore be said that Arnold had a serious professional investment in the Victorian idea of childhood -- but it is worth questioning how this view relates to Arnold's own poetic work, and his poetic genealogy. It is noteworthy that, for all the emphasis placed on childhood in Wordsworth's work, there is no comparable emphasis or interest in education. Indeed, the Wordsworthian child is defined largely by what is done away from school, and the few references in The Prelude to Wordsworth's time spent at Cambridge indicate that formal education was not to be considered his metier. It might be seen as a defining feature of Victorian poetry that it is concerned with the practical or real-world applications, or responses, to issues raised by the Romantics.
If the Romantic child is a creature of imagination and freedom, then we might begin by understanding the Victorian child as being defined by the limitations or constraints placed upon such imagination and freedom. Arnold's sonnet "Youth's Agitations" can be viewed as typical of the Victorian reaction against Romantic valorization of youth. Here, the passional or imaginative self that Romanticism attributed to the young is seen as turbulent and unstable:
When I shall be divorced, some ten years hence,
From this poor present self which I am now;
When youth has done its tedious vain expense
Of passions that for ever ebb and flow;
Shall I not joy youth's heats are left behind,
And breathe more happy in an even clime"?
-- ?Ah no, for then I shall begin to find?
A thousand virtues in this hated time!
Then I shall wish its agitations back,
And all its thwarting currents of desire;
Then I shall praise the heat which then I lack,
And call this hurrying fever, generous fire;
And sigh that one thing only has been lent
To youth and age in common -- discontent.
(Arnold, "Youth's Agitations")
There are several things worth observing about Arnold's construction of youth here. For a start, the imagery itself seems to insist upon the failure of youth to offer concrete or tangible advantage: the crucial phrase is "tedious vain expense / of passions that for ever ebb and…[continue]
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