The Romantics and childhood

Jean-Jacques RousseauLater eighteenth century philosophers and poets reversed this view:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was one of the thinkers whose ideas influenced the French Revolution, believed that children were naturally innocent and were corrupted by society
  • Rousseau developed the idea of the child of nature and argued that children should be subjected to as little formal education as possible and be allowed to live a natural life, from which they would learn all that they required
  • the Romantic poets were very much influenced by the idea of the natural child, and celebrated childhood as a separate and valuable state, and believed that children should not be hurried into adulthood
  • William Wordsworth, in his Ode on Intimations of Mortality from Early Childhood (1807) lays particular stress on children's fresh, unprejudiced and innocent perception of the world:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

William Wordsworth,
‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood', 1897, lines 1-5
  • this is linked to another idea – that the mind or soul does not come into the world empty, or as a blank sheet:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home

Lines 62-65
  • but eventually, the demands of society capture the child as ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy' (lines 67-68) and in adulthood the visionary quality of life disappears: ‘At length the Man perceives it die away, and fade into the light of common day'.
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