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Romanticism, a literary trend during the period between 1780 and 1830, was heavily influenced by the social and political changes of the era experienced in Great Britain. These changes were a catalyst in literature as writers, in particular poets, produced highly influential and memorable work. Within these works major themes could be detected such as childhood for example. Both William Wordsworth and William Blake produced some of the most memorable poetic literature of the Romantic period that reflected the nature of childhood.
The set extract has been taken from William Wordsworth autobiographical poem, The Prelude’. Within these verse paragraphs, the reader is given an insight of Wordsworth upbringing, who as the speaker of the poem recollects his childhood memories. As such the reader is able to detect the magnificence of childhood that Wordsworth believed was fundamental in his growth as a poet.
The Prelude makes use of iambic pentameter which in conjunction with enjambment, the long uninterrupted sentences provide the fluency of a conversation, a natural speech pattern which the reader can relate.
The extract opens with the speakers’ account of growing up in ‘that beloved Vale’ (l.309), Wordsworth attended Hawkshead Grammar School in Esthwaite from 1779 -to 1788, (Owens & Johnson, 1998, page 428). While a formal education took place, nature provided a symbolic education, ‘Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear’ (l.307), and as such adopting the role of a substitute parent, therefore nurturing the speaker as a child.
The speaker narrates how he would ‘wander half the night’ (l.315), setting traps and becoming a ‘fell destroyer’ (l.319). The metaphor symbolises the first stems of guilt the speaker experiences. The tone of the poem becomes more urgent with the speakers repetition of ‘hurrying’, (l.320-321), as the progresses at a quicker reflecting the urgency of the speaker. There appears to be a hidden force in nature, the speaker feels ‘trouble to the peace’, (l.323) as he is overcome to take the bird ‘of another’s toils’ (l.327).
Fear and guilt overcome the speaker as the forces of nature pursuing him provide a spiritual element. With ‘the solitary hills’ (l.329) and ‘low breathings’ (l.330) a symbolic metaphor become apparent reflecting the child speakers developing conscience and the relationship with nature. The relationship with nature has been forged, will progress further in the future. The presentation of metaphor is once again created as the speaker describes stealing a bird’s nest. This destructive act will have long term consequences, a fate the speaker is well aware of. However, it is only when the speaker is hanging upside down that he is finally able to see nature in a different light, ‘the sky seem’d not a sky Of earth, and with what motion mov’d the clouds!’ (L.350 to 351).
Reminiscing over these childhood exploits the adult speaker of The Prelude, reflects philosophically upon the effect of the incidents that he found terrifying as a child. Personification of ‘a dark Invisible workmanship’ (l.353-354), the speaker considers there was a force consciously developing him. The ‘early miseries, regrets, vexations, lassitudes’, (l.357-358), of the childhood game have ensured the speaker has matured, learning to respect the natural world. With this in mind the speaker continues with the personification of nature, the tone and language towards the natural environment becomes religious. Nature nurtured the child to ‘frame A favor’d being’ (l.364), developing the mind, heart and soul of the later poet.
William Blake’s ‘The Schoolboy’ is an example from the collection of Songs of Experience. The poem discusses the issue of a formal education, which Blake disagreed with strongly believing children should discover the enjoyment of childhood and therefore gain an education through life experiences. The provocative poem reflects William Blake’s own concerns regarding children’s welfare through the poetic devices of metaphor, rhyme and imagery. ‘The Schoolboy’ consists of six stanzas, each with fives line. It is clear that from the first stanza that the poem has a set rhyme scheme of ABABB, which is continued throughout the poem a direct contrast to Wordsworth verse paragraphs in The Prelude.
The poem opens with the speaker waking on a summer morning, the use of positive words such as ‘love’, ‘rise’ and ‘morn’, (l.1) suggest an upbeat tone to the poem. However, an ambiguity is quickly followed as ‘The distant huntsman winds his horn’ (l.3), a sense of threat detected with the horn as the warning sound. The natural world is clearly a source of inspiration to the speaker. The birds and trees mentioned in to the first stanza later develop as significant metaphors as ‘The Schoolboy’ progresses. Blake establishes an idyllic scene, where the speaker lives in mutual harmony with nature as ‘the skylark sings’ (l.4) with the speaker on this summer morning.
This idyllic harmony shatters as the tone of the poem changes in the second stanza. With the speakers ‘But’ (l.6), providing a link between the first and second stanza, the scene transforms from the peaceful countryside to the forbidding environment of the schoolroom. The repetition of ‘in a summer morn’ (l.1, l.6) in the first and second stanza establishes a parallel link providing a comparison that shows an enlightening contrast of joy in the first instance, and melancholy in the second. With the speakers’ description of the teacher, ‘a cruel eye’, (l.7), further deepens the despair the child feels with the forced education, the ‘sighing and dismay’ portraying the broken spirit that is visible to the reader.
Entrapment experienced by the speaker becomes a focal point in third stanza. As noted previously, the natural world provides significant metaphors in ‘The Schoolboy. ‘Drooping’ (l.11) of the speaker evokes an image of a wilting plant, rather than of a child sat at his desk. The posture of the speaker reflects the state of a plant outside the protective environment of a ‘bower’ (l.14); the speaker is clearly separated from the natural environment that stimulates his mind. The lessons taught by the teacher have stifled the speaker’s spirit with its ‘dreary shower’, (l.15).
Metaphors are once again employed in the fourth stanza as the speaker continues, ‘How can the bird, that born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing?’ (l.16-17). Children have been denied the joys of nature and are forced to sit in the classroom, which is therefore the metaphorical cage. Blake believed children were not allowed to enjoy the freedom of their youth with a formal education. This education does more harm than good as the fears of punishment is what drives the system and no genuine passion for learning is instilled into the child whose ‘droop his tender wing, And forgets his youthful spring’, (l.19-20).
The final stanzas of ‘The Schoolboy’ illustrate how brutal the education system can be to a child as the metaphors of plants and seasonal changes play an important theme. The ‘buds are nipped, And blossoms blown away, And if the tender plants are stripped’ (l.21-23), connects the metaphor of a caged bird from the fourth stanza. Neither the flower nor the bird feel happy feels happy with the separation from the outside world, in parallel with the speaker who also feels the isolation from nature. This bleak image is continued into the final stanza of the poem, as the speaker talks of the vanishing summer season ending on the fearful line ‘When the blasts of winter appear?’ (l.30), once again exposes the melancholy of the schoolroom.
The poems composed by Wordsworth and Blake are both highly emotional in terms to the theme of childhood. While the styles of poem are contrasting, the poets have used symbolic metaphors to convey the importance of childhood and in turn the reader’s response to each poem. Wordsworth’s The Prelude relates the importance of ‘spots of time’, (Bygrave, 1996, page 12), a powerful impression that is a deep source of inspiration to an adult in later. In the case of The Prelude, Wordsworth advocates his childhood exploits as showing him the true magnificence of nature, and in turn the education that he learnt through the physical activities that he enjoyed as a child.
While in comparison William Blake’s ‘The Schoolboy’, brings restrictions of a formal education to the forefront of the poem. The strict rules of a teacher not only causes apprehension of a child but also restricts that lessons a child can learn from life experiences, therefore reducing the quality of childhood. ‘The Schoolboy’ sympathises with children from poorer social backgrounds who are restricted to the classroom, rather than enjoying the books in the wonder of nature, as Blake believed was imperative. With these opinions formed it is imperative to note that both poets have conveyed a sense nature reflect freedom to grow not only as poets but as well happy child and later adults.