Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and the Romantic Legacy

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and the Romantic Legacy

Article excerpt

AT THE BREAK OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, THAT MOST ROMANTIC DEsire, the longing for childhood, produced one of the most romantic images, the innocent child of nature. Emotion and image were manifestations of a yearning for the past which we have since called nostalgia. It, too, is a romantic phenomenon (although the word was not widely used until the twentieth century), appearing first in England in medical reports of 1787 about a Welsh soldier suffering from homesickness. (1) We also think of "childhood" as a romantic invention, if only because of historical coincidence; for by the last years of the eighteenth century, children were viewed as autonomous beings rather than mere extensions of a patriarchal family. This change may have been relatively recent, if one accepts the theories of Philippe Aries and Laurence Stone; or it may have been far more gradual, if one believes their opponents. (2) A more compelling or immediate reason for considering childhood an English romantic phenomenon is Wordsworth: in early poems like "We are Seven," and "Lucy Gray," he portrayed the essential autonomy of an innocent or mythic child whose lineage stretched back to Pelagius. (3) Yet this child of nature became in Wordsworth's translation a retrospective phenomenon, one from whom the subject felt sadly distant. The "Ode: Intimations of Immortality ..." in which the poet speaks directly about longing for a lost childhood, and "Lucy Gray," in which the figure of childhood disappears, both convey the wonder and desire adults invested in trying to remember their past, unsocialized selves. (4)

During the nineteenth century, the concept of childhood was often the subjective product of individual narration, of a particular life history. Whether an infinitely recessive object of nostalgia, as it is in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860), or a locus created for a discarded self, as it is in Mary and Charles Lamb's Mrs. Leicester's School (1809), childhood was a construction--immediate and temporary, an extension of present circumstances. For this reason, the image of the child in texts about childhood was a memorative device often working in the absence of conscious remembering. Wordsworth, for instance, in "The Pet-lamb" (1800), channeled nostalgia through the prevailing view of the child as a developing and imperfect being, one I shall call the "imitative child" because in light-hearted visual and verbal representations drawing from this belief, he or she usually appeared in the act of rehearsing adult behavior. Unlike the child of nature with which the poet is usually associated, this child was primarily a social entity. If it returned the viewer to childhood (and I believe it could), it did so through emotional attachment. But so, indeed, does the elusive child of nature in the famous "Lucy Gray" (1799). Indeed both "Lucy Gray" and "The Pet-lamb" employ a pre-romantic iconology of the child for sentimental effects--a practice later writers like Tennyson and Dickens would adopt. Both poems dramatize, furthermore, a nostalgia involving dramatic forms of identification which have little to do with experienced interiority or private memory, with organic form or autonomy--all elements of the self so intertwined, in theory, with the new concept of childhood.

The Terms of Childhood

In the nineteenth century, nostalgia for childhood usually referred to condition rather than duration; in doing so it rendered an already unstable concept even more fluid. By "child" or "childhood," writers might have meant any period from infancy through young adulthood. Definitions tended to emerge from contexts, betraying confusion and creativity. John Ruskin, at 69 hoping to marry 21-year-old Kathleen Olander, was not "quite clear," he complained to her, "whether you are a child ...--a pretty girl--or a clever--woman!" Calling her "my dearest child," he adds, anxiously, "Do you really like me to call you that--though you won't answer for anything more? …

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