Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children: Christian Romanticism and Instruction as Worship

By Bailey, Peggy Dunn | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children: Christian Romanticism and Instruction as Worship


Bailey, Peggy Dunn, Christianity and Literature


In anthologies of British Romantic literature published in the last couple of decades, the first author one is likely to encounter is Anna Letitia Barbauld. She is frequently represented in these anthologies by selections from her poetry, but Barbauld's influence during her lifetime (1743-1825) and beyond was not limited to her poetry; nor were her aims solely literary. Barbauld was a devoutly Christian Romantic, one who embraced the concept of Nature as sacred text and Christianity as sacred practice, characterized by authentic emotional investment, attention to natural/textual detail, and a staunch belief in the inherent value of the individual She was also a devoutly Christian teacher. She and her husband, Rochemont Barbauld (a Dissenting minister, like her father, John Aikin), managed a school for boys in Suffolk for several years. Anna Barbanld's religious convictions taught her to reverence the individual human mind, to see it as her duty to instruct it, and to understand such instruction as an act of worship. Seeking to instruct children between the ages of three and five, Barbanld created in Hymns in Prose for Children a design argument dependent upon a dose attention to natural detail and a reverential attitude toward both perceiver and perceived.

Emphasizing structure and order as well as imagination, the sanctity of the "infant mind" (Barbauld, Hymns 238), and a natural world invested with divinity, Barbauld set out to write a functionally significant text, a text that "means" what it does. It clearly did something, from the date of its first publication well into the nineteenth century and the twentieth. In "Mother of All Discourses;' William McCarthy states that Hymns in Prose was reprinted more than fifty times between 1801 and 1905, not counting translations, and that the number of copies reprinted was always 1,000, 2,000, or 2,500 (196, n. 1). Samuel Pickering points out that as one of the earliest adopted texts in the Sunday School movement, it introduced hundreds of thousands of English children to the activities of reading and practical devotion (263).

Hymns was also read by the founding fathers of Romanticism. In a 1975 essay titled "Mrs. Barbauld's Hymns in Prose: 'An Air-Blown Particle' of Romanticism?;' Pickering identifies several echoes of Barbauld's text in Wordsworth's poetry and prose, including the poems and preface(s) of Lyrical Ballads; interestingly enough, Pickering tends to read backward in time with comments like, "Barbauld also resembles Wordsworth in her belief that natural objects possessed a moral or spiritual life..." (264). While Pickering concedes that "Mrs. Barbauld's poetics were Romantic" (263-64), he clearly wishes to distance the "true" Romantic poets from this "minor" writer of children's literature: "Mrs. Barbauld helped create the element in which the Romantic poets eventually floated" (267), he writes. William McCarthy is more careful with chronology in his monumental 2008 study of Barbauld; he states that "[l]ove of nature led to nature's God [in Barbauld's Hymns] long before Wordsworth or Coleridge put pen to paper" (Anna Letitia Barbauld 210). The first publication of Lyrical Ballads was in 1798; the prefaces appeared in 1800 and 1802. Barbauld first published Hymns in Prose for Children in 1781.

William Blake is the most-often discussed Romantic poet whom Barbauld's Hymns inspired (or provoked), according to scholars such as Geoffrey Summerfield and, more recently, Thomas C. Kennedy. Summerfield's side-by-side comparison (216-19) of Barbauld's Hymns and Blake's 1789 Songs of Innocence and then his 1794 Songs of Innocence and of Experience is both provocative and convincing in its illumination of several echoes of and responses to Barbauld's Hymns in Blake's Songs. Less convincing are some of Summerfield's conclusions regarding Blake's supposed revision--or even correction--of her. For example, a comment regarding her attitude toward slavery is especially wrong-headed: "Mrs. …

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