Tag Archives: childhood

“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

NursesSong

As I near the end of the Songs of Innocence, the “Nurse’s Song” is next up.

When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.        

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.    

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.

 Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills echoed.

I see this as a coming-of-age poem. The transition from day to night symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood. As evening falls, the nurse tells the children to “leave off play.” It is time for them to mature and accept the responsibilities of being an adult.

But the transition is not easy, and the children point out that there is some daytime left, hence, they still have a little more time to be carefree and young. When they respond that “it is yet day, And we cannot go to sleep;” they are asserting that they are not yet ready to consign their youth and innocence to the realm of dream and memory. They want to remain children for a little while longer.

The nurse concedes: “Well, well, go and play till the light fades away.” She allows the children to enjoy the last of their innocence as they are at the threshold of adulthood. Once they cross that threshold, the light of happiness within them will begin to fade as they sadly take their places in the world of responsibility and sorrow.

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“A Cradle Song” by William Blake

CradleSong1Sweet dreams form a shade,
O’er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams

Sweet sleep with soft down.
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child.

Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight.
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

CradleSong2Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

After a month of gothic and macabre reading, I decided to go for the extreme opposite today and read William Blake’s “A Cradle Song” (posted above). The poem is part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and certainly has the feel of a sweet, childhood lullaby. In fact, for kicks and giggles, I read part of it aloud in a sing-song tone of voice and it sounded like a song that a mother would sing while rocking her infant to sleep.

In addition to the simple AABB rhyming scheme and the musical cadence, Blake goes heavy on the use of alliteration, particularly the “ess” sound. This works very well, invoking a feeling of a soft “shhh” as the mother calms her child, or of gentle breezes outside a window as one teeters on the brink of sleep.

Blake associates the child with Christ, a metaphor that he frequently uses in his poems from Songs of Innocence. The mother sees the image of Christ reflected in her child’s face. It’s a sweet image, but nothing really earth-shattering.

There is, though, something foreboding below the surface of this poem, the key to which is in the following stanza:

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

The mother is sad and weeping, which seems to contrast the general tone of the poem. My guess is that the mother, gazing upon her child, knows that her child is destined to grow up, suffer, and die. As much as she would love to coddle and protect her infant, the harsh reality is that doing so is impossible. On a more cosmic scale, I would go as far as to assert that the mother here represents the Goddess, looking down upon “all creation” as it sleeps and realizing that Her beautiful creation is destined to die, that eventually our world, like everything else, will wither and pass from existence.

Blake’s poems never cease to fascinate me. Many of them, such as this one, seem so simple on the surface, yet the more you think about them, the more profound they become.

Thanks for reading, and as always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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What Do John Lennon and Percy Bysshe Shelley Have in Common?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thumbing through the table of contents in my copy of English Romantic Writers, I spotted the sonnet “To Wordsworth” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The title piqued my interest so I figured I’d give it a quick read.

Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship, and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty.
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

I find it interesting when artists criticize each other. In this poem, Shelley is clearly irked by Wordsworth. Even the tone of the opening line, referring to Wordsworth as “Poet of Nature” has a mocking feel to it.

The main criticism that Shelley casts at Wordsworth is his obsession with the past. Wordsworth longed to recapture the magic and joy of childhood through his poetry, and I can respect that. But Shelley makes a valid point. Wordsworth became so obsessed with nature and childhood that he neglected the present, the future, and adult responsibilities. And what makes it worse is that Wordsworth’s earlier works were “Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,” but then as he gained fame and fortune, he sold out.

I have to say, though, that Shelley does come off as a bit self-righteous. When he claims that “I alone deplore” the common woes, I want to say: “Really? You’re the only one?” If you want to champion the common cause, you need to get down from the pedestal.

ImagineCoverI like both Wordsworth and Shelley, and I respect both of their literary contributions, just as I respect Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Just because artistic paths diverge does not make one artist’s contributions more important than another’s. Still, jabs like this make for interesting reading, just as John Lennon’s song “How Do You Sleep?” is an interesting critique on Sir Paul.

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“Sonnet to the River Otter” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

ColeridgeI woke this morning and felt like reading from my college tome: English Romantic Writers. I opted for Coleridge, but didn’t want to read anything long and dense, so I scanned his section and discovered this poem, which is his earliest work included in the book and one I had not read before. I’ll include the text here, since it is short.

Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child!

The river otter referred to in the title is clearly Coleridge as a child: playful, imaginative, and carefree. As an adult, he has returned to the place where he played as a child and being in that place causes a flood of vivid memories. But it is not just the memory of childhood events that he experiences, he becomes filled with the emotions he felt as a child, the boundless wonder and deep pleasure found in the simplest of things, like skimming a stone.

I see the brook as a symbol of Coleridge’s memory. When he writes “But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,” he is talking about his memories rising to the surface. The tints are the emotions attached to these memories. The emotions associated with his childhood experiences are what add color to his memories. But the stream is also a symbol for life, ever changing and flowing onward. He has drifted forward and left the realm of childhood behind.

The poem ends with Coleridge longing for his childhood, to be free of the cares associated with being an adult. But I sense there is more here than just a longing to be carefree again. I think that what Coleridge is really aching to recapture is the imaginative spirit he possessed as a child. The divine power of the imagination was incredibly important to the romantic writers, and Coleridge would have wanted to connect with the boundless imagination he felt as a child.

I confess, as I sit here drinking my coffee and trying not to think about the hectic day of work that looms before me, that the carefree and imaginative days of my childhood would be a welcome escape. I would love to just go and spend the day in the woods, tossing sticks and leaves into a stream just to watch them float away. But I can’t, which is why I can so relate to the feelings that Coleridge expresses in this sonnet.

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“The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats

StolenChildThis morning I read “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats. I’d read the poem in college, but it had been a while since I had last read it. The poem is a little too long to post on the blog, but you can click here to read it online.

(Note: There is a discrepancy between the online versions I found and the version in my print book edited by M. L. Rosenthal. The last line in the online versions starts with “For” but in the print version it begins with “From.” This greatly changes the meaning of the last line, in my opinion, so just consider that when reading.)

The poem is basically an allegory of the loss of childhood fantasy and imagination which seems to be told from the perspective of the faery folk. The child believes in faeries and magic, but the “real” world of adulthood is poised to steal the child away from the realm of imagination and draw the child into the world of sorrow and weeping. In addition to the basic interpretation, I recall discussions in college about how this poem could also be symbolic of Irish culture being stolen by the English, or pagan traditions being usurped by Christianity.

Structurally, the poem works like a childhood song. There is a refrain at the end of each stanza which enhances the musical feel. I would not be surprised if someone put this to music. If I didn’t have to start work soon, I would search YouTube to see if anyone has done so.

There are a couple of passages that stood out for me on this reading which I’d like to look at closer.

We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;

What I found interesting about these lines is that they invoke an image of Celtic tradition, particularly with the weaving. I almost get a sense of artists designing Celtic knots. The words also conjure imagery of pagan dances. I can envision people dancing around a May Pole, weaving their ribbons as they dance in circles around the pole.

The other passage that I found interesting is:

We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;

The first thing that struck me is that trout do not have ears, so there is no way that anyone could whisper into a trout’s ear. There are a couple possible interpretations here. First, it could be the child’s imagination creating an image of a fish with ears, but also–and this is what I find the most thought-provoking–it could symbolically represent how faeries communicate with people in our realm. I suspect that Yeats viewed faeries as beings from another dimension, and that the threshold between these dimensions is easily crossed by children. As adults, greater effort is required to cross the span between realms. But the issue arises: how do beings from different planes of reality communicate? I think that Yeats was trying to express that faeries communicate in a non-verbal manner with people in our realm, that the words are projected directly into our psyches, similar to speaking into the non-existent ears of a fish.

The more I read Yeats’ works, the more I appreciate his genius. He can be challenging, but that is a good thing when reading poetry, since the thing about poetry which I love the most is that it seeks to express that which is difficult to express in a way other than through symbols. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

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