Romanticism and the Child. Depictions of Children in the Poems “We are Seven” and “Anecdote for Fathers” by William Wordsworth

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Childhood in Romanticism – A Short Survey

3. The Children in the Poems ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’
3.1. Description of the Child and its Surroundings
3.2. The Child in Conversation with the Adult
3.3. The Child’s Speech and Language
3.4. The Child’s Wisdom

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

“O dearest, dearest boy! [….]/ Could I but teach the hundredth part/ Of what from thee I learn” (AF 57ff) – this is the ending of the poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ by William Wordsworth telling us that children are not only to be taught but to be learned from. Scholars often use the line “The child is father of the man”1 as an opening quote for their discussion of Wordsworth’s poems concerning childhood and children. The latter has more lyrical potential and two possible interpretations, namely the child being the source and origin of the grown adult (child and adult are the same person) or the child being the teacher of an (another) adult. The last stanza from ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, however, phrases the same intention in much more direct and affective language.

Wordsworth certainly provides material for an extensive study of children and childhood in Romanticism with his oeuvre. Most famously The Prelude (1805) and ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ (1802) feature the wellresearched topics of the poet’s childhood and his interest in the development of the poetic mind. For researching the child and its portrayal as such, however, the poet’s earlier volume of poems Lyrical Ballads (1798), which he published together with his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is more suited. The poems discussed in this paper are ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, hereafter referred to with the abbreviations WS and AF.

In these two ballads adult narrators tell of their encounters and conversations with a child. The focus here is clearly on the descriptive aspect (e.g. the child’s appearance and behaviour) instead of on memories of childhood in the other aforementioned poetical works. To get an historical background of the prevalent ideas of childhood and children of Wordsworth’s contemporaries, it is worth taking a look at the two dominant philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who both coined the Romantic views on childhood (see chapter 2). The analysis of the poems themselves is divided into several subcategories: the portrayal of the child (3.1.), the child in relation to the adult (3.2.), the child’s use of language (3.3.) and the child’s worldview (3.4.). The categories have been chosen in consideration of the research questions whether or not Wordsworth’s children are portrayed positively. Is the child a teacher or the origin of the adult? Or is it something inferior? How does the portrayal of the children in the two poems differ and in what ways are they similar? The interpretation and comparison of these poems will provide an insight into Wordsworth’s romantic child.

2. Childhood in Romanticism – A Short Survey

Before a close reading of the two poems, a look at the general view of children and childhood in this period seems appropriate. Unquestionably, Wordsworth’s literary works are situated in the age of Romanticism, which is sometimes characterised as the age of the discovery of the child and childhood – and thereby the age of the rise of children’s literature. This coincides with an emerging interest in and a new appreciation of the child (Winkler 5) which can be found in the arts, too. Generally, in Romanticism children were regarded as connected with nature and innocence and considered an object of fascination. Scholars, however, remark that the “concept of childhood became defined (not produced) in that period” (Richardson 853). Undoubtedly, children became associated with something more positive than they had been before.

To consider the child as innocent and fascinating was a new idea. In the ages before there was mainly one dominant approach to the child, which Benziman describes as a “Puritan and authoritarian attitude” (167) towards children. Based on the belief in the original sin, children were considered “morally inferior” (ibid.), in need of being taught rules and expected to be able to follow and display adult values (ibid.). In contrast, the Romantic attitude towards the child seems not only to be revaluating but liberating.

Nearly all Romanticists were influenced in their portrayal of children by two dominant philosophers who wrote about education, development of morals and consciousness and children: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. The latter introduces the idea of the mind as a tabula rasa into philosophy. He argues that there are no innate ideas at birth (Lerer 104) but that a child is “product of his or her education” (Lerer 105). Everything children see, learn and experience forms the person they will become; there is no inborn sense of what is right or wrong and certainly no inherent fate. “The Lockean narrative revealed the child responding to, absorbing or reacting against things and actions” (Lerer 105) and, thereby, raised an awareness of the importance of childhood: it is the time where the adult is formed. It is crucial to the child’s development to have a childhood full of education and apart from bad influences. New values, e.g. curiosity as something positive, could only arise after Locke’s theory.

Interestingly, Rousseau, who also highly influenced the Romantic image of the child, seems to propose the sheer opposite. He assumes that “man is initially good but his natural goodness is gradually corrupted by society” (Benziman 168). Moral thinking is innate in Rousseau’s opinion and a child whose thinking cannot have been corrupted as much as an adult’s is purer and truer to the human nature. Rousseau goes on to criticise traditional education, namely catechisms (Richardson 856). In his pedagogical work Émile ou De l’Éducation (1762) he portrays an alternative approach to education which appreciates the child as a natural and harmonic being which is superior to the civilised man (Winkler 10) – because it is not corrupted by adult thinking. Rousseau’s theory, however, puts the child on a pre-societal level (Winkler 9). While this was meant to be in favour of the child and argue for acceptance of childish or childlike behaviour in children, it also separated the child and the adult even more.

Another object of interest to Rousseau and Locke and the Romanticists are ‘savages’ or the ‘noble savage’ with whom the child shares several characteristics: they lack discipline, future-oriented thinking and acting, a sense of shame and modesty, control over their emotions and rational thinking (Winkler 8). Furthermore, Rousseau notices the ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’ are often compared to children when described (Winkler 6). They are both closer to nature than the adult is; but being natural is ambivalent. It depends on the beholder whether it is fascinating or repelling. The Romanticists have chosen to be fascinated; both the child and the ‘savage’ are ideals. However, being an object of fascination and somehow apart from society, “the idealisation of the child was also, inevitably, its othering” (Benziman 179). “The child [is] perceived as exotic” (Benziman 181), just as the ‘noble savage’, and distanced even further from the adult. Childhood offers something that “is lost once the transition to adulthood occurs” (Horne 12), and therefore looking at it might restore the loss to some extent, a sentiment Rousseau and Wordsworth shared.

William Wordsworth himself seems to try to fill that gap in his writings. As already stated above, childhood is a major theme of Wordsworth’s works and he has a “special interest in the development of the mind of the child” (Blades 7) and the role nature plays in this (Blades 40). In The Prelude, for example, Wordsworth traces back memories of his own childhood to find the spots in time that have shaped his poetic mind. By doing this, he reveals himself to be a follower of Locke: nature is what acts on the child’s senses and mind – the tabula rasa is formed by the child’s “highly receptive imagination” (Blades 40). This is one of two types of childhood instances Benziman distinguishes in Wordsworth’s oeuvre; the adult speaker remembering his own childhood. The second type she distinguishes is the child as “a separate person”, “presented through the eyes of the speaker”, often “juxtaposed”, maybe even as an “inferior, incomprehensible, […] uncanny other” (Benziman 180). The poems ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ clearly belong to the second category; the children are objects of interest but are their minds Lockean tabulae rasae or is there something innate to the cottage girl’s and Edward’s minds?

3. The Children in the Poems ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’

In the ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, the volume of poems both WS and AF are taken from, Wordsworth proposes and explains his own poetic programme in both formal and content features (themes should be nature and simple, rustic life; poetry has to teach and delight; a simple style and language with no ‘poetic diction’ are preferable etc.). There is no doubt that formally the poems fulfil his literary programme. They are, as the title Lyrical Ballads suggests, in ballad style: four-lined stanzas with iambic tetrameter and a simple rhyme scheme (abab) are present in both texts and they both combine lyrical, epic and dramatic elements such as their poetic form, their narrated content (with a narrator as the ‘I’) and heavy focus on dialogue both with and without inquit formulae.

Both poems are accounts of experiences that need to be reflected (Bialostosky 241), which also matches Wordsworth’s idea of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Preface 20). The tense of the poems is in both cases past tense – which makes sense since the narrator is speaking about something that has happened to him in the (seemingly not too distant) past. The lesson learned is still present to the narrator (AF 57-60) and there is still an “overflow of emotion” (Preface 4f) – his expression of feeling is stressed by an exclamation mark (AF 57). In WS the adult narrator still has no answer to the problem and has not lived down the frustration the conversation with the girl made him feel; he seems to have the need to tell the story to another adult, “brother Jim” (WS 1), maybe to get another adult’s opinion and confirmation of his point of view.

There are several aspects under which these poems could be compared. I chose the following as most effective for my line of argumentation and my general interpretation of the poems. Descriptions are one aspect of the poem. The children are not only described physically but they seem to be connected with their surroundings, too. Then, of course, the adult has to be taken into account. Through his eyes and words, the child is portrayed, and the encounter told. His attitude towards, relation to and way of making conversation with the child reveal as much about it as about him. Interestingly enough, there seems to be a high discrepancy between the speech of the cottage girl and the little boy, Edward. Therefore, speech and language have been chosen to be a sub-chapter of their own. Finally, the discussion of the child’s (lack of?) knowledge or wisdom knots together the research question on Wordsworth’s portrayal of the Romantic child, a father or teacher role and whether Lockean or Rousseauian theories are part of this.

3.1. Description of the Child and its Surroundings

Both poems do not lack physical descriptions of the child. The “cottage girl” (WS 5) is described as lively (“lightly draws its breath/ And feels its life in every limb” WS 2f) and beautiful: “Her eyes were fair, and very fair/ Her beauty made me glad” (WS 11f). However, she is far from being a neat and tidy girl: she has a “rustic, woodland air” (WS 9) and is “wildly clad” (WS 10). Further details mentioned are her age, “eight years old” (WS 6), and her hair, which is “thick with many a curl” (WS 7). More than a whole stanza is dedicated to her physical description, which suggests her appearance is important in various aspects. Firstly, there is stress put on her life in the countryside – she clearly is not an urban dweller and even seems to be ‘uncivilised’ in a certain way to the narrator’s eye. These attributes have often led to scholars interpreting the girl as belonging to nature or symbolising nature (Bernstein 342); a reading not too farfetched bearing in mind the Romantic period’s interests. Secondly, the description of the strange and extraordinary beauty of the girl seems to have some effect on the narrator; an aspect which will be further discussed in 3.2. Another characteristic feature of the girl attributed to her by the narrator is that she is a “simple child” (WS 1). Again, the adult eye makes a judgement about the child. However, Wordsworth chooses an ambivalent word. Simplicity can be read as uneducated or “uncomplicated”, as Shokoff (235) points out. Whether the child is portrayed as something positive or not therefore cannot be determined by the physical description alone.

The physical description of the boy in AF is a bit shorter. He is “five years old” (AF 1), his appearance is “fair and fresh to see” (AF 2) and his “limbs are cast in beauty’s mould” (AS 3). He also is described as looking “graceful in his rustic dress” (AF 18). This description can be summarised with the same characteristics attributed to the girl in WS: beauty and proximity to nature. Besides the slight age difference, the main difference between the two children is that the boy has a name, “Edward” (AF 37), which is thrice mentioned, while the girl remains nameless.

The most prominent shared attribute is the one most often referred to in terms of word count. The adult voice plays an important part in this. The narration repetitively notes down both the girl and the boy as “little” (seven times in WS, three in AF) and other terms associated with smallness. For the girl “maid” or “maiden” are chosen five times; for the boy “boy” is used three times, which is important since the boy clearly is the narrator’s son (otherwise the title of the poem would be misleading). However, the word “son”, which does not indicate age, does not appear in the poem at all: The possessive constructions “I have a boy” (AF 1) and “my boy” (AF 17) are chosen instead.

This lack of family relations draws in with the early nineteenth century tendency to depict the child “not within the context of an ordinary emotional family life, but rather as a being apart” (Horne 94). While Edward clearly is in the aforementioned father-son relationship to the adult narrator, he still is apart from family life: the question of home and belonging is directly posed in the poem and Edward, who has to but cannot decide between home at Liswyn farm or Kilve, can be read as belonging to neither in the scene described – he is in-between or “at a point of transition” (Ramsey 245) in more than one way. The child as being apart also holds true for the girl though she clearly has a home, the cottage near the churchyard, and she has a family consisting of a living mother (WS 24) and four living siblings. Still, she stands alone in the poem, seemingly isolated from everything except her dead siblings who seem closer than the living ones at Conway and at sea. This isolation of both children can be interpreted based on the Lockean principle of the tabula rasa. Being apart from the family and adults’ influence makes the child’s blank mind react to other influences, namely its surroundings, another aspect of description in the poems.

Both scenes happen in outdoor settings. While the encounter between the adult and the girl is not explicitly located, the description of her as a “little cottage girl” (WS 5) suggests that the narrator can see where she lives, so maybe she is standing or sitting in front of her home. Also, the churchyard, which is only “twelve steps or more from my mother’s door” (WS 39), is talked about as if the narrator can see it and maybe even see the graves and the “church-yard tree” (WS 32) she talks about. These are very specific details (as are the names of the siblings and places) Blades (20) points out and this tendency continues in AF. The father and the son are walking in nature with the “quiet house all full in view” (AF 6), which is Liswyn farm, the rustic setting they live in now. The adult reminisces about Kilve “when spring began/ A long, long year before” (AF 11f) which suggests it is spring again. The springtime image is also enforced by the “young lambs” (AF 21) in the scenery and a “morning sun […] bright and warm” (AF 22). Nature also is referred to in terms of colour: green is the colour of the sea at Kilve (AF 31), the hills at Liswyn (AF 41) and the graves in the churchyard (WS 37); a colour that suggests life (Blades 21), spring and youth2.


1 Wordsworth himself used the line from the short poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up‘ (written in 1802; published 1807) as in introductory line to ‘Ode. Intimations of Immortality’ (written shortly after ‘My Heart Leaps Up’; published in the same volume).

2 The graves, of course, pose a sharp contrast to these associations with the colour green.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Romanticism and the Child. Depictions of Children in the Poems “We are Seven” and “Anecdote for Fathers” by William Wordsworth
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar First Generation Romantic Poets
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Romanticism, Poetry, William Wordsworth, Childen in Literature, Lyrical Ballads, Romantic Poetry
Quote paper
Almut Amberg (Author), 2018, Romanticism and the Child. Depictions of Children in the Poems “We are Seven” and “Anecdote for Fathers” by William Wordsworth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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