Intimations of childhood: What if Wordsworth were on the air?
My friend Alan - wise, compassionate, humorous, himself a father, has 10 minutes of a ''young people's hour'' radio show. He is the amateur; the program is produced by specialists. But he is the only one who talks as if he understands children. The 50 minutes that do not belong to him are filled with material designed to be educationally stimulating, inculcating values that might be called upscale middle class. Everyone is invited to be a gifted child - informed, proper, articulate. Alan talks about words that might interest children, but he sounds at times a little odd, a bit witty-strange. He makes the children's show producers a little nervous. They trust him, because he is a professor of English, but they are not quite sure where he is going on his linguistic run. Meanwhile, at home, his own daughter is watching Bugs Bunny.
Coincidentally, my friend, Marion, a woman with years of experience as director of a nursery school, has just called to announce that still another group of kiddies has succumbed during ''organized play'' to imitating ''Sesame Street.'' Given crayons and encouragement to draw their favorite animal, they all do Big Bird. Marion sounds me out: Is this an advancement from a children's show of some years back whose well rehearsed teacher-hostess would not allow the drawing of a horse in purple?
It is inevitable: The words of the master come to mind: Wordsworth's trenchant portrait in the ''Intimations of Immortality'' ode about ''a six years' Darling of pigmy size.'' Between a mother's kisses and a father's pride, ''the little Actor cons (his) part'' - ''As if his whole vocation/Were endless imitation.'' Too soon. Wordsworth, father figure for so many of his spiritually lost contemporaries; himself made fatherless at an early age; who became the father of children who died; Wordsworth who got abuse from those who confused his poems about childhood with what to them seemed childish - Wordsworth understood what it meant to be a child.
Max Beerbohm's mean but witty picture nonetheless comes to mind - Wordsworth in the Lakes: a crotchety old man, intent on lecturing, accosts a child in the rain. But what did the 19th century know? Or previous centuries? Children, so the saying goes, were to be seen, not heard. But hardly seen: Paintings abound of children drawn as little adults, posed in formal attitudes, or as cherubs from another dimension. Wordsworth was up against the neo-classical attitude: Children were not fit subject matter for art. He has also come up against proponents of the ''real'': What has Nature's boy to say to the 19th-century's exploited child, darkened by factory life? Or to today's sophisticated youngster? The answer is, a great deal. In Wordsworth's letters can be found opposition to political and social abuse; in his poetry, advocacy of the development in childhood of a poetic soul. We were all, he said, silent poets.
We, with our eyes on making it, assume a superior attitude. We offer our own period as definitively knowledgeable about and appreciative of childhood. The study of it began, we think, with the advent of educational psychology. Piaget laid it out in stages for pedagogical review; schools of education have been most accommodating.
My friend on the radio show likes, at times, to follow a stream of association, but the producers direct it along cultivated banks marked with conventional signposts. No one on the program is allowed to get lost or wander. My friend in the nursery school, no advocate of an unbridled unconscious, is nonetheless worried about homogeneous attitudes. Both friends recognize an irony: Childhood, the subject of intelligent inquiry, after centuries of neglect , is in danger of being destroyed by the inquirers. Wordsworth might say we murder to dissect. Through our study of childhood and our devotion to implement our findings, we have contributed to the portrait gallery of grownup children. In our desire to bring out the best in them, meaning the nascent educated adult, we have domesticated the natural beast.
Childhood, Wordsworth knew, was an affair of the heart and of the senses, not the head. It was the growth of thought from feeling and the cultivation of feelings not generally expressed by the professionals who study children - ''vacancy'' of mind, being alone (which is not the same as being lonely).
What Wordsworth celebrated in his poetry was childhood free of ''palpable design.'' That meant being free from designers. The producers of Alan's radio show and the directors of Marion's nursery school might not approve. Being a child, they suggest, means never having to be by oneself or be different. But the solitary state was essential for Wordsworth, because he believed it taught the child something about himself that was more important than something about the world. ''Shades of the prison house'' close only too soon on the growing child. Adults are always anxious to impose their expectations and values.
Wordsworth would probably not disdain Alan's radio show or Marion's nursery school, recognizing in both good intentions. But he would be saddened by what such programs did not encourage children to be: adventurous, joyous, responsive to the correspondences of the world without and the world within.
In short, discontents before civilization, the magical before the scientific, spirit before mind.
In Wordswoth's poetry we can put our heart to school on childhood and learn not what to do or make or plan or think but how to be.