Romanticism and Childhood Cover

Cover of Romanticism and Childhood. Image source:

Despite its title, Romanticism and Childhood is neither a study of Romanticism’s focus on children and childhood nor a discussion of the cult of childhood associated with the Victorian era. Instead, Ann Wierda Rowland attempts to explore the era’s “discovery” of childhood by examining the connection between the Romantic understanding of childhood and the era’s increasing interest in vernacular poetic language. Her study provides a unique look at the rhetorical use of childhood in Enlightenment and Romantic literature, placing it within its historical context and exploring this frequently examined concept of childhood within the context of poetic language.

Rowland’s work is largely targeted towards scholars of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysse Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott, though it is Wordsworth whose ideas have largely motivated her study. However, much of her book, especially the first section, could also be useful for less experienced scholarly audiences, since despite her concern that she is “belaboring the basics of Enlightenment discourse” (47), her thorough explanation of Enlightenment doctrines, as well as her contextualization of the study of children and childhood within their historical contexts, provide a fairly thorough background of Enlightenment ideologies and the study of childhood in general.

Part 1: History of an Analogy

In Part I, “History of an Analogy,” Rowland quotes Percy Bysshe Shelly’s analogy, “For the savage is to ages what the child is to years,” which she uses to launch her main argument for this section, which is that for Romantic and Enlightened thinkers, the development of children works as an analogy for the development of all people as well as for the development of nations and people groups. She connects this idea of development to the Enlightenment stadial theory, noting that if the child can be a analogy for the development of “savage” nations, then those same “primitive” nations can similarly work as an analogy for the child’s development, suggesting that civilizations’ development in stages mirrors Enlightenment thinkers’ understanding of children’s development from a “primitive” state to a more enlightened adulthood. This leads her to make one of her more important claims, based on work by Herder and Ferguson: progress, for Enlightenment thinkers, depends on “notions of infancy and childhood,” since progress is largely the result of history and continuity, something non-human species do not have. Rowland’s overall claim for the first chapter, then, is that these and other writers are “using childhood and development to articulate new notions of history” (65).

In Chapters Two and Three, “Infancy Poetry and the Origins of Language” and “Becoming Human: Animal, Infant and Developmental Literary Culture in the Romantic Period,” Rowland argues that Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers are extremely concerned with the distinction between humanity and animals, especially regarding communication and language. Since children represent the development of humankind, they also represent the development of language and consciousness, allowing these thinkers to suggest that the difference between animals and humankind is consciousness as expressed through language.

Part 2: Prattle and Trifles

In her shorter second section, “Prattle and Trifles,” Rowland is largely concerned with examining the shift in public opinion towards subject matter and language that might be considered unimportant, non-literary, or “trifling,” especially in Chapters Four, “One Child’s Trifle Is Another Man’s Relic: Popular Antiquarianism and Childhood Formalism” and Five, “Retentive Ears and Prattling Mouths: Popular Antiquarianism and Childhood Memory.” Perhaps the most useful passages in these chapters are her exploration of the image of the “bardic nurse,” who is a maternal figure and a means of transmitting language and stories from one generation to the next, and her survey of the era’s arguments regarding the benefits and disadvantages of rote memorization, especially of ballads, songs, or nursery rhymes. Rowland also uses this second section to situate the discussion of childhood in the context of antiquarianism, noting that unlike those focused on education (such as the Edgeworths), who argued against rote memorization, antiquarians (such as Walter Scott) are more likely to appreciate the potential of children to be collectors of knowledge, even if that knowledge might be considered “trivial.” Antiquarianism, with its focus on the minute and seemingly trivial, is thus particularly suited to a discussion of popular language, ideas, or means of communication (such as nursery rhymes or ballads) that are often dismissed as unimportant.

In her final chapter, “The Layers and Forms of the Child’s Mind: Scott, Wordsworth, and Antiquarianism,” Rowland returns to Wordsworth, focusing especially on his exploration of childhood in his Prologue and Literary Ballads. This, it would seem, is the cornerstone of her entire study. In Wordsworth, she suggests, children’s development is both stadial and historical, but also individual. Because children, as she has argued, are important for their representation of the development of humanity, it is not the significant moments of childhood that are important, but rather Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” which, she says, “simply describe how the ordinary and insignificant events of childhood somehow, for some reason, persist in the memory of the adult,” thus allowing Wordsworth to bring the seemingly trivial into focus in his poetry (261).

Critical Conclusions

Despite the overall persuasiveness of its argument, Romanticism and Childhood might have benefitted from a more consistent discussion of Wordsworth in relation to each section of the article. Rowland also seems to lose track of the idea of childhood at a few points, an odd move in a book that is (perhaps misleadingly) entitled Romanticism and Childhood; this study also lacks clear distinction between Romanticism and Enlightenment. Overall, though, Rowland has successfully accomplished her task of taking the familiar Enlightenment and Romantic ideologies of children and “defamiliarizing” them, and has compellingly presented an argument for childhood’s usefulness in discussing the development of vernacular language (and vice versa).

Works Cited

Rowland, Ann Wierda. Romanticism and Childhood: The Infantilization of British Literary Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Ebook.