Ann Wierda Rowland. Romanticism and Childhood: The Infantilization of British Literary Culture.
Wordsworth's inventive adage on childhood--"The Child is Father of the Man"--has by now become a familiar topos. For Wordsworth, this figuration of the child as generative source represented the poet's idealized vision of a primitive, innocent, yet profound state of being. It is from this famous phrase that Ann Wierda Rowland initiates her recent study, Romanticism and Childhood: The Infantilization of British Literary Culture. Because Wordsworth's child embodies those qualities we associate with Romantic poetry--imagination, innocence, sentiment, spirituality, naturalism Rowland sets out to uncover the rhetorical precedents that made Wordsworth's seemingly paradoxical articulation an epistemological possibility at the end of the eighteenth century. She aims to track the history of an idea: the Enlightenment search for origin stories that brought together a discourse of childhood and infancy with the history of history itself.
Wordsworth's ideological child was not produced in a vacuum. By tracing writings across the Scottish Enlightenment to Romantic-era antiquarianism, Rowland demonstrates how Wordsworth's notion was not only possible, but also inevitable. She begins with Wordsworth as well as with Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose parenthetical aside in Defence of Poetry established yet another important paradigm: "the savage is to ages what the child is to years." For Wordsworth and Shelley, as well as for eighteenth-century thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, and others, the imagery of childhood (the infant, the savage) epitomized the foundations and beginnings of human culture. Through its analogical links to the savage, the infant formed the iconic roots out of which European nations sprouted.
Even though Wordsworth and Coleridge had enthusiastically experimented with child-like rustic and primitive diction in their Lyrical Ballads, by the time Romanticism's second generation rolled around, this seemingly rampant "infantilization" of literary culture was met with disparagement. Byron haughtily dismissed Wordsworth's "namby-pamby" versification, and newspapers complained frequently about the simplistic nursery-rhyme stylistics then becoming popular. The new vogue for naturalism and primitivism, Rowland surmises, threatened poetry's ethos as a masculinized form of high art. Taking these complaints of "infantilization" seriously, however, Rowland confronts such early nineteenth-century critiques in order to suggest that the fashion for the language of the nursery carried with it a larger cultural inheritance. The rhetoric of youth signified a shift in the nation's self-consciousness, placing this literary discourse not only within the contexts of a burgeoning "discovery" and "invention" of childhood itself--a sociocultural development that has been theorized elsewhere by Philippe Aries, Lawrence Stone, Hugh Cunningham, Judith Plotz, and Colin Heywood, among others--but also in terms of the philosophical and historiographical registers that shaped the identity of the British nation.
Building upon prior historical studies of both children (as lived actualities) and childhood (as a cultural construction), Rowland examines the literary and intellectual culture that invested in this new rhetoric of infancy. Her premises are twofold: first, that infancy emerged as a cultural paradigm across eighteenth-century historicism to denote the origins of civilization and the beginnings of human development; second, that Romantic writers used this rhetoric to deal with the popular body of "trivial" literature such as ballads. Her book accordingly divides into two sections. Rowland grounds both halves in a single foundational metaphor that underpins much of the writings she incorporates: an Enlightenment analogy that links the development of an individual human's lifecycle (from infancy to childhood to maturity to old age) to the development of a civilization (from primitive to pastoral to agricultural to commercial--the four stages of historical stadial theory). In this structural paradigm, the trajectory of human history was seen as developing out of primitive states of savagery just as the trajectory of one human's adult life develops out of its primitive state of childhood. The alignment between the individual lifespan and the course of history formed, Rowland suggests, a conceptual framework that would last well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and provided the theoretical premises for many new disciplines, from anthropology and sociology to biology.
Infancy, Rowland argues, thus "emerge[d] as the dominant rhetorical strategy for figuring origins" in the eighteenth century (34). The first half of her study, "History of an Analogy," considers how Shelley's association between savagery and childhood substantiated much of Enlightenment historicism. Surveying writings by Rousseau, Smith, Adam Ferguson, Edmund Burke, John Locke, and many others, Rowland isolates two ways in which infancy functioned in the historiographical method. On the one hand, infancy was aligned with the present modern age as being an inheritor of the past, representing a current moment that is educated and cultivated by the wisdom and achievements of its ancestors. In this metaphor, ancient man fathers the child of modernity. On the other hand, infancy was linked with that ancestral past, placing the modern period as the teleological (adult) endpoint that matures out of its distant and naive history. The ancient child grows up into--and, perhaps, fathers--the man of modernity. Childhood was thus conceived at both ends of the historical spectrum: as past and present, as source and product, as seed and fruit of the tree of human history. Wordsworth was able to figure the child as father of the man because the child was already being figured as both the origin and culmination of cultural progress.
The three chapters that constitute the first half of Romanticism and Childhood explore these master narratives. Children and infants are linked in philosophical treatises and pedagogical theories to native, foundational peoples that might be found concurrently in other parts of the world, particularly in the Americas. This rhetorical search for origins grounded itself in a discursive rubric that aligned childhood with savagery, propelling imperial explorations by assuming that the nation's own (unwritten, unrecorded) past could perhaps be witnessed by observing other "primitive" cultures still in existence elsewhere on the globe. By understanding the one, it was assumed, we might understand the other; the rhetoric of infancy and childhood justified such associative leaps. Turning from historicism to linguistic theory, Rowland discusses how children were connected not only with these native peoples but also with animals, as children's guttural, nonverbal vocalizations paralleled the primitive developments of language in its originary state. In one of Rowland's most memorable readings, she examines the children's primers of Anna Barbauld, which suggest to young readers their kinship with and their superiority to the animal kingdom ("Monkeys are very comical. You are very comical sometimes"); lessons in comparing pictures of animals with their names taught young children the sophisticated distinction between brands of signifiers ("Well, then, you see that the picture of a horse is really like a horse, but the word is not") (132). Barbauld's pedagogically-laden primers provocatively illustrate Rowland's central claims: children were imagined to initiate rudimentary cultural and linguistic learning, while also registering possibilities for future progress. Such theories saw the affective soundings of infancy as embracing original forms of poetry as well, the kind of poetic enunciation existing prior to our more restrictive definition of structured versification.
In the second half of the book, "Prattles and Trifles," Rowland extends this Enlightenment hunt for origins and its privileging of the primitive and native into the domain of Romantic antiquarianism. In collecting popular ballads and folklore, the antiquarian project paradoxically strove to preserve oral stories from the past while being wary of their often violent or illicit content. Romantic writers used the rhetoric of the nursery to grapple with these tensions. Just as Enlightenment historicism looked laterally to other primitive cultures in order to look back into the national past, Romantic antiquarianism looked inwardly to a writer's own personal history in order to gaze back into the history of the nation. Stories preserved in the nursery by nursemaids and mothers represented a degenerative process in which tales first created by the educated upper class had been passed down through generations, ending up as simple nursery tales long since dissociated from their original contexts. By recollecting these youthful mementos, antiquarians could recreate the national history and its trajectory of forward momentum, turning the "trifles" of the cradle into the "relics" of the state.
Rowland has recovered for us a significant framework for comprehending the philosophical and historical backdrop to late eighteenth-century literature. For a project that aims to reconcile two recognizable phrases from two recognizable Romantics, however, Rowland's study considers surprisingly little poetry. Beyond early references to Wordsworth and Shelley, the first explicit consideration of poems does not occur until Coleridge's "The Nightingale" and "Frost at Midnight" appear--briefly--more than one hundred pages into the book. The one exception is her final chapter, which explores Scott's Waverley novels and Wordsworth's Ballads and The Prelude as engaging in the antiquarian mode of history-making through personal and cultural memories. Nevertheless, what Rowland offers here is a wide-ranging investigation into the theoretical frameworks for Romanticism's preoccupation with the child. She provides a fresh lens with which we can return to well-wrought phrases and long-familiar texts. The potential payoff for rereading specific instances of Romantic poetry via this astounding intellectual history is a seed that Rowland has firmly planted. Future scholars will cultivate and enjoy its eventual fruits.
Talia Vestri Croan