The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Wordsworth's "Immortal Ode." ESSAY II.

Volume 1, 1890, pg. 944

I remember, when my first baby was but a few weeks old, a dear friend of mine, who had taken the small bundle of humanity in its long white nightgown on her knee, and was studying very tenderly the funny little solemn face, repeating softly to herself--

            Not in entire forgetfulness,
                    . . . . . . . . .
    But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
            From God, who is our Home.

I felt a new reverence for the tiny creature, and a sort of awe as I looked into the baby eyes, so full, seemingly, of incommunicable thought. I did not know my Wordsworth well in those days, so I said, rather vaguely, "O, that's from the 'Ode on Immortality,' isn't it?" "It is." said my friend; "and you can't read it too much or too often now you have a baby." So, often and much I have read it, and dearly have I learned to love it, though I am afraid that "throwing light on it" (as I suppose "illustrate" to mean) is anything but an easy task.

Stanza V. deals at once with the problem of pre-existence. The divine origin--one might say with reverence--the incarnation of the heaven-born soul in the human flesh. We come from God, and we return to God, and the soul knows no rest until it finds Him. It is conscious of its own completeness. "The soul is not born; it does not die; it was not produced from any one. Nor was any produced from it. Unborn, eternal, it is not slain though the body is slain." It is not the immortality, but the eternity of the soul. Our birth is "a sleep and a forgetting"--there can be no remembrance of this pre-existence, almost I had said no consciousness; but it is the subtle hints and unexplained warnings of this consciousness that Wordsworth is demonstrating. "Not in entire forgetfulness"--to the little child nothing is strange. I believe the intuitive sense of a Divine Fatherhood is common to most children. They have a confidence in protection, often a sense of unity with things unseen, that they are hardly fully conscious of memory of the divine heritage becomes dimmer. It is almost as if one said--The personal self, the individual creature, with moral sense of good or ill, is for this world;--underneath our individuality lies our spiritual, or real self,--the impersonal spirit, beyond morality, beyond striving after goodness,--which is but an intimation of our having descended from good. The idea of this pre-existence of the soul has been thus expressed very beautifully--"The soul consists first of harmony and rhythm, and ere it gave itself to the body had listened to the divine harmony. Therefore it is that when, after having come into a body, it hears such melodies as most preserve the divine footstep of harmony, it embraces such, and recollects from them the divine harmony, and is impelled to it, and finds its home in it, and shares of it as much as it can share." And Plato in the Timaeus, when speaking of the universe, gives us the same idea. "The Deity," he tells us, "constituted the soul both in age and excellence prior to and older than the body, as being the proper mistress and ruler of its subject (the body)." To take a more modern view, and from a different point, I quote from Carpenter's "Mental Physiology." "All those" says Dr. J. D. Morell, "who have sown a remarkable appreciation of from and beauty, date their first impressions from a period lying far behind the existence of definite ideas or verbal instruction. The germs of all their aesthetic impressions manifested themselves, first of all, as a spontaneous Feeling or Instinct, which from the earliest dawn of reason was awakened by the presentation of the phenomena which correspond objectively with it in the Universe."

Are not these some of the "shadowy recollections"? Whence do these germs of esthetic impressions originate? From inherited instinct of love of the beautiful? In many in whom it is dominant, this instinct is difficult to trace in their immediate forefathers; but if it is so traced, and we may call it the inherited instinct born of accumulated experience, still, it seems to me the origin of the idea is unaccounted for. Indeed, the sense of the beautiful has always appeared to me to point to man's divine origin. The aesthetic emotion, the indefinable sensation of enjoyment, which the satisfaction of his taste creates, and the longing which he possesses for such satisfaction noticeable in all tastes concerning the ear or the eye; this artistic faculty, peculiar to man, is surely a glimpse of the "vision splendid" which, unless developed more fully in exceptional natures (and then only in part), fades into the light of common day, as the man comes in touch with this working-day world. (See the same idea in one of Robertson's sermons.--ED.)

In Stanza VI. we see the embodied spirit drawn into the thoughts and ways of his adopted country, earth, his foster mother seeking with "pleasures of her own" to make him forget whence he came: seeking to satisfy the immortal with the perishable, that which is spiritual with that which is material, and with her enjoyments to console him for the "glories he hath known." It is as well to not that it is "earth" and not "nature" of which Wordsworth speaks here. Nature is always to Wordsworth the "garment of God," the "open secret" by which we may discover Him. I suppose by "earth" here he must mean the surroundings and moral atmosphere into which the child is born. It is as well to bear these lines in mind when we are seeking to impress the small new-comer with our own individuality, and our own ideas as to his manner of development.

Stanza VII. is the picture of the little child, busy with his endless imitations of manhood; his eagerness to grow beyond babyhood, and to leave behind him the quiet period of "being" for the restless activity of "doing." We all know the time when the softly-rounded outlines of babyhood are giving place to the angular curves of boyhood, and the small soft being whom we loved to kiss and wonder over is developing into the restless active creature whose limbs seem never weary nor his brain ever tired with his ceaseless imitations of the future years. Some fresh play he is always making for himself from the doings of the older people around him, as though he were rehearsing life before he entered on it; and 'tis now the care of those around him that his "dream of human life" should be worthy of his high destiny. This is the time in which we may mould his fancies and train his aspirations towards that which is noble and honorable in this present world, for as he rehearses life so he will play it later.

Plato in his "Republic" speaks of the importance of telling children stories of beauty and truth so as to arouse this imitative faculty and fit them to meet life with a high ideal. "Know you not," he says, "that first of all we tell children fables?. . . And know you not, that the beginning of every work is then that particular impression is most easily instilled and formed, which any one may wish to imprint on the individual. Entirely so. Shall we then let children hear any kind of fables composed by any kind of persons, and receive into their minds opinions in a great measure contrary to those which we think they should have when they are grown up? We should by no means allow it. First of all, then, as it seems, we must exercise control over the fable-makers, and whatever beautiful fable they may invent we should select, and what is not so we should reject; and we are to prevail on nurses and mothers to repeat to the children such fables as are selected, and fashion their minds by fables, much more than their bodies by their hands." The exceeding beauty of the life in which this ideal is realised, and the youthful hopes and aspirations fulfilled, is drawn for us by Wordsworth in his poem "The Happy Warrior":--

    Who is the happy warrior? Who is he
    That every man in arms house wish to be?
    It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
    Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
    Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought."

It is at this time in the child's life that we may observe any special tastes or tendencies which are, as yet, in a rudimentary stage. The power of a mother possesses, at this time, to develop or restrain is indeed very great; so great, that one sometime pauses, awe-stricken, at the breadth of her influence. If she be a "wasteful woman," to use Coventry Patmore's phrase, how exceeding great the loss! but if, on the other hand, she be one who, with thoughtful wisdom and prayerful love, has accepted her rightful place in her child's affections, then, indeed, the fault lies with her, if his ambition be not awards that which is truly good.

The part that fathers might play here, if they would, is not so often fully recognised. The little lad who tells his comrades with such pride what "Daddy" does, or what "my father" says, and is all day long trying to imitate his father, is unconsciously moulding himself by his example. Fathers influence more silently, but none the less surely, than do mothers. Stanza VIII. is an invocation to the little child,

    Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
            Thy soul's immensity--

the child, who is the latest comer from the Imperial Palace; over whom his mortality still broods; and who has an intuitive sense of the Divine truths--

    Which we are toiling all our lives to find.

Notice the next line--

    In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave.

which needs careful reading. We are in the darkness now; we return to the Light from whence we came. The stanza concludes with wonder that we should so soon hasten from the beautiful freedom of childhood to the time when we are bound down by the things of this world. It is customary to speak of childhood as a time of great happiness. Whether this is so is indeed an open question; for my part I think children suffer intensely, for their idea of time is a boundless present, and they cannot yet say, as we men and women can, "This also will pass;" they are often prone to be over-anxious and over-sensitive, already anticipating their share in the worry of life. But it is anticipation; a child's life is free from the customs which lie upon us with so heavy a weight. How free we are as children we only begin to realise when we take our places in this world, and our share of its work and its anxieties its limitations and its ambitions.

To remain untrammeled is not possible for us; every step we take towards our manhood puts upon us a fresh yoke. The child is eager to seize his boyhood, and the youth his manhood; it is only the man that recognises that he has left his blessedness behind him.

    Pause and luxuriate in thy sunny plain;
            Loiter, enjoy!
    Once past, thou never wilt come back again,
            A second boy.
    The hills of manhood wear a noble face
            When seen from far:
    The mist of light from which they take their grace
            Hides what they are.

    . . . . . . .

    Pause while thou mayst, nor deem that fate thy gain
            Which, all too fast,
    Will drive thee forth from this delicious plain
            A man at last


Typed by kithenry, Apr 2018