Fear not, dear readers! I do not intend to launch into an apostrophe about how we ought to "see the World through the eyes of a child." I am simply reporting a fact. As for reconciling how we experience the World as children with how we experience it as adults, I would refer you to William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." I cannot hope to improve upon that.
The morning after my fleeting return to childhood, I happened upon this:
Escape at Bedtime
The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne'er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.
The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.
Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses (Longmans, Green 1885).
I am particularly fond of ". . . and the pail by the wall/Would be half full of water and stars." A friend who read the manuscript of A Child's Garden of Verses at Stevenson's request had proposed a revision to the lines. Stevenson's response is worth noting:
"For line 12 [Sidney] Colvin suggested . . . 'Twinkled half full' instead of 'Would be half full.' RLS sharply rejected this: '"Twinkled" is just the error; to the child the stars appear to be there; any word that suggests illusion is a horror'."
Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003), page 364.
Exactly. The World of the child is one of wonderment and enchantment and mystery. Anything is possible.
William Miller Frazer (1864-1961), "A West Coast Fishing Village"
Stevenson's poem put me in mind of this:
Wide are the meadows of night,
And daisies are shining there,
Tossing their lovely dews,
Lustrous and fair;
And through these sweet fields go,
Wanderers amid the stars --
Venus, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune,
Saturn, Jupiter, Mars.
Attired in their silver, they move,
And circling, whisper and say,
Fair are the blossoming meads of delight
Through which we stray.
Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).
As in "Escape at Bedtime," the World of "Wanderers" is an enchanted and enchanting place. Stevenson's "thousands of millions of stars" have been transformed into daisies shining in "the meadows of night." A lovely image. I am reminded of two instances in which the image is reversed: Thomas Hardy's "constellated daisies" on "the grassy ground" ("The Rambler") and Andrew Young's "The stars are everywhere to-night,/Above, beneath me and around;/They fill the sky with powdery light/And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;/For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star" ("Daisies"). (There is never an end to the ways in which poets invite us to see the World, is there?)
But that is not all: an enchanted and enchanting World is a World of mystery. "But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,/And the stars going round in my head." "And through these sweet fields go,/Wanderers amid the stars . . . And circling, whisper and say,/Fair are the blossoming meads of delight/Through which we stray." Where is our place in this World of stars and planets and daisies? A child's question. An adult's question.
[A side-note: I like the fact that de la Mare and Stevenson do not patronize the children for whom they write. (The same is true of Christina Rossetti.) I also like the fact that "Escape at Bedtime" and "Wanderers" could be mistaken for "adult poems" if one encountered them outside the context of a book of "children's verse." (This is true of a great many of the "children's poems" written by de la Mare, Stevenson, and Rossetti.) Of course, modern ironists might scoff at this latter assertion, but they have ironized themselves out of Beauty and Truth long ago, haven't they? Alas, there is no hope for them, so knowing and so undeceived. Their World is disenchanted.]
William Miller Frazer, "East Linton Pastoral Landscape"
A disenchanted World holds no mystery. Where do we come from and whither do we go? Once again, this is both a child's question and an adult's question. Early and late, it is a question one asks in an enchanted World.
Often I've heard the Wind sigh
By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
What it said.
Nobody knows what the wind is,
Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
That covers me.
And so we live under deep water,
All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes.
Is this a poem for children or a poem for adults? A passage from another context comes to mind:
"Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation."
Walter Pater, from "Conclusion," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 250.
I would suggest that we may substitute "poetry" for "philosophy" in Pater's sentence. Whether "Nobody Knows" is a "children's poem" or an "adult's poem" is thus of no moment.
William Miller Frazer, "Morning, Newburgh-on-Tay"
"Escape at Bedtime," "Wanderers," and "Nobody Knows" carry us off into the vast and unknowable cosmic mystery of the World. This is a fine thing. Now and then. But most of our life consists of making it through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon (to borrow from Walker Percy). Yet the quotidian (not a pejorative term) is a vast and unknowable mystery as well, isn't it?
The World is as it was when we were children. It is still here in all of its enchantment and mystery, in all of its beautiful particulars. How we experienced the World as a child may sometimes return to us in evanescent moments of clarity, shot through with emotion. This is a wonderful occurrence. Like the sudden return of how it felt to fall in love for the first time. The heart catches in the throat. Ah, that was it! But there is no going back.
This is no cause for sadness or despair. Our daily task is to be attentive, receptive, and, above all, grateful. An enchanted or a disenchanted World? The choice is ours.
I walked as a boy by evergreen hedges
And glancingly fingered their leaves as I passed;
Pictures in colour rose fluttering from them
Complete with accurate field notes of song.
I listened delighted to easy lessons
In a high summer school of brilliant birds --
If this were learning I wanted to be
A scholar of evergreen hedges for ever!
Clifford Dyment (1914-1971), Collected Poems (J. M. Dent 1970).
William Miller Frazer, "A Lincolnshire Fen"