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  • "The Children Sport Upon the Shore":Romantic Vision in Two Twentieth-Century Picture Books
  • James Holt McGavran Jr. (bio)

Wordsworth's outrageous, profound inversion, "The Child is father of the Man" ("My Heart Leaps Up"), may not by itself have created the generation gap; but it epitomizes the Romantic tendency to polarize childhood and adult life—a tendency still present in late twentieth-century visions of childhood as either dream or nightmare or both. The enduring Romantic image of the child—whole, pure, radiant, unbroken, almost unspoken—emphasizes by its very sublimity the abyss both Blake and Wordsworth discovered between their chimney-sweeps and cottage girls and the worlds and words of the grownup. Major gaps open between the two visionaries themselves, however, regarding the nature and extent of their dependence on their powers of perception.

Preferring the spiritual reality of his visions, Blake repudiated the material world: "We are led to Believe a Lie,/When we see With not Thro' the Eye" ("Auguries of Innocence"); nevertheless, he commanded the visual arts of drawing, painting and engraving as well as poetry for the exploration and communication of his visions. The laborious copper-engraving process he learned as a youth must have seemed the antithesis of the visions themselves; yet it afforded him both a discipline and a means of expression denied to Wordsworth, who had no other recourse if words failed him. Furthermore, Blake typically played the visual against the verbal in his illuminated works, creating rich ambiguities that ultimately enhance his ability to communicate his visions. At least partly for these reasons Blake could confront his contrary states of innocence and experience with relative serenity and pass beyond them to higher levels of imaginative vision. In the verse letter to Thomas Butts, Blake articulates his double vision in a well-known description of a thistle:

With my inward Eye 'tis an old Man grey;With my outward, a Thistle across my way.

And he concluded the same letter:

Now I a fourfold vision see,And a fourfold vision is given to me.'Tis fourfold in my supreme delightAnd threefold in soft Beulah's nightAnd twofold Always. May God us keepFrom Single vision and Newton's sleep!

Blake's fear of the scientific observer's supposedly unbiased objectivity—"Newton's sleep!"—is aptly enough a fear of solipsism a well; there must be a dialogue between internal and external realities, the old man and the thistle, before visionary advancement is possible, before one can hope to build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

Wordsworth knew this fear also: indeed for him and most other Romantic and post-Romantic writers the gap between subject and object tended always to widen, the elusive "celestial light" of early vision increasingly shadowed in adult life and language by the "light of common day" ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood," Brooks 128). Bound to the material world by the love his mother taught him before her early death (Prelude 2 [1850]: 232-84), the orphan Wordsworth was condemned to search in and through nature—the material world of death that Blake despised—for those few shining moments, "Gleams like the flashing of a shield" (Prelude 1: 586), that might show him his path back and down time and space while simultaneously lighting his way into the future as man and poet. Although heavily dependent upon his own power of perception—and the eyes and words of his more observant sister Dorothy—Wordsworth, like Blake, knew [End Page 170] physical sight alone to be extremely limiting, reductive; it was better understood as a metaphor descriptive of a deeper, more creative level of contemplation. In "Tintern Abbey" he praises "That serene and blessed mood" through which

   we are laid asleepIn body, and become a living soul:While with an eye made quiet by the powerOf harmony, and the deep power of joy,We see into the life of things.

(lines 45-49)

Wordsworth remembers these moments of vision—"spots of time," he names them in The Prelude ) 12: 208-23)—hoping to recreate them subsequently in poetry through the process he referred to, in the 1800 Preface...


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pp. 170-175
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