My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.-William Wordsworth
Buckle down, guys! We’re heading back to class again for today’s entry.
In the past, I’ve managed to draw several parallels between the life and works of Michael Jackson and the life and works of many prominent literary figures. Today I’m going to examine some interesting parallels between the poetic philosophies of William Wordsworth-one of the major Romantic poets-and Michael Jackson. An odd combination, you think? Well, think again!
First of all, let me just say I am a firm believer that things don’t happen purely by coincidence. Just a couple of weeks ago I did an article rebutting Joanna Schaffhausen’s 2003 hit piece, ‘Is Michael Jackson Stuck In Childhood?”
At about the same time, I was also prepping a lecture on William Wordsworth’s poetry that I would be giving in a few days to my current British Lit II class. This is the first semester in a few years that I’ve been assigned to teach British Lit II; in fact, the last time I had taught this course was back in 2007, long before Michael died and long before I had begun my serious scholarly study into his life and work. In the interim, I hadn’t thought much about the connection between Wordsworth’s and Michael’s views on childhood, but as I reread the works of Wordsworth for this course (as I always do, since it’s imperative that I come to any writer’s work with fresh eyes after five years) I was startled by how closely Wordsworth’s views on the necessity of holding onto childlike inocence echoed exactly what Michael Jackson was trying to tell us almost two hundred years later!
It’s interesting to think that, while the words of William Wordsworth on this subject are still being anthologized even today as works worthy of serious academic scholarship, Michael was scorned and ridiculed by the masses for espousing nothing more than the exact, same views!
Too often, the public and the media has done a grave disservice to Michael Jackson by trying to simplify his views on the connection between artistry and innocence into an either/or. This was the whole point of my previous article. Cynics have been trying to prove for decades that Michael’s apparent desire-not to hang onto childhood per se, but to hang onto childlike innocence-had to be the result of either some form of mental regression (i.e, an illness or defect) or else something more sinister. Few seemed to consider that this was an aesthetic CHOICE-the conscious choice of an adult in full control of his faculties, who had discovered that the true key to creativity was in holding onto not only the innocence, but also the reverence, awe, and wonder of childhood.
The above poem by Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold” is one that continues to inspire debate among critics and students alike. Most puzzling to many is the line, “The Child is Father of the Man.” But really, it’s not that hard of a concept to interpret. The entire poem is written from the viewpoint of a man in middle age who is recalling how he viewed the wonders of nature as a child, and is thankful that he has been able to maintain that sense of innocent wonder into his adult years. He implores passionately, “So was it when my life began” (I had the child’s ability to marvel at the beauty of Nature)/”So is it now I am a man” (Miraculously, despite the jadedness and cynicism that comes with adulthood, he has been able to hang onto his reverence and innocent awe)/”So be it when I shall grow old/Or let me die!’ (If there should come a time he should ever lose this innocence, he would rather die first).
That impassioned line is exactly the same sentiment Michael was expressing when he told Martin Bashir that if there were no more children left, he would jump off a bridge. “I’m done.” To some, that statement may have seemed extreme; even a bit bizarre. But it was really just another way of saying what Wordsworth is saying in his poem. If we lose our innocence, we might as well be dead! For Michael, children were the embodiment of that innocence. Without them, we are nothing-nothing but a world of jaded and cynical adults. From the beginning of time, poets, artists, philosophers and great thinkers have urged us to look at the world “through the eyes of a child.” There is good reason for that. Who really wants to look at the world through the eyes of an adult? Knowing all the filth, smut, and greed that would be looking back at us? It’s the child in us that helps us to mainatin some sense of purity; some sense of hope; some sense of magic.
While a lot of critics have their own spin on the line ‘The Child is Father of the Man” the line itself really isn’t that hard to interpret. Religious interpretations aside (and even those are not invalid to my purpose here) it is simply saying that the child we are/were determines the adult we become. Human life is cyclical-the child begats the man (or woman); the adult is simply that same child in a bigger body. We do not serve our purpose, either to Nature or to God, when we allow ourselves as adults to become a separate entity from our childhood selves. In this regard, Wordsworth had more in common with later Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman than to his contemporary Romantics, and was even a bit of an anamoly among them.
When this line was put up for analysis on enotes.com, it was interesting to see the diversity of responses it received! Yet what’s even more interesting is that one could easily take any one of these interpretaions-or all of them!-and see how easily they apply to Michael Jackson. Just glancing at this first page of the discussion, I was able to highlight some interesting parallels (boldfaced emphasis mine):
In “My Heart Leaps Up,” what does Wordsworth mean when he says, “The Child is Father of the man?”
Posted by julieashley1 on September 6, 2008.
High School – 12th Grade
Editor Emeritus, Debater, Dickens, The Bard, Churchill
In his famous ode to nature, William Wordsworth says that the child in every person teaches him to appreciate nature beginning with the simple beauty of rainbows and by implication, other natural wonders. What we think as children will help determine how we think as adults. The lines that follow “the child is the father of the man”, suggest, with almost religious zeal, that he hopes to always love nature as he did as a child.
Posted by ms-mcgregor on September 6, 2008.
College – Junior
Editor, Debater, Expert, Educator, Dickens, The Bard
In addition to the answer above, this line could also be religious in nature, due to “Child” and “Father” being capitalized. We can think of this line as the child is Jesus, the father is God, and man is everyone on Earth, in one interpretation. Also, we can look at it like this: the only way to salvation is through Jesus, according to Christian beliefs, because Jesus was sent to bear all of our sins through his suffering and death. Jesus, the child of God, was the father of men because he came onto this Earth, preached and shared his beliefs about salvation and about God, and died so that his “children” could be saved, much as a father would do if one of his children was in danger of dying or being killed.
Posted by kwoo1213 on September 7, 2008.
In reply to #1: I am little philosophically oriented person. When I read this poem in this light I felt there is a reference to the ETERNAL BLISS. And one would experience this only by aligining and surrendering to NATURE. This line, as well as the whole poem, might be highlighting the ENTERNITY.
Posted by hmashwinkumar on April 5, 2009.
In reply to #1: I am little philosophically oriented person. When I read this poem in this light I felt there is a reference to the ETERNAL BLISS. And one would experience this only by aligining and surrendering to NATURE. This line, as well as the whole poem, might be highlighting the ETERNITY.
Posted by hmashwinkumar on April 5, 2009.
I grew up with lots of childhood issues, which I buried until I was in my late 40’s. These issues dominated much of my adult behavior, especially with my children. With this background I see Wordsworth’s quote as meaning that things we experienced as children, which are still buried within us, play the role of a controlling father to us as adult men. Classic example: “I hate the way my father treated me and I don’t want to treat my children that way, but I can’t seem to help it.”
Posted by jdeegerman on June 25, 2009.
Editor Emeritus, Debater, Expert, Educator, Scribe, Dickens, The Bard
Is so interesting to see how many interpretations we all have about his phrase, which is what makes his poetry so magical and intense as an experience. I feel that, as some have posted, Wordsworth is saying that our heart speaks for our brains, in not such exacting words. If we are children at heart, our inner child will dictate all the great and the wonderful things that we find in life. If we aren’t born with an inner child, our life will lack that, and we might even lose control of it.
Posted by herappleness on June 25, 2009.
eNotes Newbie[ DELETED ]
eNotes Newbie[ DELETED ]
Whren in a College English Lit class we explored the meaning behind Wordsworth’s words “The Child Is The Father Of The Man.” We determinedf that he meant that the Child is born all knowing and it is through experiencing life that we lose that knowlege! That our life experiences make us lose those knowings those memories we are born with because The Child Is The Father Of The Man!
Posted by ladynads on April 28, 2010.
The response of poster #4 reminded me of Michael’s poem “Are You Listening?” with its refrain “From bliss I came/In bliss I’m sustained/To bliss I return…”
Poster #6 also reminded me very much of what Michael said in his speech at Oxford, when he spoke of how his own childhood experiences had shaped the adult he had become and how he was striving to be a much better father to his own children (or at least, a more loving and affectionate father) than his own father had been to him.
In all of these responses, I could hear the very words Michael had echoed so many times coming back, but no one was listening because…well, this guy is freaky and strange, right? So what does he know?
Wordsworth’s poem was actually part of a larger collection entitled “Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood.” Wordswoth stated in a letter from 1814: ‘The poem (“Intimations”) rests entirely on two recollections of childhood, one that of a spendour in the objects of sense which is passed away, and the other an indisposition to bend to the law of death as applying to our particular case. A Reader who has not a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind cannot understand that Poem.” (Damrosch and Dettmar, Masters of British Literature, Vol. B, 272).
Much of Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” is steeped in a single, simplistic view: When we lose touch with childhood, we have not only disconnected from our innocence, but also our own immortality (for we are never as far removed from the notion of death as we are in childhood).
In the letter quoted above, Wordsworth drew on another one of his own verses to further illustrate the concept of “Ode”,” a poem entitled “We Are Seven”:
————–A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?-William Wordsworth
Most of us can still recall what a traumatic experience it was a s a child to first learn the concept of death. However that realization may have come about-perhaps the death of a beloved pet, or a close relative, or even, God forbid, a fellow playmate our own age-it’s often for many the first, jarring initiation into the world of adulthood. A world where we realize that nothing is permanent; nothing guaranteed-except death. A world where we begin to lose touch with bliss.
Using his own, earlier poem “The Child is Father of the Man” almost as a kind of echo from a tale long past, the narrator in “Ode” writes almost wearily:
Let’s return to that last line: “The things which I have seen I can now see no more.” This is what lies in store for us once we have lost touch with our inner child; this is what the loss of bliss entails!
You can also read a very excellent analysis of Wordsworth’s poem here in Robin Bates’s “Coping With The Loss of Childhood”:
Which brings us back to Michael. Was he, in a sense, not only trying to hang onto bliss, but also to immortality? This is going-out-on-a-limb stuff, but perhaps not as far fetched as it sounds. When we look at all of the humanitarian work he did for terminally ill children (Ryan White comes to mind as I was reading Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven”) we realize this is someone who’s heart was literally bleeding for all of the world’s children who were losing their innocence to the greatest thief of all.
Generally speaking, “Man In The Mirror” (the VH-1 TV movie, not the song) was an abomination-a movie so horribly bad that even Michael himself broke his usual reticence to publicly condemn it. However, there is one scene that always haunted me, in which the fictional Michael reacts to the death of a terminally ill child who has visited Neverland (I suspect the boy in the film may have been a fictionalized representation of Ryan White). Just look over the bad acting and horrifically corny dialog; the power is in the visual of the scene, which perfectly captures the horrific juxtaposition of childhood joy and innocence with death and is probably the only scene in the whole movie that actually worked (and to save you the nausea of watching the whole clip, I’ll just tell you that the scene in question begins at 2:34):
Now let’s have a look at the real Michael, saving the life of a dying child in Budapest (I know this will be familiar to most fans, but I’m posting this for the benefit of anyone who isn’t familiar with the story of Bela Farkas):
But the stories of Michael’s legendary generosity and humanitarian efforts to help dying children don’t stop there. There are far too many stories to even begin to post them all here. Although equating Michael with Peter Pan was, I think, largely a media exaggeration, there’s no denying that he was attracted to the idea of Neverland-a magical place where innocence is never lost, where no on grows old, but more importantly, perhaps, where no one ever has to die.
Michael wasn’t naive enough to believe he could actually create such a reality. But I think that he was definitely attuned to Wordsworth’s belief that we have to remain as a child in order to be “Father of the Man” and to maintain our Eternal Bliss.
In Part Two of this series, I will take a closer look at the parallels between Wordsworth and Michael as fathers themselves, and will also examine another Wordsworth poem aptly entitled…”Michael!”