The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This religious poem by metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan idealizes childhood as a time of purity and superior insight, contrasted to the sin and misleading predilections of adulthood. The narrator wishes to recapture this innocence and piety, but he is able to see it only “as through a glass darkly,” tainted by years in the corrupting adult world. Thus the poem is both hopeful and sadly nostalgic, since it describes a state of holiness that exists in this world but is unreachable to the speaker. The only hope, offered at the end through a biblical quotation, is to emulate the state when he finds it—as in the play of children or in the scriptures of the church.

The first stanza, beginning “I cannot reach it,” both describes the ideal state of childhood and expresses the impossibility of an adult even fully understanding it. If the speaker could recapture that view, he states, he would surely go to heaven, as easily as children play games—in fact, through playing, instead of through suffering. “With their content too in my power” is a play on words: the content (substance) of the childlike thoughts would make him content (satisfied) on his path to heaven.

However, the next stanza makes clear how debased, even dangerous, the adult state is. The questions beginning the stanza do not ask whether adult men are corrupt, but why. Humankind’s perverse nature (as expressed in Romans 7:19 and John 3:19) leads him to prefer the wolf to the...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Childe-hood” is composed in rhymed couplets, grouped in stanzas of varying lengths. The first stanza establishes the desired goal: recapturing the innocent piety and spiritual insight of childhood. Next, a longer stanza depicts the many barriers to this goal that are created by adult nature as well as the lessons taught by the fallen world. Finally, four shorter stanzas in more traditional lengths—three quatrains and a sestet—try to balance these two and find some solution.

Metaphysical poetry such as Vaughan’s is known for its intellectual complexity conveyed through striking (sometimes incongruous) imagery; in “Childe-hood,” this is seen in the references to, and often the reversal of, biblical imagery. In the second stanza, men embrace thorns, not in altruistic suffering as Christ did, but because of the “ill” lessons that this world has taught them. That stanza concludes by comparing the lure of these lessons with the temptation of Christ, when Satan told Jesus to jump off a cliff so the angels could hold him up. Unlike Christ, people too often give in, their dedication to “the world” leading them to “gravely cast themselves away.”

Vaughan uses imagery of light for childhood and darkness for the adult state. In the first stanza childhood is described as a bright light, “white designs” that “dazzle” the adult eye, no longer accustomed to such spiritual brilliance. In the final stanza the speaker studies...

(The entire section is 487 words.)