The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

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.

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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 lamb and dove, “hell-fire and brimstone streams” to “bright stars, and God’s own beams.” The more the speaker examines worldly existence, the more he values untainted childhood: “Since all that age doth teach, is ill/ Why should I not love childe-hood still?” Unlike the earlier questions, this one has an implied answer. The lessons of age are wrong, and so are the reasons they suggest for giving up childhood’s spiritual state: “Those observations are but foul/ Which makes me wise to lose my soul.”

However, the final stanzas not only celebrate childhood but also pine over its unreachability. It is “a short, swift span” that passes quickly; in one image, virtue is depicted as driven away, weeping like a rejected lover. The only answer, allowing one to understand this “age of mysteries,” is to “live twice”: to be born again in Christ, to become as a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3, Matthew 18:3, Luke 18:17). When the speaker states that he studies “Thee, more than ere I studyed man,” “thee” can mean “God’s face,” childhood’s virtue, and perhaps the scriptures, all at once. This life is “the narrow way,” difficult and disapproved of by the world, but one’s only chance for salvation (Matthew 7:13-14, Luke 13:24).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“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 “through a long night” wishing for the reward of being able to see God as clearly as the bright light of “mid-day.”

More subtly, the poet reinforces the unreachable nature of childhood’s spiritual state by describing it in negative terms: It is “harmless,” “love without lust” and “without self-ends” (that is, unselfish). Even the light is so bright as to make description impossible. Moreover, in the final stanza, all that the speaker can see and study is “Thy edges, and thy bordering light,” while yearning to see “thy Center.” The buried imagery is one of a book, of which the speaker can only perceive the white margins, unable to read the text in the center of the page. The speaker, despite his disdain of the world, is already too far gone to be able to understand or describe what he glimpses, unless he is reborn through Christ.

The poem also demonstrates metaphysical wordplay, such as that on “content” in the first stanza. Similarly, “gravely cast themselves away,” in the third stanza, refers both to the perils of the (misguided) seriousness of adulthood and the literal grave to which the eternal life with Christ is the only alternative. In that same stanza, “Business and weighty action all/ Checking the poor child for his play” refers to serious adults criticizing children (who are actually their spiritual betters); it also implies a metaphor of literal weight, a burden to children that inhibits their play and a contrast to the guardian flight of angels in the next stanza.

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Themes