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Wordsworth's Anecdote for Fathers: Analysis & Concept

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will cover William Wordsworth's poem 'Anecdote for Fathers', printed in 1798 in 'Lyrical Ballads'. We'll explore the context, form, content, and meaning of the poem.

Context

How many times have you witnessed an artist contrast the simple wisdom of children with the folly of corrupt adults? Many artists throughout history have portrayed issues such as wars and poverty as the consequence of adults losing their youthful innocence and curiosity. One terrific example of this is William Wordsworth's poem 'Anecdote for Fathers', which was originally published in 1798 in an influential collection of poems titled Lyrical Ballads.

Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of what is known as the Romantic era of literature. The start of Romantic literature was the end of Neoclassical literature, which had begun in 1660 and emphasized the importance of reason and logic. The Neoclassical era witnessed the birth of modern science and what is known as the Industrial Revolution, a period of technological improvement and economic growth that lasted from 1760 to around 1830. The Industrial Revolution produced larger factories and cities, and although a handful of people grew wealthy during this period, a significant part of Europe's population suffered from poverty, sickness, pollution, and poor working conditions. Romantic poets saw these social problems as evidence of the failures of the Neoclassical philosophy and poetry that emphasized reason and science.

This image illustrates the changing English landscape that took place from the late 18th century through the mid 19th century. Note the way that the serene countryside is contrasted with the pollution of the city in the distance.
Industrial Revolution

In contrast to the Neoclassical emphasis on strict logic and reason, Romantic writers praised imagination, nature, and simplicity. Many of Wordsworth's poems, for example, are set in rural areas and portray the return to an earlier and more agrarian lifestyle as desirable. Additionally, it's fairly common to find Romantic poets depicting a more childlike perspective towards the world as a solution to the problems caused by formal reason and science.

Synopsis

The poem begins with a father and his five-year-old son strolling through an English countryside:

I have a boy of five years old;

His face is fair and fresh to see;

His limbs are cast in beauty's mould,

And dearly he loves me.

One morn we strolled on our dry walk,

Our quiet home all full in view,

And held such intermitted talk

As we are wont to do. (1-8)

It's a beautiful day and the father is casually talking to his son and reminiscing about a few places that he's lived. As the poem continues, the speaker begins thinking back to Kilve, an English village, and contrasts Kilve with the countryside in which he and his son are now walking, Liswyn. At one point the father looks at his son and asks him if he'd rather be in Kilve or Liswyn, to which the son replies that he'd rather live at Kilve. This confuses the father, who presses the boy to find out why he feels this way. Although hesitant at first, the boy eventually tells his father he prefers Kilve because there was no 'weather-cock,' or weather vane, like there is in Liswyn. The poem then ends with the father praising the lesson that his boy has just taught him.

This painting of Wordsworth portrays him in a natural landscape, a particularly insightful setting considering Neoclassical poets were often pictured sitting in refined, aristocratic environments.
William Wordsworth

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