The Swing, Fragonard, Wallace Collection

The Seven Ages of Man … The Schoolboy

Shakespeare’s schoolboy, circa 1600, “with his satchel. And shining morning face, creeping like snail. Unwillingly to school”; William Blake’s schoolboy, 1758, “but to go to school on a summer morn, oh it drives all joy away”, “How can a bird that is born for joy, sit in a cage and sing”.

Both with the same message, but 150 years apart, these are lines that jar however with current thinking and indeed the relief that schools are open again after lockdown.

For Shakespeare, we can attribute his lines to poetic licence. William Blake, however, was arguing a point of view that needs further explanation. He was advancing the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss thinker and philosopher (1712-1778) who was the talk of London in the 1760s. He felt that a child should receive as little formal education as possible.

The innocence with which a child was born, which was God given, should be preserved throughout childhood; this natural state should continue for as long as possible, since society was bound to corrupt the child later in life. Child labour, in jobs like climbing and sweeping chimneys, was rife throughout London at that time and the better part of a century after.

Blake was a forerunner of the Romantic movement. He stood in awe of nature; the importance of self, and the value of emotion and imagination were of fundamental importance to him. Rousseau’s call for man to be free, set out in the Social Contract of 1762, echoed in the American Declaration of Independence 1776 and with Robespierre in the French Revolution of 1789.

It was Einstein who said, 150 years later, “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Blake and the Romantic poets would have agreed with him entirely. A young student’s life should be packed with imagination; bad schooling would only tether the bird in the cage. The English Romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley lauded the role of nature. Wordsworth saw in the child’s imagination a manifestation of God. “The child is the best philosopher; a child is nearer heaven than a man”.

A few days ago, I was sent a clip of my eldest grandchild dutifully washing and dusting his wooden scooter; 30 years hence doubtless imagining his Porsche! This was the imagination Blake would have praised so highly.

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) was a stereotype artistically gifted Victorian. His picture by Sargent is how every Victorian father would wish to see himself. He was also a devout Christian, converting to Catholicism in the grief of losing his first wife.

His poem “The Toys” suggests many religious overtones. Beyond the remorse he feels for striking his son, we are asked to see a vision of God, benevolent and merciful and forgiving of the sons and mankind’s disobedience. Here the Christian belief of God as the father of all men unlocks the inner meaning. We continuously disobey God, yet we are continuously forgiven.

All parents will have felt, if they had the fortune to father children, the unworldly feeling of calm that forgiveness brings. The pathos is heightened in the poem by the list of inconsequential treasures that the child has laid out beside the bed to comfort him during his period of disgrace.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Where Go the Boats” is of a different genre but equally imaginative. It comes from the book “A Child’s Garden of Verses” which Stevenson wrote in 1885. The style in which he wrote the 65 poems was that of a young poet, almost a child, writing for other children. This one is my favourite.

There is a bittersweet taste to this poem which haunts me every time I read it. The voyage of the ship I sense as a voyage of the child to manhood.

In the line “other little children / Shall bring my boats ashore” is the recognition by the narrator that the boy’s childhood days are not limitless, and will come to an abrupt end sometime with the reality of adult life. Stevenson captures, with great sensitivity, the one-way ticket of youth in this poem.

He also knew that he himself held a one-way ticket from his beloved Scotland as a result of his tuberculosis. Four years after he wrote this poem, he found himself with his wife in Samoa and was persuaded to settle there. This was to be his final resting place. I have visited his gracious colonial home which has now been restored. One is escorted through the rooms by Samoan children, all familiar with his verses; a very special memorial to a very imaginative children’s poet.

Finally, to the painting of “The Swing”, and an explanation as to why this world-famous Fragonard should be illustrating these schoolboy poems at all! I used to live very close to the Wallace Collection in London, where this painting and the “Laughing Cavalier” are of world renown.

Seeking to introduce a feminine angle into Shakespeare’s male seven ages of man, I thought of a school girl, and I thought of this painting. But this is a very demure young lady and she is far too old to be properly included. In fact, she was the mistress of the Baron de St Julien, a notorious French libertine of the period. The original commission had been given to Doyon who had turned it down in favour of Fragonard, whose career thereupon was made.

Painted in 1759, the same year as Blake’s “Schoolboy” poem, this is considered the height of the Rococo style. A highly risqué subject was chosen, since in 18th century parlance, a swing was the metaphor used for an unchaperoned meeting. In the picture, a young lover, the Baron, is in the undergrowth in the bottom left of the picture. Cupid looks on amused; the cuckolded husband is left pushing the swing. To underline the illicit nature of the meeting home, the courtesan throws off her pink shoe.

Notwithstanding my mistake as to the age of the young lady, or why she was on the swing in the first place, I decided to retain it. The painting illustrates perfectly the loss of innocence and purity the Romantics would have wished her to retain for much longer. It also serves as an excellent link for the next age of man “The Lover”, “sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow” – or her pink shoe, tossed into his lap by the force of the swing.

The Schoolboy
By William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, –

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

The Toys
By Coventry Patmore

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Where Go the Boats?
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Dark brown is the river.
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.
Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating –
Where will all come home?
On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

By Anthony Slingsby