"The Child Is Father of the Man"

Quote from William Wordsworth Poem "My Heart Leaps Up"

William Wordsworth
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William Wordsworth used the expression, "The child is the father of the man" in the famous poem "My Heart Leaps Up," also known as "The Rainbow," in 1802. This quote has made its way into popular culture. What does it mean?

My Heart Leaps Up

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.

What Does the Poem Mean?

Wordsworth is using the expression in a very positive sense, noting that seeing a rainbow produced awe and joy when he was a child and he still felt those emotions as a grown man. He hopes that these emotions will continue throughout his life, that he will retain that pure joy of youth. He also laments that he would rather die than lose that leap of the heart and youthful enthusiasm. Also, note that Wordsworth was a lover of geometry and the use of piety in the last line is a play on the number Pi.

In the story of Noah in the Bible, the rainbow was given by God as a sign of a promise that God would not again destroy the whole earth in a flood. It is the mark of a continuing covenant. That is signaled in the poem by the word "bound."

Modern Use of "The Child Is Father of the Man"

While Wordsworth was using the phrase to hope that he retained the joys of youth, you will often see this expression used to imply that your positive and negative traits are established when you are young.

If you watch children at play, you will notice them demonstrate certain characteristics which may remain with them into adulthood.

One interpretation is that it is necessary to groom children to adopt healthy attitudes and positive traits so that they grow up to be balanced individuals. That would be the "nurture" viewpoint.

Certainly, there can be traumatic life experiences in youth that will influence you throughout life. Lessons learned both in a positive and negative way can guide you into adulthood, for better or worse.

However, the "nature" viewpoint notes that children may be born with certain traits, as can be seen in studies of identical twins who were separated at birth. Different traits, attitudes, and experiences are influenced in different ways by both nature and nurture.

Other Appearances of the Quote

It is paraphrased by Cormac McCarthy on the first page of the book "Blood Meridian" as "the child the father of the man." It also appears in the title of a song by the Beach Boys and an album by Blood, Sweat, and Tears.