Wordsworth's "The Child Is Father of the Man"

Quote from William Wordsworth Poem "My Heart Leaps Up"

The English romantic poet Wordsworth touches his hand to his forehead

Кусмарцева Дарья / Getty Images

William Wordsworth used the expression, "The child is the father of the man" in his famous 1802 poem, "My Heart Leaps Up," also known as "The Rainbow." 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 uses 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 God's promise that He would not again destroy the entire 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 used the phrase to express hope that he would retain the joys of youth, we often see this expression used to imply the establishment of both positive and negative traits in youth. In watching children at play, we notice that they demonstrate certain characteristics which may remain with them into adulthood.

One interpretation—the "nurture" viewpoint—is that it is necessary to instill in children healthy attitudes and positive traits so they grow up to become balanced individuals. 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.

Certainly, traumatic life experiences in youth inevitably occur which also influence us throughout life. Lessons learned both in positive and negative ways guide us all into adulthood, for better or worse.

Other Appearances of the Quote

The quote 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.

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Khurana, Simran. "Wordsworth's "The Child Is Father of the Man"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/child-is-the-father-of-man-3975052. Khurana, Simran. (2020, August 28). Wordsworth's "The Child Is Father of the Man". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/child-is-the-father-of-man-3975052 Khurana, Simran. "Wordsworth's "The Child Is Father of the Man"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/child-is-the-father-of-man-3975052 (accessed March 25, 2023).