The meaning of Wordsworth’s short rainbow poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘My heart leaps up’, sometimes known as ‘The Rainbow’ is perhaps William Wordsworth’s shortest great poem. In just nine lines, Wordsworth expresses a number of the several features of Romanticism: a love of nature, the relationship between the natural world and the individual self, and the importance of childhood in making the poet the man he becomes, memorably expressed by Wordsworth’s statement that ‘The child is father of the man’.
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.
Wordsworth observes a rainbow in the sky and is filled with joy at the sight of a rainbow: a joy that was there when Wordsworth was very young, is still there now he has attained adulthood, and – he trusts – will be with him until the end of his days.
If he loses this thrilling sense of wonder, what would be the point of living? In summary, this is the essence of ‘My heart leaps up’.
The paradox of the line ‘The Child is father of the Man’ is that our childhoods shape our adulthood: the inversion of the usual idea of things (that an adult man is a father to his child) neatly embodies Romanticism’s desire to shake up the way we view ourselves, and to (an idea expressed before Romanticism, notably in Henry Vaughan’s fine poem ‘The Retreat’; but it was Wordsworth and the Romantics who made the idea a central part of their worldview). Later in the nineteenth century (Wordsworth’s poem was published in 1807), the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would take exception to Wordsworth’s insistence that ‘the child is father of the man’:
‘The child is father to the man.’
How can he be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can:
‘The child is father to the man.’
No; what the poet did write ran,
‘The man is father to the child.’
‘The child is father to the man!’
How can he be? The words are wild.
This is the beginning of the nineteenth-century worship of the child (a form of veneration arguably still with us), which will lead to Victorian literature’s Golden Age of children’s literature and also a shift in the way the concept of ‘childhood’ and ‘the child’ is viewed by society (leading to reforms in child-labour, for instance, some of these changes influenced by literature, such as Kingsley’s The Water-Babies).
‘The Child is father of the Man’, and the succeeding lines that form the end of ‘The Rainbow’, would later furnish Wordsworth with the epigraph (or opening quotation) for his longer poem ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. In that poem, he writes of how, when he was a child, he could detect the heavenly (‘celestial’) magic in the natural world around him: every meadow, grove, and stream seemed imbued with a divine, dreamlike magic. Now he’s an adult, Wordsworth has lost sight of the wonder he used to be able to detect in the world of nature:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
In these lines about a rainbow, Wordsworth acknowledges that nature is as beautiful as it was when he was young; but the ‘glory’ the earth used to contain seems to have passed away.
‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ is one of William Wordsworth’s best-known and best-loved poems. Wordsworth wrote it between March 1802 and March 1804; it was published in 1807. The three lines from ‘The Rainbow’ (‘My heart leaps up’) were only added as epigraph in 1815; the original epigraph in 1807 was from the Roman poet Virgil, and translates as ‘Let us sing a loftier strain’. But ‘The Child is father of the Man’ is now an integral part of that longer poem and those words open the much longer meditation on childhood, mortality, and nature: things which the shorter rainbow poem hinted at in microcosmic form.
‘My heart leaps up’ is a small slice of Romanticism which says more about that movement than many longer poems do. At the other end, we have Wordsworth’s vast autobiographical poem, The Prelude (for which Wordsworth recycled his above lines about the child being father of the man). But another ‘prelude’, almost a manifesto, for Romanticism can be found here in this short rainbow poem.
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the leading poets of English Romanticism, and, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, is regarded as one of the ‘Lake Poets’: poets so named because of their associations with the Lake District in Cumbria in northern England.
Curiously, although Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumbria and would live for many years at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, some of Wordsworth’s most important and influential poems were written in the late 1790s while he was living in southern England and collaborating with Coleridge on their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which would herald a return to older, traditional oral forms of poetry and a privileging of personal sensory experience and individual emotion over the cool rationalism and orderliness of earlier eighteenth-century verse.
Wordsworth’s themes are nature and the English countryside, the place of the individual within the world, and memory: especially childhood memory. Wordsworth is often looking back to his childhood, and nowhere more so than in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805; revised 1850).
Lyrical Ballads heralded the arrival of English Romanticism in poetry, and Wordsworth added a famous preface to the collection when it was reprinted in 1800. However, he later fell out with Coleridge, and his poetic creativity dried up in his thirties; much of his best work was written before 1807. He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 when his fellow Lake Poet, Robert Southey, died, but he never composed a single line of official verse during his seven years in the post. He died in 1850.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
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I agree. It could be a personal choice but it is nearly the signature poem of Romanticism. But the poem that is the quintessence of the movement to me is none other than ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’.
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