The Child as "Father Of The Man": A Look At Michael And Wordsworth-Pt 1


 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.-William Wordsworth

Buckle down, guys! We’re heading back to class again for today’s entry.

In the past, I’ve managed to draw several parallels between the life and works of Michael Jackson and the life and works of many prominent literary figures. Today I’m going to examine some interesting parallels between the poetic philosophies of William Wordsworth-one of the major Romantic poets-and Michael Jackson. An odd combination, you think? Well, think again!

First of all, let me just say I am a firm believer that things don’t happen purely by coincidence. Just a couple of weeks ago I did an article rebutting Joanna Schaffhausen’s 2003 hit piece, ‘Is Michael Jackson Stuck In Childhood?”

At about the same time, I was also prepping a lecture on William Wordsworth’s poetry that I would be giving in a few days to my current British Lit II class. This is the first semester in a few years that I’ve been assigned to teach British Lit II; in fact, the last time I had taught this course was back in 2007, long before Michael died and long before I had begun my serious scholarly study into his life and work. In the interim, I hadn’t thought much about the connection between Wordsworth’s and Michael’s views on childhood, but as I reread the works of Wordsworth for this course (as I always do, since it’s imperative that I come to any writer’s work with fresh eyes after five years) I was startled by how closely Wordsworth’s views on the necessity of holding onto childlike inocence echoed exactly what Michael Jackson was trying to tell us almost two hundred years later!

Youthful Portrait of William Wordsworth

It’s interesting to think that, while the words of William Wordsworth on this subject are still being anthologized even today as works worthy of serious academic scholarship, Michael was scorned and ridiculed by the masses for espousing nothing more than the exact, same views!

Too often, the public and the media has done a grave disservice to Michael Jackson by trying to simplify his views on the connection between artistry and innocence into an either/or. This was the whole point of my previous article. Cynics have been trying to prove for decades that Michael’s apparent desire-not to hang onto childhood per se, but to hang onto childlike innocence-had to be the result of either some form of mental regression (i.e, an illness or defect) or else something more sinister. Few seemed to consider that this was an aesthetic CHOICE-the conscious choice of an adult in full control of his faculties, who had discovered that the true key to creativity was in holding onto not only the innocence, but also the reverence, awe, and wonder of childhood.

The above poem by Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold” is one that continues to inspire debate among critics and students alike. Most puzzling to many is the line, “The Child is Father of the Man.” But really, it’s not that hard of a concept to interpret. The entire poem is written from the viewpoint of a man in middle age who is recalling how he viewed the wonders of  nature as a child, and is thankful that he has been able to maintain that sense of innocent wonder into his adult years. He implores passionately, “So was it when my life began” (I had the child’s ability to marvel at the beauty of Nature)/”So is it now I am a man” (Miraculously, despite the jadedness and cynicism that comes with adulthood, he has been able to hang onto his reverence and innocent awe)/”So be it when I shall grow old/Or let me die!’ (If there should come a time he should ever lose this innocence, he would rather die first).

That impassioned line is exactly the same sentiment Michael was expressing when he told Martin Bashir that if there were no more children left, he would jump off a bridge. “I’m done.” To some, that statement may have seemed extreme; even a bit bizarre. But it was really just another way of saying what Wordsworth is saying in his poem. If we lose our innocence, we might as well be dead! For Michael, children were the embodiment of that innocence. Without them, we are nothing-nothing but a world of jaded and cynical adults. From the beginning of time, poets, artists, philosophers and great thinkers have urged us to look at the world “through the eyes of a child.” There is good reason for that. Who really wants to look at the world through the eyes of an adult? Knowing all the filth, smut, and greed that would be looking back at us? It’s the child in us that helps us to mainatin some sense of purity; some sense of hope; some sense of magic.

While a lot of critics have their own spin on the line ‘The Child is Father of the Man” the line itself really isn’t that hard to interpret. Religious interpretations aside (and even those are not invalid to my purpose here) it is simply saying that the child we are/were determines the adult we become. Human life is cyclical-the child begats the man (or woman); the adult is simply that same child in a bigger body. We do not serve our purpose, either to Nature or to God, when we allow ourselves as adults to become a separate entity from our childhood selves. In this regard, Wordsworth had more in common with later Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman than to his contemporary Romantics, and was even a bit of an anamoly among them.

When this line was put up for analysis on, it was interesting to see the diversity of responses it received! Yet what’s even more interesting is that one could easily take any one of these interpretaions-or all of them!-and see how easily they apply to Michael Jackson.  Just glancing at this first page of the discussion, I was able to highlight some interesting parallels (boldfaced emphasis mine):




eNotes Newbie


In “My Heart Leaps Up,” what does Wordsworth mean when he says, “The Child is Father of the man?”

Posted by julieashley1 on September 6, 2008.

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High School – 12th Grade

Editor Emeritus, Debater, Dickens, The Bard, Churchill


In his famous ode to nature, William Wordsworth says that the child in every person teaches him to appreciate nature beginning with the simple beauty of rainbows and by implication, other natural wonders. What we think as children will help determine how we think as adults. The lines that follow “the child is the father of the man”, suggest, with almost religious zeal, that he hopes to always love nature as he did as a child.

Posted by ms-mcgregor on September 6, 2008.

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College – Junior

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In addition to the answer above, this line could also be religious in nature, due to “Child” and “Father” being capitalized.  We can think of this line as the child is Jesus, the father is God, and man is everyone on Earth, in one interpretation.  Also, we can look at it like this: the only way to salvation is through Jesus, according to Christian beliefs, because Jesus was sent to bear all of our sins through his suffering and death.  Jesus, the child of God, was the father of men because he came onto this Earth, preached and shared his beliefs about salvation and about God, and died so that his “children” could be saved, much as a father would do if one of his children was in danger of dying or being killed.

Posted by kwoo1213 on September 7, 2008.

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eNotes Newbie


In reply to #1: I am little philosophically oriented person. When I read this poem in this light I felt there is a reference to the ETERNAL BLISS. And one would experience this only by aligining and surrendering to NATURE. This line, as well as the whole poem, might be highlighting the ENTERNITY.

Posted by hmashwinkumar on April 5, 2009.

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In reply to #1: I am little philosophically oriented person. When I read this poem in this light I felt there is a reference to the ETERNAL BLISS. And one would experience this only by aligining and surrendering to NATURE. This line, as well as the whole poem, might be highlighting the ETERNITY.

Posted by hmashwinkumar on April 5, 2009.

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I grew up with lots of childhood issues, which I buried until I was in my late 40’s.  These issues dominated much of my adult behavior, especially with my children.  With this background I see Wordsworth’s quote as meaning that things we experienced as children, which are still buried within us, play the role of a controlling father to us as adult men.  Classic example: “I hate the way my father treated me and I don’t want to treat my children that way, but I can’t seem to help it.”


Posted by jdeegerman on June 25, 2009.

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Graduate School

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Is so interesting to see how many interpretations we all have about his phrase, which is what makes his poetry so magical and intense as an experience. I feel that, as some have posted, Wordsworth is saying that our heart speaks for our brains, in not such exacting words. If we are children at heart, our inner child will dictate all the great and the wonderful things that we find in life. If we aren’t born with an inner child, our life will lack that, and we might even lose control of it.

Posted by herappleness on June 25, 2009.

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Whren in a College English Lit class we explored the meaning behind Wordsworth’s words “The Child Is The Father Of The Man.” We determinedf that he meant that the Child is born all knowing and it is through experiencing life that we lose that knowlege! That our life experiences make us lose those knowings those memories we are born with because The Child Is The Father Of The Man!

Posted by ladynads on April 28, 2010.

The response of poster #4 reminded me of Michael’s poem “Are You Listening?” with its refrain “From bliss I came/In bliss I’m sustained/To bliss I return…”


Poster #6 also reminded me very much of what Michael said in his speech at Oxford, when he spoke of how his own childhood experiences had shaped the adult he had become and how he was striving to be a much better father to his own children (or at least, a more loving and affectionate father) than his own father had been to him.

Michael's Goal Was To Be A Better Father To His Own Kids Than He Felt Joseph Had Been To Him; To Break The Cycle Rather Than Perpetuate It

In all of these responses, I could hear the very words Michael had echoed so many times coming back, but no one was listening because…well, this guy is freaky and strange, right? So what does he know?

Wordsworth’s poem was actually part of a larger collection entitled “Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood.”  Wordswoth stated in a letter from 1814: ‘The poem (“Intimations”) rests entirely on two recollections of childhood, one that of a spendour in the objects of sense which is passed away, and the other an indisposition to bend to the law of death as applying to our particular case. A Reader who has not a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind cannot understand that Poem.” (Damrosch and Dettmar, Masters of British Literature, Vol. B, 272).

Much of Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” is steeped in a single, simplistic view: When we lose touch with childhood, we have not only disconnected from our innocence, but also our own immortality (for we are never as far removed from the notion of death as we are in childhood).

In the letter quoted above, Wordsworth drew on another one of his own verses to further illustrate the concept of “Ode”,” a poem entitled “We Are Seven”:

————–A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?-William Wordsworth

 Most of us can still recall what a traumatic experience it was a s a child to first learn the concept of death. However that realization may have come about-perhaps the death of a beloved pet, or a close relative, or even, God forbid, a fellow playmate our own age-it’s often for many the first, jarring initiation into the world of adulthood. A world where we realize that nothing is permanent; nothing guaranteed-except death. A world where we begin to lose touch with bliss.

Using his own, earlier poem “The Child is Father of the Man” almost as a kind of echo from a tale long past, the narrator in “Ode” writes almost wearily:


Let’s return to that last line: “The things which I have seen I can now see no more.” This is what lies in store for us once we have lost touch with our inner child; this is what the loss of bliss entails!

You can also read a very excellent analysis of Wordsworth’s poem here in Robin Bates’s “Coping With The Loss of Childhood”:

Michael And Ryan White

Which brings us back to Michael. Was he, in a sense, not only trying to hang onto bliss, but also to immortality? This is going-out-on-a-limb stuff, but perhaps not as far fetched as it sounds. When we look at all of the humanitarian work he did for terminally ill children (Ryan White comes to mind as I was reading Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven”) we realize this is someone who’s heart was literally bleeding for all of the world’s children who were losing their innocence to the greatest thief of all.

Generally speaking, “Man In The Mirror” (the VH-1 TV movie, not the song) was an abomination-a movie so horribly bad that even Michael himself broke his usual reticence to publicly condemn it. However, there is one scene that always haunted me, in which the fictional Michael reacts to the death of a terminally ill child who has visited Neverland (I suspect the boy in the film may have been a fictionalized representation of Ryan White).  Just look over the bad acting and horrifically corny dialog; the power is in the visual of the scene, which perfectly captures the horrific juxtaposition of childhood joy and innocence with death and is probably the only scene in the whole movie that actually worked (and to save you the nausea of watching the whole clip, I’ll just tell you that the scene in question begins at 2:34):


Now let’s have a look at the real Michael, saving the life of a dying child in Budapest (I know this will be familiar to most fans, but I’m posting this for the benefit of anyone who isn’t familiar with the story of Bela Farkas):


But the stories of Michael’s legendary generosity and humanitarian efforts to help dying children don’t stop there. There are far too many stories to even begin to post them all here. Although equating Michael with Peter Pan was, I think, largely a media exaggeration, there’s no denying that he was attracted to the idea of Neverland-a magical place where innocence is never lost, where no on grows old, but more importantly, perhaps, where no one ever has to die.

Michael wasn’t naive enough to believe he could actually create such a reality. But I think that he was definitely attuned to Wordsworth’s belief that we have to remain as a child in order to be “Father of the Man” and to maintain our Eternal Bliss.

In Part Two of this series, I will take a closer look at the parallels between Wordsworth and Michael as fathers themselves, and will also examine another Wordsworth poem aptly entitled…”Michael!”  

7 thoughts on “The Child as "Father Of The Man": A Look At Michael And Wordsworth-Pt 1”

  1. One has to wonder why Michael was and still is viewed so differently then someone like Wordsworth. Race? Such immense talent that brought with it such power, jealousy…I think Armond White is absolutely correct when he states that ‘the simple and profound answer is racism’; and one can add greed and misunderstanding.

    I really enjoy reading your articles, Raven, and I always learn something.
    Thank you.

    1. Well, we know the comeback that many would have to that. They will say, “Yes, but…Wordsworth wasn’t accused of being a child molestor.” To that, I would say fair enough. If Michael had never been accused, his views would have probably been considered by most eccentric at worst, but of course, the accusations that were made against him inevitably cast a sinister light on his views of children and innocence. I can understand why people feel this way if they haven’t bothered to learn the facts behind the cases, but in reality, his insistence on sticking to his principles is what made him vulnerable. We live in a very different age from the one in which Wordsworth lived-one that has become even more jaded and cynical. Everyone now automatically thinks the worst of everyone; no such thing as benefit of the doubt; no such thing as innocent until proven guilty. One man says we should honor our child spirit and is crowned Poet Laureate of England; two hundred years later, another man says we should honor our child spirit, and is all but lynched in the court of public opinion.

  2. Great post thank you! I often think of similar parallels. I was reading Steve Job’s bio recently, and one of his quotes struck me:
    “It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare.”
    I guess, it is a quality that’s essential for creativity.

    That’s one thing many people miss or don’t get about Michael. I even saw opinions like: “He was a genius, a great artist. If only he hadn’t held onto this childhood thing so much…” It doesn’t occur to them that if he hadn’t held onto it, he wouldn’t have been this genius! That this was a source of his artistry. I got that understanding so vividly when I read “Honoring the Child Spirit” where Michael talks about childlike qualities and where they allow him to be mentally, creatively.

    Regarding the wish to avoid death – his quote to Rabbi Shmuly comes to mind, where he said that he accepts death, but he feels that this shouldn’t happen to children. That there should be this age window where death just shouldn’t be allowed to happen. So I think he definitely had a feeling that childhood and death are incompatible, maybe even contradict each other, that childhood is the epitome of life – and that was part of the reason why he tried to save and help as many dying children as possible.

  3. Sorry for my English.
    I think you have grasped the basic principle of the existence of art.
    The child is father of man because is the only one that can bring the enchantment. The child or the artist, both only able to feel and create wonder.
    I believe that M. knew this: the search of the best and special things for his shows(the best dancers, the world’s largest 3D display, robots, planes, etc. etc.), I do not think concerned only personal ambition or, as they say more malignant, to disguise flaws voice or dance, but the will to give the public an absolute wonder. I think he said always “more and more more more”, as creative artists for exemple of St. Peter’s in Rome.Before fascism, the pilgrim came to the church through a maze of streets that was not possible to see anything until the end, when it appeared the artistic magnificence of the church and oh surprise! Enchantment …All italian art is continuous astonishment.
    The soul of not childish or naïve, but totally artistic and therefore able to keep in touch with our inner child;and for these qualities, the artist was the demiurgo, not the monster.I think that
    what many people have not forgiven in his will to remain immersed in the world of innocence and not feel, like most of us, nostalgic and passive attitude of the “lost paradise” of our childhood.
    But this is not accepted, it is strange, is distorted and then by the media the absolute abomination has happened. I’m not able to investigate further in English, sorry.

  4. Raven, this is the best essay ever on artistry and innocense/ mortality in relation to Michael. The Wordsworth comparison fits in perfectly. Thank you for taking me back to my schooldays when Wordsworth was one of my favourites whose poems I could recite by heart.
    However, the first thing that struck me when scanning through the article, were the dates of some of the responses to your lecture on june 25 2009 –
    Coincidence or not posters both point at issues that were relevant to Michaels own life. Eerie.

    Its true that innocense and an open mind are the basic principles of innovation and creativity as well as the ability to look at the world with a childs eyes. Mortality, the end of creating is alien to it. Michaels view was that art is immortal and should be perfect. He prefered film to stage because more people could enjoy it ; what is captured on film is preserved for eternity.
    With Michael, aside from his beliefs on innocense and being childlike in a religious as well as artistic sense, there is an extra dimension which is the loss of his own childhood and his compassion for children. Do you know if Wordsworth had a similar childhood or experiences and could relate to children the way Michael did ?.
    I agree with most of your assessmemnt, but I am not so sure if the innocent factor in Michael was only an aesthetic choice. If it was, after so many years it could have easily become a gimmick and not something that was so consistent and natural to him. We already rebuked the arrested development theory in a previous post.
    The fact that he could connect so well with children is also not necessarily something that goes with the aesthetic choice. You cannot cultivate it, you have it or you dont.
    With Michael it seems like everything fell in place. Coincidence, predestination or choice?
    Fact is the result was a creative explosion and an extensive legacy of music, poems, dance,film ideas, drawings and designs.

    1. Wordsworth did have a difficult and painful childhood. His mother died when he was very young and his family life as he had known it up till then was completely uprooted. This was where he really began to withdraw and roaming in Nature became such a favorite past time for him. His life also had a lot of other personal sorrows that I’ll touch more on in Part Two.

      My exact take on Michael hanging onto childlike innocence as an aesthetic choice is a bit complicated to try to explain. Where I’m coming from, basically, is that I think this WAS an innate and natural characteristic for him but I also believe he did make the conscious decision to make it a very big part of his public persona as well. Maybe a good analogy would be to compare it to Marilyn Monroe’s little girlish, sex kitten image. A lot of that was unarguably her natural personality but she also knew how to really play it up for the cameras. I think Michael had that natural, innate childlike quality about him, but nevertheless his choices didn’t come from being naive (as some have presumed) but rather, like Wordsworth, from the perspective of an adult who is aware of the value of maintaining some measure of innocence.

      But to clarify, yes, it would have had to have been something that came naturally from his spirit, or it wouldn’t have worked for him. People can always see straight through a phony, and especially children. It’s the misguided idea some have that this was a result of some sort of psycho/mental regression that I really take issue with.

  5. Raven,
    I love the comparisons of Michael and your viewpoint on how the media attempted to make him look so bad to the public eye. Your words express exactly as I feel! Thank you for putting it all into perspective and allowing other fans to nod their heads in agreement!
    If only non-fans would take the time to read this, they would have to agree that Michael was not an ugly, self absorbed person wanting to appear like a white man and whatever other trash they set out to expose him of. I hope in my lifetime, I will see Michael’s name restored and his humanitarian efforts “out of the closet” where the media put them.
    Bless you, beautiful one, for this lovely blog. You’ve made my heart smile!

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