Years looking backward resuming, in answer to children,
I am become the poet of babes and little things,
Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people.
I proceed for all who are or have been young.
Knowst thou the excellent joys of youth?
For me children and the begetters of children.
The one-year wife is recovering and happy having a week ago borne her first child—
The sacred parturition scene,
A happy mother birth’d a perfect child,
A baby safely born out of the mother’s womb!
Who are the infants, some playing, some slumbering?
I see the sleeping babe nestling the breast of its mother,
The mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt,
The sleeping mother and babe—hush’d, I study them long and long,
I am at the mother’s breast with the little child.
Or on his father’s lap a young boy fallen asleep—
How his lips move! How he smiles in his sleep!
The breath of the boy goes with the breath of the man.
His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.
How quiet they breathe, the little children in their cradles,
How solemn they look there, stretch’d and still.
The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The baby, very fine and bright, is an unfailing delight and diversion to me,
The young one knows me so well, and is never so happy as when I am tending him.
The latent unrealized baby-days,
The sacred faces of infants, some playing, some slumbering,
The merriment of the twin babes that crawl over the grass in the sun,
And pass in the creeping trance of a couple of summers and winters to articulate and walk,
The mother never turning her vigilant eyes from them.
Give me a perfect child, a little innocent child, innocent young ideas,
The student, boy or girl,
The barefoot boy and girl, led forward to be taught.
By twos and threes, young people,
Hundreds concentring, walk’d the paths and streets and roads,
Toward a tall-domed school.
Only a public school?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Ah more, infinitely more—
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
How far more deeply children think, than most people imagine.
No investment is so sure for family or state as the never-enough-praised spread of common education,
An investment in developing, shaping, perfecting the young body and mind.
Let knowledge and virtue and elegance and peace linger in these cheerful and attractive halls,
Great ideas, not taught in sermons but imbibed as health is imbibed,
Sinking into the minds of the boys and girls, and young men and young women, in multitudes of beautiful associations and reminiscences that life with all its changes shall never be able to erase.
Bravas to all impulses sending sane children to the next age!
But damn that which spends itself with no thought of the stain, pains, dismay, feebleness, it is bequeathing.
Probably the best education never undertakes to finish or crown, but only to disencumber and prepare the way, so that all is afterward admitted in its due proportions and assimilated and digested, and the seeds of observation and experience and study become fruitful.
(The school has been considered mainly for childhood, but that is a mistake. The true school is for grown persons, middle-aged, old-aged, none excepted. A perfect system of education should comprehend all folk, of every age.)
Behold children at their sports:
There I see young children—the cheeriest things on earth,
The prattled yearning of children that gambol and play,
The friendly boys that pass’d,
The most courageous and friendly young men.
I hear their tones of loud and reckless mirth, and many a clear and flute-like laugh,
The happy childhood, laughter of young people, voices, calls, responses.
What bloom more than the bloom of youth?
O span of youth! ever-push’d elasticity!
The vivacity that always resides in young veins,
The limber motion of brawny young arms and hips, shoulders young and strong,
Movements, postures ahead of any sculpture.
Can we not learn from the observation of children, what a surplus of bodily vigor joy can give?
Had men more play, they too would be full from within of animal spirits.
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The affectionate boy, happy alone by some wood edge,
The boy’s longings, the glow and pressure as he confides to me what he was dreaming,
This face of a healthy honest boy is the programme of all good.
The girl sewing or washing,
Fierce and athletic girls,
The tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls with girlish laughter,
I say a girl fit for these states must be free, capable, dauntless, just the same as a boy.
A group of little children with their ways and chatter flow in,
Like welcome rippling water o’er my heated nerves and flesh,
Perfume and youth course through me and I am their wake.
What am I after all but a child?
I am that half-grown angry boy, fallen asleep,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
The tears of foolish passion yet undried upon my cheeks,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing.
Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears.
I, the child leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
A curious boy, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating,
I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now in a moment I know what I am for—
I awake, and already a thousand songs,
A thousand warbling echoes, the thousand responsive songs at random,
Have started to life within me.
My own songs awaked from that hour,
The messenger there arous’d, the myriad thence-arous’d words,
Begun in ripen’d youth and steadily pursued, never to die—
I felt it all as positively then in my young days as I do now in my old ones.
Truly, life is sweet to the young man,
In the simple house of his childhood, with the well-known neighbors and faces,
Such bounding and swelling capacities for joy reside within him, and such ambitious yearnings.
Health and unfettered spirits are his staff and mantle. He learns unthinkingly to love—that glorious privilege of youth! Out of the tiny fractions of his experience, he builds beautiful imaginings, and confidently looks for the future to realize them. And then he is so sure of those future years.
And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look.