Blake’s Songs of Innocence draws a picture of the child still smiling and playing in the flowered garden, still ‘piping down the valleys’. Adults look on, cherishing their young ones without condition.
The later image that Rousseau describes was of the young having their own place in society as never before. Children existed in their own right and commanded their own clothes, toys, books – no longer miniature and belittled adults. But this could only apply to the children of the wealthy.
Blake’s Songs of Experience drew, only too clearly, on the dreadful lives of the children of the poor at the ruthless hands of adults who conducted their lives without pity. The wretched chimney sweeps; the children of the dark.
With the Poor Laws and Education Acts of the Victorian period children were protected and given their own status across the classes, so that by the 20th century ‘childhood’ was a legitimate and recognised state between infancy and adulthood. Children were protected by law and so, for many in the early decades of the 20th century childhood was a safe haven.
Parallel to this development children became a separate market and with increasing affluence after the second World War children became consumers commanding a particular niche in the market. Now they could be exploited by advertisers and the commodities market.
Fast forward fifty years and a large portion of consumer goods, magazines, technology, games, and designer labels is targeted at the younger market. This market has huge spending power – or, rather, power over adults who will spend on them. In this way childhood is fast being eroded as it is subsumed into the adult world of ostentatious consumption.
Blake’s vision has come full circle, and it is up to far-sighted adults to change the pull of ‘Experience’ and fill our children’s days once more with songs of ‘Innocence’.
This is a personal take on the phenomenon of childhood in the past two hundred years. By its very brevity it can only be a snapshot, a generalised view, and not one to be taken as the full picture. It also only takes into account the experience in Britain, and only refers to two writers albeit worthy of recognition within this subject.
What’s your take on childhood today, or in the past? It would be great to expand on the issues.