What Good Is Poetry? Wordsworth’s ‘The Rainbow’

June 3, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

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.

The Fox whispered to the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s time-honored tale, “It is with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And the language of the heart that speaks what it sees is poetry.

William Wordsworth speaks this language fluently in his evocative little paean to a life of wonder in “The Rainbow.” Written on March 26, 1802, in the Lake District of northern England, the famous Romantic poet gives voice to those urges of pure emotion and heartfelt desires that beauty evokes, which is the child’s being and the man’s blessing.

Wordsworth alighted on the shining, shimmering rainbow not only to rejoice in the beauty of the natural world but also to reflect on the movements of every person’s heart and mind. It is through the heart that we come to know things both initially and fully. In other words, it is the heart that instigates all knowledge and completes it, making it essential.

Part of the awesome power of innocence is to have an unadulterated experience of beauty, and a heart free enough of worldly traces and chains, to leap up in acknowledgement of such wonders as that great band of color that flashes unexpectedly across the sky. Whether beheld as the approach of Iris, or the Nordic Bifröst bridge, or the heavenly Hebrew covenant to Noah, or a leprechaun treasure mark, the rainbow is one of those things that make people pause to remark and gaze at a sudden and rare spectacle, a power which few phenomena command especially since, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” “as the heart grows older/ It will come to such sights colder.”

But the heart that has not grown cold as it grew old, that still leaps and loves with the warm pulse of youth, will cherish the rainbow and all its ilk with an easy, natural piety—with ardor that comes without labor. And it is this original piety that can teach the heart to keep on leaping with age.

One of the surest stays of sanity and salvation is allowing the Child to father the Man, for the innocence and wonder of the happy whelp to beget what Wordsworth dubbed in another poem “the character of the happy warrior.”

Wordsworth’s words strike the perfect chord—so was it, so is it, so be it—encompassing the passage of maturity. A man is called to be many things: a provider, a defender, and a builder, to name but a few. “The Rainbow” points out the mystery that play prepares for work, that what we see and do and feel as children will make us the adults we are and will be: The child fathers the provider by being Robin Hood, the child engenders the defender by being a backyard savage and a cardboard knight, and the child brings about the builder in the sandcastles he raises only to destroy. Even when naughty, the child has begun taking those intrepid steps toward becoming the noble man he has theretofore impishly played the part of. Such is the passage of man, spanning from east to west, even as a rainbow spans the horizon, bringing the bright hope of sun after storm.

The day that our hearts fail to leap up at the beauty of the rainbow, let that be, as Wordsworth cries, the day of our death, the day our heart ceases to leap at all. For a heart that leaps not at the lovely miracles of nature is not, one might go so far as to say, a heart that is worth beating in anyone’s breast. And a heart that fails to be moved with that strange stirring of love—“like a babe buried alive,” as G.K. Chesterton put it in “The Ballad of the White Horse”—is a heart that has lost not only the delight of wonder but also the determination of wisdom.

The Little Prince remembers and reminds, “The eyes are blind. One must look with the heart…” and it is with those eyes of the heart, speaking in the language of love, that is poetry, in which we can not only behold but also be held.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.