Across the wide spectrum of work published by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his lifetime, children were a consistent topic of unique interest to him. In several of his works, Longfellow references his own joy that he felt seemingly whenever he was around them, especially his own. The depth of his passion was something that the famous poet often expressed in the best way he knew how, through his artistic works, evocative language, and a strong command of metaphors to express his most complicated feelings about the world. Children, named rather appropriately for the subject, is one of his most notable works exploring those emotions that were so important throughout the poet’s life.
Verses One and Two
Come to me, O ye children!
For I hear you at your play,
And the questions that perplexed me
Have vanished quite away.
Ye open the eastern windows,
That look towards the sun,
Where thoughts are singing swallows
And the brooks of morning run.
Straight away it’s easy to pick up on the lyrical aspect of Longfellow’s poem. When he used words like “O ye,” “vanished quite,” “ye open,” and similar phrases, he’s intentionally romanticizing the setting of the poem, and making it more pleasant for those who are reading it aloud. His narrator, who is the one speaking in this tone, is describing the sounds of children at play as being something that stops them from thinking about the things that bother them in the world. While the first verse of the poem describes a literal setting, the second one is much more abstract, a likely intentional parallel by Longfellow. Because the verse begins with “ye,” it is clear that the speaker is likening the sounds of children to an eastern-facing window. Eastern windows are notable for seeing a great deal of sunlight in the early hours of the day, which we can perceive as a happy and peaceful image. Through this window, the speaker sees their own thoughts as songbirds, creatures with the freedom to fly away from the world if they choose to do so, which is to say that they no longer weigh on the mind, which is instead filled with peaceful and happy natural images.
Verses Three and Four
In your hearts are the birds and the sunshine,
In your thoughts the brooklet’s flow,
But in mine is the wind of Autumn
And the first fall of the snow.
Ah! what would the world be to us
If the children were no more?
We should dread the desert behind us
Worse than the dark before.
The third verse of Children sees the narrator continue to address the sound of children as it fills their mind, replacing their worries and woes. Longfellow continues to use metaphors based in natural-world imagery, a subtle suggestion that the joy of children is the most natural thing in the world. There is clear admiration in the language here, as the hearts of children are described as being summer-like; warm, happy, long-lasting, and their thoughts are like brooklets — they are always moving and are never still. The images of summer are contrasted strongly with the speaker’s description of their own disposition; they are Autumn winds and early snows, two much cooler, more gloomy images. Longfellow’s choice to use the seasons as his metaphoric tools is a notable one, because there are, of course, some people who would always prefer a snowy day to a sunny one, just as each person has their own opinion on children. The language here makes Longfellow’s own opinion clear, but it’s interesting that he leaves the idea open for interpretation. The author’s opinions are also made rather clear in the following verse, where his narrator speculates that without children, people would have no happy memories (as if looking back on a barren, dead desert), and very little to look forward to (as in a nameless darkness). The sudden absence of familiar, natural images is a notable juxtaposition from the rest of the poem that is meant to leave an impact on the reader.
Verses Five and Six
What the leaves are to the forest,
With light and air for food,
Ere their sweet and tender juices
Have been hardened into wood, —
That to the world are children;
Through them it feels the glow
Of a brighter and sunnier climate
Than reaches the trunks below.
Together, the fifth and sixth verses of Children finish explaining the feeling the speaker has towards children. The idea presented here is that children are to society as leaves are to trees; necessary for survival, and bringers of all of the joy that can be felt by the world. In this metaphor, the world’s people are like the trunk and roots of the tree, which suggests that they are the stability and strength of the world. Just as a tree trunk’s ability to absorb light and nutrients is heavily limited, however, so too is the ability of the adults of the world to hold that unique joy that so many children simply feel, easily, and without trying. The idea that the world needs children in the same way a tree needs its leaves is a strong one, especially considering the prevalence of “tree of life” metaphors, such as the family tree. The importance of children to that world is something that Longfellow is clearly a strong believer in, and his passion shows in his writing style here.
Verses Seven and Eight
Come to me, O ye children!
And whisper in my ear
What the birds and the winds are singing
In your sunny atmosphere.
For what are all our contrivings,
And the wisdom of our books,
When compared with your caresses,
And the gladness of your looks?
The continuation of summer imagery is a pleasant way to transition the poem towards its conclusion, and the seventh verse marks the speaker’s final use of that metaphor. The prevailing idea in this verse is that children can innately understand the voices of birds and winds, and that they have a unique atmosphere that is unfelt by the rest of the world. This idealized worldview is one that the speaker clearly envies, and the repetition of the opening line of the poem highlights this nicely. The idea of innocence is touched upon lightly here, because it is, of course, impossible to understand precisely what birds are trying to say, and the wind has no voice at all — but these are not necessarily important distinctions in a child’s world. This innocent, joyful worldview is the subject of the speaker’s earnest and heartfelt envy. The eight verse uses this worldview to propose a simple question — if given the choice, would anyone choose worldly wisdom or responsibilities over the joys of childhood? These lines are written as though the answer is obvious: this narrator would likely spend their entire life around children if that was only a feasible option.
Ye are better than all the ballads
That ever were sung or said;
For ye are living poems,
And all the rest are dead.
The final verse of the poem needs very little comment, ending on a note of wonder and ambiguity that suits the work well, and helps the verse to stand out — though, being the ninth verse, it already stands out for juxtaposing the established structure of the poem (being indivisible by eight). Longfellow’s older-form language and use of a poem to compare children to poetry is almost certainly a deep and heartfelt sentiment the author felt with a great deal of passion and joy.