The Colors of Innocence

Reading “There was a Child went Forth” I came across a Whitman catalogue that I could finally make sense of and move through without getting lost!  In this poem, a child is learning about the world through observation, and is thus gaining knowledge.  The psychological notion of how we learn becomes a real thing as the child sees an object, “that object he became, / And that object became part of him” (3-4).  I am always interested in color choice and meanings; therefore, I was curious about the repetition of white and red in the second stanza.  I found the meaning of these colors to correlate with the poem’s trope of how we acquire knowledge.  White is associated with innocence, purity, and newness.  It is perceived to aid in mental clarity, enable fresh beginnings, and purify thoughts and actions.  The color red is associated with beauty, warmth, love, courage, and excitement.  Red is viewed as stimulating energy, increasing enthusiasm, encouraging action and confidence, and a feeling of protection from anxieties.  The fact that the child encounters these particular colors in nature when he first goes forth sets him up for new discoveries and a clear and thoughtful mind.

From this initial excitement from nature, the child moves to the bustling city, then to his own home. Whitman describes the child as a blending of his mother and father, as of course we all are; however, there is a dark moment with “The father, strong, selfsufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust, / The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure”, that I did not completely understand.  The poem seems to be presenting a question of nature versus nurture.  The child is born with a loving mother and an apparently quick-tempered father, but he still has the chance to observe and learn from all around him.  I feel that Whitman is giving credence to the nurture side of development, driven home by the repetition that everything “became part of him”.  The poem ends with a positive scene of nature, as it began, giving me hope that the child is absorbing more from nature and life around him than from a potentially abusive father.  I feel that the colors red and white were chosen and repeated in the beginning of the poem to emphasize this child’s innocence coupled with his enthusiasm for knowledge, which he luckily doesn’t lose at the end of the poem, even after seeing some of the more negative sides to life.

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One Response to The Colors of Innocence

  1. Jenny Coe says:

    I also read this as a nature v. nurture, blank slate poem. I was most interested by the line, “they and of them became part of him”. It made me think that if nurture affects a person as much as Whitman claims in this poem, then we are all interconnected to so many more people than we actually encounter (when we encounter one person we are seeing bits of everyone who has ‘nurtured’ them). I think Whitman accounts for that in the phrase “of them”.

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