All divide between how those who lost innocence at

All of us at some point in our adult lives have
undoubtedly experienced the powerful, overbearing yearning to return to our
childhood. Many different stimuli can invoke this sensation, whether it be the
smell of our favourite childhood meal or simply the sight of returning to the
home in which we were raised. This feeling we experience is nostalgia and like
attitudes and understanding of children, its definition and perception has
altered drastically since the concept was coined in the 17th century
by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer. The term from a language perspective is that
of a Greek compound consisting of ‘nóstos’ and ‘álgos’ meaning homecoming
and pain respectively. This reflects the negative connotations surrounding nostalgia
upon its conception. Initially Hofer identified nostalgia as a disease due to
the often painful mental and physical symptoms attributed to it. According to
Hofer, these can include anxiety, weakness, insomnia and melancholy1.
At the time, people diagnosed with this ‘disease’ would often have been in a
situation that pulled them away from the comfort of their home environment
inducing acute homesickness. Due to this, frequent sufferers included soldiers
torn away from family as well as students who willingly leave home for studies.
How we perceive and interpret the yearning to return to the comfort our past
has evolved drastically from Hofers original definition.

While nostalgia is
not exclusively attached to childhood, researchers such as Linda Austin believe
the longing for childhood is the ultimate manifestation of nostalgia 2.
Austin pinpoints the beginning of the nineteenth century as the time in which
the image of the pure, innocent, romantic child originated3.
 Austin recognizes that due to the lack
of a concrete and fully explored definition of childhood that “Childhood was defined
by retrospective narratives.” 4With this period being the Victorian era,
child labour was extremely prevalent for the lower classes. This in turn
created somewhat of a divide between how those who lost innocence at an early
age and the more privileged in society interpreted their childhood. The
idealistic characteristics of the romantic child were reserved only for
children who actually had a chance at a childhood as the majority of us do
today. Unfortunately for the young child workers forced into early adulthood, a
requirement of childhood nostalgia is to have actually experience one. It took
experts until the late 1800s to reclassify nostalgia from a pathology to simply
an emotion we all feel at various points in our lives. It is at this time where
we first begin to see a shift to the modern interpretation of nostalgia with it
slowly being perceived as a more positive emotion that we enjoy experiencing.
This shift in perception has not only had an effect on the way in which authors
characterize and utilize children in their work, but also how children as well
as adults respond to the texts. These advancements in our understanding of
nostalgia allowed authors to move away from simple one-dimensional
representations of children seen in literature predating these shifts in
attitudes. While we enjoy the warmth and comfort of revisiting memories from
our childhood it is also often accompanied with a somewhat hollow and sombre
emotion due to the reality that we cannot return to this period of our lives.
This sentiment had seldom been explored in children’s literature. However, that
was to all change in 1902 with the debut of perhaps the most culturally
significant boy in the history of children’s literature, Peter Pan.

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The creation of James
Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie’s 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. In this novel Peter is depicted as a seven-day
old baby who flies from his nursery to Kensington Gardens. Evidently this is a
far cry from the character known around the world today. The widely recognised
adaptation of Peter first appeared after Barrie decided to return to the
character with his 1904 stage play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The unprecedented success of this play
sparked Barrie into publishing a novel adaptation entitled Peter and Wendy which was released in 1911 by U.K publishers
Hodder and Stoughton. It is this novel adaptation that will be the focal point
for my exploration of nostalgia. As the aforementioned title of the play
connotes, Peter is a boy who does not grow up neither mentally or physically,
he is forever in a stasis of childhood. This is reflected in the traits of
Peter himself. Throughout the novel Peter is portrayed as largely carefree and
unable to assume any sense of responsibility. An example of this blasé attitude
towards responsibility can be seen as Peter whisks the Darling children away
from their London home to Neverland. With the Darling children still
experiencing flying for the first time, Peter feels no obligation to escort
them throughout the journey. Peter flies off into the far distance and leaves
the Darling children behind to “Have some adventure in which they had no
share.”5(Ch.
4) Upon his return from these solo adventures Wendy is convinced that Peter is
going to forget about her and her siblings even noting how “she saw recognition
come into his eyes as he was about to pass them…and go on.” (Ch. 4) This
behaviour, whilst irresponsible, is endearing to the reader. Rather than being
shocked by Peters actions the child readers will be engrossed in the whimsical
aspect of flying. The adult readers on the other hand may have a nostalgic view
on Peters sense of adventure. The only time in our lives where we are truly
devoid of all responsibility and utterly carefree is our childhood. The reader
is reminded of a time where they themselves could act as Peter does, perhaps
wandering off into the woods to seek their own adventure when they themselves
were a child. Nostalgia is not simply just remembering these times fondly, it
is also a strong desire to recapture a certain essence and spirit we experience
at that time. Barrie has created an embodiment of this childhood spirit through
Peter which is why the character is not only endearing (despite multiple
misdeeds) but relatable. I believe this is why Peter and the novel itself has
stood the test of time throughout multiple generations, nostalgia is a timeless
experience.

While Peter is the
embodiment of childhood spirit, it is my belief that his arch nemesis and
counterpart Captain Hook is used by Barrie to symbolise the very world Peter is
trying so desperately to avoid, adulthood. The literal battle in which the two
characters are locked into encompasses the internal battle Peter has against
growing up. On the other hand, it is my belief that Hook is in fact also
suffering internally when he battles with Peter. Hooks resentment towards Peter
is more than simply due to the loss of his hand. To a certain extent I believe
Hook is envious of Peters eternal youth and yearns to be a child once more. The
fact that Peter can fly and Hook cannot is the perfect metaphor for the loss of
childhood belief “the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able
to do it” (Ch. 14). The
process of growing up has corrupted Hook and stripped him of the ability to
believe in such fantastical things as flight, thus not allowing him to do so
which in turn gives Peter the upper hand in battle. Hooks obsessive pursuit of
Peter embodies his desire to return to childhood just as Peters pursuit of Hook
epitomizes his desire to never leave. This leads me to believe that captain
Hook feels a certain degree of nostalgia towards Peter and his desire to kill
him stems from the bittersweet nature of nostalgia itself. We long to go back
but we simply cannot do so, Hook manifests this by wanting to destroy Peter
thus ending his frivolous desires to believe again and return to childhood. 

Wendy as a character
varies dramatically to Peter in her attitudes towards growing up. At the age of
two years old she had her first insight into the concept of leaving childhood
behind. After delivering a flower to her mother that she picked from the
garden, a teary Mrs Darling exclaims “Oh, why can’t you remain like this
forever!”(Ch. 1) It is from this moment onwards that “Wendy knew she must grow
up”. Having a patriarchal figure to teach her these concepts gives Wendy the
one thing that Peter lacks, parents to guide him into adulthood. Peter does in
fact desire a motherly figure, this is highlighted when Wendy is primarily
recruited with the idea that she will take up the motherly role to himself and
the lost boys. However, due to having no parents to raise him Peter sees a
mother as nothing more than somebody to carry out domestic chores. A role Wendy
is more than happy to fulfil as she interprets this is being grown up after
witnessing her own mother’s role in the family. Somewhat ironically, by assuming
this gender specific role Wendy has become more grown up in Neverland than she
was at home. This domestic role continues long after Wendy returns home, she
visits Peter once a year to clean his house. As each year passes and Wendy
grows ever older, Peter stays the same age. Due to this, the pair eventually
drift apart until it reaches a point in which Peter can no longer even
comprehend what Wendy is saying. Wendy yearns for Peter to see her something
more than a “Mother” but due to his everlasting youth he is unable to do so.
This is perhaps the most clear symbolism of nostalgia present in the novel.
Peter has become the physical embodiment of the childhood memories that Wendy
must leave behind as she matures. Much like the memories of our own childhood,
Peter will occasionally return to Wendy, but the feelings she once felt when
she was in Neverland as a child can never truly be recaptured.

The exploration of
childhood memories within literature is particularly prevalent throughout the
poetry genre, few poets present their childhood memories as vividly and
honestly as Irish poet Seamus Heaney. When discussing Heaney’s poetry in a
childhood context it is imperative to have a grasp on the history of the man
himself. Described by Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”,
Nobel prize winning Heaney was the first of nine
children. He was born on April 13th 
inside his family’s farmhouse
Mossbawn located in County
Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Experiencing childhood in rural Northern Ireland
undoubtedly shaped Heaney’s poetry, in particular his naturalism and work on
parochial life. Heaney himself attributes his environment as a child as having
an influence on his ability “I learned that my local County Derry
experience, which I had considered archaic…was to be trusted. They taught me
that trust and helped me to articulate it.” Tragically, Heaney’s infant
brother Christopher was killed in a road accident aged just four years old in
19536.
Having a childhood filled with death and sorrow undoubted had a significant
impact on the shaping of his work. Heaney recounts these early memories in
perhaps one of his best-known works “Mid-term Break” found in his hugely
successful anthology “Death of a Naturalist” which was published in 1966.

When analysing a poem, the title itself can usually
give an insight into the contents of the piece. Heaney plays on this ironically
as the title “Mid-term Break” has connotations of childhood memories relating to
leaving school for a short break. Generally, these are jubilant times in any child’s
life, however it is clear to the audience upon reading the poem that the
memories of the midterm break Heaney is describing is far from jubilant. The
first thing to note in the initial stanza is the fact that Heaney is writing in
a first-person narrative “I
sat all morning in the college sick bay”7. Generally speaking the use of the first person
singular “I” does not always mean the poem is of an autobiographical nature
however it is apparent in this case that Heaney is in fact presenting the
events of his brother’s funeral from his perspective. This in turn gives the
poem a heightened sense of poignancy as we are seeing Heaney recall the tragic
day through the eyes of himself, a young boy. Heaney is extremely effective at
instilling a sense of dread into the reader with only his second line.
“Counting bells knelling classes to a close” The foreboding nature of this line
comes with the use of the present participle verb “Knelling.” Whilst
unbeknownst to Heaney within the poem, the reader is made aware that something
is evidently wrong due to the connotations relating to funerals and death that
knelling implies. The mundane act of counting bells also draws attention to
just how slowly time is passing for Heaney. Moreover, the events leading up to
and including the funeral are also presented in a rather mundane and
understated manner. This reflects the sombre tone as moments of such heartache
do not require complex or redundant language.

While this understated tone is rather typical of Heaney’s
work I believe it is used to great effect here to enhance the poignancy of the
situation he is presented with. Heaney is simply a boy who is being forced to
grow up and experience the trauma that a family members death brings with it.
It is evident through his observations that he cannot fully comprehend the
situation he is being thrust into. One of these observations can be seen in the
final stanza of the poem. Upon seeing his brother laid in wake he notes how he
is “wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.” The imagery of the poppy has
clear connotations to remembrance and is extremely powerful at reminding the
reader that as a child himself, Heaney could not understand how such a
seemingly small and innocuous bruise can cause such pain and anguish. Another
aspect of the stanza to note is the changing of the rhyme scheme. Throughout,
Heaney has written with no distinguishable rhyme apart from occasional half rhyme
as evidenced with “sigh, arrived.” The final line two lines of the poem “No
gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear, a four-foot box, a foot for every
year” contain the only use of a full rhyming scheme in the entire poem. This
helps to bring a finality to the poem perfectly mirroring the gut wrenching
finality of death. The fact that Heaney penned Mid-Term Break thirteen years
after the passing of his brother is extremely telling on how our childhood
memories, especially traumatic ones, stay with us long into adulthood. 

Peter
and Wendy and Mid-Term Break differ drastically in their representations
of childhood and nostalgia. Peter and Wendy tackles themes of wishing to never leave the innocence and carefree
nature of childhood behind. Juxtaposed to this Mid-Term Break explores how a tragic event can force a
child to grow up and face the harsh realities of life long before they should
be expected to do so. Both texts highlight the way in which our childhood
memories stay with us for the entirety of our lives, whether they invoke
positive feelings of nostalgia or painful memories of sorrow and loss. Many of
us hold a nostalgic view of our childhood and as Peter and Wendy highlights, it is simply something we must
leave behind whether we want to or not. The true feeling we want to recapture
from our childhood is a life without cruelty, suffering, betrayal or loss. As
we grow into adulthood and see how the world works we lose these ideals that we
experienced as a child. Given the choice, many of us would not literally want
to return to our childhood years after experiencing adulthood, but rather
recapture the essence of what it was like to be oblivious to the trials and
tribulations of adult life.

1 Hofer, 1688

2 Moran, 2002

3 Wesseling, 2017

4 Austin, 2003

5 Barrie, Peter and
Wendy  

6 The Estate of Seamus Heaney 2010

7 Heaney,
1966