English 10 Honors - A Block
June 4, 2004
On the Nature of Lost Innocence
In literature and poetry, the idea of lost innocence is often employed when an author wants to make an observation on human nature. It seems that, in many cases, the loss of a child's innocence is the most straightforward and effective way to demonstrate certain aspects of the character of humanity as a whole. Three works that utilize this technique are "In Just" by e.e. cummings, "Fifteen" by William Stafford, and "Dirty Memories" by Sharon Olds. In each of these poems, it is emphasized by tone, imagery and symbolism, and language that it is something apparently good and desirable that eventually robs the children of their innocence.
Before examining the way these poems deal with lost innocence, however, it is necessary to examine how these works bring it about. Cummings' work "In Just" features a eerily satanic balloon man who summons children to him before symbolically ending their childhood. "Fifteen", by Stafford, relates the tale of a boy who finds a motorcycle along the side of a road, only later realizing that it belongs to a man who has been hurt riding it. The motorcycle's owner, before driving off, calls the boy a man. "Dirty Memories" by Olds focuses less on the loss of innocence itself, and more, rather, on the progressive deterioration of what once must have been childhood innocence into sheer malignity. Being familiar with how these children are stripped of innocence makes it easier to understand how it is that something appearing good is what eventually takes innocence away.
To begin with, each of these poems has a certain tone of exhilaration and excitement, regardless of its cause. In "In Just" by cummings, this can be seen several times. Most obviously, there is the childish coupling of names into one word, resembling the quick, excited speech of young children, which additionally conveys a sense of innocence: "eddieandbill" and "bettyandisblel" (cummings, 6; 14). Excitement shows up again when the children are described as running from their previous engagements to come meet the balloon man: "...eddieandbill come / running from marbles and / piracies and it's / spring" (cummings, 6-9). The balloon man is able to excite the children into coming to him: something about him appears good and desirable. In Stafford's "Fifteen" excitement is obvious: " I thought about / hills, and patting the handle got back a / confident opinion. On the bridge we indulged / a forward feeling, a tremble. I was fifteen" (Stafford, 12-15). This teenager takes the newly found motorcycle back to the bridge from whence it has fallen, and is so excited that he even thinks to ride it. However, this excitement is soon stripped away when the boy is faced with the task of helping the injured driver: though excited by the motorcycle, which looks good outwardly, the boy eventually loses his innocence due to his discovery of it. And, in "Dirty Memories", Olds presents an excited tone in the fact that the children in the poem, doing the evil acts, are happy about it, and feel a certain rush from it: " My chest was hot as I poured [poison into a fish bowl], / I'm saying I was glad" (Olds, 31-32). The child is excited: he or she can't wait to put poison in that fish bowl, because there is something attractive in doing it. Yet, at the same time, it costs the child his or her innocence.
Beyond just the tone of these poems, however, there is imagery and symbolism in all of them that suggests a certain attraction to that which will eventually take away innocence, in addition to giving hints to the impending loss. In "In Just", one can see this fairly clearly, especially when it comes to giving hints to the imminent loss of innocence. The balloon man, who is soon to rob the children of their innocence, is described in such a way that he suggests to the reader a demonic image: "and / the / goat-footed / balloonMan whistles" (cummings, 18-21). Goat-footedness is a attribute commonly ascribed to the devil, or any otherwise satanic figure. And moreover, as a symbol, balloons typically suggest "a dashing of hope on any and all fronts, business or love, as well as a general falling off of all kinds of businesses [one] may be involved in" (Interpreting Symbolism). Imagery suggesting a desire for the balloons is less evident, and only really present in the aforementioned skipping and running done by the children, to meet the balloon man. However, one can detect a definite desire to see the balloon man in the way the children act. In "Fifteen", the imagery of attraction is far more prevalent. Indeed, the speaker gives us a lengthy description of the motorcycle which clearly shows his desire to use it: "I admired that pulsing gleam, the / shiny flanks, the demure headlights / fringed where it lay; I led it gently / to the road and stood with that / companion, ready and friendly..." (Stafford, 6-10). Certainly, there is yearning. In addition, the poem has a symbolic overtone: the rider has fallen from his motorcycle, as the young boy is about to fall from innocence. In "Dirty Memories", the speaker is undeniably full of craving to do things which will take away innocence: "My calves weak and hot with excitement. / And heat spread through my chest in fifth grade when I / offered orange juice to that child to see his face crumple" (Olds, 22-27). And one need not even analyze the poem to see the fact that the described desires will take away innocence: the title of the poem is, after all, "Dirty Memories." Furthermore, the first few lines have a bit of dirtiness and falling symbolism, which both suggest lost innocence. The imagery and symbolism in these poems show an incontestable desire for that which will bring about the fall from childhood innocence.
Finally, all these poems use certain language conventions which, in and of themselves, suggest a desire that brings about lost innocence. Consider the following words that appear in "In Just": "luscious", "running", "wonderful", "dancing", "spring" and "whistles" (cummings, 3-21). All these words suggest something desirable. All these words hint to the reader that the children want whatever it is that the balloon man has. Also consider that the capitalization of "balloonman" changes to "balloonMan" (cummings, 4-21) at the end of the poem, suggesting growth; these children are no longer children, they are men. "Fifteen" also contains a substantial amount of language which brings to mind longing: "admired", "pulsing", "ready", "confident", "indulged" and "tremble" (Stafford, 6-15). The fifteen-year-old wants that motorcycle, but because he finds it, he loses his innocence. Also, like in "In Just", there is the word "man", which is of the utmost importance to the theme of the poem. The injured cyclist calls the boy a man, making it certain that there is a change within the poem from child to adult, a loss of youthful innocence, which occurs only after the speaker desires the motorcycle. And, in "Dirty Memories", nearly every word suggests a loss of innocence, while a good number imply craving: "wanted", "excitement", "power", "glad" (Olds, 8-32). The children want what they are after, and it seems clear that what they are after is a loss of innocence. There is also the presence of the word "poison", which suggests that something is being damaged irreparably, and that these children have been poisoned, in a figurative sense, having lost their innocence. Each poem features not only a loss of innocence, but also a sense of longing that precedes it.
It seems one cannot fall from innocence without first wanting to do so, consciously or subconsciously. These three works of poetic art each demonstrate this use of desire to bring about a loss of innocence. So, while the loss of a child's innocence is a frequently used literary convention, particularly potent when it comes to pointing out flaws in human nature, it seems that the true flaw in human nature is that there is almost always a sense of desire that accompanies lost innocence.