Somewhere under the rainbow,
Way down low
There’s a land that I heard of
Once on the radio.
When William Wordsworth spoke of “natural piety,” he meant the reverent sensibilities with which men are born, as opposed to the artificial manias with which they are throughout their lives infected, inflamed, and then bored. Like all Romantics, Wordsworth believed that natural piety is pure in a child and then perverted by false education as the child matures. Thus “natural piety” in an adult includes piety towards the person he was as a child, which is what Wordsworth means by the line “the Child is father of the man.” For those who do not recognize these allusions, here is Wordsworth’s “Rainbow” (1802).
“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 wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
Somewhere towards the middle of the seventeenth century, Sir Matthew Hale wrote in his journal that natural piety is “piety written in the heart.” Hale believed that holy scripture provides a “more excellent transcription of the divine will,” but that natural and revealed religion were not opposed because scripture simply perfects natural piety.
Wordsworth did not disagree, but like all Romantics believed that natural religion is easily perverted by false education, and that even Christian churches have smudged the lines that are written in man’s heart. Wordsworth’s rainbow is therefore not simply a rainbow, but is rather a symbol of God’s approval of the natural piety of Noah, the faithful descendant of Seth, himself a second Able.
Although the rainbow was for centuries a symbol of God’s approval of natural piety, it has in recent years become a symbol of man’s pious approval of himself. To live under the rainbow was to live with the assurance that God would sustain the world in spite of men’s sins. To live under the Rainbow Flag is to live with the assurance that nothing sinful is written in the heart.
My heart grows cold when I behold
The Rainbow Flag on high:
It did not fly when I began;
But does so now I am a man;
Mayhap shall still when I grow old.
I sadly sigh!
Fashion is father of the man;
He aspires every day to be
The slave and stooge of vain propriety.
*) Contemplations Moral and Divine (1676)