There’s only one reason why the following lines linger in my mind. They’re from a poem called “Daisy,” which we studied in English class, when I was at school in England. The poem, by Francis Thompson, describes his encounter with a little girl, who, to him, was clearly the personification of innocence.
But the reason I remember it, with glee – as probably do many other members of that class, was not the word and thematic concept of “innocence” in the first stanza, but something in the second stanza.
The hills look over on the South,
And southward dreams the sea;
And with the sea-breeze hand in hand
Came innocence and she.
Her beauty smoothed earth’s furrowed face.
She gave me tokens three:—
A look, a word of her winsome mouth,
And a wild raspberry.
To British minds, that last line conjured up what, in American slang, is known as a “Bronx Cheer.” So, to give someone a wild raspberry, as part of a supposedly serious poem, could do nothing, among a bunch of schoolboys, but evoke extreme hilarity. (It derives from Cockney rhyming slang: “raspberry tart” = “fart.”)
But this article is not about raspberries, but about innocence. This is a world in which, for at least the past century, we have heard a great deal about GUILT. Whether from religious leaders, legal scholars, or highly influential psychologists like Freud, the general message has been that we are all ridden with guilty feelings, and with attempts to cover them up. In comparison, very little has been said about not feeling, and in fact not being, guilty of anything in particular. I’m talking about innocence (which need not be confined to little girls), about harmlessness, inoffensiveness – about, if not being particularly good, then at least not being bad.
In the courtroom, if the accused person is found to be Not Guilty of the particular charge or charges, that decision doesn’t say anything about his or her overall character, which may indeed be that of a despicable person. All it does say is that they didn’t do it.
And in certain places, such as Scotland, the Law permits an even finer distinction. In those jurisdictions, it is possible to bring in a verdict of “Not Proven” – meaning that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict a person who otherwise would probably have been found guilty.
We are, of course, familiar with the many cases in which a supposedly guilty person has, sometimes after many years of punishment, been “cleared” – although society has no way of providing adequate compensation for its own crime of Injustice. There have been a number of outstanding movies on this theme, including The Wrong Man, and Call Northside 777.
Another way of looking at this vexing social issue is taken by W.E. Henley in his poem “Invictus” (which means “Unconquered”). The poem seems to suggest that guilt or innocence are ephemeral concepts, and that all that really matters is how you feel about yourself. As the famous last lines of the poem put it:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll –
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.
It has always seemed significant to me that Timothy McVeigh, the “domestic terrorist” responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which took 168 lives – who, throughout the lengthy proceedings of his trial and conviction, had virtually refused to say anything in his own defense – on the eve of his execution in 2001, issued that poem as his “last words.”
On a much lighter note, what might be called the epitome of innocence was a creature called the SHMOO, invented in 1948 by cartoonist Al Capp, the creator of the “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The Shmoo, physically, bore some resemblance to one of the “pins” in a bowling alley – and, just as those pins might conceivably enjoy being knocked down, purely for the sake of giving pleasure to people, so the Shmoos were not only harmless, but totally beneficial to humanity. For one thing, they were not only delicious and nutritious, but they liked to be eaten! They had no bones, so there was no waste. Naturally gentle, they required minimal care, and made ideal playmates for young children.
Naturally such a purely benevolent being was bound to generate animosity – and that was the moral of the whole Shmoo saga: In a guilt-ridden world like ours, you just can’t be too innocent.