“Beachy Head:” A Lack of Understanding is Bliss

As I was reading Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” I came across a passage that puts a spin on the idea that ignorance is bliss:

“Yet they are happy, who have never ask’d

What good or evil means. The boy

That on the river’s margin gaily plays,

Has heard that Death is there—He knows not Death,

And therefore fears it not . . .

. . . he climbs the boll

Of some tall pine; and of his prowess proud,

Is for a moment happy” (ll. 259-268)

At first I thought that the speaker was saying that ignorance was bliss, but after reading it over and over, I realized that the speaker was making the case that a lack of understanding was bliss. There is a distinct difference as ignorance refers to not having the knowledge while understanding is about comprehension of information.

With that difference in mind, the idea of the lack of understanding is bliss becomes clear in especially this section of the passage: “Has heard that Death is there—He knows not Death/And therefore fears it not” (ll. 262-263). This quote is referring to the boy and explains that despite hearing about Death, the boy is not scared and thus is able to happily go about playing. There is the acknowledgement that the boy does not know Death, but I think that is talking about having any experience with Death. For instance, maybe the boy has not gone to a funeral or had a relative that he knows die. If no one has died in his proximity, then that would explain how the boy would have “heard” about Death without actually “knowing” Death. This state of the boy’s knowledge leaves him in a place of semi-knowing of the Death concept without comprehending what the Death concept is and means for him.

Looking back at the difference between ignorance and understanding, that means that an interpretation of the passage can be that it is not ignorance that is bliss, but instead a lack of understanding is. The boy is happy because while he has heard of Death, he does not actually comprehend what Death is. This means that while he has heard of Death, “he knows not Death” (ll. 262).

(Word count: 365)