The Collaboration of Times: William Wordsworth ft. J. Cole

By Rali Chorbadzhiyska

*This is an excerpt from a longer essay on ‘Exploring the Formation and Development of Selfhood in the 18th as well as the 21st century‘ that works on the premise of childhood being divine and longed for by artists (due to its importance to the self).

William Wordsworth’s portrait painted by Benjamin Robert Hayden and J. Cole’s album cover photographed by Anthony ‘Supreme’ Thompson contributes to the spectator’s understanding of the artists’ ideas about the self and the importance of childhood in its formation. Wordsworth’s portrait from 1842 depicts the 72 year old man alone in deep contemplation with a mountain as a background.


According to an essay by Benjamin Woodard the peak behind is a scenery from the Lake District where Wordsworth was born and climbed the mountains numerous times throughout his life.[2] The colours are dark and morbid with the only thing standing out being Wordsworth’s aging face. The passage of time is visible in his features. The old man from the painting is balding, with white hair on the sides of his skull and his skin shining in a yellowish colour rather than a lively pink or reddish. His eyes are cast down, looking at something invisible to the spectator, reminding of the lines from the ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’: ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more’.[3] The direction of his look, and the fact that the place of his childhood adventures is placed behind him, express nostalgia over the loss of childhood with its innocence and divinity (‘The thought of our past years in me doth breed/ Perpetual benediction’).[4]

Meanwhile, J. Cole’s album cover for 4 Your Eyez Only is a photograph by Anthony ‘Supreme’ Thompson from 2016, taken upon the rapper’s visit to Atlanta.[5]


The colours are black and white and it is all a bit blurry, mimicking the ambiguity of speakers and voices as evident in the eponymous track ‘4 Your Eyez Only’. To build upon the vagueness, J. Cole’s face is invisible, he has his back to the spectators and thus denies the cult of himself as a celebrity. Instead, there is a young boy in the right corner looking at the artist. The explanation of the shot by the photographer on Instagram claimed that the ‘boy even asked Cole several times who he was. But, he couldn’t understand what was going on in his world’.[7] The story behind it supports the notion of childhood’s innocence, lack of knowledge and experience or burden. The popularity of J. Cole is enforced by fandom but this boy does not know him as a famous rapper, his eyes are full of curiosity for the world and not reverence for a celebrity. The choice of album cover is a conscious one. While it shows an awe for the innocence of boyhood, represented by this unknown little boy whose confusion is more important than the face of the author of the album. Again, the placement in the photograph and the placement of the photograph as an album cover illustrate the artists’ interest in the importance of young audience who possess the desired purity of selfhood. However, it also hints at the corruption of the self of the rapper since J. Cole, after all, uses a photo of an unknown boy to promote his music and sell copies of this finished artwork.

Both works that contribute to Wordsworth’s and J. Cole’s image, show the artists’ inability to retrieve their innocence and the subsequent grief this fact brings to them. Wordsworth may adore childhood’s divinity but there is a sense of burden that the spectator gets from his face and posture on the painting, and as the speaker says in the song: ‘it’s too late for me to ever be/ The one that set examples that was never set for me’.[8] As in, these artists perceive childhood as the goal but the inevitability of growing older and eventual death make the dream of perpetual childhood impossible. Since Wordsworth and J. Cole’s speakers express the same uneasiness, dissatisfaction with the progression of life, it could be inferred that to them the formation of a self is condemnable. It is a natural process but also one where people lose their divinity, so the self becomes corrupt. Hence the regrets visible on Wordsworth’s face from his portrait, the choice of J. Cole to put the focus on a young boy instead of himself, the speaker in the Ode and his appraisal of the dream of childhood and the speaker in the song and his hatred for his life and the self that he has become.

[1] Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Wordsworth. [Portrait]. National Portrait Gallery, London. (1842) <; [accessed 8 April 2017].

[2] Patrick J. Keane, Mountain Visions and Imaginative Usurpations: Essay <; [accessed 18 April 2017].

[3] Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Alexander Allison, Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J. Carr, Arthur M. Eastman, Hubert M. English, Jr. , 5th edn (New York: Norton & Company Ltd., 2005), pp. 796 – 801, p.797

[4] Ferguson, p.799

[5] Victoria Hernandez, Here’s The Story Behind J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” Album Cover Art (Dec 3, 2016) <; [accessed 17 April 2017].

[6] Anthony ‘Supreme’ Thompson, 4 Your Eyez Only. [Album cover] (2016) <; [accessed 7 April 2017].

[7] Hernandez

[8] J. Cole, 4 Your Eyez Only <; [accessed 10 April 2017].


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