William Blake’s ‘The School Boy’

‘The School Boy’ is a typical example of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in it’s themes and imagery. Like many of the other poems in this work it deals with childhood and the subjugation of it’s spirit and uses imagery from the natural world. While first published in 1789 as one of the Songs of Innocence there are strong reasons why Blake moved it to the Experience1 section of the 1794 edition. If we compare it to other poems in the collection it sits better with others in Experience than those in Innocence.

On first reading ‘The School Boy’ is the voice of a young boy complaining of being shut inside at his schoolwork instead of playing outside in the sun. When we look at the poem further we can see that the poet is returning to the theme of childhood subjugated and its natural joy destroyed that can be seen in other poems in the collection such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in Experience with its comparison of the child who was ‘happy on the heath’ to now “Crying ”weep! ‘weep!’ in notes of woe!” .

The poem begins in Stanza I with the poet giving us a pastoral image of the innocence of nature reminiscent of that in ‘The Introduction’ from Innocence, some critics have pointed out the similarity of ‘The distant huntsman winds his horn’ in this poem with ‘Piping down the valleys wild’ in ‘The Introduction’ of Innocence2 . The poem gives us an image of rising with the company of many natural joys, not just the huntsman but ‘birds sing on every tree’ and ‘the sky-lark sings with me.’ It is in Stanza II that we see the oppression of the natural by authority typical of Experience and continued through the rest of the poem. This stanza compares the pastoral imagery of Stanza I with that of the ‘cruel eye outworn,’ and the ‘sighing and dismay’ of the children in the school room. The contrast is heightened by the similarity of the opening lines, both ending ‘in a summer morn’ and the way this forces a similar rhyme across the two, and the similar metre and beginning of ‘O! what sweet company.’ ending Stanza I and ‘O! it drives all joy away;’ in the second line of Stanza II. The similarities enhance the differences in the two images and show childhood in the two states of pastoral innocence and the experience in restrictive school days leaving the reader with a feeling for the loss of youth.

The poet emphasises the oppression of the school room by offering the image ‘Nor in my book can I take delight, nor sit in learning’s bower’ in Stanza III reminding the reader that books and learning can be natural. In the illumination for the 1794 edition this is underscored by an image of a child enjoying a book atop a tree than can be seen at top right3.

The domination of the natural and free is further enhanced by the analogy with a caged bird in Stanza IV. The poet uses the image of ‘droop his tender wing’, an echo of ‘at times I drooping sit’ in the previous stanza which strengthens the image of children under a weight. We now have a distinct picture of crushed and destroyed life in the school room, the poet has successfully conveyed to the reader the loss and lassitude of the school boy.

Stanzas V and VI are appeals to the alternate authority of the parents to realise the predicament of the child and the dangers in this suppression of natural learning. Stanza V gives us a strong image of nature destroyed with :-

… if bud’s are nip’d,
And blossoms blown away,
And if the tender plants are strip’d

Stanza VI continues the question of Stanza V asking if this damaged nature can bear fruit – ‘the summer fruits appear’. It continues by asking if a harvest is possible – ‘how shall we gather’ and finishes the poem by asking if the plants so destroyed can survive into old age4 – ‘Or bless the mellowing year, when the blasts of winter appear’. These questions, rhetorical and already answered by the tone of the poem, give a final note to the reader of the impossible condition of the school boy.

It might be useful to place ‘The Schoolboy’ in the context of the whole work of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. It was one of the four poems first published in Songs of Innocence that were moved to the Experience section of the 1794 edition. This raises the question, why?. It is one of the poems in Experience on the theme of childhood and is lighter in tone than either ‘The Little Vagabond’ or ‘Infant Sorrow’; two other poems on the same theme in Experience. However, examine it against ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Innocence as another example of this theme and we can see that it ends on a harsher note with it’s final stanza beginning ‘How shall the summer arise in joy?’, compared to the final couplet in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of ‘Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; So if all do their duty they need not fear harm’. We can also see that ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ offers hope with the dream of release by the angels while ‘The School Boy’ has no similar optimism. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ the poet is giving us a message about the brightness and hope of childhood while ‘The School Boy’ is more a tale of melancholy.

A close comparison of ‘The School Boy’ can be made to ‘The Ecchoing Green’ in Innocence. Both poems talk of children but ‘The Ecchoing Green’ gives us a picture of them at idyllic play in a natural setting :-

The birds of the bush
Sing louder around
To the bells’ chearful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Ecchoing Green.

Even the shorter lines and sharper metre of this poem give a happier tone than ‘The School Boy’, they make the poem feel faster and echo the simple rhymes of childhood. Instead of ‘a cruel eye outworn’ from ‘The School Boy’ we have the image of ‘Old John, with white hair, Does laugh away care,’ &endash;a much more pleasant one. Both poems contain an image of parenthood; in ‘The School Boy’ parents are being begged for relief with ‘O! father & mother’ while ‘The Ecchoing Green’ sees a much more nurturing parental figure with :-

Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,

‘The Ecchoing Green’ is full of images of children in the pastoral and nurturing typical of Innocence while ‘The School Boy’ shows childhood taken from these images and subdued making it more typical of the poems in Experience.

If it was ever doubted that the poet intended to show a contrast between innocence and experience the number of poems with identical names in each of the two sections dispel them and give us an ideal look at the way the poet characterises each state. One pair is that of ‘Nurse’s Song’ and an examination shows us that ‘The School Boy’ is better placed with the poems in Experience rather than Innocence.

The ‘Nurse’s Song’ in Innocence has a similar light and playful tone to ‘The Ecchoing Green’&endash;examine the final stanza :-

“Well, well, go & play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills ecchoed.

This stanza leaves us with another idyllic image of children freely playing, a strong contrast to the final stanza of the verse in Experience:-

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring & your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

This has a much bleaker tone than the previous example and emphasises authority with an order to the playing children, ‘Then come home, my children,’ leaving the reader with a sense of sadness and loss. Once again we can see stronger metre in the verse from Innocence, particularly the repetition of ‘leaped & shouted & laugh’d’ giving the reader a feeling for the happiness of the playing children. Darker images can be seen in the verse from Experience emphasising the joyless feeling of this verse.

Looking back now at ‘The School Boy’ we can see that the slower and looser metre, dark tone and bleaker images of this poem are closer to those in Experience than Innocence. When the nurse in ‘Nurse’s Song’ from Experience tells the child that ‘Your spring & your day are wasted in play’ she may well be thinking that the time would be better spent with ‘a cruel eye outworn’ while her sister in Innocence sends them off with her ‘Well, well, go & play’.

If the two halves of the volume are indeed “Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, as Blake puts it in the sub title of the 1794 edition, then ‘The Schoolboy’ shows us a state of control and oppression of the natural spirit more at home in Experience than Innocence.

Bibliography

Blake, William, Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967.

Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. New York: Dover, 1992

Bloom, Harold (ed.), William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Ferber, Michael, The Poetry of William Blake. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Frye, Northrop (ed.), Blake A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Hyland, Dominic, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Harlow: Longman York Press, 1982.

Notes

  1. To avoid confusion between the 1789 edition Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Innocence section of the 1794 combined edition I have shortened the section names to Innocence and Experience throughout and refer to the 1789 edition as Songs of Innocence and the 1794 edition Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience as the 1794 edition where it is necessary to draw a distinction.
  2. One example is found in D. Hyland, William Blake Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (Harlow: Longman York Press, 1982), p. 48
  3. William Blake, Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience, (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1967) plate 53 .
  4. D. Hyland, William Blake Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (Harlow: Longman York Press, 1982), p. 48

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4 thoughts on “William Blake’s ‘The School Boy’

  1. Blake seems to be more inclined towards natural inclination of man to live with nature. But man has to fulfill his social obligations. Hence he needs to be trained subjugating himself to authority. How to balance the two?

  2. Pingback: The Schoolboy | Bedfordshire Men's Forum

  3. Nature is not selfish but, man is; nature is not greedy but, man is! The natural tendencies of innocence can no longer survive in this materialistic world. The greenery and its charm gives way to man’s acquired urge for greener pastures. Can we dream of a balancing act without uprooting or, to yearn for the least, trim down our such urges?

  4. Nature preserves, man destroys. Of all the elements, only man is unsteadily unpredictable, ever marauding, ever selfishly destabilising the natural course.

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