‘The Dying Child‘ by John Clare is a six stanza poem that is separated into five-line sections. Each of these stanzas follows a particular rhyme scheme. The pattern followed is, ababab cdcdcd, and so on, changing as the poet saw fit throughout the entirety of the poem.
With every other line, sing-song-like rhyme scheme is reminiscent of children’s poetry. It creates a happy tune that is engaging and easy for a child to follow. Clare has chosen to mimic this style due to the fact that the main subject of the poem is a small child, a boy who cannot die during spring but is then faced with winter.
The poem begins with the speaker celebrating the soul of a child who truly appreciated springtime. He was thrilled by the green of the forests and completely entranced by the blossoms in the fields. He took physical sustenance from these places and used it to survive what one can assume is a deadly illness.
The child was carried from place to place during the day and took back to bed with him souvenirs from his day’s adventures. He was at peace at night and stayed that way until winter. When the colder winds blew in and “bare[d]” the trees. This singled the end of the the child’s life. He was unable to survive in the freezing days of winter when there were no flowers to hold or field to play in.
Analysis of The Dying Child
He could not die when trees were green,
For he loved the time too well.
His little hands, when flowers were seen,
Were held for the bluebell,
As he was carried o’er the green.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the past state of a young child, a boy. The speaker pays particularly close attention to the way that he lived. This child was very special for one limited reason. He was unable to die, “when trees” are green. This young person is no longer what he was. It is important to notice that the speaker of ‘The Dying Child‘ is using the past tense. The child is not currently this way, he “was” this way.
Additionally, before reading too far into the text of “The Dying Child” one might take a moment to consider the relationship that the speaker has with the child. Is this person a relative? Or simply someone relaying the story? Either way, as the poem, progresses the amount of emotional attachment that the speaker feels for the boy will become much clearer than it currently is.
In the second line, the speaker gives the reason why the boy was unable to die when the trees were green. The child “loved the time too well.” The sheer force of nature, in this case spring, was able to keep this child alive. It gave him the strength to survive in a world that had perhaps written him off, or in which he was weak and sick.
The narrator continues on to describe how the boy lived. The context through which the boy experienced nature gives the reader a hint that there was something wrong with the child. He was “carried o’er the green.” He did not, or could not, walk. When the boy was outside his hands seemed to be made to carry flowers. They were created “for the bluebell.”
His eye glanced at the white-nosed bee;
He knew those children of the spring:
When he was well and on the lea
He held one in his hands to sing,
Which filled his heart with glee.
The second stanza continues to describe the boy’s experience in the world. When he was outside, being carried around by another unknown player in this narrative, he was looking around. He was engaged by everything he saw. He “glanced” at the bees but did not spend a long time considering them as he “knew” them well.
The three following lines of this stanza describe a time in which the boy “was well” and was able to venture into nature without as much guidance. In these moments the bees would come to him and he would relish their brief stays “in his hands.” The simple beauty of these instances filled the child’s “heart with glee.”
Infants, the children of the spring!
How can an infant die
When butterflies are on the wing,
Green grass, and such a sky?
How can they die at spring?
The third stanza moves away from the fond recollections of the narrator to the cruelty of the present. The reader is thrust back into the world and reminded that things are not what they were. There is a dark undertone to the poem that surfaces at this point. The speaker’s tone moves from joyous and celebratory, to deeply sad and mournful.
He exclaims in the first lines of this section over the unfairness of the world. He does not understand why “the children of the spring” should have to die. They are only “infants” and should not have to face death “when butterflies are on the wing.”
The speaker actually seems to get what he wished for. One must remember that the child referenced in ‘The Dying Child‘ is unable to die in the spring. He cannot “die / When butterflies are on the wing.” It is impossible for him.
He held his hands for daisies white,
And then for violets blue,
And took them all to bed at night
That in the green fields grew,
As childhood’s sweet delight.
The fourth stanza returns to the boy and is filled with descriptions of how the boy took the sights he saw during the day, and the “daisies white…And…violets blue” into bed with him at night. These experiences, as well has the souvenirs he collected, serve to preserve his happiness when he was unable to be outside. He looked at them and remembered that they grew “in the green fields.”
The objects of nature that the child collected were his most valued items. They were embodiments of his own vitality and tokens of the life he still had left to lead. As long as there are flowers to pick, he will survive.
And then he shut his little eyes,
And flowers would notice not;
Birds’ nests and eggs caused no surprise,
He now no blossoms got;
They met with plaintive sighs.
The poem begins to come to its conclusion in the fifth stanza. The tone turns darker and the boy appears to be entering a deep sleep. He “shuts his little eyes,” and sleeps. In this state, he is unable to get blossoms from the fields or forests but either way, the “birds” and “flowers” don’t seem to notice. They see his beauty and “sigh” over him. It is as if the boy is part of their world.
When winter came and blasts did sigh,
And bare were plain and tree,
As he for ease in bed did lie
His soul seemed with the free,
He died so quietly.
The finals stanza concludes the poem and reminds the reader that the temporary life in which the boy is living does in fact have an end. Winter begins to blow into the boy’s home and “bare” the fields and forests. It is stripping away all the beauty that is so important to the child. One can see the child’s life disintegrating as the seasons change.
As for the child, he is in bed and undisturbed by what is going on. His soul is not bothered, nor is he aware that he is dying. He passes on “quietly” just as he lived.