The Barefoot Boy

John Greenleaf Whittier

‘The Barefoot Boy’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a highly relatable poem that speaks on universal themes of aging and the beauty and joy of youth. The poem celebrates a young boy’s freedom and mourns the coming of age. 

John Greenleaf Whittier

Nationality: America

John Whittier was an American poet and Quaker who advocated for the abolition of slavery.

He is often regarded as a part of, or linked with, the Fireside Poets.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Youth is fleeting and impossible to recapture

Themes: Aging, Nature

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Jealousy

Poetic Form: Couplets

Time Period: 19th Century

This incredibly nostalgic and universally relatable poem explores feelings of loss and jealousy when considering other's youth

The poem is fairly long but focuses on easy-to-understand and imagine images and themes. The poet’s speaker is entirely consumed by thoughts of a young boy who reminds him of himself at that age. The boy takes joy in learning about nature and animals, has no use for books or education, and runs free and barefoot in the woods. This is the kind of youth the speaker had as well and something that he deeply misses. 

The Barefoot Boy
John Greenleaf Whittier

Blessings on thee, little man,Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!With thy turned-up pantaloons,And thy merry whistled tunes;With thy red lip, redder stillKissed by strawberries on the hill;With the sunshine on thy face,Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;From my heart I give thee joy,—I was once a barefoot boy!Prince thou art,—the grown-up manOnly is republican.Let the million-dollared ride!Barefoot, trudging at his side,Thou hast more than he can buyIn the reach of ear and eye,—Outward sunshine, inward joy:Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s painless play,Sleep that wakes in laughing day,Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,Knowledge never learned of schools,Of the wild bee’s morning chase,Of the wild-flower’s time and place,Flight of fowl and habitudeOf the tenants of the wood;How the tortoise bears his shell,How the woodchuck digs his cell,And the ground-mole sinks his well;How the robin feeds her young,How the oriole’s nest is hung;Where the whitest lilies blow,Where the freshest berries grow,Where the ground-nut trails its vine,Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;Of the black wasp’s cunning way,Mason of his walls of clay,And the architectural plansOf gray hornet artisans!For, eschewing books and tasks,Nature answers all he asks;Hand in hand with her he walks,Face to face with her he talks,Part and parcel of her joy,—Blessings on the barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,Crowding years in one brief moon,When all things I heard or saw,Me, their master, waited for.I was rich in flowers and trees,Humming-birds and honey-bees;For my sport the squirrel played,Plied the snouted mole his spade;For my taste the blackberry conePurpled over hedge and stone;Laughed the brook for my delightThrough the day and through the night,Whispering at the garden wall,Talked with me from fall to fall;Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,Mine the walnut slopes beyond,Mine, on bending orchard trees,Apples of Hesperides!Still as my horizon grew,Larger grew my riches too;All the world I saw or knewSeemed a complex Chinese toy,Fashioned for a barefoot boy!

Oh for festal dainties spread,Like my bowl of milk and bread;Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,On the door-stone, gray and rude!O’er me, like a regal tent,Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,Looped in many a wind-swung fold;While for music came the playOf the pied frogs’ orchestra;And, to light the noisy choir,Lit the fly his lamp of fire.I was monarch: pomp and joyWaited on the barefoot boy!

Cheerily, then, my little man,Live and laugh, as boyhood can!Though the flinty slopes be hard,Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,Every morn shall lead thee throughFresh baptisms of the dew;Every evening from thy feetShall the cool wind kiss the heat:All too soon these feet must hideIn the prison cells of pride,Lose the freedom of the sod,Like a colt’s for work be shod,Made to tread the mills of toil,Up and down in ceaseless moil:Happy if their track be foundNever on forbidden ground;Happy if they sink not inQuick and treacherous sands of sin.Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,Ere it passes, barefoot boy!
The Barefoot Boy by John Greenleaf Whittier


The Barefoot Boy’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a thoughtful and nostalgic poem about youth and aging. 

The poem is divided into five long stanzas, each of which is focused on the same general themes and images. The speaker is consumed by thoughts of the “Barefoot Boy,” presumably a young boy he saw playing outside. The child reminds him of his own youth and how, at one time, he too could run free in the woods, spend time with animals and plants, and take pure simple joy in these experiences. 

As one ages, the speaker says, this ability dissipates. One is consumed by responsibilities and worries. The saddest part is, the speaker implies, that when one is young it is near impossible to truly appreciate what you have. 

Structure and Form 

The Barefoot Boy’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a five-stanza poem that is divided into long stanzas. The first stanza is eighteen lines long, the second: is twenty-seven, the third: is twenty-three, the fourth: fourteen, and the final stanza is twenty lines long. The poem’s rhyme scheme is very simple. It follows a pattern of AABBCC, and so on, using couplets throughout. This gives the poem a song-like feeling, making it very easy to imagine it being recited or sung aloud.

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Barefoot” and “Blessings” in lines one and two. 
  • Caesura: the intentional use of a pause in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Blessings on thee, little man.” 
  • Personification: the use of human-specific descriptions to depict something nonhuman. For example, “Kissed by strawberries on the hill.” 
  • Refrain: the repetition of the same phrase multiple times. For example, “Blessings on thee.”

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

With thy turned-up pantaloons,

And thy merry whistled tunes;

With thy red lip, redder still

Kissed by strawberries on the hill;

With the sunshine on thy face,

Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;

From my heart I give thee joy,—

I was once a barefoot boy!

Prince thou art,—the grown-up man

Only is republican.

Let the million-dollared ride!

Barefoot, trudging at his side,

Thou hast more than he can buy

In the reach of ear and eye,—

Outward sunshine, inward joy:

Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

In the first stanza of ‘The Barefoot Boy,’ the speaker begins by describing a young boy, the “Barefoot Boy,” from the poem’s title. He has tan skin, an upbeat attitude, and red lips, the following lines add. This child is described in idealized terms, as though he is very healthy, happy, and enjoying his life. 

The child has an optimism and joy about him that the speaker remembers experiencing himself. This is something that he has since lost, the poem implies but that he remembers well. The speaker even writes, “I was once a barefoot boy,” indicating, in quite clear terms, that he used to live and look the same way. 

The poet also implies that the joy of youth fades as one ages. Suddenly, things are no longer as sunshine-filled and beautiful. The poet ends the first stanza by again blessing the boy, indicating that the hopes the child continues to live well and happily. 

Stanza Two 

Oh for boyhood’s painless play,

Sleep that wakes in laughing day,

Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,

Knowledge never learned of schools,

Of the wild bee’s morning chase,

Of the wild-flower’s time and place,

Flight of fowl and habitude

Of the tenants of the wood;

How the tortoise bears his shell,

How the woodchuck digs his cell,

And the ground-mole sinks his well;

How the robin feeds her young,

How the oriole’s nest is hung;

Where the whitest lilies blow,

Where the freshest berries grow,

Where the ground-nut trails its vine,

Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;

Of the black wasp’s cunning way,

Mason of his walls of clay,

And the architectural plans

Of gray hornet artisans!

For, eschewing books and tasks,

Nature answers all he asks;

Hand in hand with her he walks,

Face to face with her he talks,

Part and parcel of her joy,—

Blessings on the barefoot boy!

The second stanza is the longest of the poem, recaching twenty-seven lines. The speaker remembers what it was like to be a boy and enjoy playing with friends and family members without care. This is something that he no longer experiences but that he misses deeply. He brings in many different images of bees, flowers, and the many animals that one can see as they run free outside. These “Tenants of the woods” are interesting and as free as a child is. The young boy runs with the robins, woodchucks, and more. 

The boy’s interest in nature is far more powerful than any regard he has for school, books, and rules. Nature has all the answers he could ever want, unlike books. He talks to nature “face to face,” the poet writes, communing with each element of the natural world every day. This provides him with a far better education, the poet alludes, than would books. 

Stanza Three 

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,

Crowding years in one brief moon,

When all things I heard or saw,

Me, their master, waited for.

I was rich in flowers and trees,

Humming-birds and honey-bees;

For my sport the squirrel played,

Plied the snouted mole his spade;

For my taste the blackberry cone

Purpled over hedge and stone;

Laughed the brook for my delight

Through the day and through the night,

Whispering at the garden wall,

Talked with me from fall to fall;

Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,

Mine the walnut slopes beyond,

Mine, on bending orchard trees,

Apples of Hesperides!

Still as my horizon grew,

Larger grew my riches too;

All the world I saw or knew

Seemed a complex Chinese toy,

Fashioned for a barefoot boy!

The third stanza equates boyhood to the beautiful and lively month of June in which the weather is great and nature is beautiful. The speaker recalls what it was like to be young and to spend as much time in nature as the Barefoot Boy does. He knew all the plants and animals well. He spent so much time with them that he felt as though the natural world was far more his home than anywhere else. The poet writes about the walnut slops, orchard trees, and much more. The poem uses a literary device known as accumulation in order to bring in as much detail as possible. 

When the speaker was young, he says, the world seemed vast and endless. The more he saw, the richer he felt. This is purposefully contrasted with the actual accumulation of wealth.

Stanza Four 

Oh for festal dainties spread,

Like my bowl of milk and bread;

Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,

On the door-stone, gray and rude!

O’er me, like a regal tent,

Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,

Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,

Looped in many a wind-swung fold;

While for music came the play

Of the pied frogs’ orchestra;

And, to light the noisy choir,

Lit the fly his lamp of fire.

I was monarch: pomp and joy

Waited on the barefoot boy!

The fourth stanza is the shortest of the poem. It describes the way that the speaker enjoyed spending time in the natural world. He plays his own games, had his own parties, and found his own music in the “pied frogs’ orchestra.” This emphasizes the fact that the world is providing the young boy with everything he needs. It is where he goes for friends, learning, and entertainment. 

Stanza Five 

Cheerily, then, my little man,

Live and laugh, as boyhood can!

Though the flinty slopes be hard,

Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,

Every morn shall lead thee through

Fresh baptisms of the dew;

Every evening from thy feet

Shall the cool wind kiss the heat:

All too soon these feet must hide

In the prison cells of pride,

Lose the freedom of the sod,

Like a colt’s for work be shod,

Made to tread the mills of toil,

Up and down in ceaseless moil:

Happy if their track be found

Never on forbidden ground;

Happy if they sink not in

Quick and treacherous sands of sin.

Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker encourages the young barefoot boy to enjoy life while he can. From the previous lines, readers can assume that the speaker is feeling very nostalgic for his youth. He misses being able to run freely through nature and feeling entirely captivated by it. The distractions and responsibilities of adulthood make this kind of experience near-impossible now. 

The speaker also knows that before long, the boy’s interest will turn from nature to his everyday life. He’ll become consumed by furthering himself, finding love, money, or a family. Soon the boy will be doing nothing but “tread[ing] the mills of toil” and ceaselessly working towards something that might not even make him happy. He’ll also be exposed to the dangers of sin and how important it becomes to avoid doing anything wrong. 

The poem ends with the speaker wishing that the boy could understand how lucky he is to live as he is now. The speaker is well aware that the boy isn’t truly appreciating his youthful freedom. It’s not until one ages and loses that freedom that one realizes how precious it is. 


What is the theme of ‘The Barefoot Boy?’

The themes of this poem are youth and aging. The speaker is someone who feels pangs of nostalgia when seeing young boys running free in the glory days of their youth. He misses that kind of freedom terribly. 

What is the tone of ‘The Barefoot Boy?’

The tone of ‘The Barefoot Boy’ is nostalgic and passionate. The speaker feels a great deal for the boy and for the life he’s living. He deeply misses his own youth and wishes that he could return to it and live as the boy is now. 

What is the purpose of ‘The Barefoot Boy?’

The purpose of this poem is to remind readers of how wonderful youth is. One is only young for a very brief period, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to appreciate it when while experiencing it. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other John Greenleaf Whittier poems. For example: 

Other related poems include: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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