The Ecchoing Green by William Blake is a three-stanza poem that embodies an AABBCCDDEE rhyme scheme throughout its course to present a theme that’s as beautiful as it is melancholy. The beauty comes in the form of life enjoyment that’s showcased through the children playing in the fields as a character, “Old John,” watches, but the melancholy is subtly dealt with in the guise of an undertone of how fleeting youthful zeal can be. Furthermore, Blake uses that simple vision of play—or lack thereof—that’s occurring on “the Ecchoing Green” to symbolize the passing quality of life in general.
The Ecchoing Green Analysis
The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring.
The sky-lark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound.
While our sports shall be seen
On the Ecchoing Green.
This first stanza wastes no time in delivering the brightness that’s occurring on this “Ecchoing Green,” though no specific person is initially addressed as a part of the scenery. Rather, Blake concentrates on the sounds and scenes that nature and inanimate objects bring to give a background of merriment before people are added to the equation. Specifically, “the sun” is in “happy…skies” while “merry bells ring” and “birds” offer their own “cheerful” sounds. Before we ever come across a single person in this poem, we’re grounded in scenery that exemplifies happiness.
With the final two lines though, we realize that the narrator is a part of some group playing “sports” among the happy sounds on “Green” land. From the animals and inanimate objects to the joy and plant life, this scenery is treated like a thing of beauty, and the concept is so childish—playing in a field—that the reader can conclude that this group is made up of children.
Under the weight of this deduction, the whole stanza shifts in meaning to something much deeper than just children playing. The lively qualities and happiness expressed are representations of the vivacity of youth where life is still as early and fresh as a “sun” that’s high in “happy…skies.” In this state of life, people can play, run, and enjoy what’s around them in a hands-on way.
Old John, with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk,
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say.
‘Such, such were the joys.
When we all girls & boys,
In our youth-time were seen,
On the Ecchoing Green.’
In this stanza, we’re introduced to the only character who’s given a specific name, and “Old John” is of note because he’s observing the merriment occurring in “the Ecchoing Green” even though he himself is not partaking. This can be seen as stepping into a different stage of life than the one in which the children exist as “Old John” likely can’t partake in those activities due to his age. Instead of sharing in that heightened level of motion, he’s “[s]itting under the oak” in the company of “the old folk” as he watches the display.
The use of “the oak” in this stanza is of particular significance in two ways. One, we get a visual of a series of older people casually assembled in the shade of a towering tree. This image is both helpful in giving the reader a mental picture of the setting, and also reinforcing that elderly quality for this group. They aren’t running or even walking. They’re sedentary.
This leads into the second significance of “the oak” since the tree is a symbol of wisdom and steadfastness due to the time required to grow a tree large enough for a series of people to linger beneath. By providing such a representation of older superiority and strength, Blake is commenting on the wisdom and steadfastness to be had in the elderly group who has endured decades of life experiences.
Regardless of the elderly quality though, “Old John” still finds happiness in the children’s antics, and the young narrator is aware of this detail as he comments things like how the observers “laugh at [the] play.” But even in this child’s description of the elders genuinely finding enjoyment, there’s the first hint of melancholy showing itself in the latter lines of the stanza. This sad twist arises through the reminiscing of the elder generation about the times when they were all “girls & boys” who experienced similar joys as the children’s. Though the observers remember those days and can still enjoy the children’s happiness, they will never again be able to experience that same free quality and activity as the children currently are.
It’s worth noting as well that the phrase, “girls & boys,” is evidence in favour of the idea that the people playing at “the Ecchoing Green” are children. If not, the recollection would lose sensibility in that no “girls & boys” would be present to spark the comparative comment.
Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end:
Round the laps of their mothers,
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen,
On the darkening Green.
What was already a melancholy detail in the second stanza grows to overtake the remainder of the poem. Now, there’s no more playing as “the sun does descend,” creating a scene that’s much darker and less active than what was presented in the first stanza. At first glance, this scenario could be explained as the children going home for the sake of sleep and such, but a careful exploration of the wording reveals so much more.
For one thing, this is the first time the children are referred to by the narrator—who claims to be a part of the group—as “the little ones.” This isn’t vernacular often connected to a child by another child, so it’s constructed to stick out and sparks the question of why a child would suddenly be referring to the youth in such a way. The most logical of explanations would be that the child is no longer a child, but rather is growing or has grown into an adult.
From that viewpoint, the meaning of this final stanza alters to surround that idea. The fact that their “sports have to end” becomes a statement of having to leave behind the merriment of childhood so much that “sport [will] no more be seen.” That last quote, too, affords this theory of passing into adulthood credibility since the narrator doesn’t mention a time when the play can recommence. By the word choice, it’s just over as age comes and death approaches. Much like a day has a sunrise and a sunset, so does life, and this stanza clearly notes that the “descend[ing]” is taking place. The vivacity of childhood is draining, and as life passes, the “Green” is no longer “Ecchoing.” It’s “darkening,” like the light of life slipping away.
This theory does make the description of children being “[r]ound the laps of their mothers/Many sisters and brothers” an odd thing. If the narrator is now talking about aging adults, after all, the visual of them gathered around “the laps of their mothers” feels out of place. However, this statement is actually quite fitting. Let’s recall that those elderly fellows were watching the children play by “the oak” in Stanza 2. Perhaps then “the oak” is being treated like the “mothers” in this scenario—or rather what “the oak” would represent. That steadfastness and wisdom that was earlier addressed could be the explanation needed here, that these former children who are now aging adults are gathered around wisdom and steadfastness garnered from life experience. In that, this concept adds beauty even to the most melancholy of stanzas in this poem. Even though they’re aging and death is approaching, they’ve grown solid and strong.
What begins then as a purely beautiful tale in the first stanza progressively delves into melancholy until the beauty, in the end, has shifted from the primary focus to the underlying theme. Still, Blake has effectively created a poem to showcase both the beauty and melancholy of aging and life.
About William Blake
William Blake was an 18th century poet from London who also is known for his work in illustration. With additional artistic practices and experiences that include engraving, drawing, and painting, Blake was a multi-skilled artist during his time. Nearly two centuries after his death, his name is still relevant to the poetry community.