This piece was first published in the second half of Blake’s masterpiece, Songs of Experience. The publication of this volume came approximately five years after the publication of Songs of Innocence in 1789. These poems by William Blake were later combined and republished together as Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake’s ‘The Schoolboy’ is a pastoral poem that focuses on the problems inherent in formal learning. The boy, who hates going to school, feels that he would be better educated by the natural world.
Explore The Schoolboy
The poem begins with the young narrator speaking on his ideal morning. He wakes and hears the birds and the “distant huntsman” blowing his “horn.” The second stanza jumps to the mornings he despairs of in which he is forced to leave his peaceful sanctuary and go to school.
The next two stanzas are infused with melodrama and are meant to elicit sympathy from the reader. The boy describes his miserable days at school and how, like a trapped bird that cannot sing, he should not be required to learn in restraints.
The speaker turns to plead with his parents. He tells them that if this continues his “buds” are going to be “nipped,” his joy ripped from him, and the loss of his childhood will result in unpreparedness for life. He will not be able to last through the real trials of life, or winters as he describes them.
Blake makes use of some interesting and important themes in ‘The Schoolboy’. He explores childhood and youth, as well as themes of education, nature, and freedom in this piece. His main character and speaker, the schoolboy, spends the poem describing the difference between freedom in the natural world and the cruel restrictions of formal education.
He believes that he’d be better off learning what he needs to know of the world from nature rather than from someone’s idea of what’s good for him. The poem brings up questions about the effectiveness of standard education and what the right way to raise a child is. Additionally, Blake celebrates youth, and youth tied to nature, as he commonly does within his poems.
Structure and Form
‘The Schoolboy‘ by William Blake is separated into six stanzas of five lines, called quintets. The first two stanzas rhyme is a scheme of ABABB, ACACC while the last four diverge, rhyming (with alternative endings) ABCBB or ABABB. The lines are all around the same length and vary between using enjambment and en-punctuation.
Blake makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Schoolboy’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, and a wonderful example of a metaphor. The latter is seen in the fina lines of the poem as the speaker compares his youth and happiness, as well as his mental state, while at school to the destruction of a plant. This is all in an effort to convince his parents that he shouldn’t ever have to go through the misery of school again.
Alliteration is another important literary device that appears throughout this poem. It helps to increase the rhyme and rhythm of the verses. For example, “skylark sings” in stanza one and “day” and “dismay” in stanza two. Anaphora works in a similar way to alliteration. It can be seen in the third stanza with the repetition of “Nor” at the beginning of two lines then again in the fifth stanza with “And”.
Analysis of The Schoolboy
I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!
In the first stanza of this piece, Blake introduces the reader to his main character and speaker. The poem is told from the perspective of a young school-age boy who feels trapped in the monotony of everyday attendance to his studies. He speaks with the conscience of an older man, projecting the emotions and beliefs common to the Romantic poets, of which Blake was one.
The young narrator speaks about the things he loves in this first stanza. He loves “to rise in a summer morn” and hear the birds singing “on every tree.” Further, in the distance, he can hear the horn of the “huntsman” and the song of the “skylark” who seems to sing only for him.
These are the types of companies he desires. This is when he is happiest, a sentiment that many a Romantic poet has expressed.
But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
The second stanza presents the exact opposite— things that “drive all joy away!”
When he is forced to rise on a “summer morn” and go to school, unable to stay in his peaceful environment, he is unhappiest. He bemoans him, and his classmate’s, fate; that they are stuck inside, “In sighing and dismay.”
Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.
The young speaker continues on, telling the reader more about his miserable days at school. He sits “drooping,” hunched over in his seat. He takes no pleasure in school work and is anxiously waiting for the end of the day. He cannot even take “delight” in his book, or “sit in learning’s bower” as it has been all “Worn through” by rain.
It is clear from these lines that the child is not averse to learning in general, he appreciates reading and understands the joys that can be gained from encompassing oneself within the “bower,” or sanctuary, of learning. It is only the structure of school he cannot stand.
How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!
In the fourth stanza of “The Schoolboy” the speaker questions his reader, demanding an answer to a rhetorical question. He pleads with whoever is listening and asks how a “bird that is born for joy,” referring to himself or others that think like him, be asked to “Sit in a cage and sing?” He knows that he was made to learn, read, and write, but he cannot do so in school, a place he considers equal to a cage.
He now turns to beg on behalf of other children. He makes the case for all those trapped indoors. He professes to worry for their wellbeing and the fact that while they are inside, their “tender” wings drooping, they are forgetting the “spring” of their youth. These children, just like he is, are missing out on the joys of being a child.
O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, –
In the fifth quintet of ‘The Schoolboy,’ the speaker turns to address his parents as he sees them as the ones that could possibly change his situation. If only he can convince them to see things his way. In this stanza, he presents them with the reasons why they should not force him to go to school.
He speaks about his own childhood joys as being “buds” that are being “nipped” and “blossoms” that are blowing away. His happiness is delicate like the “tender plants” and he should not have to be subject to “sorrow and care’s dismay” at his young age. He need not feel so unhappy when he is only a child.
How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?
If all of the things stated in the fifth stanza happen if he is indeed stripped of his joy and given sorrow in return, then how can his parents expect the appearance of fruit in the summer. They should, he states, worry that due to their choices he will never be the same. He will be unable to stand the “blasts of winter” when they appear.
While this poem did appear in Songs of Experience, this child has yet to reach an age in which he will truly feel sorrow or despair. His youthful melodramatic appeal will fall on deaf ears.
Similar poems that make use of the same themes that Blake uses in ‘The Schoolboy’ are not hard to find. Many writers have thought about what the best way to learn is and how nature might provide a better source of knowledge, no matter one’s age. A perfect example of this is ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ by Walt Whitman.
Other similar poems are ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’ by John Montague and ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore. Also, check out this list we made of the Best Poems About Childhood as well as the Best Poems About Nature.
About William Blake
William Blake was born in London, England in November of 1757. Blake was raised in humble conditions and had a normal childhood except for the fact that he was consistently subjected to visions. When he called to have seen God’s head in a window sill at four years old and later the Prophet Ezekiel and a tree full of angels. From a young age, Blake was noted for his verse and drawing ability and when he was fourteen he began an apprenticeship to an engraver, the career through which he would eventually earn his living.
In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher who would become a valuable assistant and loving wife. In 1784, Blake set up his print shop and began to create his famous illuminated etchings. It was through the convergence of his two loves, poetry and art, that Blake published his poetry collection, Songs of Innocence, in 1789. This work was followed by Songs of Experience in 1794. These works are notable not only for their beautiful illustrations and verse but for the combination of the two. These pieces are generally considered to be Blake’s masterpiece.
The next years of Blake’s life brought new troubles. He was accused of uttering seditious, or treasonous, sentiments against the king, but luckily, was found not guilty. This experience inspired Blake to write the epic poem, ‘Jerusalem.’
By 1824, his health had taken a downward turn and he died in 1827, in the midst of creating an illustrated version of Dante’s Divine Comedy.