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John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy"

Updated on February 25, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Barefoot Boy"

Playing out in five rimed stanzas, John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy" consists of 102 lines, most of which from couplets, with the exception of two triplets: one in the second stanza, "How the tortoise bears his shell, / How the woodchuck digs his cell, / And the ground-mole sinks his well," and another triplet in the third stanza, "Still as my horizon grew, / Larger grew my riches too; / All the world I saw or knew."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

With a special nod to the pleasant season of summer, John Greenleaf Whittier has penned a nostalgic piece that might have served as an influence on Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" as both poems dramatize boyhood memories.

The Barefoot Boy

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!

O 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 great 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!

O 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!

O 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!

Cheerly, 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!

Reading of Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy"

Commentary

Whittier's speaker is offering a special nod to summer, as he dramatizes a nostalgic memory after encountering young boy who knows how to enjoy the warm, pleasant season.

First Stanza: Celebrating the Happiness of Summer

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!

The speaker is addressing a little boy who has been enjoying summer: the boy's cheeks are sun-kissed; he is wearing his pants rolled up, probably for wading in the creek, and the boy is whistling a "merry…tune." The boy has the privilege of enjoying ripened red strawberries which redden his lips as he dons his likely straw hat with a "torn brim" proffering a "jaunty grace."

The speaker has been motivated to celebrate the happiness of summer along with the boy, and it becomes obvious that the speaker closely identifies with the lad because he was once that same barefoot boy himself: "I was once a barefoot boy!"

Then the speaker declares that the barefoot boy is richer than royalty or at least richer in joy than the grown-up: "Prince thou art,—the grown-up man / Only is republican." The barefoot boy does not have to worry about the duties of citizenship that concern those in charge of the republic. The speaker repeats his blessings on the boy.

Second Stanza: The Blissfulness of Boyhood

O 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 great 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!

In the second stanza, the speaker further dramatizes the advantages of being just a barefoot boy in summer, and the reader understands that he is as much speaking about his own boyhood as of the boy on whom he first wished blessings.

The barefoot boy wakes up to a "laughing day," and his boyhood is filled with "painless play." The speaker asserts and celebrates the intuitive knowledge that the boy enjoys as well as his glowing health: "Health that mocks the doctor's rules, / Knowledge never learned of schools." Again, the speaker heaps blessings on the barefoot boy.

Third Stanza: Celebrating a Nostalgic Journey

O 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!

In the third stanza, the speaker directly relates his own summer experience: "I was rich in flowers and trees, / Humming-birds and honey-bees."

The glories of seeing this young lad looking so much like the speaker when he was young has sparked this nostalgic journey back through the speaker's childhood memories.

Fourth Stanza: Memories and the Royalty of Summer Days

O 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 allows the speaker to continue his own journey of joy of being a boy in summer. The speaker is recalling the beauty of sunset, the many hues and colors of the sky. He likens such qualities to royalty as the sky bent over him like a "regal tent." The speaker also recalls that an orchestra of frogs accompanied the fantastic beauty that was performing in the sky as the sun slipped down behind the earth.

The speaker is sharing all of those pleasant memories of the look of the sky and sunset and the sounds of frogs that filled the night. And then he again likens himself to royalty as he did the boy: "I was monarch: pomp and joy / Waited on the barefoot boy!"

Fifth Stanza: The Duties of Adulthood Beckon

Cheerly, 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 fifth stanza, the speaker returns to the present and the boy to whom he has been addressing his memories. He bids the boy, "Live and laugh, as boyhood can!"

The speaker admonishes the lad to enjoy those summer days of being a barefoot boy because the duties of adulthood will come soon enough, and the speaker ends, realizing that the boy will probably not be able to grasp the blessedness of his state: "Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy, / Ere it passes, barefoot boy!" But the speaker offers at least a ray of hope that his review of the lad's situation as well as his own will help the boy understand how happy joyous summer should be.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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