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William Blake's "The Schoolboy"

Updated on December 7, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

William Blake

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Schoolboy"

William Blake is one of poetry's most overrated scribblers. His works rival for ludicrousness the postmoderns, the ilk of Charle Bernstein, Robert Bly, and Carolyn Forché of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And interestingly, the blather from Blake, Bly, et al, likely stems from the same libertine attitudes and failure to follow a basic moral core of standards in life and art.

While William Blake's "The Schoolboy" begins by emphasizing summer, it is not really a poem that focuses on summer, but a lament of a youngster who simply hates to attend school. The poem, "The Schoolboy," consists of six five-line stanzas each with the rime scheme, ABABB.

(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.")

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!

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.

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.

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!

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, -

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?

Reading of Blake's "The Schoolboy"

Commentary

First Stanza: The Delights of Summer

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!

The first line of "The Schoolboy" asserts, "I love to rise in a summer morn," and the second lines continues, "When the birds sing on every tree." The speaker delights in summer under certain conditions, with the birds singing in the trees, with the huntsman winding his horn, and the "the skylark sings with me: / O what sweet company!"

Second Stanza: Ain't No Summer When There's School

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.

However, the speaker does not enjoy summer, or apparently life in general, when he has to go to school. Going to school "drives all joy away!"

But then suddenly, the speaker switches from the purely personal first person to complain that the "little ones," presumably his classmates, "spend the day / In sighing and dismay." The poor little creatures!

They sit "under a cruel eye outworn." The use of the word "outworn" seems to appear only for the purpose of providing a rime with "morn." The notion that the "cruel eye" exhausts them does not make sense.

Third Stanza: Learning —Boo!

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.

Then the speaker returns to the first-person: "Ah then at times I drooping sit, / And spend many an anxious hour." He is apparently one of those poor little ones who is exhausted by a cruel teacher stealing their summer from them.

The pitiful speaker cannot even enjoy his books, because he must "sit in learning's bower, / Worn through with the dreary shower." Again, the reader must suspect rime as the culprit responsible for the choice of the word "shower." Just what kind of "shower" is this? Is the speaker crying a river?

Fourth Stanza: Boys Are not Birds

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, the speaker likens the "little ones" including himself to a poor bird that cannot sing because it is sitting in a cage. Yet Maya Angelou's famous title claimed, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"—both poem and book!

Who is correct? Can a caged bird sing or not? Regardless of the birds, this speaker wants to know, "How can a child, when fears annoy, / But droop his tender wing, / And forget his youthful spring!" Not only is summer destroyed by school the youth's entire youth is obliterated.

Final Two Stanzas

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, -

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?

In the fifth stanza, the speaker compares the poor students to spring flowers having their buds and bloom stripped away, as he asks in the sixth stanza, "How shall the summer arise in joy, / Or the summer fruits appear?"

How indeed? The comparison is ludicrous, but Blake's creative principle requires much of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "suspension of disbelief" from the reader. Perhaps, too much.

An After-Thought

Did students have to attend school in summer back when Blake was a schoolboy?

Blake did not attend conventional school; therefore, we cannot read this poem as biography. He would not have suffered as he described the poor little ones in this poem.

Blake believed that "imagination" was superior to "reason" in creating art; therefore, the speaker of "The Schoolboy" sympathizes with the poor students who have to sit in classrooms, instead of simply sitting outside reading, as Blake believed education should be.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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