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Subject: Literature In English
Topic: Summary Analysis of the poem “The school Boy” by William Blake.
Lesson Objectives: This lesson is aimed at helping learners understand the novel “The School Boy”. So by the end of the lesson, the learners should be able to:
- In few sentences describe the author;
- Discuss the forms and meter of the poem;
- Identify poetic devices used in the poem;
- Explain the thematic structure of the poem;
- Recite the poem.
Lesson Summary Aids: see reference materials below content.
Lesson Summary / Discussion
Here is a summary of the poem “The school Boy” by William Blake for literature teachers and students, especially learners that are preparing for external examinations. Do have a nice time studying with us.
“THE SCHOOL BOY” BY WILLIAM BLAKE
The Full Poem
I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
O what sweet company!
But to go to school in a summer morn,
O it drives all my 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,
Work 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?
AUTHORIAL BACKGROUND OF WILLIAM BLAKE
He was born in Soho, London, where he lived most of his life, and was son to a hosier and his wife, both Dissenters. Blake’s early ambitions lay not with poetry but with painting and at the age of 14, after attending drawing school, he was apprentice to James Basire, engraver. After his seven – year term was complete, Blake studied at the Royal Academy, but he is known to have questioned the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his stay there was brief. It nonetheless afforded him friendship with John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, academics whose work may have influenced him.
In 1784, he set up a print shop, but within a few years the business floundered and for the rest of his life Blake eked out a living as an engraver and illustrator. His wife, Catherine, whom he married in 1782, remained faithful and diligent and she helped him to print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today.
In 1789, he published his Songs of Innocence, the gentlest of his lyrics, but the collection was followed by Songs of Experience, containing a profound expression of adult corruption and repression. His long list of works show relentless energy and drive. As one of the most complex writers that is well known, it is impossible to sunmarise his career – he was a combination of extremes. His vision of civilization as inevitably chaotic and contradictory mirrors the political turnmoil of his era. It is only in retrospect that we can begin to appreciate his work and unravel its complex and allusive sources.
TEXTUAL BACKGROUND OF “THE SCHOOL BOY” BY WILLIAM BLAKE
“The School Boy” is a typical example of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in it’s themes and imagery. Like many of the other poems in this work it deals with childhood and the subjugation of it’s spirit and used imagery from the natural world. When first published in 1789 as one of the Songs of Innocence there are strong reasons why Blake moved it to the Experience section of the 1794 edition.
The poem begins in stanza 1 with the poet giving us a pastoral image of the Innocence of nature reminiscent of that in “The Introduction” from Innocence, some critics have pointed out the similarity of “The distant huntsman winds his horn” in this poem with “Piping down the valleys wild” in the “The Introduction” of Innocence. The poem gives us an image of rising with the company of many natural joys, not just the huntsman but “bird’s sing on every tree” and “the sky-lark sings whth me”. It is in stanza 2 that we see the oppression of natural by authority typical of Experience and continued through the rest of the poem. This stanza compares the pastoral imagery of Stanza 1 with that of the ‘cruel eye outworn’, and the ‘sighting and dismay’ of the children in the school room. The contrast is heightened by the similarity of the opening lines, both ending ‘in a summer morn’ and the way this forces a similar rhyme across the two, and the similar metre and beginning of “O! What sweet company, ‘ending stanza 1 and ‘O! it drives all joy away,’ in the second line of stanza 2. The similarities enhance the differences in the two images and show childhood in the two states of pastoral Innocence and the experience in restrictive school days leaving the reader with a feeling for the loss youth.
The poet emphasises the oppression of the school room by offering the image ‘Nor in my book can I take delight, nor sit in learning’s bower’ in stanza 3 reminding the reader that books and learning can be natural. In the illumination for the 1794 edition this is underscored by an image of a child enjoying a book at the top of a tree that can be seen at the top right.
The domination of the natural and free is further enhanced by the analogy with a caged bird in stanza 4. The poet uses the image of ‘droop his tender wing’, an echo of ‘at times I drooping sit’ in the previous stanza which strengthens the image of children under a weight. We now have a distinct picture of crushed and destroyed life in the school room, the poet has successfully conveyed to the reader the loss and lassitude of the school boy.
Stanzas 5 and 6 are appeals to the alternate authority of the parents to realize the predicament of the child and the dangers in this suppression of natural learning. Stanza 5 gives us a strong image of nature destroyed with :
………..if Bud’s are nip’d,
And blossoms blown away,
And if the tender plants are strip’d
Stanza 6 continues the question of stanza 5 asking if this damaged nature can bear fruit – ‘the summer fruits appear’. It continues by asking if a harvest is possible – ‘how shall we gather’ and finishes the poem by asking if the plants so destroyed can survive at lod age – ‘or bless the mellowing year, when the blasts of winter appear’. These questions, rhetorical and already answered by the tone of the poem, give a final note to the reader of the impossible condition of the school boy.
It might be useful to place ‘The School boy’ in the context of the whole work of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. It was one of the four poems first published in Songs of Innocence that were moved to the Experience section of the 1794 edition. This raises the question, why?. It is one of the poem in Experience on the theme of childhood and is lighter in tone than either ‘The Little Vagabond’ or ‘Infant Sorrow’; two other poems on the same theme in Experience. However, examine it against ‘The Chinmney Sweeper’ from Innocence as another example of this theme and we can see that it ends on a harsher note with it’s final stanza beginning ‘How shall the summer arise in joy?’, compared to the final couplet in ‘The Chinmney Sweeper’ of ‘Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; so if all do their duty they need not fear harm’. We can also see that ‘The Chinmney Sweeper’ offers hope with the dream of release by the angels while ‘The School Boy’ has no similar optimism. In ‘The Chinmney Sweeper’ the poet is giving us a message about the brightness and hope of childhood while ‘The School Boy’ is more a tale of melancholy. A close comparison of ‘The School Boy’ can be made to ‘The Ecchoing Green’ in Innocence.
Both poems talk of children but ‘The Ecchoing Green’ gives us a picture of them at idyllic play in a natural setting:-
The birds of the bush
Sing louder around
To the bells’ chearful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Ecchoing Green.
Even the shorter lines and sharper metre of this poem give a happier tone than ‘The School Boy’, they make the poem feel faster and echo the simple rhymes of childhood. Instead of ‘a cruel eye outworn’ from ‘The School Boy’ we have the image of ‘Old John, with white hair, Does laugh away care,’ and ndash; a much more pleasant one. Both poems contain an image of parenthood; in ‘The School Boy’ parents are being begged for relief with ‘O! father and mother’ while ‘The Ecchoing Green’ sees a much more nurturing parental figure with:
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
‘The Ecchoing Green’ is full of images of children in the pastoral and nurturing typical of Innocence while ‘The School Boy’ shows childhood taken from these images and subdued making it more typical of the poems in Experience.
If it was ever doubted that the poet intended to show contrast between Innocence and Experience the number of poems with identical names in each of the two sections dispel them and give us an ideal look at the way the poet characterises each state. One pair is that of ‘Nurse’s Song’ and an examination shows us that ‘The School Boy’ is better placed with the poems in Experience rather than Innocence.
The ‘Nurse’s Song’ in Innocence has a similar light and playful tone to ‘ The Ecchoing Green’ and endash; examine the final stanza:
“Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped and shouted and laughed
And all the hills echoed.
This stanza leaves us with another idyllic image of children freely playing, a strong contrast to the final stanza of the verse in Experience.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
This has a much bleaker tone than the previous example and emphasizes authority with an order to the playing children, ‘Then come home, my children, ‘leaving the reader with a sense of sadness and loss. Once again we can see stronger meter in the verse from Innocence, particularly the repetition of ‘leaped and shouted and laughed’ giving the reader a feeling for the happiness of the playing children. Darker images can be seen in the verse from Experience emphasizing the joyless feeling of this verse.
Looking back now at ‘The School Boy’ we can see that the shower and looser metre, dark tone and bleaker images of this poem are closer to those in Experience than Innocence. When the nurse in ‘Nurse’s Song’ from Experience tells the child that ‘Your spring and your day are wasted in play’ she may well be thinking that the time would be better spent with ‘a cruel outworn’ while her sister in Innocence sends them off with her ‘Well, well, go and play’.
If the two halves of the volume are indeed “Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, as Blake puts it in the sub title of the 1794 edition, then ‘The School Boy’ shows us a state of control and oppression of the natural spirit more at home in Experience than Innocence.
‘The School Boy’ is a six-stanza poem of five lines each. Each stanza follows an ABABB rhyme scheme, with the first two stanza using the same word “morn” to rhyme in the first lines. The repetition of the word “morn” as well as similarly low sounding words such as “outworn'”, “bower'”, “dismay” and “destroy” lend the poem a bleak tone in keeping with the school-boy’s attitude at being trapped inside at school rather than being allowed to move freely about the country side on this fine summer day.
Blake suggests that the educational system of his day destroys the joyful innocence of youth; Blake himself was largely self-educated and did not endure the drudgery of the classroom as a child. Again, the poet wishes his readers to see the difference between the freedom of imagination offered by close contact with nature, and the repression of the soul caused by reason’s demands for a so-called education.
THEMATIC STRUCTURES OF ‘THE SCHOOL BOY’ BY WILLIAM BLAKE
The poem ‘the school Boy’ discuss a boy’s repelling imprisonment at his school his company from the animate objects of the summer morning (birds, flowers etc) to the inanimate object of his schools is indeed a matter of concern and grief. School life is an ordeal for him.
The boys filling of summer festivity is countered by the terrifying eye of the teacher that robs from him all his childhood happiness. School is nothing but a prison that negates the playful activity of childhood. The restriction of an imposed in school forms a hurdle for the natural expression of creativity and forlorn the essence of geniusness.
“The School Boy” is one of four poems which William Blake first included in the original version of Songs of Innocence before eventually transferring them to the second half of the the complete work, Songs of Innocence and Experience. His reassessment of the appropriate placement for “The School Boy” implies a certain ambivalence in Blake’s mind regarding either the division of the entire collection into two distinct categories or the essential quality of this particular poem itself. One interpretation of the textual evidence which exists is that Blake already had in mind the larger collection when he first published Songs of Innocence and consciously included contrary poems such as “The School Boy”, to establish a degree of tension through the juxtaposition of these with a core of pre-experimential compositions (Erdman, p. 791). This interpretation is supported by the fact that he had already completed a number of the poem which later would comprises Songs of Experience when he printed the earlier work: it is easy to imagine that he was in a process of experimentation which led to a few contrary poems being included temporarily in Songs of Innocence, and others rejected bit retained for use in the complete collection (Erdman, ibid). At any rate, these unique features of the publishing background of ‘The School Boy” serve to highlight it as an object worth looking at more closely.
Another reason for focusing attention on this poem is it’s subject matter. This poem is about the effects of formal education on a person’s life. What happems to children when they enter school? Do they lose anything in exchange for the opportunity to study in an organized setting? Do they gain anything in exchange for giving up their natural activities?
How much of an effect does education really have? What is the individual teacher’s responsibility? One possible benefit to be derived from a reading of “The School Boy” is an understanding of Blake’s ideas regarding education and learning: Blake, according to letters he wrote, began teaching himself languages as a middle-aged adult and reported having great success. “I go on merrily with my Greek and Latin: am sorry that I did not begin to learn languages early in life as I find it very easy” (Erdman, p.727). It is conceivable that from an analysis of “The School Boy”, the reader can gain insight directly applicable to language teaching practices.
The first stanza establishes the phonetic rhythm and meter of the poem and evokes an initial scientific network of relationship in a reader’s mind. These original patterns stimulate anticipatory inferences as the reader moves through the text; the complete effect in the end is achieved through the combined results of reinforcing and breaking the established patterns.
I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the sky-lark sings with me,
O! What sweet company.
The use of positively charged words such as “love”, “rise”, and “morn” in the first line imparts a solidly upbeat tone to the entire stanza: however, there is a certain ambiguity in the existence of “the distant huntsman”, which connotes a sense of threat, and his horn, a warning. Reference to nature abound in the first stanza, including “birds”, “tree”, and “winds”, which implies that these natural elements will provide the vehicles for any metaphor developed in the rest of the poem. For example, since birds have wings and can sing and fly, it is likely that wings, song and flight will become vehicles for figurative language; trees are rooted in the soil, initiate their growth through the formation of buds and provide shade, so one might anticipate the use of roots, buds and shade in metaphors; wind can be anything from a light, refreshing breeze to a stormy tornado, and the reader might imagine that this element will also find its way into the figures of the poem. In this way, these first key concepts establish a context which entails all the potential metaphorical uses of language which could possibly occur in the rest of the poem. The first word of stanza two suggests that at least some aspect of the initial pattern will be broken.
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 sighting ans dismay.
The most noticeable break is in tone: the first stanza holds the promise of happiness in perfect harmony with the natural environment; in the second stanza, the harshnessof formal education displaces that pleasant harmony. The positive tone of the first stanza, then, seems to serve as a background on which the rest of the poem, with its weightier, more somber tone, creates foreground. Here is the first hint of a reason for Blake to have equivocated on whether this poem belonged in Songs of Innocence or the later work, Songs of Experience. If formal education is seem as the foreground, then the poem belongs in Songs of Experience: if, however, education is the background and the foregrounded element is natural harmony, then the poem fits best in Songs of Innocence: further difficulties in categorization could have resulted from an initial intention of foregrounding natural experience rather than a pre-experiential condition, against the background of formal education i.e, two alternative modes of experience or learning.
The first through third lines are roughly iambic tetrameter, with an anapestic foot occuring in each of the first two lines, i.e, “in a sum-” and “when the birds”, and a single-syllable foot in the second line, “sing.” Many of the consonants in the first two lines are approximants abd nasals, and there is a predominace of voicing, interrupted only four times by voiceless stops and fricatives. In the third line, there are four gaps in the voicing, as the result of a sharp increase in the number of voiceless stops used. Also, in the third line is the first occurrence of onomatopoeic effects, in the sequence of voiceless glottal approximant, voiced velar approximant, voiced glottal approximant and voiceless glottal approximant in word-initial positions, i.e, “huntsman winds his horn”: the effect is that of exhaling, inhaling deeply and then blowing out as if through a horn.
The line length charges in the fourth and fifth lines, which are trimeter. Also, Blake’s loose iambic accent pattern is broken again, by one anapestic foot, “And the sky”; another single-syllable foot. “O”; and a dactyl, “company”. The number of approximants amd nasals drops noticeably in the fourth and fifth lines, where the repetitive use of voiceless alveolar fricatives in combinations with voiceless stops establishes a clear foreground of longer and more numerous sections of voicelessness. There are a total of ten voiceless consonants in these two lines of the stanza: of these ten, eight of the voiceless consonants occur in clusters or as either end of voiceless bridges from word-final to word-initial positions.
Phonetically, then, a general pattern emerges in a close reading of the first stanza. The first three lines are roughly iambic tetrameter and the last two, iambic trimeter, with a looseness throughout in regard to the placement of accents, following the natural rhythm of speech, which results in occasional anapestic, single-syllable and even dactyl feet. The third line is pivotal, as might be expected, and functions to bring about a transition from the largely uninterrupted voicing of the first two lines to the extensive voicelessness of the last two lines. One possible effect of this marked change in voicing is to convey the singular clarity of the huntsman’s horn, the sky-lark’s song and the connection the speaker senses between himself and these other two living things, by foregrounding through the use of word-final and word-initial voiceless breaks which serve to separate each word from the others, in contrast to the blending of voiced sounds across word boundaries in the first two lines.
The second stanza scans similarly to the first, as loosely iambic. There are again sporadic occurrence of non-iambic accent patterns: two anapestic feet in the first line, “But to go” and “in a sum-“, and another in the fourth, “-tle ones spend”; a single-syllable foot, “O”, in the second line; and a trochee, “under”, at the start of the third line. Nonetheless, by this point in the poem these slight modifications actually function to reinforce the general pa n of rhythm and meter, by interrupting and drawing attention to it. The repetition in the first line of an entire adverbial phrase from the first line of the first stanza creates a strict parallelism between these two lines, which draws attention to the road variable portion if each line’s text and, furthermore, the variation between each subsequent set of lines from these two stanzas. In other words, “in a summer morn” is a constant element which establishes a direct parallel between stanza one and stanza two, inviting a comparison of the remaining sections of each of these stanzas: at the level of each line, there is a potentially enlightening contrast.
In the first line from each of these stanzas, there is an action which occurs in the same given time frame, “in a summer morn”. In the first stanza, the action is waking up and getting up; in tge second stanza, going to school. The sounds used to express these different actions can also be compared: in this section of the first stanza, there are four syllables in a straightforward iambic meter, with only one interruption of the consistent voicing; in the parallel section of the second stanza, there are five syllables, including the anapest, “But to go”, and five voiceless consonants, primarily the same three which establish the voiceless foreground in the last part of stanza one – voiceless alveolar fricative, voiceless alveolar stop and voiceless velar stop – with another occurrence of the voiceless bridging effect and a voiceless consonants cluster. Again, these voiceless breaks function to mark clear distinctions from one word to the next, highlighting each one and, in this case, achieving a kind of stacatto effect, particularly because of the rhythm of speech required to fit five syllables into two metrical feet. This seems to be another example of onomatopoeia, suggestive of the rapid walking typically observed among children en route to school, in contrast to leisurely awakening in response to morning sunlight.
In the remaining lines of each of these stanzas, where experiences and events accompanying the two different actions are presented, several key semantic and phonetic comparisons can be made. In the second lines, the happy singing of birds up in the trees, in the first stanza, contrasts sharply with the loss of happiness in the second stanza. In the third lines of the first and second stanzas, respectively, there are five fricatives as opposed to none: the presence of these consonants in the first case, with their characteristics turbulent airflow, conveys a sense of liveliness utterly lacking in the second stanza, in which the third line begins with the falling rhythm of a trochee, “under”, and ends with a reference to the above-mentioned of enthusiasm in the teacher’s”cruel eye outworn.” In lines four and five of the first and second stanzas, the contrast is between singing in “sweet company” and spending the day “in sighting and dismay.” These two phrases express unambiguously the distinction Blake is drawing between natural experience and formal education, two different approaches to learning.
This distinction acquires yet more clarity in the third stanza, in which figurative reference to natural phenomena is used to express the absence of appropriate conditions for learning to be found in formal settings.
Ah! then at times I drooping sit,
Anf spend many an anxious hour.
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learnings bower’,
Worn thro with the dreary shower.
The tree, or plant, metaphor anticipated early in the poem can be perceived in this stanza. The tenor, or literal topic, of the metaphor is the speaker as student, sitting slouched down, unable to enjoy learning and bored by the lessons; the vehicle, or figurative representation of the tenor, is a young drooping plant, unable to stay in a garden under the shade of trees and beaten down by rain. The relaxed, listless posture of the school boy is reflected in the similarly weakened condition of the plant; just as the plant stands outside of the protective and nourishing environment of a bower’, the boy while in school is separated from the environment which nourishes his mind; in the same way that rain wears down the newly sprouted plant, the teacher’s lessons have begun to dampen the boys spirit.
The desultory tone of stanza three is accentuated by the phonetic quality of several lines. In the second line, for example, just following the phrase “I drooping sit,” there is a series of trochee, or falling rhythm, feet: “and speed,” “many an”, “anxious” and “hour”, functioning to reiterated the resigned attitude of the school boy. In line three, again, the lack of lively, turbulent fricatives seems to correspond to the deadening effects of classroom experiences like the ones depicted in this poem. Finally, in the fifth line, there is not even one occurrence of a stop and only a few voiceless consonants, amidst numerous voiced fricatives, nasals and approximants, commonly considered to be much softer sounds than voiced consonants and steps, this reflecting the soft, drooping, weakened and worn condition of the boy and the figurative plant.
Certain words in this stanza are suggestive of modern educational concepts, particularly the natural approach to language learning. Because of anxiety caused by a harsh, threatening classroom environment, the student in the poem cannot enjoy learning; this notion bears an interesting resemblance to theories which postulate an effective filter and an inverse relationship between the strength of that filter and the amount of learning which can occur. Anxiety is a key factor which can strengthen the effective filter and reduce a student’s ability to focus on learning, according to Krashen and others; interest and teacher-student rapport tend weaken this filter, allowing people to learn more efficiently. One individual dimension in Blake’s vision of education is the pervasiveness with which negative experiences in school can affect the lives of students: just what is at stake and what are the repercussions of a teachers actions?
The second half of the poem is an impassioned call for the sensitive treatment of young minds.
In the fourth stanza, another figure from stanza one is used metaphorically to illustrate the severe effects of an authoritarian approach to education.
How can the bird that is born of joy,
Sit in a cage and sing.
How can a child when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring.
The terror of this metaphor is a frightened child forced to attend school and ignore his feelings; the vehicle, a caged bird which drops its wing and forgets its joyful songs. The common ground which establishes the metaphor is the confining structure of both the school and the cage, which function to control and display these creatures at the expense of their natural, free self-expression, stifling the fragile, young songs within them. Once again, the near absence of Wilder, more turbulent fricative airflow in line four coicides with a listlessness in the text, “droop his tender wing.” Further correlation between the content of this stanza and its phonetic form can be seen in the unusual tensions within the first two lines. In line one, the natural rhythm of the text pushes out against the established pattern of iambic tetrameter: nine syllables squeezed into the sequence of a single-syllable foot, two anapestic feet and just one normal iambic, in the same way that a lively bird might struggle against being confined. In line two, the sudden shift from tetrameter to trimeter mirrors a correspondingly drastic reduction in both the bird’s and the school boy’s ranges of physical activity.
In the last two stanzas, three different metaphors are activated or reactivated, conveyed as a complex in which different aspects of a single tenor are related to three separate vehicles: plants, the wind and seasonal changes.
O! father and mother, if buds are nip’d,
And blossoms blown away,
And if the tender plants are strip’d
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.
The first aspect of the tenor in this complex metaphor is an action through which a child’s initial attempts at the expression of ideas or pursuit of interests are interrupted by sad experiences and the introduction to his or her awareness of things to worry about such as, perhaps, homework assignments and class rules. The ground in which this tenor is compared to the vehicle, a young plant whose buds are nipped, is the similarity between buds and new ideas, both of which require attention and encouragement for growth. The second aspect of this tenor is the scattering of a student’s thoughts, by way of forceful disruption, as in commands or indoctrination; this is likened to the vehicle, wind blowing away blossoms, on the basis of the lack of self-generated results in either case.
The developing metaphor is reinforced through a marked increase in the number of stops and voiceless consonants in line three of the fifth stanza, which gives the expression “tender plants are strip’d” an added dimension of physical hardness to contrast with the sensitivity of the plants, or minds, under discussion. Also in the fifth stanza, it becomes clear that the second lines in this half of the poem are all trimeter, perhaps again a metrical correlate of Blake’s depiction of formal education as a person-like institution which restricts the natural range of human movement and growth.
Modern teachers at this point will recognize in the figure of the bud Blake’s call for student-centred, self-generated, autonomous approaches to learning. Curran’s “counselling” and Gattegno’s “silent way” are two examples of fairly recent efforts to cultivate among teachers a more acute sensitivity and openness to each unique individual’s sense of what he or she needs in the learning process.
The third aspect of tenor in the complex metaphor which overlaps stanzas five and six is life itself, and the stages there of, from periods of happiness and productivity to times of sadness and loss, from moments of reflection to the intensity of conflict. Life is compared to a sequence of seasonal changes, on the basis of the unique challenges which each season and each stage in life present to the human mind. This completed metaphor is supported in two different lines of the last stanza, in which phonetic features underscore the seasonal qualities. In line one, there are no stops and few voiceless consonants, resulting in a lightness quite complementary to the phrase “arise in joy”; in line four, there is an even softer combination of sounds, with a predominace of nasals and approximants, and only one stop and one occurrence of voicelessness, evoking a meditative mood to match the mellowing year.
Blake’s point has been made. Education must cultivate a student’s inner sense, so that afterwards he or she will be prepared to face the inevitable changes and fluctuations of experience which accompany human life. By retarding the development of this inner sense, through the imposition of strict rules and dogma, a teacher not only causes painful suffering and apprehension for the student but also limits the lessons that student is capable of learning from his or her experiences and, most lamentably, reduces the overall quality of that individual’s life and his or her potential enjoyment of it. Several centuries beyond Blake’s time, human society continues to condone this type of mistreatment too often in the name of education.
LANGUAGE DEVICES / POETIC DEVICES IN “THE SCHOOL BOY” BY WILLIAM BLAKE
(a) Language and tone
(i) The instinctive inclination of the child to learn is suggested by learning itself taking place in a ‘bower’, a natural structure. This also suggests that children learn from nature, from their daily living.
(ii) This contrasts with the unnatural character of the school. The oppressive nature of education is highlighted by emphasizing the vulnerability of the child and its associated metaphors of bird and plant: “little ones”, “drooping / droop”, “worn thro”, “tender”.
(iii) The child’s unfettered life is associated with words of energy and pleasure ‘love to rise’, ‘sing’, ‘sweet’, ‘joy’, ‘youthful spring’.
(iv) The words associated with the effects of education are of negative emotion: ‘sighing and dismay’, ‘anxious’, ‘worn’, ‘dreary’, ‘fears annoy’, ‘sorrow’, ‘care’, ‘griefs’.
(b) A Child’s Perspective
The content of this poem seems to be from the standpoint of an innocent child. However, the diction and style are quite sophisticated. The speaker uses expressions one might expect in eighteenth century poetry, for example, ‘The distant huntsman winds, his horn’ and ‘learning’s bower’. The poem also uses rhetorical devices such as:
(i) Extended rhetorical questions
(ii) Exclamation and apostrophe (“O! father and mother”)
(iii) Repeating a pattern three times
The voice of the poem appears much more than of the experienced adult speaker who sees and appreciates the child’s plight and is intent on persuading us of his or her view. He cannot enter into the child’s artless way of experiencing and of expressing himself.
(c) Structure and Versification
The five-line stanzas rhyme ABABB. The first four stanzas are self-contained. Each presents a point in the speaker’s argument or an illustration of it. The fifth stanza differs, by running on to the final stanza. This seems to echo the content. Stanza five begins with the plant’s life in spring, which is carried over into summer, autumn (‘the mellowing year’) and winter in the closing stanza. The repetition of the rhyme in the fifth line creates.an echoing effect which gives the verse a regretful tone.
The poem employs a varied metre. The spondes in the first stanza emphasise positive images: ‘birds sing’, ‘sweet company’s, whereas that of ‘cruel eye’ in the second stanza is harsh, and the inversion of the foot at the start of 1.8 ( “Under”) emphasises the sense of oppression. The plant metaphor in stanza five echoes this harshness, with plosive B alliteration ( ‘buds’,, ‘blossoms blown’, ‘by’ ) and the hard contraction of ‘nip’d’ and ‘strip’d’.
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References / Lesson Summary Aids:
Ibitola, A.O (Ed.). (2018). Essential Literature In English for senior secondary schools. Tonad Publishers limited.
Victor J. O. (Ed.). (2019). Study Guide to Selected Poems, Prose, & Drama Texts for SSCE . Harmony-Pen Publications.