A Summary and Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The School Boy’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The School Boy’ is not one of William Blake’s most famous poems. Yet many of his poems focus on children, and an analysis of ‘The School Boy’ may help to clarify some key aspects of Blake’s work.

‘The School Boy’: summary

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 speaker of ‘The School Boy’ is, appropriately enough, a schoolboy. He tells us how much he loves to get up early on a summer morning, listening to the huntsmen blasting their horns and the birdsong.

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.

What he doesn’t like is having to go to school. The ‘cruel eye’ of the stern schoolmaster makes school anything but a pleasant experience. The boys all sit unhappily in ‘sighing and dismay’, and the schoolboy speaker sits drooping in his chair, anxious and unhappy, unable to learn.

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 dreary shower.

The schoolboy then compares the life of a miserable schoolchild cooped up at school all day to that of a bird in a cage.

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,-

Unlike in Maya Angelou’s work, this caged bird cannot sing, nor can a schoolboy imprisoned in a joyless school enjoy such an experience.

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 schoolboy concludes the poem by asking his parents how children can be expected to grow into great adults if they are put into such an unpromising an environment as school. Such a ‘springing day’ – a time of potential – will not develop into a prosperous summer in such conditions.

‘The School Boy’: analysis

‘The School Boy’, whilst not one of William Blake’s best-known poems, focuses on a subject that was often close to his heart: the life of children, and particularly the unjust ways in which they are treated by society. In other poems, such as ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’, child-labour and racial prejudice were the specific topics under fire, but in ‘The School Boy’ Blake takes on school.

Of course, he is not attacking the idea of educating children, but rather the strict and lifeless – and joyless – way in which children are taught:

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 dreary shower.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, so what sort of start in life are parents giving their children if they ship them off to a place of anxiety, misery, and cruelty every day?

As we know from Charles Dickens’s novels some half a century later, English schools could be places of sadistic cruelty peopled with belligerent ghouls and spineless swine with demented minds. In ‘The School Boy’, Blake draws attention to such injustice.

And as in these other poems about children (‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ are two more we might mention in this vein), the speaker of the poem is the child. The voiceless are given a voice.

It is worth, as one final note of analysis, drawing attention to the use of nature imagery throughout ‘The School Boy’. From the birdsong in the opening stanza through to the extended summer metaphor with which the poem closes, ‘The School Boy’ reminds us that William Blake was a Romantic poet, who like his near-contemporaries Wordsworth and Coleridge believed that the natural world, and the freedom it afforded the child, could act as an important formative influence.

As Wordsworth put it, ‘The Child is Father of the Man’; and, as his long autobiographical poem The Prelude showed, some of the poet’s most valuable educational moments as a young boy were found not in the classroom but out among nature.

About William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the Lake Poets.

Blake’s key themes are religion (verses from his poem Milton furnished the lyrics for the patriotic English hymn ‘Jerusalem’), poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society. He is not a ‘nature’ poet in the same way that his fellow Romantics are: he seldom writes with the countryside in mind as his principal theme, but draws on, for instance, the rich symbolism of the rose and the worm to create a poem that is symbolically suggestive and clearly about other things (sin, religion, shame, cruelty, evil).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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