The School Boy by William Blake : Themes, Imagery And Symbolism
The loss of Innocence.
Parental care and Authority.
The Stand point of Children.
Imagery and Symbolism.
“The School Boy” is a 1789 poem by William Blake and published as a part of his poetry collection entitled “Songs of Innocence.”
The poem is written in the pastoral tradition that focuses on the downsides of formal learning. It considers how going to school on a summer day “drives all joy away”.The boy in this poem is more interested in escaping his classroom.
1. The Loss of innocence
Innocence is presented here as freedom from constraint and self-consciousness. The child starts out taking pleasure in an uninhibited life, full of trust in his world, both natural and human. The fragility of this state is clear from images like ‘blossoms’ and ‘tender plants .. strip’d’. The child soon experiences the ‘woe’ in life and of learning the possibility of failure and betrayal.
The poem begins in Stanza I 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 Introduction’ of Innocence. The poem gives us an image of rising with the company of many natural joys, not just the huntsman but ‘birds sing on every tree’ and ‘the sky-lark sings with me.’ It is in Stanza II that we see the oppression of the natural by authority typical of Experience and continued through the rest of the poem. This stanza compares the pastoral imagery of Stanza I with that of the ‘cruel eye outworn,’ and the ‘sighing 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 I and ‘O! it drives all joy away;’ in the second line of Stanza II. 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 of youth.
2. Entrapment, Confinement
Images of confinement abound in the Songs. Blake the revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment’ –the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all aspects of human behaviour. Here, education is formalised and restrictive, actually stunting the development of those it claimed to nurture. Prison imagery is seen in the ‘cruel eye’ of the overseer and the ‘cage’ of the bird.
Images of confinement is further, abound in the Songs. Blake the revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment’ –the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all aspects of human behaviour. Here, education is formalised and restrictive, actually stunting the development of those it claimed to nurture. Prison imagery is seen in the ‘cruel eye’ of the overseer and the ‘cage’ of the bird.
Blake saw the natural child as an image of the creative imagination which is the human being’s spiritual core. He was concerned about the way in which social institutions such as the school system and parental authority crushed the capacity for imaginative vision. The child’s capacity for happiness and play are expressions of this imagination.
3. Parental care and authority
In Blake’s work, parents are often perceived as inhibiting and repressing their children. Their own fears and shame are communicated to the next generation through the parental desire to ‘protect’ children from their desires. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care’ to repress children, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in, and safeguarding, their capacity for play and imagination. Here, parents are seen as colluding with a repressive system; it is as though they are entrapped by a way of seeing the world and transmit that entrapment to their offspring by perpetuating the system.
Stanzas V and VI are appeals to the alternate authority of the parents to realise the predicament of the child and the dangers in this suppression of natural learning. Stanza V 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
4. The Standpoint of children
Is the child born free and good, as Rousseau believed, or born sinful, as the Calvinist Christians believed?
Or is this opposition the result of fallen human beings’ inability to recognise that the capacity for good and evil both belong to humanity?
Blake’s idea that a young child can clearly see God echoes the Romantic sensibility articulated by Wordsworth, that children had an existence in heaven before the commencement of their earthly life.
Imagery and symbolism
This poem depends upon three inter-related images, the schoolboy, the bird and the plant. All three are dependent upon, or vulnerable to, the way in which they are treated by human beings.
Schoolboy – The image of the child here focuses on his nature as free and unfettered. He is associated with the spring as a time for growth, freshness and playfulness. As such, the child represents the playful, free nature of the creative imagination. According to Blake, this was fettered by subjection to the demands of a system which denies the validity of imagination. In The School Boy, formal education involves subjection to a ‘cruel’ eye and cruelty in Blake is always linked with the denial of imaginative freedom and of the spiritual self.
Bird – The bird imagery allows for the comparison between the free child being imprisoned in school and the songbird being caged. The unity between bird and boy is emphasised in stanza one. The sky-lark ‘sings with me’. This inverts our expectations. We tend to think of the sky-lark as the primary singer, with whom people might sing along. Here, however, it is the child who is the first singer. It is as natural to him as to the lark, as though he were another bird.
Birds are also images of freedom. Their capacity for flight and for song makes them appropriate images of creative imagination, since poets ‘sing’ and imagination is often linked with the notion of flight. The schoolboy in school and the bird in the cage are, therefore, seen as equivalents not only at the natural level, under physical subjection, but at the spiritual level, too. Both represent the caging and entrapping of imaginative vision.
Plant – The image of the plant applies to the school boy’s present and future. The young plant, like the young child, is tender and vulnerable. The way it (and the child) is treated at this stage dictates its later capacity to bear fruit. Just as food gathered in autumn is necessary to ensure survival through the winter, so experiences of joy and the freedom of the imagination are necessary for a person’s capacity to live well and survive the inevitable ‘griefs’ of life.
poem is a dramatic monologue, written in rhyme scheme (ababb).
It contains six stanzas of 30 lines. It examines the element of nature in proferring solution to learning and creative development.