The Little Boy Lost (I) - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The pathos of the poem is emphasised by the use of the limited vocabulary characteristic of a child. We have only two nouns in the first stanza – ‘father' and ‘boy'. These set up expectations of relationship. That the boy is ‘little' adds a further set of expectations in terms of vulnerability and care. Both sets are countered by the verbs ‘are going', ‘walk' ‘be lost'. The actions seem to contradict the relationship.

The second stanza adds just five more nouns – ‘child', ‘night', ‘dew', ‘mire' and ‘vapour' which highlight the danger for the boy. The adjectives all intensify this awareness – dark night, deep mire. This is a landscape of fear. It is made more immediate by hearing the boy's direct speech in the first stanza.

Our response, therefore, develops from appreciation of the threatened relationship in the first stanza and the threatening circumstances in the second. It develops, too, into fear or outrage that the failure in the first stanza has given rise to the circumstances of the second.

Investigating language and tone

  • The child is called ‘your little boy' and not ‘your son'
    • Do you think this makes any difference?

Structure and versification

The repeated exclamations, appeals and questions of lines one and three of the first stanza give it an urgency and pathos. This is contrasted with the monosyllables of lines two and four. We hear the desperation of the child and the heaviness of the feelings which evoke his cry. The F alliteration links ‘father' uncomfortably with ‘fast'.

The incomplete rhyme ‘fast/lost' serves to highlight the relationship between the two – it is because the father is ‘fast' that the child is ‘lost' and the relationship between them is therefore disconnected, like the rhyme. This rhyme points, too, to the disjunction between expectation and reality. We anticipate a full rhyme, just as we anticipate that the father will heed his child's call. Rhyme and situation counter our expectations.

Photo by Steve Partridge, available through Creative CommonsThe opening three lines of the second stanza contrast in tone and speed with the first. The hard consonants of ‘night', ‘dark', ‘dew' and ‘deep' increase the impression of harshness. Apart from ‘father', the words are monosyllabic (if one elides ‘child' and ‘mire') which make the lines slow and heavy. Lines one and three are further slowed by the caesurae: ‘dark, no' and ‘deep, and'. This throws emphasis on the second half of each line, connecting the absence of the father with the child's weeping. However, the effect is then lightened by the complete rhyme and flow of the final line ‘Away the vapour flew.'

Investigating structure and versification

  • Write a few sentences using only monosyllables
    • What effect does this create?
  • Now write a few more in which you also repeat one of these monosyllables three times in each sentence
    • What effect does this create?
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