The Schoolboy - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Schoolboy

The Schoolboy

The speaker is a schoolboy. He loves to be out in summer, listening to distant huntsmen and the birds, who sing along with him. He then complains at the constraints of education and the classroom, where pupils suffer under the cruel oversight of their teacher. He cannot learn or take any pleasure in his reading because of the stress this imposes. He asks rhetorically whether a bird born for joy can sing if it is confined in a cage. In the same way, how can a child, upset by the fears school-life causes, fail to droop and lose his youthful enthusiasm.

The boy then addresses his parents with another rhetorical question: How can there be a joyful and fruitful summer if buds are destroyed and blossoms blown away? In the same way, how can there be a fruitful ‘summer' for children if they, young plants, are stripped of their childhood joy and made to know sorrow and worry? What will there be to gather in as a harvest if grief has destroyed everything? What will be left to look back on positively when winter sets in?


A pastoral poem

This poem was originally in the Songs of Innocence but was moved to Songs of Experience when the complete sequence was published. It deals overtly with a concrete social issue, the education of children, but explores deeper issues about the repression of imaginative vision. It works within the tradition of the pastoral poem in which human beings are at one with nature, and nature is associated with happiness, fruitfulness and contentment. Like the children in Songs of Innocence, the schoolboy identifies himself with the free, singing birds. Later, his life is directly related to the trees that bloom in summer.

Unnatural education

By contrast, schooling is associated with what is unnatural. It oppresses children and, rather than developing their gifts, blights them, leaving them with nothing of value in their maturity. The schoolboy is seen as having an innate love of books. The place of his true learning, a ‘bower', makes it seem very natural. However, the oppressive nature of his education, indicated by the ‘cruel eye', prevents the child realising his inborn tendency to learn.

Investigating The Schoolboy

  • How much sympathy does this picture of the schoolboy arouse in you?
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