The Little Black Boy - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The running imagery of clouds, light and shade, sun, heat and sunburn binds the argument into a persuasive whole. The simplicity and naivety of both speakers is stressed by the limited vocabulary they both employ. The child's obedient absorption of his lesson is shown by his use of the same imagery as his mother – clouds, lambs and bearing the heat. The context of the poem also reverses the standard connotations of black – it is clear, here, that black is the colour of goodness. In a hot bright land, a shady grove is welcome!

Investigating language and tone

  • On a sheet of paper jot down the words associated with clouds, light and shade, sun, heat and sunburn
    • Around each, note the different associations we have with them
      • Which of these associations does Blake employ in The Little Black Boy?

Structure and versification

The poem is in heroic quatrains, which are stanzas of iambic pentameter with the lines rhyming ABAB. This give a dramatic weight to the subject matter, whilst still retaining the sense of natural speech. The form is a variation on the ballad stanza. The setting of the mother's lesson within the frame of the child's words is a common feature of ballads and ballad-songs. It suggests that this is an uncomplicated song for the masses, according to the nature of the ballad. It enables another, more adult voice to be heard and stresses the innocence of the child who has obediently absorbed his lesson.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Find another poem in ballad form and compare the two poems
    • What effect does the rhyme and rhythm of this poem produce?
    • Do you find any differences in their tone and effect?
      • What do you think is responsible for this difference?
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