The Little Vagabond - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The child's voice

The opening repetition of ‘Dear Mother' establishes a childlike tone, which is reinforced by the simple connectives of ‘but' and ‘and'. He also uses common phrases such as ‘happy as birds in the spring'.

However, the poem's speaker also asserts an independent viewpoint which is capable of a sophisticated argument opposing established authority figures:

  • ‘Besides' .. ‘but if' .. ‘then' .. ‘and'.

Audaciously, the vagabond even ends up suggesting what God ought to do, which is utterly contrary to conventional doctrine.


  • The ‘pleasant fire' in stanza two ‘regale[s]' souls not bodies. It is not just a question of physical warmth here but the warmth of passion and energy that nurtures the spirit
  • Describing Dame Lurch as ‘modest' can imply humility, or primness and propensity to shame. Her treatment of the children suggests that she afflicts their spirits as well as their bodies.

This use of language underlines the message of the poem, that the claims of the body and the soul should not be separated.


In common with other poems in this sequence, Blake's speaker makes use of rhetorical devices to sway his readers. Consequently, note here how many times lists of threes are used:

  • ‘healthy & pleasant & warm'
  • ‘preach & drink & sing'
  • ‘not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.'

Balanced phrases

Another device is the use of balanced phrases, particularly in the final stanza, which suggest order and reason in an argument:

  • ‘as pleasant and happy'
  • ‘the Devil or the Barrel'
  • ‘kiss him and give him'
  • ‘both drink and apparel'

Investigating language and tone

  • In what ways does the speaker sound like a child?
  • Do the rhetorical devices still give the impression of a child speaking?

Structure and versification

Most of the poem is written in closed rhyming couplets, which add to the certainty of the speaker's argument. However, the opening line does not conform to the rhyme scheme. This line is the only one directly describing the church and shows that it is out of step with human lifestyles – ‘cold' as opposed to ‘warm'. By contrast, there is a sense of harmony binding everything dealing with the ale-house and the ale-house-influenced church.

The rhythm of the poem is anapaestic, giving it a jaunty tone, like a drinking-song, especially when combined with closed rhyming couplets. The internal rhyme in each third line increases the song-like tone, providing three rhymes within two lines. The first line about the church appears more stark for missing the anticipated final syllable, while a sense of finality is achieved by the same technique in l.8. The two extra syllables in l.15 make it quite a mouthful which one needs to ‘skate over' to fit in – the speaker perhaps not wanting auditors to take too much notice of the heresy being suggested!

Investigating structure and versification

  • Do you find the jaunty rhythm of this poem adds to - or detracts from - its persuasiveness?
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