A Little Boy Lost (E) - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The opening stanza is reminiscent of The Clod and the Pebble in terms of its rhythm and axiomatic statements. However, it is the pebble's view point which seems to predominate in A Little Boy Lost.

A disconcerting opening

The poem begins with a statement, ‘Nought loves another as itself'. This alludes to – and contradicts – the central New Testament commandment: ‘love your neighbour as yourself' Mark 12:31. It begins, therefore, by unsettling and challenging the reader, the impression of negation being emphasised by the repeated N sounds in the first three lines.

The opening stanza with its lines beginning ‘Nought … Nor … Nor' is disconcerting in another way. It opens the poem with a series of definite statements which might appear, on account of their form, to issue from a preacher rather than from a child. Although the child opposes the way of thought of his elders, he has learned their way of speaking. We are not quite sure what to expect.

Freedom in religion?

Apart from his conduct, the priest reveals his subjection to ‘mind-forg'd manacles' by using the expression ‘Holy Mystery'. In Christianity faith is often referred to as the ‘mystery of faith' because it is something beyond human reason. For Blake, however, ‘mystery' was an invention of the human mind which imprisons and suppresses human energies and instincts (as in The Human Abstract).

A vulnerable child

The vulnerability of the child and the pathos of his situation is emphasised by the adjective ‘little':

  • He likens himself to a ‘little bird'
  • The priest leads him by his ‘little coat'
  • He is stripped of his ‘little shirt'.

This is further highlighted by the detail of the chain that binds him. It is ‘iron', underlining the contrast between his littleness and the chain's weight and strength.

The helplessness of the child is highlighted by the use of repetition in the final two stanzas. Both child and parent are ‘weeping' and the uselessness of the parents response is underscored by its appearance in both stanzas. The plosive B of ‘bound him', ‘burn'd him' and ‘burn'd before' conveys the vigour involved in the punishment. Abhorrence of the action is further evoked by the ironic adjective ‘holy' of the place where he is burnt. When this repetition and this irony are followed by the closing question ‘Are such things done on Albion's shore?' together they serve to undercut any notion in the reader's mind that Albion (Blake's personification of England) might be considered a holy place.

Investigating language and tone

  • Select examples of the way in which Blake uses diction to rouse his reader's indignation
  • Explain the impact of rhetorical devices such as irony, repetition and rhetorical questions.

Structure and versification

The quatrains are in closed couplets rhyming ABCB. The use of closed couplets means that we are led through the poem by a series of completed statements, the regularity of the [3iambic tetrameter suggesting that they are not to be questioned. The opening two stanzas are delivered as axiomatic.

The effect in the narrative section is one of inevitability. We build up by a series of completed actions to the conclusion. The exception to this is in the last stanza. The closing rhetorical question suddenly challenges the inevitability by appearing to question the possibility of this occurring at all.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Do you agree that the closed couplets enhance the sense of inevitability in the narrative section?
    • If you don't, what effect do you think they produce?
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