The Schoolboy - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

Contrasting states

  • The instinctive inclination of the child to learn is suggested by learning itself taking place in a ‘bower', a natural structure. This also suggests that children learn from nature, from their daily living
  • This contrasts with the unnatural character of the school. The oppressive nature of education is highlighted by emphasising the vulnerability of the child and its associated metaphors of bird and plant: ‘little ones', ‘drooping / droop', ‘worn thro', ‘tender'
  • The child's unfettered life is associated with words of energy and pleasure: ‘love to rise', sing', ‘sweet', ‘joy', ‘youthful spring'
  • The words associated with the effects of education are of negative emotion: ‘sighing and dismay', ‘anxious', ‘worn', ‘dreary', ‘fears annoy', ‘sorrow', ‘care', ‘griefs'

A child's perspective?

The content of this poem seems to be from the standpoint of an innocent child. However the diction and style are quite sophisticated. The speaker uses expressions one might expect in eighteenth century poetry, for example, ‘The distant huntsman winds his horn' and ‘learning's bower'. The poem also uses rhetorical devices such as:

  • Extended rhetorical questions
  • Exclamation and apostrophe (‘O! father and mother')
  • Repeating a pattern three times.

The voice of the poem appears much more that of the experienced adult speaker who sees and appreciates the child's plight and is intent on persuading us of his/her view. He cannot enter into the child's artless way of experiencing and of expressing himself.

Investigating language and tone

  • What elements of the poem convey the experience of a child?
  • Do you find the speaker's language persuasive?

Structure and versification

The five-line stanzas rhyme ABABB. The first four stanzas are self-contained. Each presents a point in the speaker's argument or an illustration of it. The fifth stanza differs, by running on to the final stanza. This seems to echo the content. Stanza five begins with the plant's life in spring, which is carried over into summer, autumn (‘the mellowing year') and winter in the closing stanza. The repetition of the rhyme in the fifth line creates an echoing effect which gives the verse a regretful tone.

The poem employs a varied metre. The spondees in the first stanza emphasise positive images: ‘birds sing', ‘sweet company', whereas that of ‘cruel eye' in the second stanza is harsh, and the inversion of the foot at the start of l.8 (‘Under') emphasises the sense of oppression. The plant metaphor in stanza five echoes this harshness, with plosive B alliteration (‘buds', ‘blossoms blown', ‘by') and the hard contraction of ‘nip'd' and ‘strip'd'.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Carefully go through the rhythm of each line of The Schoolboy and note how it interacts with the mood / meaning
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