Analysing a poem - The Ecchoing Green

The following is a worked example of how a student might analyse one of Blake's Songs.

The Ecchoing Green

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells' cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.'

Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.

1. Start with looking at whether this is a Song of Innocence or a Song of Experience

This will alert you to:

  • Questions about the nature and possible limitations of the speaker and of his/her standpoint
  • Matters of structure, versification and language.

In a Song of Innocence, the effect is often produced by adopting very limited diction and evoking a child's manner of speaking. In a Song of Experience, the speaker may appear to be a child, but will use many more rhetorical devices and will often echo contemporary poetic diction.

This is a Song of Innocence. The speaker is a child. Diction is limited and depends upon repetition. The speaker seems unaware of any negative associations in, ‘Such, such were the joys' and in the use of ‘darkening'.

  • Do you think this speaker is a totally reliable guide to the meaning of this poem?

2. Read the poem and work out the literal sense as far as you can

See if you can then identify the images and allusions Blake is using and what they suggest and how they work together. Look back then at your literal account and decide how this connects with the imagery. This should then give you an idea of what Blake is trying to say and the effect he is trying to create. 

Think about the imagery of: spring, birds, childhood and the green, and what they suggest about the meaning of this scene.

  • There is harmony, the children are free and the old people have neither the desire to repress the children nor do they express any jealousy.

3. Now look more closely at the language

  • Are there any words which are repeated – do they make any pattern?
  • Are their groups of similar and/or contrasting words? Do these make any pattern?
  • What emotional or pictorial effect do they produce?
  • Does the meaning of any word change between one stanza and another?
  • Are any rhetorical devices used – e.g.. repetition (especially in threes), rhetorical questions, irony?
  • What effects do these produce?

Look at the repetition of words denoting happiness and those suggesting freedom.

  • Are there any words or phrases suggesting any other feeling or reality?

Look at the effect of repeating ‘Such, such'.

  • Do you hear any sadness here – a lament for what has passed?
  • Does ‘darkening' suggest the shadow of death and change hanging over this scene?

4. Then look at the form

  • What patterns have been created?
  • What is the metre?
    • Do the metre and rhythm reflect or contradict the content, tone or mood?
    • What is the effect of this?
  • How does the patterning created by the rhyme add to the impact of the poem?

Notice the neatness of the closed rhyming couplets

  • What effect has this in enhancing the mood and tone of the simple completeness of the children's experience?
  • Does it suggest the simplicity of a child's speech?

The lines are five or six syllables with a basic pattern of two stresses per line. Usually an iamb or anapaest is followed by an anapaestic foot, with a stress on the end syllable. This creates a rising rhythm and gives the poem a positive, jaunty rhythm.

  • What effect does this have?
  • Is it appropriate?

The repetition of ‘Such, such' creates a trochee which gives this line three stresses and causes the reader to linger. This may suggest an underlying lament, especially as the next line is also slowed down by the caesura ‘we all, girls…' in the next line.

  • How does this affect your interpretation of the whole poem?
  • Does it encourage you to see this poem as only concerned with ‘innocence', with harmony, freedom and fertility?
  • Or does it link with the suggestions behind ‘Such, such,' and ‘darkening' to imply that the speaker does not see the intimations of death and change within the poem?

I have tried to concentrate here on the kind of questions you need to ask in analysing a poem, rather than on providing definite answers. It is more important that you can show that you know what questions to ask, and that you can give reasons from the text for your answers, than that you can reproduce a ready-packaged response.

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