A cursory reading of William Blake’s ‘The Schoolboy’ gives the impression that its author was opposed to academic learning. However after closer examination Blake’s true contention is revealed: the institutions which sought to educate children through strict disciplinary methods, creating a climate of fear that invariably stifles a child’s learning. The poem is sincere and provocative, reflecting Blake’s own heart-felt concerns regarding children’s welfare. The style of language employed is simple yet effective; the tone sombre and melancholic.
‘The Schoolboy’ features six stanzas, each comprising five lines. In the first stanza, a complex structure is established which exerts a powerful influence over the rest of the poem. Consisting of a small set of determining factors, this structure lays the ground work for two key metaphors, both of which manifest fully in subsequent stanzas. The natural world is clearly a source of inspiration for Blake, and features such as animals and plants – “birds” and “trees” in line 2 – are selected as vehicles to represent the figure of the child in later stanzas. The first stanza stands slightly apart from the others as its primary concern is to establish a backcloth portraying an idyllic pastoral scene where man lives in harmony with his natural environment on a beneficially reciprocal basis: “the skylark sings with me” (line 4).
This harmony is shattered at the beginning of stanza II where there is an immediate shift in tone. On a formal level, the change is apparent through the use of the word “But”, serving here as a conjunction that links the two stanzas. In terms of meaning it is evident in the change of scene, where the peaceful landscape is supplanted by the foreboding environment of the schoolroom. Through repetition, both in “summer morn” in line 1 and to a lesser degree, “O” in line 2, Blake subtly encourages the reader to make comparisons between the stanzas. Repeating the phrase “summer morn” determines that the rhyming scheme of this stanza will probably be similar to that in the first. Not only will the ABABB pattern remain, but similar rhymes will also be apparent. This is indeed the case with “morn” rhyming with the inverted term “outworn” in line 3. A similar rhythm is also put into effect by repeating the exclamatory “O”. As with the other stanzas, this stanza is loosely iambic, however the second occurrence of the single-syllable foot “O” encourages the reader to make comparisons with the line in the first stanza where it originally appeared. The phrase “what sweet company!” followed it where as here it is succeeded by “it drives all joy away!” The effect of these formal similarities subtly amplifies the stanzas’ contextual differences.
Metaphor is very important in ‘The Schoolboy’, and in the third and fourth stanzas, the bird and plant vehicles that were established in stanza I effectively come forth. Blake chooses not to portray the schoolroom’s children in a conventionally figurative manner, instead substituting any literal description with symbols from nature. The use of metaphor is evident with the word “drooping” in stanza III, where it evokes the image of a dying plant, yet it is more obvious in stanza IV where the child is likened to an encaged bird. It is arguable that Blake views the act of learning as consisting of two sides. The first of these is receptivity, the other expression. In stanza III he questions how a child is able to learn anything in such an environment: “Nor in my book can I take delight”, while in the following stanza he shows how their natural self-expression is stifled, “Sit in a cage and sing?”
The last two stanzas show how a brutal education system has damaged the child. In stanza V Blake indicates that he isn’t opposed to all authority figures by appealing to the child’s parents to pay heed to his warnings (line 1). The poem conjures up some bleak images and ends on a fearful warning, “When the blasts of winter appear?” However when viewed in its entirety it would appear that Blake isn’t opposed to education – in the third stanza he talks of taking delight in a book – and the overall impression conveyed is a proposal of a new kind of learning based around nature rather than the schoolroom.