The School Boy by William Blake : Themes, Imagery And Symbolism

The School Boy by
William Blake : Themes, Imagery And Symbolism

Themes.
The loss of Innocence.
Entrapment, Confinement.
Parental care and Authority.
The Stand point of Children.
Imagery and Symbolism.
Structure.
                                                     
         The School Boy by William Blake Themes, Imagery And Symbolism

                       

“The School Boy” is a 1789 poem by William Blake
and published as a part of his poetry collection entitled “Songs of
Innocence.”
The poem is written in the pastoral tradition that focuses
on the downsides of formal learning. It considers how going to school on a
summer day “drives all joy away”.The boy in this poem is more
interested in escaping his classroom.

Themes

1. The Loss of
innocence
Innocence is presented here as freedom from constraint and
self-consciousness. The child starts out taking pleasure in an uninhibited
life, full of trust in his world, both natural and human. The fragility of this
state is clear from images like ‘blossoms’
and ‘tender plants .. strip’d’. The
child soon experiences the ‘woe’ in life
and of learning the possibility of failure and betrayal.
The poem begins in Stanza I with the poet giving us a
pastoral image of the innocence of nature reminiscent of that in ‘The Introduction’ from Innocence, some critics
have pointed out the similarity of ‘The
distant huntsman winds his horn’
in this poem with ‘Piping down
the valleys wild’ in ‘The Introduction’ of Innocence. The poem gives
us an image of rising with the company of many natural joys, not just the
huntsman but ‘birds sing on every tree’ and ‘the sky-lark sings with me.’ It is in Stanza II that we see the oppression of
the natural by authority typical of Experience and continued through the rest
of the poem. This stanza compares the pastoral imagery of Stanza I with that of
the ‘cruel eye outworn,’ and the ‘sighing and dismay’
of the children in the school room. The contrast is heightened by the
similarity of the opening lines, both ending ‘in
a summer morn’ and the way this forces a
similar rhyme across the two, and the similar metre and beginning of ‘O! what sweet company.’ ending Stanza I and ‘O! it drives all joy away;’ in the second line of Stanza
II. The similarities enhance the differences in the two images and show
childhood in the two states of pastoral innocence and the experience in
restrictive school days leaving the reader with a feeling for the loss of youth.
2. Entrapment, Confinement
Images of confinement abound in the Songs. Blake the
revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment’ –
the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all
aspects of human behaviour. Here, education is formalised and restrictive,
actually stunting the development of those it claimed to nurture. Prison
imagery is seen in the ‘cruel eye’
of the overseer and the ‘cage’ of the
bird.
Images of confinement is further, abound in the Songs. Blake
the revolutionary opposed the coercive strictures of the ‘Establishment’ –
the state, organised religion etc. – which sought to quantify and rule all
aspects of human behaviour. Here, education is formalised and restrictive,
actually stunting the development of those it claimed to nurture. Prison
imagery is seen in the ‘cruel eye’
of the overseer and the ‘cage’ of the
bird.
Blake saw the natural child as an image of the creative
imagination which is the human being’s spiritual core. He was concerned about
the way in which social institutions such as the school system and parental
authority crushed the capacity for imaginative vision. The child’s capacity for
happiness and play are expressions of this imagination.
3. Parental care and
authority
In Blake’s work, parents are often perceived as inhibiting
and repressing their children. Their own fears and shame are communicated to
the next generation through the parental desire to ‘protect’ children from their desires. According to
Blake, parents misuse ‘care’ to
repress children, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in, and
safeguarding, their capacity for play and imagination. Here, parents are seen
as colluding with a repressive system; it is as though they are entrapped by a
way of seeing the world and transmit that entrapment to their offspring by
perpetuating the system.
Stanzas V and VI are appeals to the alternate authority of
the parents to realise the predicament of the child and the dangers in this
suppression of natural learning. Stanza V gives us a strong image of nature
destroyed with :-
… if bud’s are nip’d,
And blossoms blown away,
And if the tender plants are strip’d
4. The Standpoint of children
Is the child born free and good, as Rousseau believed, or
born sinful, as the Calvinist Christians believed?
Or is this opposition the result of fallen human beings’
inability to recognise that the capacity for good and evil both belong to
humanity?
Blake’s idea that a young child can clearly see God echoes
the Romantic sensibility articulated by Wordsworth, that children had an
existence in heaven before the commencement of their earthly life. 

Imagery and symbolism

This poem depends upon three inter-related images, the
schoolboy, the bird and the plant. All three are dependent upon, or vulnerable
to, the way in which they are treated by human beings.
Schoolboy – The
image of the child here focuses on his nature as free and unfettered. He is
associated with the spring as a time for growth, freshness and playfulness. As
such, the child represents the playful, free nature of the creative
imagination. According to Blake, this was fettered by subjection to the demands
of a system which denies the validity of imagination. In The School Boy, formal
education involves subjection to a ‘cruel’
eye and cruelty in Blake is always linked with the denial of imaginative
freedom and of the spiritual self.
Bird – The bird
imagery allows for the comparison between the free child being imprisoned in
school and the songbird being caged. The unity between bird and boy is
emphasised in stanza one. The sky-lark ‘sings
with me’. This inverts our expectations. We tend to think of the sky-lark as
the primary singer, with whom people might sing along. Here, however, it is the
child who is the first singer. It is as natural to him as to the lark, as
though he were another bird.
Birds are also images of freedom. Their capacity for flight
and for song makes them appropriate images of creative imagination, since poets
‘sing’ and imagination is often
linked with the notion of flight. The schoolboy in school and the bird in the
cage are, therefore, seen as equivalents not only at the natural level, under
physical subjection, but at the spiritual level, too. Both represent the caging
and entrapping of imaginative vision.
Plant – The image
of the plant applies to the school boy’s present and future. The young plant,
like the young child, is tender and vulnerable. The way it (and the child) is
treated at this stage dictates its later capacity to bear fruit. Just as food
gathered in autumn is necessary to ensure survival through the winter, so
experiences of joy and the freedom of the imagination are necessary for a
person’s capacity to live well and survive the inevitable ‘griefs’ of life.

Structure

poem is a dramatic monologue, written in rhyme scheme
(ababb).
It contains six stanzas of 30 lines. It examines the element
of nature in proferring solution to learning and creative development.

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