Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 2, 2009

32. The Barefoot Boy: John Greenleaf Whittier

Another of the three-name-poets that so bored Billy Collins as a child. I do not disagree, as I find this poem a tad dull and long. Still, I post it for two solid reasons.

First, different students like different poems. While some hold a broad appeal, and some of the edgier pieces draw in those most likely to protest any use of poetry in the classroom, a poem like “The Barefoot Boy” appeals to those quiet readers you have in your classroom. Let us not forget about those folks! Try jazzing it up a bit by playing up the rhymes and sing-song nature of it.

Second, this poem is nostalgic. Middle school students are beginning to see the end of their childhoods, and while they are excited by drivers’ licenses, part-time jobs (i.e., money) and the high school they also know their romps around the woods and “just being kids” days are nearly over. Some days I look around and see my student-athletes as a walking wounded on crutches and in knee braces, while they all have every instant of their day scheduled. They are no longer the carefree barefoot boy (or girl). Yet, they can often remember when they were.

Before they leap ahead, a little reflection would be good for them. What do they miss from their “youth” (my students often say “nap time”). Take the poem apart, line by line. What does the narrator pine for? Be specific. Then, have students make connections. Follow that with a discussion on the narrator’s role; who is he and where does he break the plane between speaking of the boy and himself? (You can vex a class by asking them if it is, indeed, a male narrator; I assume from the narrator’s comparison to the boy that it is, but they will have a harder time proving it; assuming I am even correct. I find separating the reader’s assumption that the narrator is the poet is an important lesson I have to keep repeating). Finally, having reflected on their missed youth, what do they plan to do in the future to keep this desired carefree life alive while still getting the good parts of being an adult? Are they going to become their parents, and is that a good or bad thing?

So, there is some life, still, in these old poems and dead white men.

The Barefoot Boy
John Greenleaf Whittier

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy,—
I was once a barefoot boy!
Prince thou art,—the grown-up man
Only is republican.
Let the million-dollared ride!
Barefoot, trudging at his side,
Thou hast more than he can buy
In the reach of ear and eye,—
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole’s nest is hung;
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;
Of the black wasp’s cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
And the architectural plans
Of gray hornet artisans!
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;
For my sport the squirrel played,
Plied the snouted mole his spade;
For my taste the blackberry cone
Purpled over hedge and stone;
Laughed the brook for my delight
Through the day and through the night,
Whispering at the garden wall,
Talked with me from fall to fall;
Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,
Mine the walnut slopes beyond,
Mine, on bending orchard trees,
Apples of Hesperides!
Still as my horizon grew,
Larger grew my riches too;
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy!

Oh for festal dainties spread,
Like my bowl of milk and bread;
Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,
On the door-stone, gray and rude!
O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold;
While for music came the play
Of the pied frogs’ orchestra;
And, to light the noisy choir,
Lit the fly his lamp of fire.
I was monarch: pomp and joy
Waited on the barefoot boy!

Cheerily, then, my little man,
Live and laugh, as boyhood can!
Though the flinty slopes be hard,
Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,
Every morn shall lead thee through
Fresh baptisms of the dew;
Every evening from thy feet
Shall the cool wind kiss the heat:
All too soon these feet must hide
In the prison cells of pride,
Lose the freedom of the sod,
Like a colt’s for work be shod,
Made to tread the mills of toil,
Up and down in ceaseless moil:
Happy if their track be found
Never on forbidden ground;
Happy if they sink not in
Quick and treacherous sands of sin.
Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,
Ere it passes, barefoot boy!

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