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John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Introduction and Excerpt From "The Barefoot Boy"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy" plays out in five rimed stanzas, consisting of 102 lines, most of which form couplets, with the exception of two triplets: one in the second stanza, "How the tortoise bears his shell, / How the woodchuck digs his cell, / And the ground-mole sinks his well," and another triplet in the third stanza, "Still as my horizon grew, / Larger grew my riches too; / All the world I saw or knew."

With a special nod to the pleasant season of summer, John Greenleaf Whittier has penned a nostalgic piece that might have served as an influence on Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" as both poems dramatize boyhood memories.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt From "The Barefoot Boy"

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! . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "The Barefoot Boy" at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading of Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy"

Commentary

Whittier's speaker is offering a special nod to summer, as he dramatizes a nostalgic memory after encountering a young boy who knows how to enjoy the warm, pleasant season.

First Stanza: Celebrating the Happiness of Summer

The speaker is addressing a little boy who has been enjoying summer: the boy's cheeks are sun-kissed; he is wearing his pants rolled up, probably for wading in the creek, and the boy is whistling a "merry…tune." The boy has the privilege of enjoying ripened red strawberries which redden his lips as he dons his likely straw hat with a "torn brim" proffering a "jaunty grace."

The speaker has been motivated to celebrate the happiness of summer along with the boy, and it becomes obvious that the speaker closely identifies with the lad because he was once that same barefoot boy himself: "I was once a barefoot boy!"

Then the speaker declares that the barefoot boy is richer than royalty or at least richer in joy than the grown-up: "Prince thou art,—the grown-up man / Only is republican." The barefoot boy does not have to worry about the duties of citizenship that concern those in charge of the republic. The speaker repeats his blessings on the boy.

Second Stanza: The Blissfulness of Boyhood

In the second stanza, the speaker further dramatizes the advantages of being just a barefoot boy in summer, and the reader understands that he is as much speaking about his own boyhood as of the boy on whom he first wished blessings.

The barefoot boy wakes up to a "laughing day," and his boyhood is filled with "painless play." The speaker asserts and celebrates the intuitive knowledge that the boy enjoys as well as his glowing health: "Health that mocks the doctor's rules, / Knowledge never learned of schools." Again, the speaker heaps blessings on the barefoot boy.

Third Stanza: Celebrating a Nostalgic Journey

In the third stanza, the speaker directly relates his own summer experience: "I was rich in flowers and trees, / Humming-birds and honey-bees."

The glories of seeing this young lad looking so much like the speaker when he was young has sparked this nostalgic journey back through the speaker's childhood memories.

Fourth Stanza: Memories and the Royalty of Summer Days

The fourth stanza allows the speaker to continue his own journey of joy of being a boy in summer. The speaker is recalling the beauty of sunset, the many hues and colors of the sky. He likens such qualities to royalty as the sky bent over him like a "regal tent." The speaker also recalls that an orchestra of frogs accompanied the fantastic beauty that was performing in the sky as the sun slipped down behind the earth.

The speaker is sharing all of those pleasant memories of the look of the sky and sunset and the sounds of frogs that filled the night. And then he again likens himself to royalty as he did the boy: "I was monarch: pomp and joy / Waited on the barefoot boy!"

Fifth Stanza: The Duties of Adulthood Beckon

In the fifth stanza, the speaker returns to the present and the boy to whom he has been addressing his memories. He bids the boy, "Live and laugh, as boyhood can!"

The speaker admonishes the lad to enjoy those summer days of being a barefoot boy because the duties of adulthood will come soon enough, and the speaker ends, realizing that the boy will probably not be able to grasp the blessedness of his state: "Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy, / Ere it passes, barefoot boy!" But the speaker offers at least a ray of hope that his review of the lad's situation as well as his own will help the boy understand how happy joyous summer should be.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Life Sketch of John Greenleaf Whittier

Born on December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, John Greenleaf Whittier became a crusader against slavery as well as a noted and celebrated poet. He enjoyed the works of Robert Burns and was inspired to emulate Burns.

At age nineteen, Whittier published his first poem in the Newburyport Free Press, edited by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Whittier and Garrison became life-long friends. Whittier’s early work reflected his love for the country life, including nature and family.

Founding Member of the Republican Party

Despite the pastoral and at times sentimental style of his early poetry, Whittier became an ardent abolitionist, publishing pamphlets against slavery. In 1835 he and fellow crusader George Thompson narrowly escaped with their lives, driving through a barrage of bullets while on a lecture campaign in Concord, New Hampshire.

Whittier served as a member of the legislature of Massachusetts from 1834–35; he also ran for the US Congress on the Liberty ticket in 1842 and was a founding member of the Republican Party in 1854.

The poet published steadily throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and after the Civil War devoted himself exclusively to his art. He was one of the founders of The Atlantic Monthly.

Questions & Answers

Question: In Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy," what is the speaker talking about?

Answer: Whittier's speaker is offering a special nod to summer, as he dramatizes a nostalgic memory after encountering a young boy who knows how to enjoy the warm, pleasant season.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes