William Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy"

Updated on February 2, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

William Wordsworth


Introduction and Excerpt from "The Idiot Boy"

William Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy" contains 453 lines. Each of the five-lined, rimed stanzas features a rime scheme of ABCCB, with the exception of the first stanza, with its six lines and rime scheme of ABCCDB, and the last stanza, consisting of seven lines, with the rime scheme ABCCBDD.

"The Idiot Boy," therefore, is an innovative ballad. A traditional ballad stanza features quatrains with the rime scheme ABCB or ABAB. Wordsworth adjusted the form, adding a line and altering the rime scheme. The effect speaks to the nature of the boy, whose mind is not normal. The idiot boy is uncomplicated—even naive—yet he is quite well loved and respected by the people in his life.

(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 Idiot Boy"

'Tis eight o'clock,—a clear March night,
The moon is up,—the sky is blue,
The owlet, in the moonlight air,
Shouts from nobody knows where;
He lengthens out his lonely shout,
Halloo! halloo! a long halloo!

—Why bustle thus about your door,
What means this bustle, Betty Foy?
Why are you in this mighty fret?
And why on horseback have you set
Him whom you love, your Idiot Boy?

Scarcely a soul is out of bed;
Good Betty, put him down again;
His lips with joy they burr at you;
But, Betty! what has he to do
With stirrup, saddle, or with rein?

But Betty's bent on her intent;
For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
Is sick, and makes a piteous moan
As if her very life would fail.

To read the entire poem, please visit "The Idiot Boy."

Reading of "The Idiot Boy"


Willian Wordsworth's ballad, "The Idiot Boy," portrays the poet's dedication to establishing a poetry that involves simple, rural people—often derisively labeled "rubes"—in their natural environment.

Written with Glee

William Wordsworth has elucidated the genesis of his poem:

The last stanza—'The Cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, And the sun did shine so cold'—was the foundation of the whole. The words were reported to me by my dear friend, Thomas Poole; but I have since heard the same repeated of other Idiots. Let me add that this long poem was composed in the groves of Alfoxden, almost extempore; not a word, I believe, being corrected, though one stanza was omitted. I mention this in gratitude to those happy moments, for, in truth, I never wrote anything with so much glee.

The Story

The narrative offers a straight-forward, uncomplicated story: Betty Foy’s friend and neighbor, Susan Galen, seems to be gravely ill and thus is in great need of a doctor. Betty’s husband, however, is not at home; therefore, no one can go for a doctor, expect for her retarded son, Johnny.

Betty is afraid for Johnny to make such an arduous journey because he has never done such a thing before. Nevertheless, Johnny leaves to retrieve the doctor around 8:00 p.m., but later what Betty thought should take about an hour has turned into two, three, four hours, and more. So Betty finally decides she has no choice but to go look for her son. Susan agrees even though she is still feeling poorly. Betty looks everywhere for son. She even wakes up the doctor to find out if Johnny has been there, but the doctor has not seen the boy, so Betty leaves and continues looking for the boy.

At that point, the reader might wonder why Betty does not send the doctor to Susan, and then the same thought occurs to Betty as she realizes that Susan is still without medical help. That lapse in judgment, however, reflects the importance now attached to finding Johnny. Betty soon finds her son, however. He is fine, still sitting on the pony gazing at a waterfall as the pony grazes on the grass.

The Muses

The simplicity of the story represents the simplicity of the lives about which the story narrates its events. Elucidating the story and all of its implications for humanity—the nature of motherhood, friendship, caring, and affection—the speaker invokes the muses in order to show how the ballad progresses as it contemplates how poetry works to communicate its message as it becomes a poem.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Kathleen. Yes, Wordsworth is one of the best. Glad you had the opportunity to visit where he lived and wrote. What a blessing for you!

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    I just returned from a visit to the UK that included the lake district - Woodworth's area. I concluded that if I lived in such a beautiful place, I'd write poetry too! This hub is a good example of his genius. Congratulations!


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