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Idiot Boy, The Analysis

Author: Poetry of William Wordsworth Type: Poetry Views: 1660

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'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.

There's not a house within a mile,

No hand to help them in distress;

Old Susan lies a-bed in pain,

And sorely puzzled are the twain,

For what she ails they cannot guess.

And Betty's husband's at the wood,

Where by the week he doth abide,

A woodman in the distant vale;

There's none to help poor Susan Gale;

What must be done? what will betide?

And Betty from the lane has fetched

Her Pony, that is mild and good;

Whether he be in joy or pain,

Feeding at will along the lane,

Or bringing faggots from the wood.

And he is all in travelling trim,--

And, by the moonlight, Betty Foy

Has on the well-girt saddle set

(The like was never heard of yet)

Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy.

And he must post without delay

Across the bridge and through the dale,

And by the church, and o'er the down,

To bring a Doctor from the town,

Or she will die, old Susan Gale.

There is no need of boot or spur,

There is no need of whip or wand;

For Johnny has his holly-bough,

And with a 'hurly-burly' now

He shakes the green bough in his hand.

And Betty o'er and o'er has told

The Boy, who is her best delight,

Both what to follow, what to shun,

What do, and what to leave undone,

How turn to left, and how to right.

And Betty's most especial charge,

Was, "Johnny! Johnny! mind that you

Come home again, nor stop at all,--

Come home again, whate'er befall,

My Johnny, do, I pray you do."

To this did Johnny answer make,

Both with his head and with his hand,

And proudly shook the bridle too;

And then! his words were not a few,

Which Betty well could understand.

And now that Johnny is just going,

Though Betty's in a mighty flurry,

She gently pats the Pony's side,

On which her Idiot Boy must ride,

And seems no longer in a hurry.

But when the Pony moved his legs,

Oh! then for the poor Idiot Boy!

For joy he cannot hold the bridle,

For joy his head and heels are idle,

He's idle all for very joy.

And while the Pony moves his legs,

In Johnny's left hand you may see

The green bough motionless and dead:

The Moon that shines above his head

Is not more still and mute than he.

His heart it was so full of glee,

That till full fifty yards were gone,

He quite forgot his holly whip,

And all his skill in horsemanship:

Oh! happy, happy, happy John.

And while the Mother, at the door,

Stands fixed, her face with joy o'erflows,

Proud of herself, and proud of him,

She sees him in his travelling trim,

How quietly her Johnny goes.

The silence of her Idiot Boy,

What hopes it sends to Betty's heart!

He's at the guide-post--he turns right;

She watches till he's out of sight,

And Betty will not then depart.

Burr, burr--now Johnny's lips they burr,

As loud as any mill, or near it;

Meek as a lamb the Pony moves,

And Johnny makes the noise he loves, 0

And Betty listens, glad to hear it.

Away she hies to Susan Gale:

Her Messenger's in merry tune;

The owlets hoot, the owlets curr,

And Johnny's lips they burr, burr, burr,

As on he goes beneath the moon.

His steed and he right well agree;

For of this Pony there's a rumour,

That, should he lose his eyes and ears,

And should he live a thousand years,

He never will be out of humour.

But then he is a horse that thinks!

And when he thinks, his pace is slack;

Now, though he knows poor Johnny well,

Yet, for his life, he cannot tell

What he has got upon his back.

So through the moonlight lanes they go,

And far into the moonlight dale,

And by the church, and o'er the down,

To bring a Doctor from the town,

To comfort poor old Susan Gale.

And Betty, now at Susan's side,

Is in the middle of her story,

What speedy help her Boy will bring,

With many a most diverting thing,

Of Johnny's wit, and Johnny's glory.

And Betty, still at Susan's side,

By this time is not quite so flurried:

Demure with porringer and plate

She sits, as if in Susan's fate

Her life and soul were buried.

But Betty, poor good woman! she,

You plainly in her face may read it,

Could lend out of that moment's store

Five years of happiness or more

To any that might need it.

But yet I guess that now and then

With Betty all was not so well;

And to the road she turns her ears,

And thence full many a sound she hears,

Which she to Susan will not tell.

Poor Susan moans, poor Susan groans;

"As sure as there's a moon in heaven,"

Cries Betty, "he'll be back again;

They'll both be here--'tis almost ten--

Both will be here before eleven."

Poor Susan moans, poor Susan groans;

The clock gives warning for eleven;

'Tis on the stroke--"He must be near,"

Quoth Betty, "and will soon be here,

As sure as there's a moon in heaven."

The clock is on the stroke of twelve,

And Johnny is not yet in sight:

--The Moon's in heaven, as Betty sees,

But Betty is not quite at ease;

And Susan has a dreadful night.

And Betty, half an hour ago,

On Johnny vile reflections cast:

"A little idle sauntering Thing!"

With other names, an endless string;

But now that time is gone and past.

And Betty's drooping at the heart,

That happy time all past and gone,

"How can it be he is so late?

The Doctor, he has made him wait;

Susan! they'll both be here anon."

And Susan's growing worse and worse,

And Betty's in a sad 'quandary';

And then there's nobody to say

If she must go, or she must stay!

--She's in a sad 'quandary'.

The clock is on the stroke of one;

But neither Doctor nor his Guide

Appears along the moonlight road;

There's neither horse nor man abroad,

And Betty's still at Susan's side.

And Susan now begins to fear

Of sad mischances not a few,

That Johnny may perhaps be drowned;

Or lost, perhaps, and never found;

Which they must both for ever rue.

She prefaced half a hint of this

With, "God forbid it should be true!"

At the first word that Susan said

Cried Betty, rising from the bed,

"Susan, I'd gladly stay with you.

"I must be gone, I must away:

Consider, Johnny's but half-wise;

Susan, we must take care of him,

If he is hurt in life or limb"--

"Oh God forbid!" poor Susan cries.

"What can I do?" says Betty, going,

"What can I do to ease your pain?

Good Susan tell me, and I'll stay;

I fear you're in a dreadful way,

But I shall soon be back again."

"Nay, Betty, go! good Betty, go!

There's nothing that can ease my pain,"

Then off she hies, but with a prayer

That God poor Susan's life would spare, 0

Till she comes back again.

So, through the moonlight lane she goes,

And far into the moonlight dale;

And how she ran, and how she walked,

And all that to herself she talked,

Would surely be a tedious tale.

In high and low, above, below,

In great and small, in round and square,

In tree and tower was Johnny seen,

In bush and brake, in black and green;

'Twas Johnny, Johnny, every where.

And while she crossed the bridge, there came

A thought with which her heart is sore--

Johnny perhaps his horse forsook,

To hunt the moon within the brook,

And never will be heard of more.

Now is she high upon the down,

Alone amid a prospect wide;

There's neither Johnny nor his Horse

Among the fern or in the gorse;

There's neither Doctor nor his Guide.

"O saints! what is become of him?

Perhaps he's climbed into an oak,

Where he will stay till he is dead;

Or, sadly he has been misled,

And joined the wandering gipsy-folk.

"Or him that wicked Pony's carried

To the dark cave, the goblin's hall;

Or in the castle he's pursuing

Among the ghosts his own undoing;

Or playing with the waterfall."

At poor old Susan then she railed,

While to the town she posts away;

"If Susan had not been so ill,

Alas! I should have had him still,

My Johnny, till my dying day."

Poor Betty, in this sad distemper,

The Doctor's self could hardly spare:

Unworthy things she talked, and wild;

Even he, of cattle the most mild,

The Pony had his share.

But now she's fairly in the town,

And to the Doctor's door she hies;

'Tis silence all on every side;

The town so long, the town so wide,

Is silent as the skies.

And now she's at the Doctor's door,

She lifts the knocker, rap, rap, rap;

The Doctor at the casement shows

His glimmering eyes that peep and doze!

And one hand rubs his old night-cap.

"O Doctor! Doctor! where's my Johnny?"

"I'm here, what is't you want with me?"

"O Sir! you know I'm Betty Foy,

And I have lost my poor dear Boy,

You know him--him you often see;

"He's not so wise as some folks be:"

"The devil take his wisdom!" said

The Doctor, looking somewhat grim,

"What, Woman! should I know of him?"

And, grumbling, he went back to bed!

"O woe is me! O woe is me!

Here will I die, here will I die;

I thought to find my lost one here,

But he is neither far nor near,

Oh! what a wretched Mother I!"

She stops, she stands, she looks about;

Which way to turn she cannot tell.

Poor Betty! it would ease her pain

If she had heart to knock again;

--The clock strikes three--a dismal knell!

Then up along the town she hies,

No wonder if her senses fail;

This piteous news so much it shocked her,

She quite forgot to send the Doctor,

To comfort poor old Susan Gale.

And now she's high upon the down,

And she can see a mile of road:

"O cruel! I'm almost threescore;

Such night as this was ne'er before,

There's not a single soul abroad."

She listens, but she cannot hear

The foot of horse, the voice of man;

The streams with softest sound are flowing,

The grass you almost hear it growing,

You hear it now, if e'er you can.

The owlets through the long blue night

Are shouting to each other still:

Fond lovers! yet not quite hob nob,

They lengthen out the tremulous sob,

That echoes far from hill to hill.

Poor Betty now has lost all hope,

Her thoughts are bent on deadly sin,

A green-grown pond she just has past,

And from the brink she hurries fast,

Lest she should drown herself therein.

And now she sits her down and weeps;

Such tears she never shed before;

"Oh dear, dear Pony! my sweet joy!

Oh carry back my Idiot Boy! 0

And we will ne'er o'erload thee more."

A thought is come into her head:

The Pony he is mild and good,

And we have always used him well;

Perhaps he's gone along the dell,

And carried Johnny to the wood.

Then up she springs as if on wings;

She thinks no more of deadly sin;

If Betty fifty ponds should see,

The last of all her thoughts would be

To drown herself therein.

O Reader! now that I might tell

What Johnny and his Horse are doing

What they've been doing all this time,

Oh could I put it into rhyme,

A most delightful tale pursuing!

Perhaps, and no unlikely thought!

He with his Pony now doth roam

The cliffs and peaks so high that are,

To lay his hands upon a star,

And in his pocket bring it home.

Perhaps he's turned himself about,

His face unto his horse's tail,

And, still and mute, in wonder lost,

All silent as a horseman-ghost,

He travels slowly down the vale.

And now, perhaps, is hunting sheep,

A fierce and dreadful hunter he;

Yon valley, now so trim and green,

In five months' time, should he be seen,

A desert wilderness will be!

Perhaps, with head and heels on fire,

And like the very soul of evil,

He's galloping away, away,

And so will gallop on for aye,

The bane of all that dread the devil!

I to the Muses have been bound

These fourteen years, by strong indentures:

O gentle Muses! let me tell

But half of what to him befell;

He surely met with strange adventures.

O gentle Muses! is this kind?

Why will ye thus my suit repel?

Why of your further aid bereave me?

And can ye thus unfriended leave me

Ye Muses! whom I love so well?

Who's yon, that, near the waterfall,

Which thunders down with headlong force,

Beneath the moon, yet shining fair,

As careless as if nothing were,

Sits upright on a feeding horse?

Unto his horse--there feeding free,

He seems, I think, the rein to give;

Of moon or stars he takes no heed;

Of such we in romances read:

--'Tis Johnny! Johnny! as I live.

And that's the very Pony, too!

Where is she, where is Betty Foy?

She hardly can sustain her fears;

The roaring waterfall she hears,

And cannot find her Idiot Boy.

Your Pony's worth his weight in gold:

Then calm your terrors, Betty Foy!

She's coming from among the trees,

And now all full in view she sees

Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy.

And Betty sees the Pony too:

Why stand you thus, good Betty Foy?

It is no goblin, 'tis no ghost,

'Tis he whom you so long have lost,

He whom you love, your Idiot Boy.

She looks again--her arms are up--

She screams--she cannot move for joy;

She darts, as with a torrent's force,

She almost has o'erturned the Horse,

And fast she holds her Idiot Boy.

And Johnny burrs, and laughs aloud;

Whether in cunning or in joy

I cannot tell; but while he laughs,

Betty a drunken pleasure quaffs

To hear again her Idiot Boy.

And now she's at the Pony's tail,

And now is at the Pony's head,--

On that side now, and now on this;

And, almost stifled with her bliss,

A few sad tears does Betty shed.

She kisses o'er and o'er again

Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy;

She's happy here, is happy there,

She is uneasy every where;

Her limbs are all alive with joy.

She pats the Pony, where or when

She knows not, happy Betty Foy!

The little Pony glad may be,

But he is milder far than she,

You hardly can perceive his joy.

"Oh! Johnny, never mind the Doctor;

You've done your best, and that is all:"

She took the reins, when this was said,

And gently turned the Pony's head 0

From the loud waterfall.

By this the stars were almost gone,

The moon was setting on the hill,

So pale you scarcely looked at her:

The little birds began to stir,

Though yet their tongues were still.

The Pony, Betty, and her Boy,

Wind slowly through the woody dale;

And who is she, betimes abroad,

That hobbles up the steep rough road?

Who is it, but old Susan Gale?

Long time lay Susan lost in thought;

And many dreadful fears beset her,

Both for her Messenger and Nurse;

And, as her mind grew worse and worse,

Her body--it grew better.

She turned, she tossed herself in bed,

On all sides doubts and terrors met her;

Point after point did she discuss;

And, while her mind was fighting thus,

Her body still grew better.

"Alas! what is become of them?

These fears can never be endured;

I'll to the wood."--The word scarce said,

Did Susan rise up from her bed,

As if by magic cured.

Away she goes up hill and down,

And to the wood at length is come;

She spies her Friends, she shouts a greeting;

Oh me! it is a merry meeting

As ever was in Christendom.

The owls have hardly sung their last,

While our four travellers homeward wend;

The owls have hooted all night long,

And with the owls began my song,

And with the owls must end.

For while they all were travelling home,

Cried Betty, "Tell us, Johnny, do,

Where all this long night you have been,

What you have heard, what you have seen:

And, Johnny, mind you tell us true."

Now Johnny all night long had heard

The owls in tuneful concert strive;

No doubt too he the moon had seen;

For in the moonlight he had been

From eight o'clock till five.

And thus, to Betty's question, he

Made answer, like a traveller bold,

(His very words I give to you,)

"The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,

And the sun did shine so cold!"

--Thus answered Johnny in his glory,

And that was all his travel's story,


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

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Wordsworth suggests in this poem that the singleminded poetic appreciation and relish that the "idiot" boy "lost" in the night finds in his adventure is somehow analogous to the poet's delighted and distorted love of nature and beauty.

| Posted on 2010-04-05 | by a guest

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Wordsworth loved writing and re-reading "The Idiot Boy": "I wrote the poem with exceeding delight and pleasure, and whenever I read it I read it with pleasure" (ed. Hill, 52). I shall investigate this "exceeding delight and pleasure" in the light of three contexts--the Enlightenment understanding of idiocy, Platonic philosophy and Robert Southey--insofar as all three pose a challenge to the psychoanalytic assumption that Wordsworth, in loving this poem, was regressing to a frustrated desire for his dead mother. (1) Among other things, this reading overlooks how the simple silhouette of the figure assumed to be Ann Wordsworth tends, as objects always do in Wordsworth, to shimmer and fade until she falls away into a generalized figuration of the mother--a recurrent figure in the Lyrical Ballads. (2) Yet she too disappears as the maternal figure vanishes into the great spiritual mother Nature "deeply interfused" into "all things" and "impel [ling] / All thinking things, all objects of thought" ("Tintern Abbey" 97, 101-3). My threefold re-contextualization of the poem will show that neither mother, nor nature, is that simple.
What did the poet love when he loved "The Idiot Boy"? The figurative fertility of the maternal figure exceeds a reductive interpretation of the poem as a projection of Wordsworth's desire for his dead mother. Yet if Wordsworth's love for "The Idiot Boy" remains irrecoverable by psychoanalytic cliches, how is this emotion to be understood? Since the eponymous protagonist of the poem vicariously incarnates this love, the idiot boy is worth questioning insofar as he provides a vivid contrast to the less idiotic (read: more socially adaptable) youths in other Wordsworth poems.
Byron's dismissal of the poem in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is a helpful guide on how not to read the poem:
Thus when he tells the tale of Betty Foy, The idiot mother of 'an idiot Boy'; A moon-struck silly lad who lost his way, And, like his bard, confounded night with day, So close on each pathetic part he dwells, And each adventure so sublimely tells, That all who view the 'idiot in his glory', Conceive the Bard the hero of the story (247-254).
Byron argues that the idiot at the heart of the poem is not, as the reader expects, the boy, but his "idiot mother," which becomes even more offensive when he identifies the real "hero of the story" or "idiot in his glory" as Wordsworth himself. Byron makes this leap because he cannot "[c]onceive" with certainty the object of Wordsworth's love. Like Keats, Byron is uncomfortable with Wordsworth's espousal of mother-love and reduces it to the earlier poet's love for his own ego. From this reading, it is a small step to the orthodox Oedipal truism that self-love is indistinguishable from an obsessive mother-love. (3)
I want to question both this assumption that Wordsworth, in narrating the tale of Betty Foy and her son, is merely "sublimely tell[ing]" the "story" of a "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" (Keats; 1. 387) and the Freudian corollary that an egotistic self-love leads, once the mother is absent, dead or buried, to the construction of mother Nature as a compensation for this loss. Neither maternity, nor nature was so simple, comforting or reassuring, as Julie Kipp explains in Romanticism, Maternity, and the Body Politic (2003): "pathologizing of women's bodies and the demonizing of maternal sympathy" represented mothers as fearful monsters "governed by instincts and psychical processes that seemed unthinking [i.e., idiotic, natural or], animal-like, and even potentially pathological" (54, 52; my emphasis). Wordsworth counters, I argue, anti-maternal sentiment by his expressed sympathy for both mother and son.
Wordsworth expresses, in other words, more "maternal sympathy" than his mis-readers. By "maternal sympathy" I mean that he sympathizes with mothers who suffer social stigmatization as too motherly or pathologically maternal and that he remains open to the sympathetically feminine side of himself through an embrace of the excessive mother-love Betty Foy displays for her wayward child. In writing about "'an idiot Boy,'" Wordsworth is seeking, as he wrote in the Preface, "to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature" (1992, 745). He follows maternal sympathy in the double sense of a flux and a reflux--that is, a sympathy with maternal love and a return of this sympathetic identification with another's sympathy into the masculine ego as a mother-like vulnerability, unafraid of being feminized, demonized or condemned as effeminate, vulgar or disgusting.
Wordsworth's objective is to vindicate his ability to love like a mother (totally, vulnerably, or irrationally in the best sense of the word): "the object I have endeavoured [...] to attain by [...] tracing the maternal passion through many of its more subtle windings, as in the poems of the IDIOT BOY and the MAD MOTHER" (Wordsworth 1992, 745). In "The Mad Mother," the maternal figure, like Betty Foy in "The Idiot Boy," lives for her boy--"Thou art thy mother's only joy" (42)--and thus initially appears monstrous, "wild" or foreign (1), "from over the main" (4). Yet when she sings of her joy in her "little boy," he begins to understand her pain: "She talked and sung the woods among; / And it was in the English tongue" (9-10).
To what origin, then, are the "subtle windings," "fluxes" and "refluxes" of "the maternal passion" (etymologically, a passive emotion; i.e., a slipping away from the ego into a sympathetic vulnerability) to be "trac[ed]"? The explanation for his love of "The Idiot Boy" is to be found, according to the poet, in the pleasurable sensations poetry and nature evoked when he was writing the poem. "The Idiot Boy" originates, then, in the "glad animal" "passion[s]" that Wordsworth continues to love in the concluding poem to the Lyrical Ballads (1798), even as he attempts to separate himself from this "maternal passion" by assigning it to the "former pleasures" or the "coarser pleasures of my boyish days" ("Tintern Abbey" 75, 78, 74, 119; emphasis added). (4) "The Idiot Boy," as Wordsworth recalled in 1842, 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" (354).
In his comments on the poem in Biographia, Coleridge expresses objections to the poem that others shared:
In the 'Idiot Boy,' indeed, the mother's character is not so much a real and native product of a 'situation where the essential passions of the heart find a better soil, in which they can attain their maturity and speak a plainer and more emphatic language' as it is an impersonation of an instinct abandoned by judgement. Hence the two following charges seem to me not wholly groundless: at least, they are the only plausible objections, which I have heard to that fine poem. The one is, that the author has not, in the poem itself, taken sufficient care to preclude from the reader's fancy the disgusting images of ordinary, morbid idiocy, which yet it was by no means his intention to represent. He has even by the 'burr, burr, burr,' uncounteracted by any preceding description of the boy's beauty, assisted in recalling them. The other is, that the idiocy of the boy is so evenly balanced by the folly of the mother, as to present to the general reader rather a laughable burlesque on the blindness of anile dotage, than an analytic display of maternal affection in its ordinary workings (Coleridge 1985, 339).
Similarly, in an earlier letter to Wordsworth, the young critic John Wilson conveyed his his "inexpressible disgust," "contempt," and "inability to receive pleasure" when reading "The Idiot Boy" due to...

| Posted on 2009-05-08 | by a guest

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