The Nurse’s song

I. Nurse's SongWhen the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

Summary

The nurse’s jealousy is aroused when she hears children playing on the green and their whispers in the valley. She calls the children in from play because she believes that they are wasting their time

This is a companion poem to the Nurse’s Song (I). It looks at another aspect of the repressive use of parental (or quasi-parental) authority. The Nurse’s reaction provides a human example of the ‘love’ that is represented by the pebble in The Clod and the Pebble.

The apparent joy and innocence of the first three lines is undercut by the reversal of expectation in the fourth. It becomes clear that these are the reflections of a ‘sick’ mind rather than a benevolent one. This pattern is repeated in the second stanza, where the first two lines (featured in Nurse’s Song (I)) are exposed by the second two. What is presented as the nurse’s love and care for the children – calling them home to rest and away from the dangers of getting chilled by the dew – is revealed as jealousy and cruelty. The nurse loves only herself. Because her youthful pleasures are past, she wishes to deny the children theirs. She binds them to herself in possessiveness. Further, she wishes on them the same dried-up old age as her own, where emotions like jealousy must be made to appear as good.

Unlike the companion poem in the Songs of Innocence, this poem takes place entirely in the nurse’s mind. The response isn’t to an actual event, but is a continual reaction – ‘when[ever]’ she hears children ‘then’ her response is to call them home. This suggests the Nurse’s self-created isolation. She does not respond to real children but to what they evoke in her own mind.

Speaker

A jealous and bitter nurse.

Language and tone

The literal and moral ‘high ground’ of Nurse’s Song (I) (where ‘laughing is heard on the hill’) is exchanged for shady goings on in the dale/valley. Certainly ‘the dale’ suggests a place at a greater distance from the Nurse, too far away for immediate oversight, or to exert control.

Oppositions

Note the contrast between the two meanings of ‘green’ in the first stanza:

In line 1, it denotes the freshness and fertility of the land and the children. It represents freedom and growth

In line 4, it refers to jealousy, which leads to stagnation and constraint.

This also makes the use of ‘fresh’ in line 3 ambiguous and ironic. Why?

‘Whisp’rings’ is also an ambiguous term:

Are these the whisperings of children full of fun, who like to do things in secret? That might create the Nurse’s jealousy because they have a life apart from hers. Or are the whisperings those of older children engaged in illicit activities or even of people who would do harm to the children?

Structure and texture

The anapaestic metre of lines 1, 5, and 8 produces a jauntiness that is undercut by the content and tone of the poem, particularly by the heavy iambs of line 4. The full weight of the nurse’s denial of life is underlined by the internal rhyme in the third line of stanza two, which contrasts the two sentiments. The overall effect is to give the statement the weight of an undeniable maxim, which the repeated ‘and’s reinforce.

Imagery and symbolism

Green – Blake returns to his image of the village green, which represents:

  • Growth, fertility and spring
  • The importance of play, and therefore of imagination, in human life
  • Freedom from the rule or demands of an authority figure.

Here, it is used to symbolise everything about the children’s life and freedom which makes the Nurse ‘green’ with envy. At the same time, green is associated with nausea and sourness, which indicates both the corruption of the Nurse’s mind and, perhaps, the corruption of childhood innocence.

The nurse – The image of the nurse is used to represent the caring and nurturing capacity within human beings. This can be used to protect the freedom of what is carefree, innocent and vulnerable. When this is so, the nurse or care-giver delights in children has no desire to repress or rule them. But this capacity can also be distorted into a desire to control and devour what is carefree and vulnerable. This is the case in Nurse’s Song (E).

Disguise – the idea of concealment has already been hinted at in ‘whisperings’ and is the product of experience rather than innocence. From the Nurse’s bitter perspective, even the ‘purity’ of childhood is a pretense. Alternatively, she might be reflecting on her adult self (in the ‘winter’ of her life) and the necessity of concealment of the true self in order to function socially.

Themes

The nature of parental care and authority

Here the nurse, a quasi-parental figure, deliberately inhibits and represses the children. She uses the authority of a society based on external authority figures and laws to mask jealousy and cruelty and present it as ‘love’.

The effects of the Fall

A related theme is the effect on human relationships of fallen divided selfhood, which sees itself at the centre of its world and as something to be protected and defended. Its pleasures must be jealously defended and denied to others. One chief pleasure is exerting control over others, which can often masquerade as showing protective love.

The perception of children

In Blake’s era, there was a debate about the nature of children:

  • Is the child born free and good, as Rousseau believed
  • Or born depraved, as the Calvinist Christians believed
  • Or is this opposition the result of fallen human beings’ inability to recognise that both the capacities for good and evil belong to humanity?
  • 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. Here, the nurse resents the freedom and creativity of the children – she is not simply stopping their play, she is stifling the spirit within them.