Nurse’s song

nurses_songWhen voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.
‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away,
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all covered with sheep.’
‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
And all the hills echoed.

Summary

  • A group of children play outside on the hills while their nurse (carer) listens to them in contentment. The first stanza presents the nurse’s thoughts. The following three present a dialogue between her and the children. As twilight begins to fall, she gently bids them to ‘leave off play’ and go home for the night. They ask to play on as long as the light lasts because the birds and the sheep are not yet at rest. The Nurse yields to their pleas. The children shout and laugh with joy and the hills echo their gladness.
  • The poem reflects a pastoral context, demonstrating harmony between nature and human beings and between young and old. It also returns to the theme of the nature of authority and leadership. The Nurse’s care does not repress or direct the children but allows them freedom to play.

Speaker

  • This poem echoes the setting of The Ecchoing Green, but is seen from an adult perspective rather than a child’s. The consciousness of the speaker – the nurse – is in harmony with the needs of the children though.

Language and tone

  • This is primarily a poem of hope. This is conveyed through the use of a series of words with positive associations: laughing, rest, still, home, sun, play morning, sheep, light, bed. Play is central and is repeated three times.
  • The vocabulary is extremely simple; there are very few words with more than one syllable. Importance of innocent play. The nurse’s language hardly differs from the children’s in grammar and vocabulary. This suggests her inner sympathy with them. Although she is a nurse, her language does not convey authority but relationship – ‘my children’ ‘let us away’. She is a watchful figure who is with, rather than above, her charges.
  • The large number of words involving liquid ‘l’ sounds – laughing, little, leave, light etc – create a soft and gentle tone.
  • The words in the poem are bolted together by the repetition of ‘and’ – half the lines begin with it. This is characteristic of the way children link statements together.

Oppositions

The children’s play is briefly threatened in the third stanza. They resist with repeated negatives and the nurse, unlike in the companion poem in Experience, cheerfully accedes. They are able to express their desires. Both the nurse and nature endorss their continued play here: “all the hills ecchoed.” The nurse’s voice, though, reminds us of all the adults who are not like her, those who police children’s lives, and beyond them the economic, social and religious forces that oppressed so many children of the period.

Structure and versification

  • The poem has four quatrains, rhymed ABCB. The first two stanzas contain an internal rhyme in the third line which adds to the calm rhythmic quality of the song. This is also enhanced by the rolling anapaestic metre. The main idea of the poem, ‘play’, is always underscored by being followed with a rhyme. The third stanza, depicting the children’s voice, has internal rhymes in both first and third lines. This perhaps conveying the repetitive nature typical of pleading. They copy the adult’s syntax but:
  • Resist the authoritative ‘Come, come’ with ‘No, no’
  • Exchange ‘leave’ (stop) for ‘let’ (allow)
  • Turn ‘away’ into ‘play’.
  • In the fourth stanza, the internal rhyme is in the first line, as if the Nurse now echoes the children, conveying the symbiotic relationship between them. In the third stanza, the harsh spondee and C consonants of ‘Come, come’, and the heavy sounding ‘leave off’ convey anxiety. But at the start of stanza four the pattern is softened into the more relaxed:
  • ‘Well, well, go & ..’
  • the ampersand suggesting ease and speed. There is a firmer authority in the three iambic feet of the second line however. The only shadow is conveyed by the abrupt last line, which ‘wrong foots’ the reader by missing the final stress (even if the last word is pronounced ‘ech-o-ed’). Does darkness encroach more rapidly than anticipated?

Imagery and symbolism

The green – Blake’s symbolic village green has three, inter-linked aspects:

  • The colour green is associated with growth, fertility and spring
  • Village greens were places of play and freedom. They represented the importance of play and, therefore, of imagination in human life.
  • Village greens were not owned by anyone. They were common land. They, therefore, represented another kind of freedom – freedom from the rule or demands of a landowner or authority figure. They were the opposite of ‘chartered’ towns which were under the authority of its officials.

This image emphasises the freedom and play which is at the centre of this poem and suggests, too, the inner freedom of the nurse. She seems in harmony with all that is growing and playful.

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.

Fading light – Unlike The Ecchoing Green, the darkness appears much earlier in Nurse’s Song. The children are concerned only with making the most of the daylight. However, the nurse is aware of the threat that lurks in darkness (‘the dews of night arise’ seems unhealthy) and the need to be responsible.

Themes

The nature and exercise of authority

  • The Nurse is a guardian presence who stands apart from the children but supports rather than dominates them. There is no trace of authoritarian desire to suppress and control, or envy of the children’s freedom, even though they test her authority. Her delight is in their play.
  • This nurse is like the shepherd in the poem of that name. Like him, her care is shown by letting the children be, and they are her source of delight and praise.

Natural harmony

  • There is a sense of unity between human beings and the natural world:
  • The Nurse’s initial tranquillity is at one with the evening’s natural stillness. Both seem to envelop the carefree children in a tender protection
  • The children see themselves as part of nature. They cannot bear the thought of abandoning their play as long as the birds and sheep are still awake.

Time

The children, like the animals, are conscious only of the present. They are unaware of time and, therefore, of mortality. Innocence is (again) potentially vulnerable.

Childhood innocence

The nature of childhood innocence is explored. There is a positive representation of unselfconscious delight in freedom and play, suggesting the life of the imagination. However, the gathering gloom threatens to curtail innocent activities.
Celebration of childhood innocence is direct challenge to Christian ideas of original sin. Children were supposed to have a corrupt nature and evil disposition that required harsh discipline to correct.

Children’s right to play

The poem celebrates children’s right to play at the very time they were being herded off the greens and into textile mills and mines.