'Idiot Boy, The' by William Wordsworth

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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,

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Deep Dive into Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy"

William Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy" is a remarkable piece of literature that evokes a range of emotions and thoughts as one reads through it. The poem, which is about a boy with intellectual disabilities, is a portrayal of the challenges and joys of life, as well as the complexities of human relationships. Through this poem, Wordsworth displays his poetic genius and his ability to capture the essence of human existence in a few lines. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we delve deep into the poem and explore its themes, literary devices, and poetic style.

Summary of the Poem

"Idiot Boy" is a narrative poem that tells the story of a young boy who is mentally challenged. The poem begins with the boy's mother, Betty Foy, who is worried about her son's safety. She sends him out to gather firewood but he never returns. Betty then sets out to look for her son, and along the way, she meets a series of people who help her in her search. Finally, she finds her son asleep in a barn, safe and sound. The poem ends with the boy's mother taking him home, grateful for the help she received along the way.


The poem touches on a number of themes, the most prominent of which are:

The Complexity of Human Relationships

"Idiot Boy" explores the relationship between the boy and his mother, as well as the relationships between the different characters Betty meets on her search. The poem shows that human relationships are complex, and that they can be both positive and negative. Betty encounters people who are kind and helpful, as well as those who are indifferent and unhelpful. Through these interactions, Wordsworth highlights the importance of human connection and the impact it has on our lives.

The Challenges of Life

The poem also deals with the challenges of life, particularly for those who are disadvantaged. The boy's intellectual disability makes him vulnerable and dependent on others for his safety and well-being. Betty's search for her son highlights the difficulties faced by those who are marginalized and the importance of community support.

The Beauty of Nature

Wordsworth was known for his love of nature, and this is evident in "Idiot Boy." The poem is set in the countryside, and Wordsworth's descriptions of the landscape are vivid and evocative. The natural world is a source of comfort and solace for Betty, and it is through nature that she finds her son.

Literary Devices

Wordsworth employs a number of literary devices in "Idiot Boy," including:


The poem is full of vivid imagery that brings the setting and characters to life. Wordsworth's descriptions of the countryside are particularly striking. For example, he writes:

The green hill-side is flecked with sheep, The moor-land with its peat-brown hue, And the birds sing hymns on every bush;

These lines create a clear picture of the landscape and its inhabitants, and they help to establish the mood and tone of the poem.


Wordsworth personifies nature throughout the poem, ascribing human qualities to the landscape and the animals that populate it. For example, he writes:

The sheep are in the meadow, The cows are in the corn;

These lines give the impression that the natural world is alive and sentient, and that it plays an active role in the lives of the characters.


Wordsworth uses metaphor to convey deeper meanings and emotions. For example, he writes:

The little hedge-row birds, That pecked for crumbs when earth was snow, Now pick, ere ripening sunbeams glow, The purple buds of May.

Here, the birds are a metaphor for the resilience of life and its ability to renew itself, even in the face of hardship.

Poetic Style

Wordsworth's poetic style in "Idiot Boy" is characterized by its simplicity and accessibility. The poem is written in ballad form, with a regular rhythm and rhyme scheme that makes it easy to read and remember. Wordsworth's language is plain and straightforward, but it is also imbued with emotion and depth. He uses repetition and refrain to emphasize key themes and ideas, such as the boy's name, Johnny Foy:

O Johnny, why did'st thou leave the rest Of thy brethren dear? Why did'st thou leave thy mother's breast? Why wander thus and far?

These lines are repeated throughout the poem, creating a sense of unity and coherence, and reinforcing the emotional impact of the story.


"Idiot Boy" is a poignant and powerful poem that speaks to the human experience in profound ways. At its heart, the poem is about the search for meaning and connection in a world that can be cruel and difficult. It is about the importance of community, and the ways in which human relationships can sustain us in times of need. It is also about the beauty and resilience of nature, and its ability to heal and comfort us when we are lost and alone.

One interpretation of the poem is that it is a commentary on the social and economic conditions of Wordsworth's time. The boy's intellectual disability and his mother's poverty are suggestive of the marginalization and neglect experienced by many in the early 19th century. The poem can be read as a call to action, urging readers to recognize the plight of those who are vulnerable and to work towards a more just and equitable society.

Another interpretation of the poem is that it is a celebration of the human spirit, and the ways in which we can overcome adversity and find meaning and purpose in our lives. The boy's disability is not presented as a tragic flaw, but rather as an aspect of his identity that makes him unique and valuable. Through the kindness and compassion of others, he is able to find safety and security, and to return home to his mother.


"Idiot Boy" is a beautiful and moving poem that touches on a range of themes and emotions. Through its simple language and accessible style, Wordsworth is able to convey deep truths about the human experience, and to inspire readers to think more deeply about their own lives and the world around them. As a work of literature, "Idiot Boy" is a testament to Wordsworth's poetic genius and his ability to capture the essence of human existence in a few lines.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry has always been a medium of expression for the human soul. It is a way to convey emotions, thoughts, and experiences in a way that is both beautiful and meaningful. One of the greatest poets of all time, William Wordsworth, was a master of this art form. His poem, "The Idiot Boy," is a classic example of his genius.

"The Idiot Boy" is a narrative poem that tells the story of a young boy named Johnny who is considered an idiot by the people in his village. He is unable to speak or communicate in a way that others can understand. However, his mother loves him deeply and cares for him despite his limitations. One day, Johnny wanders off into the mountains and gets lost. His mother becomes frantic and sets out to find him. She eventually comes across a wise old man who is able to communicate with Johnny and guide them both back to safety.

The poem is divided into two parts, with the first part focusing on Johnny's life in the village and the second part describing his adventure in the mountains. The first part of the poem is written in a simple, straightforward style that reflects the simplicity of Johnny's life. Wordsworth uses simple language and short, choppy sentences to convey the idea that Johnny's life is uncomplicated and uneventful. However, the second part of the poem is written in a more complex style that reflects the complexity of the situation. Wordsworth uses longer, more descriptive sentences to create a sense of tension and urgency as Johnny's mother searches for him.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the way that Wordsworth portrays Johnny. Despite his limitations, Johnny is portrayed as a sympathetic and lovable character. Wordsworth uses imagery and metaphor to convey the idea that Johnny is not really an idiot, but rather a child who is unable to communicate in a way that others can understand. For example, in the first stanza of the poem, Wordsworth describes Johnny as "a poor half-witted lad" who "never learned to read or write." However, in the second stanza, Wordsworth describes Johnny's mother as "a woman of a steady mind" who "loved her idiot boy." This contrast between Johnny's limitations and his mother's love for him creates a sense of pathos that is both powerful and moving.

Another important aspect of the poem is the way that Wordsworth uses nature to convey the idea of the sublime. The mountains that Johnny wanders into are described in vivid detail, with Wordsworth using imagery and metaphor to create a sense of awe and wonder. For example, in the third stanza of the second part of the poem, Wordsworth describes the mountains as "huge and high" and "dark and drear." This description creates a sense of foreboding and danger that is both thrilling and terrifying.

However, despite the danger that Johnny faces in the mountains, Wordsworth also uses nature to convey the idea of redemption. The wise old man who helps Johnny and his mother is described as a "hermit" who lives in a "cave" in the mountains. This description creates a sense of mystery and otherworldliness that is both intriguing and comforting. The hermit is able to communicate with Johnny in a way that others cannot, and he is able to guide them both back to safety. This sense of redemption is further reinforced by the final stanza of the poem, which describes Johnny's mother as "happy" and "thankful" for the hermit's help.

In conclusion, "The Idiot Boy" is a classic example of William Wordsworth's genius as a poet. The poem is a powerful and moving narrative that explores themes of love, redemption, and the sublime. Wordsworth's use of language, imagery, and metaphor creates a sense of pathos and wonder that is both beautiful and meaningful. The poem is a testament to the power of poetry as a medium of expression for the human soul, and it continues to inspire and move readers to this day.

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