William Wordsworth

The Idiot Boy

from Lyrical Ballads (Volume 1, 1798)

  'Tis eight o'clock, - a clear March night,
  The moon is up - the sky is blue,
  The owlet in the moonlight air,
  He shouts from nobody knows where;
5   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?
10   And why on horseback have you set
  Him whom you love, your idiot boy?
  Beneath the moon that shines so bright,
  Till she is tired, let Betty Foy
  With girt and stirrup fiddle-faddle;
15   But wherefore set upon a saddle
  Him whom she loves, her idiot boy?
  There's scarce a soul that's out of bed;
  Good Betty put him down again;
  His lips with joy they burr at you,
20   But, Betty! what has he to do
  With stirrup, saddle, or with rein?
  The world will say 'tis very idle,
  Bethink you of the time of night;
  There's not a mother, no not one,
25   But when she hears what you have done,
  Oh! Betty she'll be in a fright.
  But Betty's bent on her intent,
  For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
  Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
30   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,
35   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;
40   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,
45   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 up upon the saddle set,
50   The like was never heard of yet,
  Him whom she loves, her idiot boy.
  And he must post without delay
  Across the bridge that's in the dale,
  And by the church, and o'er the down,
55   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,
60   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,
65   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,
70   Come home again, whate'er befal,
  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,
75   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,
80   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,
85   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's motionless and dead:
90   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,
95   And all his skill in horsemanship,
  Oh! happy, happy, happy John.
  And Betty's standing at the door,
  And Betty's face with joy o'erflows,
  Proud of herself, and proud of him,
100   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,
105   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,
110   And Johnny makes the noise he loves,
  And Betty listens, glad to hear it.
  Away she hies to Susan Gale:
  And Johnny's in a merry tune,
  The owlets hoot, the owlets purr,
115   And Johnny's lips they burr, burr, burr,
  And 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,
120   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,
125   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,
130   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 comfort Johnny soon will bring,
135   With many a most diverting thing,
  Of Johnny's wit and Johnny's glory.
  And Betty's still at Susan's side:
  By this time she's not quite so flurried;
  Demure with porringer and plate
140   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
145   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,
150   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;
155   They'll both be here, 'tis almost ten,
  They'll both be here before eleven.
  Poor Susan moans, poor Susan groans,
  The clock gives warning for eleven;
  'Tis on the stroke - If Johnny's near,
160   Quoth Betty he 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,
165   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!
170   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?
175   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
180   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
  Appear along the moonlight road,
185   There's neither horse nor man abroad,
  And Betty's still at Susan's side.
  And Susan she begins to fear
  Of sad mischances not a few,
  That Johnny may perhaps be drown'd,
190   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
195   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,
200   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;
205   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
210   That God poor Susan's life would spare,
  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,
215   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,
220   In bush and brake, in black and green,
  'Twas Johnny, Johnny, every where.
  She's past the bridge that's in the dale,
  And now the thought torments her sore,
  Johnny perhaps his horse forsook,
225   To hunt the moon that's in the brook,
  And never will be heard of more.
  And now she's high upon the down,
  Alone amid a prospect wide;
  There's neither Johnny nor his horse,
230   Among the fern or in the gorse;
  There's neither doctor nor his guide.
  Oh saints! what is become of him?
  Perhaps he's climbed into an oak,
  Where he will stay till he is dead;
235   Or sadly he has been misled,
  And joined the wandering gypsey-folk.
  Or him that wicked pony's carried
  To the dark cave, the goblins' hall,
  Or in the castle he's pursuing,
240   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,
245   Alas! I should have had him still,
  My Johnny, till my dying day.
  Poor Betty! in this sad distemper,
  The doctor's self would hardly spare,
  Unworthy things she talked and wild,
250   Even he, of cattle the most mild,
  The pony had his share.
  And now she's got into the town,
  And to the doctor's door she hies;
  'Tis silence all on every side;
255   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 shews,
260   His glimmering eyes that peep and doze;
  And one hand rubs his old night-cap.
  Oh Doctor! Doctor! where's my Johnny?
  I'm here, what is't you want with me?
  Oh Sir! you know I'm Betty Foy,
265   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,
270   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 Johnny here,
275   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
280   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 shock'd her,
285   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,
  Oh cruel! I'm almost three-score;
295   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,
300   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,
305   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 pass'd,
310   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!
315   Oh carry back my idiot boy!
  And we will ne'er o'erload thee more.
  A thought it come into her head;
  The pony he is mild and good,
  And we have always used him well;
320   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,
325   The last of all her thoughts would be,
  To drown herself therein.
  Oh reader! now that I might tell
  What Johnny and his horse are doing!
  What they've been doing all this time,
330   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,
335   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,
340   All like a silent horse-man ghost,
  He travels on along the vale.
  And now, perhaps, he's hunting sheep,
  A fierce and dreadful hunter he!
  Yon valley, that's so trim and green,
345   In five months' time, should he be seen,
  A desart wilderness will be.
  Perhaps, with head and heels on fire,
  And like the very soul of evil,
  He's galloping away, away,
350   And so he'll 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:
  Oh gentle muses! let me tell
355   But half of what to him befel,
  For sure he met with strange adventures.
  Oh gentle muses! is this kind
  Why will ye thus my suit repel?
  Why of your further aid bereave me?
360   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,
365   As careless as if nothing were,
  Sits upright on a feeding horse?
  Unto his horse, that's feeding free,
  He seems, I think, the rein to give;
  Of moon or stars he takes no heed;
370   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;
375   The roaring water-fall 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,
380   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,
385   '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,
390   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,
395   Betty a drunken pleasure quaffs,
  To hear again her idiot boy.
  And now she's at the pony's tail,
  And now she's at the pony's head,
  On that side now, and now on this,
400   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, she's happy there.
405   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,
410   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,
415   And gently turned the pony's head
  From the loud water-fall.
  By this the stars were almost gone,
  The moon was setting on the hill,
  So pale you scarcely looked at her:
420   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, be-times abroad,
425   That hobbles up the steep rough road?
  Who is it, but old Susan Gale?
  Long Susan lay deep lost in thought,
  And many dreadful fears beset her,
  Both for her messenger and nurse;
430   And as her mind grew worse and worse,
  Her body it grew better.
  She turned, she toss'd herself in bed,
  On all sides doubts and terrors met her;
  Point after point did she discuss;
435   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,
440   Did Susan rise up from her bed,
  As if by magic cured.
  Away she posts up hill and down,
  And to the wood at length is come,
  She spies her friends, she shouts a greeting;
445   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,
450   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,
455   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;
460   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,)
465   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

First published 1798

Robert Clark

Leave Feedback

The Literary Encyclopedia is a living community of scholars. We welcome comments which will help us improve.