My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
—His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach,
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells,
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with trancèd breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
‘I will be sorry for their childishness.’
There is no “deep meaning” in this poem, which is to say that the reader does not need to read too deeply to feel the poem’s effects. It is overwhelmingly pathetic and moving in its depiction of the sad, brooding little boy “with darken’d eyelids…their lashes yet / From his late sobbing wet.” The boy has been crying because his father has recently spanked him for being disobedient. Moreover, the mother is dead, so there was no one in the house to console the child after his father’s severe admonishment. Thus, the father finds his son asleep with eyes and face still stained from recent tears. The sharpest pathos in the poem arises when the father looks at a table near the boy’s bed, upon which are set a variety of commonplace objects that the boy has “ranged there with careful art.” The emotion emanates not from the toys themselves, but from the fact that the boy has sweetly bestowed importance upon objects that adults otherwise ignore. Indeed, so great is the father’s pain at the recognition of his young son’s sweet childishness that he immediately after prays to God, not as much to ask for anything as to observe that God, the ultimate father, will one day look upon His children and overlook “their childishness”–i.e., the father’s swift and severe response to his son’s disobedience. God, the father believes, will do for the human race what he could not for his son.
Thus, the most remarkable aspect of this poem is not any profound, metaphysical notion, but rather the simple and yet sublime emotions attached with this paternal sentiment. Though this sentimentality was gobbled up by the hyper-sentimental Victorians of Patmore’s time, the pathos is sharp enough and universal enough that the poem transcends being a mere period piece and edges towards the realm of eternally relevant humanistic literature.