In School Days

    STILL sits the school-house by the road,
    A ragged beggar sleeping;
    Around it still the sumachs grow,
    And blackberry-vines are creeping.

    Within, the master's desk is seen,
    Deep-scarred by raps official;
    The warping floor, the battered seats,
    The jack-knife's carved initial;

    The charcoal frescoes on its wall;
    Its door's worn sill, betraying
    The feet that, creeping slow to school,
    Went storming out to playing!

    Long years ago a winter sun
    Shone over it at setting;
    Lit up its western window-panes,
    And low eaves' icy fretting.

    It touched the tangled golden curls,
    And brown eyes full of grieving,
    Of one who still her steps delayed
    When all the school were leaving.

    For near it stood the little boy
    Her childish favor singled;
    His cap pulled low upon a face
    Where pride and shame were mingled.

    Pushing with restless feet the snow
    To right and left, he lingered;---
    As restlessly her tiny hands
    The blue-checked apron fingered.

    He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
    The soft hand's light caressing,
    And heard the tremble of her voice,
    As if a fault confessing.

    "I'm sorry that I spelt the word:
    I hate to go above you,
    Because,"---the brown eyes lower fell,---
    "Because, you see, I love you!"

    Still memory to a gray-haired man
    That sweet child-face is showing.
    Dear girl! the grasses on her grave
    Have forty years been growing!

    He lives to learn, in life's hard school,
    How few who pass above him
    Lament their triumph and his loss,
    Like her, because they love him.
    John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts on December 17, 1807, John Greenleaf Whittier, inspired by reading Robert Burns, wrote and published poems in local journals beginning in 1826. A Quaker poet he spent his life as a journalist and an editor for many newspapers including the Atlantic Monthly, which he helped found. He also regarded himself as the founding father of the Republican Party, was a devout abolitionist becoming a delegate to the first Anti-Slavery Convention in 1833 and won a seat in Congress in 1842 campaigning on the Liberty party platform. On his seventieth birthday in 1877, a number of notable literary men, including Mark Twain, honored him. Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on him in 1886. He died on September 7, 1892 at Hampton Halls, New Hampshire and was interred at Amesbury.

In School Days is a nostalgic piece that has lasted because it strikes a common thread in many readers as a familiar experience. You may know his masterpiece Snow Bound (1866). Fernside Brook is the scene from which he was inspired to compose this wistful yearning. Nostalgic poems were popular during the Industrial Revolution and that's about the time this one was published. If you are familiar with Burn's style of poetry, his influence is readily seen here with its pastoral evocations. Line three the sumachs he is referring to are shrubs whose leaves are used in tanning. The fidgeting movements of the children brings to life this story about the shy sincerity of a first loves and how as the time has passed the emotional memory remains more precious than ever with its hard hitting moralistic revelation at the end making it all the more meaningful.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Whittier, John Greenleaf," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

CST Approved.

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