Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy”: Disability and maternal love

Elizabeth Lovett Colledge
Jacksonville, Florida, United States

Portrait of William Wordsworth at 28. William Shutter. Cornell University.

In William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), the poem “The Idiot Boy” reveals a compassionate insight into the mental disabilities of young Johnny Foy, presenting him not as a horror to be confined to Bedlam or a similar institution, but as a child to be embraced, cared for, and loved. Wordsworth also shows empathy for the boy’s mother, Betty Foy. Her words and actions reveal her concern not just for the child she loves despite (and perhaps for) his limitations, but also for her ill neighbor Susan Gale. With her understandable worries about Johnny, Betty has sent him to fetch the doctor for Susan, who on her part rises from her sickbed to help Betty find her missing son. The poem celebrates female friendship in addition to unconditional maternal love.

The subject matter of Lyrical Ballads offended many readers of the day, some of whom mocked the poet for his choice of lowly rather than lofty topics (attacks which would worsen as the years passed, epitomized by the ridicule directed towards “The Leech Gatherer.”) Several poems in Lyrical Ballads, including “The Thorn,” “The Female Vagrant,” “The Forsaken Indian Woman,” and “The Mad Mother” deal with lonely, isolated, and “wild” (i.e., mad) figures, whom he treats with a compassion incompatible with general attitudes of the day.

In affinity with Rousseau, Wordsworth praised the natural goodness and humanity of the poor, singling out their treatment of those in mental distress. In a letter sent in June 1802 to his friend John Wilson, who argued that the poet’s treatment of the subject could only inspire distaste in the minds of readers, Wordsworth remarked: “I have indeed, often looked upon the conduct of fathers and mothers of the lower classes of society towards idiots as the great triumph of the human heart. It is there that we see the strength, disinterestedness, and grandeur of love…” While Wilson found Betty’s love for Johnny implausible and unnatural, Wordsworth showed an exceptional understanding of maternal love while humanizing its (in this case) disadvantaged object.

Historically, literature had presented variations of mental illness in children and young adults: feral beings, village idiots, holy fools, savages, and so forth. Terms such as imbecile, idiot, melancholic, maniac, or lunatic were in common medical usage, and many readers enjoyed the sort of poetry that sensationalized these conditions, inspiring revulsion or supernatural terror. A concurrent fear of such madness resulted in the rise in the number of mental institutions in the late 18th century, where patients were housed together in appalling conditions regardless of the degree of their disabilities, with treatment ranging from neglect to abuse.

Rather than turning Billy into a caricature, Wordsworth uses gentle humor and a gaiety of versification that allow us both to laugh and to sympathize. With its brisk ballad meter and rustic diction, “The Idiot Boy” adheres more closely to ballad form than many of the other poems in Lyrical Ballads. The comic action, reinforced by the lively use of meter and rhyme, serves as a foil to sentimentality, while the intermittent, often joking remarks of the implied narrator offset pity.

Notably, the word “joy” recurs again and again in association with Johnny: “For joy he cannot hold the bridle, / For joy his head and heels are idle, / He’s idle all for very joy.” (83–86). This sensation of joy reverberates in his mother: “And Betty’s face with joy o’erflows, / Proud of herself, and proud of him,” (98–99); “She screams—she cannot move for joy;” (383); “Her limbs are all alive with joy.” (401). What more significant choice of an elementary feeling or essential passion of the heart to support Wordsworth’s poetic intentions in “The Idiot Boy” than the noun “joy”?

In Radical Wordsworth (2020), Jonathan Bate suggests a diagnosis of Johnny’s condition: “This must be the first poem in any language on the subject of a Down’s syndrome child. It is at once touching, funny, and just a little holy. It says something about the special grace both of children with special needs and those who care for them.” (244). However, we cannot access Johnny’s thoughts or otherwise determine the limits of his intellectual disabilities, nor does Wordsworth suggest that he, as omniscient narrator, has that ability.

Rather than describe Johnny’s behavior on his moonlight adventure, Wordsworth aligns himself with the reader in wonder: “Oh reader! now that I might tell” (322); “Oh could I put it into rhyme,” (325); “Perhaps, and no unlikely thought!” (327). The adverb “perhaps,” used in four separate lines, emphasizes the poet’s speculation rather than knowledge. He accuses the muses of betraying him and describes Betty’s discovery of her son as if it were as much of a surprise to him as to the mother, bringing an immediacy to the scene.

Johnny and his mother have an established pattern of communication: “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.” (62–66). Johnny’s primary vehicles of communication are gestures and burrs: “His lips with joy they burr at you,” (19). His only intelligible, if contradictory, words occur in the final stanza: “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold.” (460–461). His thoughts remain inaccessible to both poet and reader, his behavior during the night ultimately unknown.

None of that changes his mother’s feelings. She is aware that her son has limitations, as she reminds Susan Gale: “‘Consider, Johnny’s but half wise;” (198). She tries to explain her concerns to the uncompassionate and dismissive doctor: ‘He’s not so wise as some folks be,’ (267). One might view the doctor as representative of the larger society that condemns the likes of Johnny as useless and less than human. But the doctor’s rejection only reinforces Betty’s determination. By reiterating the phrase, “Him whom you love, your idiot boy” six times in variation (11, 16, 51, 376, 381, 398), Wordsworth intensifies his emphasis on Betty’s unwavering love for her disabled child.

Ultimately, that love normalizes her child’s condition. The ending is triumphant, as Johnny and Betty greet Susan on their way home. Betty has suffered but is rewarded for the strength and endurance of her maternal love. Wordsworth privileges the mother/child bond above all obstacles.

“The Idiot Boy” was attacked by both critics and fellow poets. Wordsworth’s friend the poet Robert Southey noted: “no tale less deserves the labour that appears to have been bestowed upon this.” His younger contemporary, Lord Byron, mocked the poem, particularly Johnny’s burring, in satirical verse. Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, fellow author of Lyrical Ballads, remarked upon “the disgusting images of ordinary, morbid, idiocy.” But posterity has confirmed Wordsworth’s radical success in the use of the language of humble subjects and simple ballad form to break the poetic tradition that called for elevated subjects celebrated in elevated forms.

More recent critics have examined the poem through various lenses, including the lens of disability theory. Some have suggested that Johnny Foy represents the Romantic poet in tune with the natural world and at odds with civilization. There is no evidence that this was Wordsworth’s intention. As noted, he does not present or pretend to understand the workings of Johnny’s mind, retaining the position of compassionate observer rather than omniscient writer. Johnny’s final words reveal a complex, if indecipherable, relationship with nature, in contrast with the steadfast simplicity of his mother’s love.


  1. Bate, Jonathan. Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
  2. Colledge, Elizabeth. “Wordsworth’s Challenges to Gender-Based Hierarchies: A Study of Lyrical Ballads.” University of Florida, 1991.
  3. Duperron, Brenna. “The Idiot Boy” Lyricalballads@SFU. https://lyricalballadssfu.wordpress.com/the-idiot-boy/
  4. Kerr, Jonathan. “Psychology and Mental Disorder in Wordsworth’s Poetry.” Wordsworth Grasmere, May 6, 2014. https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2014/05/06/psychology-and-mental-disorder-in-wordsworths-poetry/
  5. Wolfson, Susan. Critical Essays on William Wordsworth. Ed. George Gilpin. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co, 1990.
  6. Wordsworth and Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads 1798. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  7. Shutter, William. Portrait of William Wordsworth at 28. Rare and Manuscript Collections. Cornell Library, Ithaca, New York. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Wordsworth_at_28_by_William_Shuter2.jpg

ELIZABETH LOVETT COLLEDGE, Ph.D., serves as President of Commodores Point Terminal Corporation, a family-owned business focused on commercial property management. She is a writer, an editor, and an advocate for the Jacksonville Symphony, the Wolfson Children’s Hospital, the Community Foundation, and Hektoen International. She competes in Open and Closed Gold International Ballroom. 

Spring 2024



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