William, the Negro Boy,” by Jane L. Gray, extolls the heroism of William Patterson, who apparently died in Easton, Pennsylvania, while saving other boys from drowning. It’s not the best work to appear in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, but the author’s lapses into condescension tell us something about 19th-century attitudes—and bad poetry.

“William, The Negro Boy,” by Jane L. Gray (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, April 1849, p. 118)

It once befell, upon a day

When chilling winds did blow,

And winter had his mantle on

Of white and dazzling snow;

And every pond and rivulet

Were bright and smooth as glass,

Some boys went out, a sportive hour

Upon the ice to pass.

Oh, many a mother’s hope was there,

With kerchief round his chin,

And mittens warm upon his hands,

And cap of sable skin.

And there was many a gentle youth,

Their parents’ pride and joy;

There, too, was William Patterson,

A humble negro boy.

Oh, but they were a jolly band,

And pleasant ’twas to see

How gracefully upon the ice

They went, and merrily.

Now here, now there, now up, now down,

While laugh, and joke, and shout,

Were heard upon the sparkling lake,

And echoed round about.

Alas! for in the very height

Of all their sport and glee,

The treacherous stay beneath their feet

Was broken suddenly!

Down, down they sink—seven precious souls,

Beneath the ice-bound wave;

Oh, who of all that shared their sport

Will risk his life to save?

“Oh, Patterson, Will Patterson!”

In agony they cry;

“Our comrades, come, oh, quickly come;

Save, save them or they die!”

He heard, he flew, small need had they

To call upon them twice;

Like lightning flash at summer eve,

He’s down beneath the ice.

And soon up to the slippery verge,

His sable arms upbore

Two shivering youths, the rescued ones,

And carried safe to shore.

“I’ll save them all, I’ll save them all!”

The youthful hero cried;

Again the daring boy went down,

Rose, struggled, sank, and died.

Vain were thy efforts, noble boy—

He died, but could not save,

And many a mourning mother’s pride

Lies with him ’neath the wave.

How changed the scene—for laugh and shout,

For frolic, sport, and glee,

Are heard around that fatal spot,

Wild shrieks of agony.

And dare we woo the muse for thee,

Dark Afric’s sable son?

Thy name might shine in glowing lines—

Be graved in lasting stone.

For bold and fearless was thy heart,

Though black might be thy skin;

The hero on the blood-stained field

Could scarce thy laurels win.

And now unto his mother’s home,

He left so blithe at morn,

A stiff cold corse her darling boy

Was sadly, slowly borne!

She laid him in his wintry grave,

Her earthly stay is gone—

Poor woman—Oh! God pity her,

She’s lost a noble son.

And now to all that may have read

This short and simple lay,

A word or two before we part

An humble bard would say:

Oh, life is fleeting, death is sure,

Think of the judgment-day.

Easton, Pa.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To “Voices from 19th-Century America
Some works for adults, 1800-1872
To Titles at this site | Authors at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date | Map of the site

Talk to me.