The Rainbow by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I am trying to understand, why there is no "the" before "father" in this poem? Would you please explain the reason?

  • 1
    Because it's poetry.
    – user24964
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 18:51

4 Answers 4


It’s nothing to do with metre or with the fact that it’s a poem or with 'poetic licence'. The same construction can be found in prose in examples such as ‘The Prime Minister is owner of all the biggest companies’ or ‘He was re-elected Chairman of the Board for a further five years.’ ‘When a predicative noun phrase names a unique role or job, either a zero article or the is used’ (‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’).

  • It certainly is to do with the meter. If he'd used the equally valid "the father" he'd have messed up the meter entirely.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 20:07
  • 3
    He didn't violate any rule of grammar to fit the metre. I’m as distrustful of ‘poetic licence’ as an explanation for grammatical features as I am of ‘hypercorrection’. But we’re straying into literary criticism, which is off-topic here. Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 20:38
  • 1
    Well, "poetic license" is indeed a cover for much nonsense. Meter though is a very good reason for picking between the two choices. One would destroy the meter totally, one fits it perfectly. Seems straight-forward.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 22:03
  • I would be interested to see if that was a primarily British-English usage. Your first example, "The Prime Minister is owner..." sounds completely unnatural to me, whereas the second example, "He was re-elected Chairman of the Board..." sounds appropriate. I would argue that in American English, the rule of zero-article usage in this case relies on the distinction that "Chairman of the Board" is a job title, whereas "owner" is simply a noun. Similarly, "father" seems to need an article, as it is not a capitalized title. Admittedly, I have never heard of the "unique role or job" rule before.
    – Cmillz
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 7:05
  • You make a valid distinction, but I think my 'owner' example could occur, in BrEng at least, in certain contexts. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 7:25

It is likely to be either for the purpose of altering meter or it is an example of an abused "zero article", which is typically reserved for mass nouns (e.g. happiness) or plural nouns (e.g. dolphins) for which there is indefinite reference.

Personally, I believe the primary purpose is the latter, as it creates a sense of oneness with the world, and it makes the statement a universal truth — instead of applying specifically to him, it applies to all of us. It is an indefinite phrase.

EDIT: There may be an issue here between when it is grammatically "correct" to use a zero article in British English and American English. This answer is based on my knowledge of American English standards, while the poem in question would most likely adhere to British English rules.

  • Yes - compare 'He is master of his own destiny'. This is used about half as often as 'He is the master of his own destiny' according to Google. Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 19:43

Most of the poem is iambic; da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM, until it uses dactyls at the end. While it would be more usual to say "X is the father of Y", keeping the iambic meter makes the line work better with the rest of the poem (conversely, the switch to dactylic meter at the end makes the ends stand apart from the rest in conclusion).

The less usual phrasing also helps the word to stand out (even without your emphasis), and hence the entire line, where the poem makes an argument. (It has a statement of fact, argument, conclusion structure that is common in writing that aims to persuade whether a poem or a motion for a political or union meeting).


The obvious answer is that the writer considered it superfluous - which it clearly is.

Perhaps he felt that using the word three times in a single line disturbed the rhythm and flow, or that it was aesthetically unattractive.

Edit: I removed the reference to 'poetic licence' after Barrie England pointed out, correctly in my view, that the writer was grammatically entitled to leave it out the the.

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