I keep six honest serving-men
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
This stanza is about the author’s way of learning about the world. His “serving men” are the questions he asks of the things around him: “what?” “why?” “when?” “how?” “where?” and “who?” These “men”/questions are honest because this is the best way to objectively learn the truth. The speaker seems open to learning new things and seeking the truth. He does put the word “knew” in the past tense, though, and says that he gives the questioning “a rest,” which leads us to the next stanza.
I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
In these four lines, the speaker essentially says that his questioning brain doesn’t actually function anymore, but is pretty much always “resting.” He no longer questions at all; he simply accepts his foundation of knowledge and does not challenge new claims or information as they come along. This is a satirical way of criticizing adults who become complacent about the world around them and become entirely “busy” and caught up in the motions of the daily grind without stopping to think about the significance of their actions or the events of the world around them.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!
The second half of the second stanza and the final stanza are both talking about the refreshing curiosity of children. The speaker says he has become too lazy to take an active interest in the world around him, but his daughter (or some little girl he knows) has not. She is always looking around her and asking questions. This is like the two-year-old who can’t seem to stop asking “but why?” Saying that “different folk have different views” suggests that the speaker sees the child’s young toddler perspective as equal to his own, perhaps even superior.
Overall, the poem is a reflection on the wisdom of children (who see the world around them with fresh eyes) and the stagnation of the adult spirit as life goes on.