'Childhood' Poem Summary
'Childhood' is a short rhyming poem that neatly sums up what it is to be a child in a world of adults. It was first published in the book Travelling Home, 1948.
It contrasts the here and now with an event in the past, the first-person speaker (I) looking back to a special moment when they, as a child, witnessed great-aunt Etty's friend struggling to pick up her unstrung beads, because she was helplessly old.
- But the speaker can only come to this conclusion because she learnt a lesson given by time - old people do not choose their physical traits as time passes, old people age naturally. There is no conscious decision to grow old.
It may seem an odd theory to think up- that people choose to grow old because it gives them special status (to be grand)- but many of us as children create these strange and quirky ideas about people.
It's only when we grow up and mature that we realise the truth about time: everyone is subject to its power, and everyone is helpless to resist.
'Childhood' appears to be a straightforward poem on the page; single stanza, mostly iambic beat and full rhyme. Yet a closer investigation reveals subtle changes and variants, within the beat and the rhyme, which are dealt with in detail later on in the analysis.
This poem offers an intriguing insight into what it means to be a child learning about the vagaries of time and its effect upon people who are old.
The speaker becomes aware of an inner truth as she looks back at the event on the stairs...the old person may have struggled to collect up her rolling beads but the young child, too, is vulnerable...that word helplessly applies to both yet has a slightly different meaning for each.
I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty's friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.
Analysis of Childhood
'Childhood' offers the reader an insight into the mind of an adult who looks back to an event they experienced as a child and which changed their way of thinking.
- This contrast helps set up a mild tension which is reinforced from time to time by a slight change in tempo and emphasis in certain lines that break with the steady iambic plod. (see analysis of metre)
Basically, the first four lines deal with the here and now as the speaker reveals her childhood thoughts about old people. She thought they chose to look old and specifically names those parts of the body that stand out in her mind's eye.
Their stiff backs and wrinkles (unusually around the nose) and their veins, described as fat snakes, all contribute to the theory of aging, according to the speaker as a child.
Note the full rhyme of the couplets which tightly binds this idea and the short fourth line which also abruptly reinforces this.
- It's some theory: old people purposefully chose to have these physical ailments and skin effects, as if they were in charge of time and not the other way round! And they did so in order to be special to be grand (immense and important).
Then later one day (lines 5 - 10), this theory was shattered when the speaker as a child witnessed an old family friend struggling to pick up the onyx beads (a special stone, black, signifying death and darkness?) that had become unstrung from a necklace.
- The beads becoming unstrung reflects the frailty of the old person - as if life is unravelling, as if things are out of control.
The child did not rush to help - she was on the stairs looking through the banister (often a wooden structure at the side of a staircase to help guide people up and down); she only watched, knowing the change within.
It's this contrast and common ground between two people that gives the poem its edge.
- The contrast: child and adult, young and old.
- The common ground: both are subject to time and are therefore helpless.
So what the poem does is to bring the idea that as children we often have contorted views of the world and people in it. We don't know any different. Our thoughts, ideas and theories are only just beginning to form and it's often the case that as children we dream up crazy notions.
Old people especially can have significant effects on children's psyches and it is this which is pivotal to the poem's success.
The speaker may have once thought that old people bring about their own aging but a life event changed all that. We're all subject to time and what it does to us. No one escapes; at the end of the day, there is no choice.
What Is The Metre?
'Childhood' has a basic iambic metre, that is, the majority of the feet have the typical daDUM beat, the first syllable unstressed, the second stressed. But there are variations which break the steady plod of the iambic and offer challenges to the reader.
Let's go through the whole ten lines:
1. I used / to think / that grown- / up peop / le chose
2. To have / stiff backs / and wrink / les round / their nose,
3. And veins / like small / fat snakes / on eith / er hand,
4. On purpose / to be grand.
5. Till through / the ban / ister / I watched / one day
6. My great- / aunt Et / ty's friend / who was go / ing away,
7. And how / her on / yx beads / had come / unstrung.
8. I saw / her grope / to find / them as / they rolled;
9. And then / I knew / that she / was help / lessly old,
10. As I / was help / lessly young.
There are three lines of pure iambic pentameter, that is, five equal feet with the daDUM beat. These are lines 1, 7 and 8.
Lines 2 and 3 have the same basic iambic beat (x4) but note the double stress on a spondee foot (stiff backs....fat snakes) which gives greater emphasis.
Line 4 is much shorter and direct. It has unusual feet, with an amphibrach (daDUMda) and an anapaest (dadaDUM) which brings a contrasting rhythm, rising.
Line 5 has that three-syllable banister, with the stress on the first syllable and relatively quiet syllables to follow. This foot becomes a pyrrhic (dada) and makes the voice fade, like a whisper.
In line 6, the longest line with twelve syllables, iambs start off but two anapaests end, giving a strong rising rhythm.
Line 9 also has iambs and an anapaest whilst the short line 10 finishes off the poem with the identical anapaest, reinforcing the togetherness of the child and the older woman.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2019 Andrew Spacey