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Analysis of Poem 'Climbing My Grandfather' by Andrew Waterhouse

Andrew Waterhouse

Andrew Waterhouse

'Climbing My Grandfather' Analysis

'Climbing My Grandfather' is an extended metaphor, the whole poem focusing on the speaker as the climber and the grandfather as a mountain to be climbed.

Although the poem is set in the present, in the first line beginning I decide to do it free...there is a strong sense of turning back time, whereby the speaker, now an adult using adult terminology, becomes a child again.

Perhaps the poet, when a small boy, was fascinated by his grandfather as a physical being and the poem is an attempt to get back into the boy's skin in order to experience that awesome feeling again.

So the poem is autobiographical and reflects the common experience that, as children, the world and the things in it appear larger than life- from rooms and houses to people and animals- it's only when we mature as adults that those same things seem in proportion.

'Climbing My Grandfather' neatly expresses this idea of disproportion in childhood by metaphorically introducing the reader to a mountain, an object frequently thought of as distant, cold, awesome and dangerous.

In contrast, a grandfather is a symbol of experience, wisdom, kindness and fatherliness. In the poem, there are several crossover points where these oppositional qualities come together and compliment each other.

Perhaps this is what the poet was after- climbing a mountain can be risky yet the effort is worthwhile because we get to know the mountain better, and in addition come to know a little bit more about ourselves.

This poem was first published in the Rialto book In, 2000.

'Climbing My Grandfather'

I decide to do it free, without a rope or net.

First, the old brogues, dusty and cracked;

an easy scramble onto his trousers,

pushing into the weave, trying to get a grip.

By the overhanging shirt I change

direction, traverse along his belt

to an earth-stained hand. The nails

are splintered and give good purchase,

the skin of his finger is smooth and thick

like warm ice. On his arm I discover

the glassy ridge of a scar, place my feet

gently in the old stitches and move on.

At his still firm shoulder, I rest for a while

in the shade, not looking down,

for climbing has its dangers, then pull

myself up the loose skin of his neck

to a smiling mouth to drink among teeth.

Refreshed, I cross the screed cheek,

to stare into his brown eyes, watch a pupil

slowly open and close. Then up over

the forehead, the wrinkles well-spaced

and easy, to his thick hair (soft and white

at this altitude), reaching for the summit,

where gasping for breath I can only lie

watching clouds and birds circle,

feeling his heat, knowing

the slow pulse of his good heart.

A Deeper Look

The poet Andrew Waterhouse was a lover of the outdoors, so choosing to climb a mountain to metaphorically represent his grandfather is most appropriate.

Mountains conjure up all kinds of awesome and inspirational thoughts. They're also a daunting image for some, a risky challenge for a select few who opt to climb to the summit.

From the start, the reader is right there by the speaker- first person, present tense - giving an immediate feeling of excitement and risk. The climb is to be free, the ultimate expression of any mountaineer, without aids. This means that the speaker is vulnerable.

  • The first four lines suggest that this climb will be a mix of the dangerous and the familiar. There are no guiding or secure ropes so there's the possibility of falling...yet the initial route from brogues to trousers is easy, perhaps because the speaker has been here before in his mind's eye.

His grandfather has had these shoes for ages, they're dusty and cracked and familiar.

  • The next eight lines, 5 - 12, see a change in direction and pace. Note the enjambment, where lines run on into the next so altering the reader's flow, reflecting the climb.

We're onto the earth-stained hand suggesting a manual worker's background, or someone who likes to garden or farm. The nails are splintered also a sign of hard work. The finger skin is like warm ice which is an oxymoron, a contradictory pairing.

As the climb progresses the speaker reaches a glassy ridge of a scar where old stitches are still visible.

  • The tone throughout these opening lines is intimate and caring. There is an eye for detail and a careful, thoughtful surveying of the route. It's as if the adult poet's mind is guiding the physical being of the adult as speaker-child.
  • There is great respect and acknowledgment of the grandfather's experience and longevity.

Higher now, at the shoulder, where the speaker rests, perhaps to regain strength and composure because it is a long way down should he stumble or fall. This is a way of saying that as a child he's reached a place where he's uncertain.

He's getting to know his grandfather bit by bit but there's a long way to go before he can be certain of their relationship.

The climb has to continue, however, so the speaker makes a move upwards on the neck's loose skin and on again up to the smiling mouth. Here is the reassurance he was looking for. He can even get a drink, somehow, with all those teeth present.

The pupil is that part of the eye allowing light to enter and strike the retina at the back. It is smaller in bright light and larger in low light.

Now the speaker heads for the summit, having seen into the eyes of the grandfather, perhaps crossing a threshold in the process. The hair is like snow on the summit and the speaker, out of breath, needs to rest and take in the surroundings.

The view is of clouds and birds. He's come a long way, the reward is immense. There is no triumphant conquering tone in this latter part of the poem, more a deep satisfaction with the intimate know-how of the grandfather.

Grandfather is alive and warm and has a slow pulse courtesy of a good heart. In the end, the risk, the potential danger and the challenge, all add up to a better understanding of what it means to be a grandfather, a good man.

Analysis - Structure of Climbing My Grandfather

Climbing My Grandfather is a free verse poem, a single stanza of 27 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre varies from line to line.

In total there are 7 complete sentences, the shortest being the first line, the longest occurring at the end, from lines 20 - 27. This brings a sense of steady progress and a sort of climax being reached at the snowy summit.

The poem's shape, a single block of text, with slightly shorter lines at the bottom, reflects the idea of the grandfather being a mountain of a man, with the summit reached at the poem's end.

The speaker manages the climb in one go, various pauses - caesura, when a comma or other punctuation interrupts the flow of a line midway - indicating a slight rest here and there.

Note that the first four lines end with punctuation, pausing the reader's progress, slowing things down as the climb begins. Three out the four have a comma (or two) which also slows the action.

Enjambment on the other hand, when one line runs on into the next with no punctuation, helps build up momentum. In contrast to the first four lines, lines 5 - 12 are heavily enjambed, indicating easier movement as the climb progresses.

Poetic Devices- Alliteration, Assonance and Internal Rhyme


When words beginning with consonants are close together in a line, producing texture and variance for the reader:

decide to do...get a grip...give good...wrinkles well-spaced....his thick hair


When words contain vowels of similar sounds and are close together in a line:

old of his finger...his still...screed cheek...birds circle...knowing/the slow

Internal Rhyme

Words of similar sounds (full rhyme or slant) and close together in a line or lines apart produce resonance and/or dissonance:

easy/weave...shirt/traverse/earth-stained...teeth/screed cheek...heat/heart

Analysis- Climbing Language

'Climbing My Grandfather' is packed with climbing diction- language related to the art of mountaineering.

For example:

scramble, pushing, to get a grip, change/direction,traverse, place my feet, move on, pull/myself, I cross, up over, reaching, gasping, I lie/watching, feeling, knowing/the slow...

© 2019 Andrew Spacey