Childhood
By Frances Cornford
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 banisters 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.
Make the poem stick.
Memorise the poem – use the rhyme scheme
to help you…
“chose…nose”, “hand…grand”, “day…away”,


Draw a visual representation of the poem – a
sketch of the scene which is drawn for us by
the poet. Make it as simple or elaborate as
you like. Use the language of the poem to
inform your picture.
BACKGROUND
 Frances
Cornford, granddaughter of Charles
Darwin, was born in Cambridge, England, in
1886, where she also died, in 1960. She was
awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1959.
 Her poems rejoice at the tranquillity of life in
Cambridge where she lived almost all her life.
But, at the same time, she shows a quirky
apprehension of decay and death. Best of all,
perhaps, is ‘Childhood’, with its perception of
the mutual incompetence of a small child and
a senile great-aunt.
First Reading



‘Childhood’ explores a dual perspective on the ageing
process. On the one hand, it is a child who watches ‘through
the banisters’ and is ‘helplessly young’, but the whole poem is
a memory – ‘I used to think’. Between the lines, the reader
understands that the crafting narrator is moving towards old
age. Both young and old are ‘helpless’ in the progression of
time.
These wider considerations are based on precise, particular
memories and observations. The first section vividly describes
the physical features of old age, while the second centres
around the moment of realisation about ‘My great-aunt Etty’s
friend’ and her rolling beads from a broken necklace.
Though written in one stanza, consider the effects of
Cornford’s use of short lines. The first serves to complete the
childish observation before the epiphany in the poem’s
second section, while the final short line provides the
ambivalent conclusion. Note the way too that the couplets,
established in the early part of the poem, break up in the last
four lines.
FIRST READING
SIFT through the poem after your first reading:
 Specify the subject matter and sense of the poem
through a brief summary;
Inform us of the intention of the poet and his main
ideas overall;
 Focus on the form (structure/punctuation) and the
feelings conveyed (poet’s attitude/tone used) and how
this highlights the main ideas;
Tell us about the techniques, imagery and poetic
language that show the ways themes and ideas are
presented.
SUMMARY
‘Childhood’ explores a dual perspective on the
ageing process. On the one hand, it is a child who
watches ‘through the banisters’ and is ‘helplessly
young’, but the whole poem is a memory – ‘I used to
think’. Between the lines, the reader understands that
the narrator is moving towards old age. Both young
and old are ‘helpless’ in the progression of time.
 These wider considerations are based on precise,
particular memories and observations. The first section
vividly describes the physical features of old age,
while the second centres around the moment of
realisation about ‘My great-aunt Etty’s friend’ and her
rolling beads from a broken necklace.

DISCUSSION
 The
speaker of this poem is looking back on an
occasion in her life when she first realised that both
young and old people are helpless against the
aging process. In lines 1-4, she tells us that she used
to think grown-ups ‘chose’ those physical defects
that marked them as old, but the speaker also
thought they chose them ‘to be grand’. This
thought indicates that the speaker was very young,
since she thought stiff backs, wrinkles, and veined
hands were ‘grand’.
 Question: Look again at the way the old people are
described. How does it convey the attitudes and
feelings of the narrator? How can you tell that the
poet herself is aging?
DISCUSSION


Lines 5-10 contain the reason for the speaker's changed
opinion about aging grown-ups. She had told us that she
used to believe that the grown-ups ‘chose’ those aging
qualities until she observed her great-aunt's friend
groping helplessly for her beads. The speaker realises
that it is not likely a person would choose to have such
difficulty just retrieving some loose beads, so she then
realises that they probably don't choose those visible
physical defects either. This observation led the speaker
to change her perspective: the adults were just helpless
as they acquired those old-age characteristics, and their
helplessness paralleled her own, the helplessness of
being young.
Question: What are the similarities and differences
between the ‘helplessness’ of the young and the
‘helplessness’ of the old?
Exam style question
 How
does the poet convey her attitude
about aging in ‘Childhood’.
 Write
a paragraph answer (200 words
minimum). Your answer should use
evidence from the poem and comment
on techniques used.
LANGUAGE
 What
do you think the poet means by the word
‘grand’. What are the connotations of this word?
 In line six the friend ‘is going away’. In what different
ways can this phrase be interpreted?
 Why has the poet chosen to use the verb ‘grope’ to
describe the movement of the old lady? What
image does it conjure?
STRUCTURE
 What
do you notice about the rhyme
scheme of the poem? How does this help
convey the thoughts and feelings of the
narrator?
 The poem follows a regular rhythm,
except for two lines (lines 4 & 10), which
are shorter. What is the effect of this and
how does it help convey the attitude and
feelings of the narrator?
ANALYSIS
 How
does the simple structure and language of the
poem contrast with the serious message the poet is
trying to convey? Why is this effective?
 What tone is the reader left with at the end of the
poem? How does this reinforce the message the
poet is trying to convey?
 Which other poems in the anthology deal with
similar issues? Explain the similarities and differences
in the ways the ideas are presented.
EXTENSION
 One
of the central ideas in the poem is the
similarities and differences between the young and
old, and how helpless we all are to stop the passing
of time;
 Task: Produce a static image of the poem that
conveys this key idea. Think about your use of
images, colour, shape, texture, layout etc and try to
incorporate some words from the poem into the
image.
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Childhood - Miss Thompson Media