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.