‘Halfway Down’ by A. A. Milne was published in 1924 in the collection When We Were Very Young. It focuses on a moment in which a childish speaker is stuck between the top of the stairs and the bottom. Scholars believe that Christopher Robin, the poet’s well-known protagonist who features in the Winnie the Pooh stories, is the narrator. Since its publication, it has been set to music and used in episodes of The Muppet Show as well as in Family Guy.
Summary of Halfway Down
The poem is lighthearted and begins with the speaker describing how there is one particular step he enjoys sitting on. When he is going down the stairs he chooses to sit there and think. The step of his choice is one of a kind, there is no other like it. This is due to the fact that it falls directly in the middle of the staircase. It is positioned neither on the way up or on the way down. Therefore it provides him a wholly original and simulating place to think.
Through his rather deep thoughts he realizes he is nowhere. He isn’t going up the stairs nor is he going down, he is somewhere else entirely. This place is not named but it is a liminal space that represents transition and movement— often from one phase of life to another.
You can read the full poem Halfway Down here.
Themes and Form
‘Halfway Down’ was intended for a young audience, there for the syntax is quite simple. It is easy enough for a child to understand or even read for themselves. The poem is divided into one set of thirteen lines and another set of eleven. There is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm in the text. It is formatted with short lines, some of which are only one word long.
This choice on the part of Milne forces the reader to bump down through the lines, one short burst of information at a time. It resembles the descent and the later ascension of the staircase. In particular, the seventh line of the first stanza is interesting. Here Milne only used a single word: “It.” This is the place in which the speaker pauses to think. So too should a reader. This is encouraged by the blank space that follows after the word.
Two of the most important themes of this piece are time and the comprehension of the place.
The staircase is presented by Milne as a liminal space. It is something one uses to travel from one spot to another and therefore not usually considered important. In this piece though the time the narrator spends on the stairs is crucial. In a simplified way, he considers where he is in relation to the rest of his life and what exactly that means.
Analysis of Halfway Down
Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
So this is the stair
Both stanzas of ‘Halfway Down’ begin with the speaker describing how he is either halfway up or halfway down the stairs. The poet is making light of the obvious subjectiveness of these two choices. The stairs remain the same, it is the person on them who is going up or down.
In the first lines, the speaker is making his way “down the stairs” when he finds one and sits down. There is something about this particular step that draws his attention and leads him to pause for a moment. He notes that this step is different from every other. At first, not in any discernible way. At least not to the outsider. It is due to this difference that the speaker decides to sit down on it and “Stop.”
While he is resting he considers his place in the world. He is not at the top or the bottom of the staircase, but somewhere in between. It is revealed in the next lines that his location halfway between top and bottom is the reason he chose this particular step.
It is interesting to change one’s understanding of the scene and consider it from an outsider’s perspective. To an adult or anyone without knowledge with the child’s thoughts, he is simply sitting, perhaps wasting time. In his mind though, there is much more going on. He is considering his place in the world and what it means to transition through liminal space. As was noted above, he specifically notes that he is “not at the bottom” or “at the top” He will later come to the conclusion that he is nowhere.
Halfway up the stairs
And it isn’t down.
It’s somewhere else
In the next set of lines begins similarly to the first. This time though the speaker is considering himself to be “Halfway up the stairs.” This is a new take of the classic optimist/pessimist argument of the glass as half full or half empty. Both are true at the same time.
The speaker goes on to state that where is he situated is not “up” or “down.” He is not in his “nursery,” somewhere comfortable and familiar. Nor is he “in town” where there are always new things to see. These two places come into his mind because they are related to being either up or down. They are polar opposites reached through the same basic actions.
He sees these “thoughts” he is having as “funny.” They come into his head and then “run around,” forcing him to think about the concepts of space and place, as well as time. In the last two lines, the speaker comes to the conclusion that his location on the center step of the staircase places him nowhere. It is “somewhere else / Instead.”
Due to his youthful need to understand his world that he was compelled to sit and think. It is impossible to read through this piece without coming to the conclusion that Milne was encouraging this kind of mediation on life. One might discover something about their own place that they took for granted.