In ‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse, “Today I’ve decided to climb my grandfather” just isn’t the kind of thing the average person is used to hearing — or saying. And yet, in the realm of poetry, it somehow makes perfect sense in its lack thereof. Andrew Waterhouse’s ‘Climbing My Grandfather’ tells a story that might be one of the stranger ones in the world of literature, but it’s all the stronger for its genuine storytelling and unusual display of emotion. When a poet invokes a metaphor as unusual — and more importantly, as unique — as “climbing my grandfather,” then straight from the title, that poem is off to a fairly strong start.
Explore Climbing My Grandfather
‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse is an open letter of admiration for his grandfather. The poet remembers a time when he was a child and his grandfather looked to him more like a giant than a human being. As a child, the poet talks about the massiveness of his grandfather, and vividly describes from ‘toe to head’ the physical structure of his grandfather imagining him like a mountain.
Since the poem starts with the present tense it makes us feel as if we are also climbing with him. Moreover, the very title of the poem tells us what the poet is going to discuss though it creates a little confusion at first. But it becomes clear as we read in the poem to the end.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse is a poem written in 27 verses, which describes the speaker’s ascent from his grandfather’s toe to head. This poem is unbroken in a stanza; the speaker’s grandfather is described as a mountain on which the speaker starts his climbing from his grandfather’s feet to head. This single unit and unbrokenness of 27 lines without any punctuation marks suggest the magnitude and size of his grandfather, along with the continual nature of Waterhouse’s ‘climb’. Just as the poem starts with the continuous action of climbing from the feet, it makes us feel as if the speaker’s grandfather is a mountain.
Written in roughly equal lines, the poem becomes a little shorter in length at the end, as the speaker reaches “the summit” of his grandfather. Similar to a mountain, the poem also gets broader at the base with lines changing from 6 to 11 words and an average syllabic length over the first four lines of 11 syllables. By the end, there remain just a few words per line, differing from 4 to 8, and an average syllabic length of 7 or 8 instead.
Rhythm and Flow
‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse mimics the natural rhythms of speech, using frequently enjambed lines, for example; splitting clauses into lines: 5-6, “I change/direction”, where the enjambed line emphasizes the change in the direction itself. Similarly, the poem does in lines: 7-8, where splitting he says, “the nails/are splintered”. The poem is written with no particular regard to rhyme or typical verse structure. The rhythm of the poem is no different from if it was written out as several sentences, with periods, commas, and semicolons to indicate spacing and flow.
However, the poem is spaced intentionally so that each line is of relatively equal length when written out, and while it is by no means smooth, could be viewed in its whole as a hill or mountain, as though the poem itself is trying to mimic the idea of something to climb to adapt to the titular image. This adds a bit of humor to the poem, and a bit of seriousness as well, as though it wants to explain its concept through more than just words to the reader. While this doesn’t contribute very much to the meaning of the poem, it’s an interesting addition to the poem that gives it just a little extra uniqueness (as if a poem titled Climbing My Grandfather needs much of that!)
In ‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse, the primary image associated with the poem is of the speaker climbing his grandfather, who has become the personification of a mountain. Instead of marking checkpoints such as height or scenery, the narrator marks their progress through elements of their grandfather’s skin or clothing, making the “summit” the top of his head. To consider the poem as a literal description, it is likely this is meant in a highly metaphoric way since it is impossible to lie down on someone else’s head. One possible interpretation, however, might have the narrator recalling their childhood, when “climbing” their grandfather was an arduous task, a feat in itself.
Moreover, through the use of enjambment in lines 5 – 10, the poet emphasizes the breathless climb, pausing mid-clause or mid-phrase and taking a breath in less usual places, as we do on an ascent. In the 10th of the poem, the poet introduces us a brief simile (and an oxymoron), such as the “warm ice” of his grandfather’s “smooth and thick” fingers, and after “warm ice”, we are also introduced to the caesura, the only one of the poem, which splits the line in two and compels us to pause on the warm ice moment.
In ‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse, what’s especially interesting is that it works because of the precise amount of detailed images that are provided concerning the grandfather’s physical appearance, and in particular, those that paint him as being a kind man, these being his smiling mouth and his “good heart.” As well, the poem gives the reader glimpses into the man’s life — there is a scar on his arm, for instance, and he has maintained strength in his body. Even the smaller details, such as the overhanging shirt he wears are interesting for shading in different bits of the grandfather’s life, without actually engaging the character as anything more than an object, a mountain personified.
When the speaker reaches the scar on the arm, they say they have “discovered it.” In that light, it is reasonable that this poem is about getting to know someone thoroughly and truly. It is, the speaker is suggesting, like climbing a mountain, and what you learn is dependent on how much attention you pay. Here, everything is examined, from the clothes to the spacing of wrinkles to the heartbeat that keeps the environment warm. In this way, the use of precise images in the poem makes it more interesting to read about Waterhouse’s recollections.
Analysis of Climbing My Grandfather
I decide to do it free, without a rope or net
the skin of his finger is smooth and thick
like warm ice.
In ‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse, the very first line of the poem, “I decide to do it free,” not just tells us about the poet, but also about the grandfather. The poet describes the grandfather as an intrepid, brave, and even bold, and a climb “without a rope or a net” looks daring and audacious. He does not look like a child – it seems as if an adult decision that he is making – or at very least, an older child, who has the capability of reasoning out an approach. This decision does not just embolden the poet but also over-stresses the complexity and difficulty of the task: climbing his grandfather.
Line two details about the “old brogues”, and how they are “dusty and cracked.” The details of these things reveal much about the grandfather and his personality. The old shoes are sturdy, practical, and for outdoor use. The traditional shoe lacks finesse and polish. These shoes disclose much about the grandfather, and the detail about these shoes best fits with other details for example his “earth stained” hand and the “splintered” nails. Coming to the line 5, the poet picks up a sense of rhythm, when he says, “I change/direction, traverse along his belt/”, with this I develop a view that this poem is centered on three things: the poet, his climb, and the grandfather.
…On his arm I discover
in the shade, not looking down,
Moving on, Andrew Waterhouse further says, “On his arm I discover the glassy ridge of a scar, place my feet gently in the old stitches and move on”, which makes us believe it to be the consequence of an event, but the poet doesn’t seem to be worried about its cause, and so prefer only to “move on” instead of reflecting on the event surrounding it.
In the further lines, the grandfather is described to have a strong and vibrant presence, with his “still firm shoulders”. The shoulders themselves are evocative of many expressions, such as the strength, reliability, and courage, as if the person with broad shoulders will be ever trustworthy, trusted to be dependable. Although the poet “rests for a while” in the “shadow” of his grandfather” he does not want to look down as he knows about the dangers of climbing, and the shadow seems to be overshadowing the poet, and the grandfather is imagined to be setting a high standard by which to compare himself.
for climbing has its dangers, then pull
slowly open and close. Then up over
The line 15: “climbing has its dangers” is the most interesting one in the entire one I even understand this is related to the line 14, “not looking down”, but even so, I believe it speaks to more than just a sense of vertigo. In the 16th line, I come across a peculiarly repulsive image (the “loose skin” of his grandfather’s neck), which contrasts with the “still firm” shoulders. It also makes me believe that the poet is accepting that his grandfather is not, in fact, some immortal and timeless mountain who will always be there to climb, but is accepting his aging. There are also many other yucky images in this part of the poem, but they don’t say much about the poem, for example; “To drink among teeth”, which is a bit yuck to readers.
When we come to line 19 of the poem, it is realized that the grandfather is not an immobile object, but a moving object, “slowly”. We also come to know that there’s been no communication or interaction between the two, it looks as if his grandfather doesn’t get that he is the object of discovery and inquiry. He also seems to be not having any sense of his grandson’s voyage. In the 20th line, we are introduced with the second caesura of the poem, which centers us and halts us at that point of movement, deriving attention to it.
the forehead, the wrinkles well-spaced
the slow pulse of his good heart.
Line 21 describes the sense of aging through the words like “wrinkles” and the “soft and white” hair, as the speaker’s grandfather very effectively imitates the snow-capped mountain. Considering this verse, we can also easily develop a very strong sense of the poet accepting the age of his grandfather, the mortality of his grandfather, despite picturing and imaging him like a mountain.
In the concluding part of the poem, when Waterhouse is “feeling his heat, knowing the slow pulse of his good heart” we believe him to be feeling reassured and comforted by his grandfather. Reaching the end of the poem, we feel that the grandfather is less a cold and challenging obstacle to be exposed to, that he is “good” and warm. The poem then seems like disclosing an understanding. In the entire poem, the poet tries to better understand his grandfather, but in the end, he is reassured by the “slow pulse” of his grandfather’s “good heart”. Now, he doesn’t seem to be so daunting and cold as he was described in the starting part of the poem.
‘Climbing My Grandfather’ by Andrew Waterhouse, thus, looks to readers very much like a voyage of discovery and a way of memorizing his grandfather, from toe to head. The use of present tense creates vividness and realism in the poem, albeit the poet isn’t a boy any longer, and that recalling his grandfather in this way brings him back from an unmoving mountain to being a man with a beating heart. Waterhouse looks to have found great security and comfort when he feels the “heat” of his grandfather.
Another potential perspective is that the speaker considers their grandfather to be giant-like, the kind of individual that requires a particular approach to truly understand. Perhaps this ties back to the idea of being a child, where a grandfather is a figure very far removed from childhood, with regards to size, experience, and perspective. When the speaker reaches the top of their climb, they are exhausted, and spend their time lying back and watching the sky — perhaps the perspective is different now that they have “climbed their grandfather”.