The speaker uses a variety of images and poetic devices in order to paint a picture of the kind of home they initially grew up in. As the poem progresses, the child’s understanding of the world changes. They grow up very quickly in the final lines of ‘Childhood in Heidelberg.’
Explore Childhood in Heidelberg
‘Childhood in Heidelberg’ by Andries Walter Oliphant is a thoughtful and multilayered poem told from the perspective of a child looking back on their youth.
In the first lines of ‘Childhood in Heidelberg,’ the speaker begins by describing their home and how closely tied it is to their perception of history and family. The speaker describes, using poetic language, the influence their ancestors have on their everyday life. As the poem progresses, the speaker reveals more about their home and their surroundings. But, at the same time, the darkness at the heart of the poem comes through. The family is forced to leave their home and live in one of a series of “matchbox” houses that resemble tombstones in a graveyard.
You can read the full poem here.
I was born in a house where ancestors
were suspended from the walls.
of the dark house, slowly
as if strolling through a womb.
In the first lines of ‘Childhood in Heidelberg,’ the speaker begins by noting that they were born in a house where “ancestors / were suspended from the walls.” This is a creative and lyrical way to allude to the pictures of their relatives that they saw on a daily basis. Their life was so influenced by these ancestors that it was as though they were still alive. They would, ghost-like (and hyperbolically) descend from their frames and walk through the house “slowly / as if strolling through a womb.”
The use of the “womb” image is suggestive of safety, childhood, and the past. The house is the womb where all of these ancestors spent time, and the speaker now lives out their life.
The roof is a vantage point for birds and pigeons.
On the stoep in
The stars are candles
which my grandmother has lit.
In the next lines, the speaker goes on to describe another portion of their home, the roof. It’s a “vantage point for birds and pigeons.” Around the house, there is also a gumtree and a chair where the speaker’s “name-sake sits,” or someone who they are named after. This person is older than they are, but no other details are revealed about how they are related.
Once again emphasizing how important family and heritage are to this speaker and their home, they note that their grandmother “lit” the “stars”
Stanzas Three and Four
Every morning father wakes to find a man
with a hole in his head
sleeping in the drift sand
I ended up with Rover and the cats
on the back of a truck
with all the household goods.
I thought, if this is part of life, it’s fun.
In the third stanza, the tone of the poem starts to shift. The speaker notes that his father finds “a man / with a hole in his head” every morning. This surprising turn suggests that the area around their home is not as safe as they’d like it to be. People are dying there, specifically, they’re being murdered.
The speaker also describes, as the scene darkness, their family packing up and leaving. At first, it seemed like “fun.” They put all their household goods into the back of a truck and left their home. This was new to the speaker at the time and its novel nature brought him some joy.
At the end of the truck’s journey through
the sky, we arrived
At once, I understood why mother cried
In the fifth stanza, the speaker’s poetic language continues, and they are describing pulling into a “toy town of match-box houses.” There, they have to make their new home, and it’s clear that the mother and father don’t want to be there. The houses were “lined up like tombstones in a graveyard.” This very evocative simile suggests that their new home is filled with death or will eventually lead there. The speaker’s understanding of what’s going on changes. He realizes why his mother “cried” as they left their true home and arrived there.
Structure and Form
‘Childhood in Heidelberg’ by Andries Walter Oliphant is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of five, six, seven, or eight lines. These stanzas are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, this doesn’t mean the poem is without structure entirely. Readers will find examples of repetition, with similar or related imagery occurring throughout the poem.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three of stanza three.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “giant gumtree” in stanza two and “sun sets” later on in the same stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting and effective descriptions. For example, “ On hot afternoons / they would descend and walk silently through / the cool passages.”
- Simile: occurs when the poet makes a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “as if strolling through a womb.”
The tone shifts from descriptive to sorrowful as the poem progresses. At first, readers are provided with details about the child’s home and life. But, halfway through the piece, things change. The speaker starts to understand the darkness in their life and why their mother “cried.”
The purpose is to describe what it was like, the pros and the cons, growing up in Heidelberg, South Africa. The poem is told from a child’s perspective. This means that very few details are included of historical importance. Instead, the poem focuses on the child’s understanding of their life.
The themes in this poem are change, family, and childhood. The speaker is describing the world as they saw it as a child. It was simple, and it took longer for them to understand the implications of what was going on around them. The changes that occurred only sunk in when they were explicitly displayed in front of their eyes.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Childhood in Heidelberg’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ by Derek Walcott – a poem based around the struggles in Africa.
- ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatamkhulu Afrika – talks about the rampant apartheid system in District Six near Cape Town in South Africa, and explores racism.
- ‘Stolen Rivers’ by Phillippa Yea de Villiers – is dedicated to Chiwoniso Maraire, who was well-known as a Zimbabwean singer, songwriter, and an exponent of Zimbabwean mbira music