Climbing My Grandfather by Andrew Waterhouse

Climbing My Grandfather by Andrew Waterhouse is a poem written in 27 verses, which describes about the speaker’s ascent from his grandfather’s toe to head. This poem is unbroken in 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 suggests 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.

Climbing My Grandfather mimics the natural rhythms of speech, using frequently enjambed lines, for example; splitting clauses in line 5-6, “I change/direction”,  where the enjambed line lays emphasis on the change in direction itself. Similarly, the poem does in line 7-8, where splitting he says, “the nails/are splintered”. Moreover, through the use of enjambment in lines 5 – 10, he lays emphasis on the breathless climb, pausing mid-clause or mid-phrase and taking a breath in less usual places, as we do on an ascent. From the structure point of view, the poem takes the notion of “toe to head”, travelling from his grandfather’s feet to the “summit”, and we follow the contours of the man.

There are two analytical interpretations of this poem in this article. To read the second analysis, please scroll to the bottom of the article and click ‘Next’ or page 2.


Climbing My Grandfather Analysis

Climbing My Grandfather is an autobiographical poem, which can be read in full here, wherein the poet writes about his grandfather in the first person pronoun. An open letter of admiration for his grandfather, the poet is described 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 talk thought it creates a little confusion at first. But it becomes clear as we read on the poem to the end.

I decide to do it free, without a rope or net.

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 definitely 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.

The line two detail about the “old brogues”, and how they are “dusty and cracked.” The details of these things reveal much about grandfather and his personality. The old shoes are sturdy, practical, and for an outdoor use. The traditional shoe lacks in finesse and polish. In fact 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.

In line 10 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 compel us to pause on the warm ice moment.

Moving on, the poet 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.

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 line 16, 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 ageing. There are also many other yucky image in this part of the poem, but they don’t say much about the poem, for example; “To drink among teeth”, which is really a bit yuck to me.

When we come to the 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 line 20, 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 line 21 describes the sense of ageing 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’s accepting the age of his grandfather, the mortality of his grandfather, in spite of picturing and imaging him as 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 to the end of the poem, we feel that the grandfather is less a cold and challenging obstacle to be exposed, 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 at 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.

The poem, thus, looks to me 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.

To read the second analysis, please click ‘Next’ or page 2 below.

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  1. coconut singh January 18, 2017
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