Frances Cornford’s ‘Childhood‘ presents the moment in which a child’s innocence is threatened by the realisation that age is both inevitable and present before their eyes. Cornford thereby uses the poem to explore ideas around innocence and its eventual decline.
‘Childhood‘ is a moving encounter between a child and an elderly figure, in which the universality of age and mortality become apparent to the child.
The poem begins from a point of scepticism on behalf of the narrator who is a small child. They do not believe the cosmetic reminders of age on people they encounter to be anything more than deliberate choices, like the clothes they wear. It is only after they witness an elderly person in distress that they begin to realise that age is something genuinely debilitating and they can no longer return to their earlier ignorance of it.
You can read the full poem here.
Frances Cornford was born in 1886 in Cambridge to a wealthy and successful family. Her grandfather was the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin and her father had a knighthood. She published several books of verse before her death in 1960 and influenced poets including Philip Larkin. She went on to have five children of her own, including the poet John Cornford who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
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.
The poem begins by asserting the narrator’s former innocence by listing childlike beliefs they no longer hold. The decision to focus on the “stiff backs” and “wrinkles” evoke the curiosity of a child but also showcase their inability to explain the reasons behind the things they see. The use of the simile in the third line foreshadows the child’s eventual realisation as snakes have sinister connotations, particularly in the biblical story of Adam and Eve which is also concerned with lost innocence. Finally, the sense of purpose the narrator believes the older people possess serves to emphasise the ignorance that children have of mortality and age which, once lost, can never be recovered.
Till through the banisters I watched one day
As I was helplessly young.
The fact the narrator sees the woman experiencing difficulties through the banister is significant as it could symbolise the permeable barrier between youth and experience, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to shield the realities of aging from children. Finally, because banisters are ordinarily attached to stairs, it could be a metaphor for growing older, just as one climbs the stairs.
The woman struggles with her necklace that has come “unstrung” which metaphorically represents the process of unraveling one associates with old age. Curiously, onyx beads have connotations of stamina and determination which means the line can be viewed as dramatic irony, given these qualities can abandon us when we grow older. Finally, the poet conflates the states of being old and young, as shown through the repetition of the word “helplessly” to describe both the child and the elderly figure. Thus, the poet reminds the reader of the inevitability of growing older and also the similarities it has with being young, given they must both rely on others.
The poem is written in a single stanza, which uses an iambic meter and an AABB rhyme scheme which falters in the poem’s second half. This faltering rhyme scheme could represent the child’s loss of innocence as they are exposed to the realities of age.
Onyx beads are black gemstones which are commonly associated with stamina and perseverance. When worn on a necklace, the beads are said to impart these qualities onto the wearer.
The speaker is the child in the poem, though it appears the speaker is looking back on the memory through adult eyes. The speaker is therefore able to reflect on the significance of the memory with the benefit of hindsight, and understand its significance better than they might have done at the time.
The main theme of the poem is innocence and how, once it is lost, it cannot be regained. The poem is also concerned with growing old and how the experience of being elderly can be similar to being a child, as one is probably reliant on others for help.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Childhood‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:
- ‘Childhood‘ by Markus Natten – Another poem which is concerned with the transition from child to adult.
- ‘Child‘ by Sylvia Plath – This poem explores youth through a parent’s hopes for their child.
- ‘A Child is Something Else Again‘ by Yehuda Amichai – This poem explores the bond between parent and child.