To My Nine-Year-Old Self by Helen Dunmore illustrates a conversation between two versions of Dunmore, the child and the adult. There is an unbridgeable gap between the two versions, with the older Dunmore mourning for what she has lost. There is a balance between the idolisation of youth and the sorrow of getting older within the poem. A sense of disconnection also permeates the poem, focusing on how the two versions have grown apart.
The structure is uneven, spanning 6 stanzas of various line lengths. Uneven in line amount and length, with no discernible rhyme scheme, the poem is truncated and stuttered. This is to represent the disconnection between the two versions of the poet. There is no harmony between the versions, one looking back enviously on the other. This disconnection is tragic, Dunmore yearns to go back to her childhood, but understands that she never can. You can read the full poem here.
To My Nine-Year-Old Self Analysis
To My Nine-Year-Old Self by Helen Dunmore begins with a direct linking of the two versions of Dunmore. The establishing of connection through the linking of pronouns ‘you’ and ‘me’ within an enclosed statement sets the parameters for the poem. This is the older Dunmore speaking directly to the younger, with the communication being one way.
The characterisation of the younger Dunmore then begins. The speed at which she moves from event to event, flitting from decision to decision is emblematic of the excitement of youth. Enjambment within the stanza furthers this erratic energy. To My Nine-Year-Old Self flows quickly and without hesitation, much like the energetic youth.
Alongside the flitting between activities, the emotions of young Dunmore are also presented as volatile. She changes from ‘surprised’ to ‘perplexed’ and then to eagerness within the length of a line. The characterisation of Dunmore within this first stanza begins to shape the youthful excitement of the character. The tone is palpable, the sense of adventure and youthful curiosity being paramount here.
Yet, within stanza 2, the differences between young and old are outlined. There is a sense of grief from older Dunmore, knowing that she has changed as she has aged. The almost bitter reticence of ‘I have spoiled’ compounds her distain for her current self. She has lost the childhood sense of adventure and excitement.
Whereas the young Dunmore is presented as with the explosive verb ‘jump’, the old is seemingly plagued with illnesses. She focuses on the semantics of injury: ‘spoiled’, ‘scars’, ‘bad back’, ‘bruised foot’ all presenting a weakened version of the poet. This stalk difference between the two characters is driven through these contrasting descriptions.
Dunmore’s idolisation of childhood is elevated through the use of pathetic fallacy in ‘summer morning’. Firstly, ‘morning’ relates to a beginning, perhaps a reflection of how the childhood Dunmore is only just beginning her life. The sense of promise a new day brings is further emblematic of this idea. Moreover, the use of ‘summer’ represents the joy of childhood, with the association of the sun being representative of the excitement young Dunmore is experiencing.
The excitement of youth is explored further within this stanza. The fresh possibility of childhood is represented through the ‘white paper’, with all the space symbolising the endless options. Moreover, the use of ‘white’ not only suggests blankness, but also a sense of childhood purity. This becomes further contrasted with the later presentation of Dunmore as a ‘cloud[ing]’ morning’, contrasting the faded and grey later Dunmore with the youthful ‘white’ Dunmore. The concept of a blank page is further important considering the personal context of To My Nine-Year-Old Self. Indeed, written by Dunmore about her childhood self, the dramatic irony is that we know Dunmore grows up to be a successful poet. The ‘white page’ is an image filled with meaning.
The rapid changes between ideas, and sense of easy distraction present the quick and unstrained nature of childhood. The flitting within the last two lines of this stanza lead to an erratic energy to flourish. The structure reflects this energy, with caesura, endstop and hyphen punctuating the stanza with continual breaks. The truncated structure reflects the mind of the child, always stopping and branching to new ideas and ventures. The sense of adventure, with there always being something to do, is palpable for young Dunmore. The older Dunmore looks back sadly at her childhood, mourning the passing.
It is within the fourth stanza where Dunmore presents the unbridgeable divide between the two selves. Until now the poet has been frequently using the pronoun ‘we’ to connect the two identities. Although indeed connective, the poem is only in one direction, the younger self does not reply. This splintering of identity comes to fruition here, with the employment of the condition ‘I’d’ showing the difference. Although she wishes things could be one way, Dunmore knows they are different people. The conditional tense highness this sense of sorrow here, with the desire falling away blindly.
This stanza is bitter, Dunmore acknowledges the truth of the matter here. They ‘have nothing in common’, she dissociates from the happy child, retracting into herself. The shift in pronouns illustrates the change . ‘We’ splits into ‘I’ and ‘you’, this is a poem of two pieces that no longer fit together.
The shortest line is shocking after the revelation of her giving up on the connection between her two identities. Following ‘then’, the blankness is a moment of silence within the poem. It’s almost as if Dunmore takes a moment to mourn everything she has lost before turning to go.
To My Nine-Year-Old Self returns again to explore the sense of childhood adventure. Yet, within this image there is now a sense of division. The ‘tree’ where Dunmore played has been ‘long buried in housing’. There is not only a sense of mental division, but now physical distance between the two identities. Dunmore can’t even recreate her moments of happiness, this childhood chapter of bliss is over.
Dunmore is presented as a ‘cloud’ which greys that ‘summer morning’, she is self-presenting as a burden. Her unhappiness is clouding her own memories of her childhood. The happiness she once felt now fading as she realises the impossibility of return.
The final stanza returns to echo the first with a direct addressing of the childhood version. ‘I leave you’, the final statement of division, the retraction from childhood happiness into her present gloom.
Already the child has began to lose a sense of her own childhood. The semantics of injury which characterise the older Dunmore in stanza 2 permeate through in this stanza. The ‘ripe scab’ is the first injury, representing the first moment childhood begins to fade. The use of ‘slowly’ doubly suggests the childhood curiosity and the adulthood’s warning. The scar presents something new and exciting and to explore. Yet, for the older Dunmore it is a glimpse of what is to come. Dunmore prays that her younger self takes everything ‘slowly’, savouring the numbered moments of a happy childhood.
The poem is one of connection and division, with Dunmore mourning the impossibility of returning to her happy childhood.