‘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 idolization 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.
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Summary of To My Nine-Year-Old Self
‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore begins with the speaker telling her younger self that she needs to apologize. If the child will only sit still she can tell her why and explain how life has changed since they were unified.
In the next lines, the speaker seems to get sucked in by her memories of the past and how much joy she got from the simplest things. One of the main focuses of the text is the body. She recalls her previous disregard for her safety and contrasts it with the total concern she holds now.
The speaker knows very well her younger self does not want to hear an old person talk. Therefore she releases the memories of the child she used to be back into the world where she can run and swim.
You can read the full poem To My Nine-Year-Old Self here.
Structure of To My Nine-Year-Old Self
The structure of ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore is uneven, spanning 6 stanzas of various line lengths. Uneven in the line-length, with no discernible rhyme scheme, the poem is truncated and stuttered. The number of lines builds from the start, with the first stanza composed of five, the second: six, and the third: seven. At this point, the line numbers decrease with stanza four containing six lines, stanza five: five, and the final stanza with three lines. Such a structure of the poem represents 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.
The narrative perspective utilized by Helen Dunmore in this piece alternates between first and second person. It is made more interesting by the fact that she’s speaking to her younger self. Each stanza takes the reader through memories of the past and how Dunmore sees them, now an adult. The constant between youth and adulthood is inescapable.
Literary Devices in To My Nine-Year-Old Self
‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore contains several literary devices that make the poet’s idea more appealing to the readers. Likewise, there is enjambment within the first stanza that furthers the erratic energy present here. For using this device, the poem flows quickly and without hesitation, much like the energetic youth. Apart from that, Dunmore’s idolization of childhood is elevated through the use of pathetic fallacy in ‘summer morning’. Firstly, ‘morning’ relates to a beginning, perhaps a reflection of how childhood Dunmore is only just beginning her life. The sense of promise a new day brings is further emblematic of this idea.
Moreover, the concept of a blank page, in the poem, is further important considering the personal context. Indeed, written by Dunmore about her childhood self, the dramatic irony is that readers know Dunmore grows up to be a successful poet. The blank page is also a metaphor here. And, the ‘white page’ is an image filled with meaning. However, the structure reflects flourishing energy, with caesura, endstop, and hyphen punctuating the stanza with continual breaks.
Themes in To My Nine-Year-Old Self
‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore contains several important themes. The most important theme of the poem is childhood. Here, the poet talks with her former self, her youthful past. There is sadness in her heart as she can’t go back and relive her childhood. Even the imagination makes her feel anxious about the playfulness of her former self. Moreover, the poet makes use of the most famous theme, innocence vs experience in this poem. In the fourth stanza, the theme is present. Here, the lines, “time to hide down sacred lanes/ from men in cars after girl-children”. It depicts the poet’s anxiety about the safety of little girl-children. Men’s lust is a threat to their innocence. However, Dunmore also presents the themes of summer and old-age in this poem. The use of disease-ridden imagery for depicting the theme of old-age arouses pity for the poet.
Analysis of To My Nine-Year-Old Self
You must forgive me. Don’t look so surprised,
rather leap from a height than anything.
In the first stanza of ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore, the speaker begins with a short statement meant to catch the reader’s attention. She asks her listener, who is her “nine-year-old self” to forgive her. The explanation is drawn out over the following stanzas but one will quickly come to their assumptions about what has changed in the intervening years.
As stated above, the narrative perspective alternates between the first and second persons. It is complicated by the fact that the speaker is addressing herself at a younger age. She envisions her nine-year-old self and the physical reactions she would have to her older self’s words. It is as if she is truly speaking to another person.
Dunmore tells her younger self not to be surprised that there is an apology coming. She also asks the child to calm down and allow her older self to say everything she needs to say. The speaker knows how she was as a child and expects that she would want to “be gone” as quickly as possible. At this point in her young life she would, “… rather run than walk, rather climb than run”.
Nothing can happen fast enough, nor is there anything she appears to be afraid of. As most children are, the poet was high energy and not a child easily calmed. 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 characterization 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.
I have spoiled this body we once shared.
into the summer morning
In the second stanza of ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’, Helen Dunmore looks back at the past and the way she “spoiled this body” that they two “once shared.” This statement is interesting. It suggests that the poet’s current personality split off from that she occupied when she was a child. The two were together for a time, perhaps as responsible and wild selves, and then separated.
Moreover, 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 disdain 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.
Nowadays, she is careful about injuring herself and messing up her back or bruising her foot. In the past, though she used to jump out of the “ground floor window” and immediately run into the morning. She is looking back on these times with nostalgia. The structure of her life no longer makes possible this kind of freedom.
Apart from that, she idolizes childhood by using the phrase, “summer morning”. The use of “summer” represents the joy of childhood, with the association of the sun being representative of the excitement young Dunmore is experiencing. Whereas, “morning” represents a new beginning.
That dream we had, no doubt it’s as fresh in your mind
and a den by a cesspit
In the third stanza of ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’, the speaker refers to “That dream we had.” To her younger self, it is “fresh in [her] mind.” The line seems to refer to an actual dream but can be taken to mean something more important—the dreams of childhood. As a child, she cared about the everyday magic of life. Her dreams were important enough to write down and not important enough to value over, “A baby vole, or a bag of sherbet lemons —”
Childhood pleasures were boundless and the only structure came from what she could dream up at the time. She accomplished various goals such as making a “wasp trap” and “a den by the cesspit.
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 symbolizing 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 rapid changes between ideas and a sense of easy distraction present the quick and unstrained nature of childhood. The flitting within the last two lines of this stanza leads to erratic energy to flourish. Moreover, 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.
I’d like to say we could be friends
from men in cars after girl-children
At this point, ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ starts to decrease in stanza lengths. The wonder over the past is less the focus now than what has changed since. She begins this stanza by telling her younger self that ideally, she would like to “be friends” but knows this isn’t possible. So much time has passed that they have, “… nothing in common/ Beyond a few shared years.”
As if defeated by her realization, the speaker tells her younger self that she won’t keep her or waste any more of her time. The poet frees her to go back to what she wants to be doing—hiding, running, picking berries, and playing games.
Moreover, in this stanza, 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.
or to lunge out over the water
I have fears enough for us both –
In this stanza of ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’, the young poet might also go and “swing” from the tree and jump into the water. She will go back to experiencing the joy of living while the speaker goes back to her “fears.” There is a dark element to the poet’s present life that the child could never understand. If she attempted to explain it, it would only “cloud” the child’s life and there is no reason to do that.
Yet, within the image present in this stanza, 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 the physical distance between the two identities. Dunmore can’t even recreate her moments of happiness, this childhood chapter of bliss is over.
Dunmore presents herself as a ‘cloud’ which greys that ‘summer morning’, she is self-presenting as a burden. Her unhappiness is clouding her memories of her childhood. The happiness she once felt now fading as she realizes the impossibility of return.
I leave you in an ecstasy of conversation
to taste it on your tongue.
‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ concludes with a poignant deception of a child’s concentration. Her greatest task of the moment is, “peeling a ripe scab” from her leg and tasting it. This short concluding sentence is meant to stand in contrast to the speaker’s and the reader’s own lives. It is also, along with many of the other images, almost universally relatable. Many readers will hear these memories and find themselves recalling their own.
This stanza returns to echo the first with 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 begun to lose a sense of her childhood. The semantics of injury which characterizes the older Dunmore in stanza two 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 childhood curiosity and 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’, savoring the numbered moments of a happy childhood.
In this way, ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ is one of connection and division, with Dunmore mourning the impossibility of returning to her happy childhood.
About Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore (1952–2017), a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, was a British poet, novelist, and fiction writer. She won several awards for her works. In 2017, she posthumously received Costa Book Awards for “Inside the Wave”. For her poetry collection, “The Malarkey” she won the National Poetry Competition in 2010. She died on 5 June 2017.
Like ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore, here is a list of a few poems that present the longing for one’s childhood days.
- Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth – In this one of the famous works of Romantic poetry, William Wordsworth talks about the heavenly bliss and purity of a child’s soul.
- Childhood by Markus Natten – In this poem, Markus Natten similarly presents the fleeting nature of childhood and he is confused about its sudden departure.
- We Remember Your Childhood Well by Carol Ann Duffy – In this one of her best poems, Carol Ann Duffy presents the unsympathetic voice of the narrator and the unheard voice of a child.
- Reminiscence by Elizabeth Jennings – In this poem, Elizabeth Jennings presents her nostalgic feelings about childhood.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Childhood here.