‘A Child To His Sick Grandfather’ by Joanna Baillie is a forty-seven line poem which is written with a consistent rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, progressing through different end words, throughout all forty-seven lines.
There are a few moments in this piece in which words and rhymes are repeated. This is especially evident in the lines which end with the word, “dad,” a term frequently used as a replacement for “grandad” in the 1700 and 1800s. Additionally, the end rhyme, “-ed” is repeated a number of times within the words, “head,” “fled” and “led.”
It is these moments of repetition which help to unify the poem from the first to forty-seventh line.
The poem begins with the child describing the physical state of his grandfather and how he has become so “wan,” bald, and downtrodden. The old man no longer plays with his grandson as he used to but is instead visited by well-wishers of every kind.
The boy does what he can to provide his “Dad” with hope. He speaks optimistically of the future, hoping that maybe they will have more happy times together.
This ends up not being the case. The grandfather dies in the last lines of the poem, leaving the child with no one to talk to.
Analysis of A Child to His Sick Grandfather
GRAND-DAD , they say you’re old and frail,
Your stiffened legs begin to fail:
Your staff, no more my pony now,
Supports your body bending low,
While back to wall you lean so sad,
I’m vex’d to see you, Dad.
The poem begins with the speaker directly addressing the main character, his grandfather. This person is depicted very clearly from the start, and it is his physical problems that fuel the poem.
The grandfather of the speaker is said to be “old and frail,” he is not yet dead but he is “fail[ing].” He is not the same person that he used to be, and the child recognizes that his grandfather is on the decline.
The next lines reminisce on the way things used to be between the child and his grandfather. He remembers the times in which the “staff” was used as a “pony” rather than as a cane. The child notices how his grandfather appears sad and downtrodden. This emotion has transferred the child who feels “vex’d” in return.
You used to smile and stroke my head,
And tell me how good children did;
But now, I wot not how it be,
You take me seldom on your knee,
Yet ne’ertheless I am right glad,
To sit beside you, Dad.
In the next six lines, the speaker continues to reminisce on the days which were spent in smiles. The grandfather would “stroke” his head and tell him how to be a good child.
With the memories over, the speaker returns to the present in which he does not know how to act. He is no longer taken on his grandfather’s knee, but he is “glad” that he is able to sit next to him and keep him company.
How lank and thin your beard hangs down!
Scant are the white hairs on your crown:
How wan and hollow are your cheeks,
Your brow is crossed with many streaks;
But yet although his strength be fled,
I love my own old Dad.
In the next set of lines, the child moves on to describing the physical appearance of his grandfather. The child states that the “beard hangs down” lankly and has thinned out from its previous fullness. Additionally, there are very few hairs on his head and his cheeks appear “hollow.”
The boy is drawn in my the wrinkles on his grandfather’s face and notes how his “brow’ is covered “with many streaks,” or creases. All of these changes which have overcome the grandfather have done nothing to decrease the child’s love for him. He still loves his “own old Dad.”
The housewives round their potions brew,
And gossips come to ask for you;
And for your weal each neighbour cares;
And good men kneel and say their prayers,
And every body looks so sad,
When you are ailing, Dad.
At this point in the poem the speaker branches out from his descriptions of his grandfather to spend time speaking on the others who have come to visit. There are the “housewives” who gather round “their potions,” most likely a reference to cooking, and bring food for the ailing old man. There are also the “gossips” who are always seeking out new topics, visiting and “ask[ing]” about “you.”
The neighbors are said to care for his “weal,” or well-being. They all have come with the best intentions, willing to do what they need to to help. There are also many “good men” who come and pray at the grandfather’s feet. No matter who visits though, everyone looks sad.
The child is having a hard time comprehending what is going on. He doesn’t understand why his “Dad” is “ailing.”
You will not die and leave us then?
Rouse up and be our Dad again.
When you are quiet and laid in bed,
We’ll doff our shoes and softly tread;
And when you wake we’ll still be near,
To fill old Dad his cheer.
The next section is filled with the speaker attempting to rouse his grandfather from his supposed lethargy. He wants him to “Rouse up” and return to his previous, healthy way of being.
This plea comes to an end with the boy saying that no matter what happens everyone will be there, taking care not to bother him while he sleeps and fill him with “cheer” when he’s awake.
When through the house you change your stand,
I’ll lead you kindly by the hand:
When dinner’s set I’ll with you bide,
And aye be serving by your side;
And when the weary fire burns blue,
I’ll sit and talk with you.
The next lines come straight from the heart of a child who speaks hopefully about the future. It is likely that the child knows what he is saying is impossible, but is only trying to improve his grandfather’s mood.
The boy creates a narrative in which his grandfather does “rouse” and the child is able to “lead” him to the dinner table. Here, everything will return to normal. They will eat together and then move to sit by the fire. The boy will share all the stories he has been saving up just to entertain his much loved “Dad.”
I have a tale both long and good,
About a partlet and her brood,
And greedy cunning fox that stole
By dead of midnight through a hole,
Which slyly to the hen-roost led,–
You love a story, Dad?
In these concluding lines, the boy relays parts of the many stories that he has to tell. There is one about a “partlet and her brood,” or a woman and her children, as well as one about a “greedy cunning fox” that snuck into a henhouse.
These are stories the child knows his “Dad” will love.
And then I have a wondrous tale
Of men all clad in coats of mail,
With glittering swords,–you nod,–I think
Your heavy eyes begin to wink;–
Down on your bosom sinks your head:–
You do not hear me, Dad.
The final lines continue the plethora of stories the child has been saving. There is a “wondrous tale” of “men all clad in coats of mail,” or armor, who wield “glittering swords.”
The story previews come to an end as the child notices his “Dad” is nodding. The old man’s eyes are beginning “to wink” and his head “sinks” onto his “bosom,” or chest. The final lines make clear that the grandfather has passed on. He does not hear the boy any longer.