A Sad Child by Margaret Atwood

What is it about sorrow that so well captures the minds of so many poets, or that takes over the minds of so many people? It seems as though those who understand their own personal sadnesses intimately are always looking to express them in ways that are often artistic and well-known. When a poet writes a meaningful song that expresses their sorrow in intricate, deep, powerful ways, they often wind up writing poems that rank among their most popular. And yet, apart from the value of empathy, these poems say very little for sadness, and rather tend to be descriptions that are about sadness. A poem like Margaret Atwood’s A Sad Child, on the other hand, deals with sorrow in a different kind of way; direct, and as something to be addressed and resolved, rather than something that simply is. You can read the poem, A Sad Child, in full here.


A Sad Child Analysis

Stanza 1

We can easily imagine the narrator of A Sad Childv; their abrupt manner, their unapologetic truth — what an opening for a poem! “You’re sad because you’re sad. / It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.” These lines deal with sorrow as something that simply is, but not in a morose or fatalistic way. They describe it as something to be accepted and dealt with. Because the poem is entitled A Sad Child, it makes sense to think of the narrator as talking with a child, but “it’s the age” is something that could as easily refer to instances of depression among senior citizens as it could young children. The advice given is just as abrupt — Atwood’s use of short sentences gives the narrator a blunt personality, as they express meaningful revelations of character and pieces of advice through short, simple sentences. “You need to sleep” also follows this idea, though the idea of hugging one’s sadness is a more personal and metaphorical image.


Stanza 2

One of the principal themes expressed in this verse is the idea that sitting around and contemplating sadness isn’t something that makes sadness go away. The narrator points out that this isn’t a curse or an affliction, but rather a normal aspect of growing up. Their two pieces of advice are to look at the positive things in life, or to do something to take the child’s mind off of their sadness; go shopping, care for a pet, or start a new hobby, such as dancing. Around here it becomes apparent that Sad Child is not written with any particular regard to rhyming or structure — though in this verse there is an element of rhyme (“better than that, / buy a hat” and “Buy a coat or a pet. / Take up dancing to forget”). The flow of the poem does come off as verbal instructions and comforting, as a natural verbal expression almost more than a poem itself.


Stanza 3

The narrator knows the source of the child’s pain — and it’s a familiar one. The description of the day the child comes to the realization — whether real or imagined — that they are not as loved as they want to be is poetic and vivid, recanting experiences that many can relate to in some capacity. “The day of the lawn party;” a family gathering, a birthday celebration, a long day, and then the child takes a break from it all, goes to the bathroom to look in the mirror and think, and realize, and be sad. The narrator describes this as their shadow, as something that follows them around, but can’t find the singular source, saying instead “whatever it was that was done to you.” This is often the case with bouts of sadness; there doesn’t have to be a single, sudden cause, nor an event to create a sudden world of depression, sometimes it just happens that this child is standing alone, feeling unloved and a little more alone in the world.


Stanzas 4 and 5

The final two verses of A Sad Child take its reader a step back. The narrator affectionately addresses the child, and then delivers a heavy message — being trapped in an overturned body under a blanket or burning car brings forth the image of a car accident. When red is seeping out of the body, a person is bleeding, and in this, the narrator conjures up a very vivid image of the moment before death. And in that moment, they say, all are equal — “none of us is; / or else we all are.” It’s like the well-known cliché you often hear told to children, and it’s unspoken after-bit: “everybody is special (which is another way or saying that nobody is).”

And with that knowledge, the narrator is urging the child to go out and lead their live; to live it and forget about sadness, because one way or another, they only have the one life. And in that moment before death, it isn’t going to matter whether or not anyone else thought that you were the favourite child — what will matter will be a lot of other things, for you.


Final Thoughts to A Sad Poem

There is very little to say about A Sad Child historically, but it almost transcends time. The themes that are so well expressed in A Sad Child are easily relatable and understood throughout ages and generations — as the narrator so bluntly puts it, “all children are sad.” As an analysis on sorrow, it takes a very different direction to many of the other poems that have been written about the topic. At times it almost feels too harsh, but at others it is astonishingly open, conceiving of the greater picture that both drives sadness and explains why it should be shed. It sets itself apart — and yet somehow feels entirely natural, as good advice that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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