‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning‘ was first published in Margaret Atwood’s collection, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, published in 1970. Throughout, Atwood utilizes the voice of another woman—Susanna Moodie. The collection is divided into three sections. The first describes the period after Moodie arrived in Canada, the second describes her life from 1832 to 1840, and the third occurs after the writer’s death. In this third section, Moodie speaks from beyond the grave.
Explore Death of a Young Son by Drowning
‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ by Margaret Atwood describes the death of Susanna Moodie’s son and the effect it had on the 19th-century Canadian writer.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker explores her young son’s identity prior to his death by drowning. He was an explorer, embracing his Canadian identity and seeking out knowledge about his surroundings. He drowned in the “swollen waters” of the river and, for a brief time, was also an explorer of that new, underwater region. The poet’s speaker describes his head as a “bathysphere” through which he saw new worlds. He then went on to explore the realm of the dead. The poem concludes with the speaker describing the retrieval of her son’s body and how his death forced her to re-examine and change her plans for the future.
You can read the full poem here.
Who is the Son in ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning?’
Within this piece, Atwood adopts a poetic persona or speaker. She is not telling a story about her own life but of an event in the life of Susanna Moodie. This real-life character was a Canadian writer who lived in Canada during the mid-1800s. Moodie was an English writer who detailed her experiences as an early settler. Her works Roughing it in the Bush and Life in the Clearings were sources of Atwood’s inspiration and knowledge about Moodie’s life.
The “son” Atwood describes in this poem was Moodie’s own. He drowned in the Moira River when it flooded its banks (as it often did). Moodie wrote about the incident in her memoir Life in the Clearings:
Oh, agony unspeakable! The writer of this lost a fine talented boy of six years–one to whom her soul clave–in those cruel waters. But I will not dwell upon that dark hour, the saddest and darkest in my sad eventful life.
When speaking about the river itself and the dangers it presented, she wrote:
Heedless of danger, the children will resort to its shores, and play upon the timbers that during the summer months cover its surface. Often have I seen a fine child of five or six years old, astride of a saw-log, riding down the current, with as much glee as if it were a real steed he bestrode. If the log turns, which is often the case, the child stands a great chance of being drowned.
Interestingly, prior to this passage, Moodie describes a similar incident in which a young, Black boy was “it is said accidentally” pushed from a “broken bridge, by a white boy of his own age.” This child also drowned. She notes how:
Day after day you might see his unhappy father, armed with a long pole with a hook attached to it, mournfully pacing the banks of the swollen river, in the hope of recovering the remains of his lost child. Once or twice we stopped to speak to him, but his heart was too full to answer. He would turn away, with the tears rolling down his sable cheeks, and resume his melancholy task.
Additionally, Moodie was inspired by the loss of her son to write her own poem, which can be read in Life in the Clearings. Images and phrases from Moodie’s original poem might remind readers of phrases Atwood used in her poem.
Atwood took what she learned about Moodie’s life and loss and channeled it into ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning.’
He, who navigated with success
the dangerous river of his own birth
once more set forth
In the first lines of his poem, the speaker, Susanna Moodie, begins by describing her lost son. With the content provided in the title, the reader should already know that this child died at quite a young age. The poem describes how this child “navigated with success” the “river of his own birth.” Here, the poet brings in one of the primary themes of this text— identity.
The child was on a metaphorical and physical “voyage of discovery.” At a young age, he had a great deal of promise. He tried to understand who he was as a first-generation Canadian born to English parents. The poet uses “dangerous” to describe the “river of his own birth” in line two. Here, readers should connect the danger in seeking out one’s truth and meaning in one’s life to the very physical danger of the River Moira in Ontario, in which the young son eventually loses his life.
on a voyage of discovery
but could not touch to claim.
The second stanza focuses on the difference between the mother and the son. The son knows nothing but life in Canada and, seeking to learn more, he set out “into the land.” The same land is described as a place that “I floated on” but “cannot touch to claim.” Moodie lives in Canada and has learned a great deal about the country but, as of yet, does not feel as though the country is her own.
The use of the word “floated” is also notable. It should be related to the title and the way in which the young son is going to lose his life in the next lines. She floats through the land because she is not committed to its investigation while her son drowns in his attempts to explore more deeply.
His feet slid on the bank,
he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water
The third stanza describes the son’s death. The speaker uses very clear and direct language that feels formal and without a lot of emotion. She describes, as simply as possible, what happened. According to Moodie’s memoir Life in the Clearing (which Atwood took a great deal of inspiration from), the river was flooding at the time, which took him into its currents.
Here, the poet uses an example of personification. She suggests that the river, of its own accord, reached out and took her son and swirled him down with “ice and trees and swollen water.” The inclusion of “trees” in the river’s current informs readers that the river had a great deal of power, so much so that it could sweep trees, far stronger than the speaker’s son, off its banks.
Additionally, the word “swollen” indicates that the River Moira was flooding. It was stretched beyond its capacity.
and plunged into distant regions,
through his eyes’ thin glass bubbles
Unknown regions, unexplored and mysterious, come back into play in the fourth stanza. Just as the country of Canada is a new place, foreign to the speaker and the rest of her family, so too is the region where the river takes her young son. He “plunged into distant regions” that were unreachable to his mother.
There is a great example of a metaphor in the second line of the fourth stanza. Here, Atwood writes, “his head a bathysphere.” The term “bathysphere” refers to a deep-sea submersible used for a limited period of time in the early to mid-1900s.
This description takes readers out of the time period in which the poem is set (the mid-1800s) and could be described as an anachronism or an error in the timeline or chronology of a piece of literature. This can be a purposeful or accidental error. In this case, it feels like an intentional error, one that helps to remind readers that this poem was written by another woman—Margaret Atwood, in another time, who is channeling the experiences of Susanna Moodie.
Beyond timeline questions, the use of the “bathysphere” as a metaphor in Margaret Atwood’s poem is a powerful and creative decision. It allows readers to envision the boy as a deep-sea explorer, seeing regions of this new country that his mother never had. His eyes are “thin glass bubbles” that allow him access to new knowledge.
he looked out, reckless adventurer
we have all been to and some remember.
The speaker describes her son as a “reckless adventure” who investigates regions to his detriment. He is on a “landscape” stranger than “Uranus.” This comparison is somewhat hyperbolic in nature in that it emphasizes, to an outlandish degree, what the child saw in his “investigations.”
The landscape refers to both the underwater scenes the child must have seen while drowning as well as death itself. The poet suggests that “some remember” the region to which “we have all been.” Some have access to the subconscious mind and realms beyond physical knowledge, while others don’t. Her son is one of those who have gone into the next world and, as he understood Canada, better understands that world better than his mother.
There was an accident; the air locked,
They retrieved the swamped body,
The sixth stanza moves away from the lyrical and metaphorical language in order to describe, in direct and sorrowful detail, Susanna Moodie’s son’s death. It was an “accident,” she says about the death. One that led to the air in his lungs being “locked” and his hanging in the river “like a heart.” These lines inform the reader how incredibly precious he was to her. So much so that he served as the river’s heart, a beating, living thing. This emphasizes how lively and passionate he was during life and how impactful his death was.
Later, his body was retrieved from the river. When it was, she described it as “swamped.” This language depicts the child’s corpse in a way that suggests it was waterlogged and entirely changed by its time in the river. Again, the word “swamped” also emphasizes how overcome the child was by the river’s currents.
cairn of my plans and future charts,
from among the nudging logs.
There is a very powerful metaphor in the first lines of the seventh stanza. Here, the speaker describes her son as the “cairn” of her “plans and future charts.” A cairn, or a stack of rocks seen along hiking trails, indicates direction. It might be where a path diverges or help one stay on a specific track they want to follow.
The child was a “cairn” in Susanna’s life, and by describing him as such, the speaker suggests that without him, she is not going to be able to follow the same plan or “chart” she intended to. Her life is going to take a very different path.
There is an intense example of juxtaposition between the image of the young boy as a guiding force in his mother’s heart and his “swamped” body being dragged out of the river with “poles and hooks” from “among the nudging logs.”
This is an emotional image that is further emphasized through personification (“the nudging logs”). The river is still acting of its own accord, pushing the body around the trees it tore down (see “he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water” in the third stanza).
It was spring, the sun kept shining, the new grass
my hands glistened with details.
There is another transition between the seventh and eighth stanzas. The main events of the poem took place when the river was full and filled with ice that traveled along with its current. Here, readers can also interpret another example of juxtaposition between the retrieval of the speaker’s son’s “swamped” body and the shining sun and “new grass.”
The child has passed away, but the rest of the world is moving on and developing as it always does in the spring season. The last line of the stanza, “my hands glistened with details,” suggests that the speaker interprets the water as details of this immense change in her life. Her life was developing in her new country, Canada took her young son from her.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
After the long trip I was tired of waves.
like a flag.
The water imagery continues in the final two stanzas. They also focus on the speaker’s journey rather than the son’s. Readers should refer to the first lines and the son’s heightened ability to explore his new world and identity when reading these last lines about the speaker’s “long trip” and her emotions about it.
Her journey through life so far has been long, including her immigration to Canada and attempts to adjust to this New World. She explains that she was “tired of the waves. “This refers to the currents of the deadly River Mora and the emotional “waves “that have disrupted her life so drastically.
On the day that her son died, her “foot hit rock.” With her son’s death so prevalent in her day-to-day life, she was forced to tie her identity to her new country, and away it had not been established before. Her journey on the river, which should’ve been optimistic and successful, collapsed like “ragged” sails.
Her son’s death changed everything, and with a degree of irony, the speaker suggests that it forced her to connect to Canada in a way she hadn’t before. She buried her child “like a flag” in “this country.” Now, a piece of her life is intertwined with Canada in a permanent way.
Below, readers can explore the most important themes in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning.’
- Death. Death is the most important theme at work in ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ by Margaret Atwood. The speaker’s son drowned at a very young age, an event that completely changed and reshaped his mother’s life. She explores his death throughout this poem and how it, ironically, solidified her connection with her new country—Canada.
- Motherhood. The speaker’s relationship with her young son is another important theme Atwood engages with. It’s clear from the beginning of the poem that her son’s death served as an incredibly effective event in his mother’s life. Throughout his short life, she saw him as adventurous, strong, and far more connected to his new country of Canada than she was. His life and death changed her, and without him, as her “cairn,” she had to readjust her course.
Structure and Form
‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ by Margaret Atwood is a ten-stanza narrative poem divided into nine sets of three lines, known as tercets, and one final couplet, or two-line stanza. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, examples of half-rhyme within the text help imbue the poem with some measure of rhythm. For example, “birth” and “forth” in stanza one and “regions” and “thin” in stanza four.
Throughout ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: comparing two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, “he was hung in the river like a heart” in line two of the sixth stanza.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues a non-human feature of their text with human characteristics. For example, “the currents took him” in line two of stanza three and “the new grass / leaped to solidity” in stanza eight.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, the speaker describes his father’s hands as “his head a bathysphere” in line two of stanza four.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses and help them imagine what is described. For example, “he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “he” and “hung” in stanza six.
The message is that the death of a child can completely change a mother’s perspective on life and planned future. In this case, the death of Susanna Moodie’s young son is interpreted by Atwood as an event that solidified her connection to her new home, Canada, and affected her in a deeply permanent way.
The poem is about the death of a young boy, the son of English-Canadian writer Susanna Moodie by drowning. He lost his life in the flooded River Moira in Ontario.
Atwood wrote this poem as one of several exploring 19th-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie’s experiences after immigrating to the country in the 1830s. The death of Moodie’s son is only touched on within her memoir, but Atwood uses the available details to suggest its impact on the writer.
Atwood’s ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ is a free verse poem that utilizes lyrical and narrative language. The poem does not use a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern and contains ten stanzas, nine of which are tercets and one of which is a couplet.
Susanna Moodie was an English-Canadian author born in 1803 and passed away in 1885. She immigrated to Ontario in 1832, where she wrote letters and journals about life in the British colony.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Margaret Atwood poems. For example:
- ‘Half Hanged Mary’ — describes the life and death of Mary Webster, a supposed ancestor of Margaret Atwood, who was hanged in the 1680s for witchcraft.
- ‘Siren Song’ — published in 1974, the poem describes the sirens from Greek mythology, their song, and why they’re singing.
- ‘Crow Song’— is a satirical poem that depicts humanity through crow-related imagery.