‘Rising Five’ by Norman Nicholson is a four stanza poem that is divided into varying sets of lines. The longest stanzas contain nine lines, and the shortest, six. One of the most striking aspects of this poem is the way in which the lines are formatted. In an effort to emphasize the repetition of “not” statements, the poet has indented those lines. This helps to create a rhythm from stanza to stanza and draw further attention to the theme the poet intended.
Additionally, Nicholson has chosen to structure ‘Rising Five’ with an extremely variable rhyme scheme. The first stanza is the only one that is consistent throughout, following the pattern of ababcdee. The following stanzas either contain no rhyme scheme, or only a few half or full rhyming words. One notable difference is the final stanza which makes use of similar ending sounds and alliteration, rather than rhyme.
The poem begins with the speaker reflecting on the words of his child, or a child in his care. The child claims to be “rising five” rather than four years old. He is looking into the future, towards increased age, as a positive. This is something that scares the speaker and sends him into layers of contemplation about his environment and what it means to live.
He looks around him and sees the landscape is gracefully changing. It is no longer winter, but “rising spring.” He broadens his view further, up to the sky, and sees that the sun is setting. The day no longer exists, it is “rising night.”
In the final stanza, he reflects on how one considers the process of aging while young, and how that changes with marriage and parenthood. By the end of the poem he sees living not as life but as “rising death.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Rising Five
I’m rising five” he said
But rising five.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker presents the reader with a few personal details about his life that help to draw one into the narrative. The poem begins with the specific, a child that the narrator is raising, and ends with broad statements on life and death.
In the first lines, the poet is relaying the words of a supplementary character in this narrative. The son of the speaker, or at least someone who he is taking care of, refers to himself as “rising five.” This child does not want to be “four” any longer, but instead claims to be closer to five. As the poet writes this section he adds in intimate details of the boy’s appearance.
The speaker describes the “little coils of hair” which bounce on the child’s head and the little glasses, or “spectacles” that he wears. The child is full of life, and his eyes, enhanced by magnification, make them appear to be “brim[ming]” over the frame.
The child is looking at “me” (the speaker), and on his face reflects the light of the day. This vibrant description is punctuated by the final lines which speak to the tentative nature of life and aging. The speaker reiterates that the child wants to be referred to as “rising five,” but has really been alive for “fifty-six months,” not quite five years.
Around him in the field, the cells of spring
But rising June.
In the second stanza, the speaker broadens the range of life that he is analyzing. He moves his attention from the child to the day which is all around them. These two characters are “in a field” Among the “cells,” or life, of “spring.” Everything around them is moving and changing as if part of a dance.
This feeling is emphasized through the poet’s use of alliteration in the “b” and “s” sounds. The world appears to be in a state of constant change, a fact that the speaker does not take any comfort in. The world is changing, just as the child is. It too is aging and the seasons are progressing. While it is technically May, it’s so late in the season that it could be referred to as “rising June.”
And in the sky
But rising soon.
In the third stanza, the speaker takes another step back from this moment and looks at the larger passage of time in this place. He is no longer focused on the boy whose words sent him on this tangent, but has cast his gaze to “the sky.” It is here that he sees how the “dust” is separating in the light. The sun can be bright and full one moment, and then it can be “rising night.”
This setting of the sun is a clear allusion to death and the dark subject matter the speaker will tackle in the final stanza.
All of these stanzas make clear to a reader that having this child under his care has made the speaker think deeper about what it means to be alive and how limited time is. Aging might seem like a good thing to a four-year-old, but to their caregiver or parents, it is terrifying.
The new buds push the old leaves from the bough.
But rising dead.
In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker elaborates on what it means for the seasons to change and for the old to be pushed out by the new. The “buds” are coming out of the “bough,” or bushes, and are pushing away the “old leaves.” There is a turnover happening from winter to spring.
The speaker describes this very elegantly with the phrase, “We drop our youth behind us like a boy” who is throwing away candy wrappers. When one is young, it is impossible to value youth and the possibilities inherent in the time ahead. In this state of mind, one is never able to see “the flower, ”only the fruit. Life is all about instant gratification, with no appreciation for the simple beauty of a moment. A flower will be overlooked.
On the other hand, as one ages it is impossible not to see time and the future. When one looks at “the marriage bed” one sees “the baby’s cradle.” Then, when one looks for the bed, they see the grave. Life becomes intertwined with death so that one is not living so much as “rising dead.”