Carol Ann Duffy is the UK’s poet laureate. She is famed for writing poetry using simplistic words in a complex and clever way. Often her poems are about real life and contemporary issues. Her work is frequently studied in higher and further education, although some of her darker poems have caused controversy due to their subject matter. Here is an analysis of We Remember Your Childhood Well.
Form and Tone
We Remember Your Childhood Well is a very dark, very frightening piece of poetry. It is told from the perspective of a parent or possibly two parents talking to the reader (as often the narrator describes themselves as “we”) who is ostensibly their child. It highlights the difference in opinions on how well the child in question was raised. The narrator is very domineering and dismissive which adds to the chilling nature of the poem. The poem presents itself in six stanzas all consisting of three lines. The occasional use of rhyme gives the poem a jarring erratic rhythm that coupled with the short sentences adds to the uncomfortable feel of the poem.
We Remember Your Childhood Well Analysis
A re-occurring device throughout this poem, which you can read in full here, is starting each stanza with a statement which seems to refute the unstated claims of the child (the reader). In this case “nobody hurt you”. This is very matter of fact and this entire stanza is filled with denials giving the impression that the narrator is trying to defend themselves against various allegations. Most of the sentences are very short and sharp which helps to create the “edgy” feel of the poem. Perhaps it is just me but the imagery of the “bad man on the moors” made me think of Ian Brady, a famous serial killer who along with Myra Hindley were known as the Moors Murderers.
The fact that you see so many answers but never hear the questions gives the poem an uncertainty. The questions that are being asked you could sometimes guess at. But what exactly is the question that has the answer “anyone’s guess”? It literally is anyone’s guess! Again in this stanza the narrator seems very assured and assertive. “That didn’t occur” It’s as if the narrator is questioning the memory of their child “the moment’s a blur” The line “you couldn’t sing anyway” suggests that whatever the accusation is, even if there were a modicum of truth in what they are being accused of it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Perhaps the child felt they had hampered a singing career? That’s pure speculation on my part.
This entire stanza appears to be about a specific event and also seems to reveal a clue as to the gender of the child. “you chose the dress” The narrator has seemingly resorted to using photographic evidence to strengthen their viewpoint. You sense an almost psychological attack with the narrator accusing the child of their memories being “all in their head”
This stanza is particularly insidious as the narrator furthers their point that how the child remembers their childhood isn’t correct by saying that their memories are just “impressions” and that what they are saying the actual “facts”. They refer themselves as the “secret police” another menacing piece of imagery. And they feel the need to mention they were bigger. This feels like they are trying to enforce their superiority. The narrator then uses onomatopoeia in order to refer to the sound of their voices. The “boom, boom, boom” gives the impression of their voices being explosive, which almost creates a paradox as they are trying to insinuate that their child’s negative memories are incorrect but describing their voices in a way that seems quite destructive.
Again this stanza seems to reference a specific event. These events that we don’t get a lot of information about create intrigue but also add more to the suspenseful nature of the poem. I like to try and imagine the questions that are being asked in order to illicit these reactions; perhaps for this stanza it would go something like this:
Why did you send me away to those scary people, they were so strict it was terrible. Even if we are to imagine this is the “unheard” part of the poem it still leaves so much ambiguity, it is part of what makes this poem so compelling – like a movie trailer we only get to see hints and snippets with very few spoilers.
Having appeared so self-assured throughout the poem the narrator seems to admit a small element of guilt. “what does it matter now?” is a way of saying, okay perhaps we weren’t perfect but it doesn’t matter now. It isn’t a complete acknowledgment of wrong-doing but does suggest a softening of their manner. But the narrator then follows this up with some very nasty imagery using words like “skidmark” and “hell” creates a very bleak image as if their softening was instantly regretted and they felt the need to go back to their previous approach. This stanza is very uneven, like the narrator can’t decide what approach to take as after their rant about their child’s “soul being open for hell” they tell them they were loved – the use of past tense is interesting here though, did they do something to make that love rescind? They then defend their actions claiming they did what was best. The last line acts as an exclamation point suggesting emphatically that the parents believe they remember the child’s childhood better than she did.
At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Duffy “fanboy” I love this poem! It’s so dark and leaves so much unanswered. In my head I was able to create a story of the child’s youth and I expect anyone who reads it will come up with their own version. It’s that sense of intrigue that makes this poem so enthralling. The suggested horror is key to this. Whilst as reasonable adults we would recognise there are two sides to every story, the adults menacing tone makes it hard as the reader to discern whose voice is more reliable: the harsh, unsympathetic voice of the narrator, or the unheard voice of the child.