What are the themes of "Childhood" by Frances Cornford?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This poem concerns the way that children can view things in their innocence and not know the reality of the situation. The speaker describes how she used to view the attributes of old age, such as "stiff backs" and "wrinkles round their nose," as being deliberate things that old people chose to have in order to "look grand." However, she then narrates a sight she saw that corrected her erroneous beliefs:

Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty’s friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

Watching an elderly friend of the family try to gather her beads up from the floor shows the speaker that elderly people do not have "stiff backs" just to be grand. The speaker realises that such individuals are actually very vulnerable and helpless, and the way that the word "grope" contrasts deliberately with "grand" reveals this change in the speaker's thoughts. A "grand" person does not "grope" around on the floor. The use of the word "grope" indicates weakness. This sight makes the speaker realise that old age is a "helpless" condition, but also she in her youth is "helpless" because she knows so little of the world and of the realities of life.

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