Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
Rilke’s “Childhood” begins with a young man’s longing for the end of the school day—a memory nearly every grown-up has at one point in his or her life. The boy is bored with “endless dreary things,” such as studies and teachers. Each moment in the classroom is one of anxious solitude, a bottomless yearning to leave studies and enter the world outside. Quickly, the tide changes when the boy is released from his deliberate academic prison. Outside the child is free, “fountains leap … and in the gardens all the world grows wide.” However, Rilke’s child sees himself unlike the other children. Even outside the constraints of the classroom, the child is “so unlike … the others.” The child is still draped with a sense of loneliness that the other children do not bear.
Here the child is observing not only adults or possibly his own parents, but he is envisioning his future as he “look[s] far off into it all.” The world around him represents what his future holds – the other men, women and children, the dogs, and the houses – and that someday he will have something like all of it. Yet this vision does not leave him with a feeling of peace. The child sees a “soundless terror changing back and forth with trust.” From what may be a direct descendent from his parent's terrible marriage, Rilke’s child has a foresight into the unspoken balance that plays out between men and women in unhappy unions. In one moment, either partner may feel great trust, while at the same time the other may feel boundless terror. The child envisions that all relationships hang in a terrible flux between “O dream” and “O dread.”
Rilke again returns to images of childhood as the boy plays games in a garden. As the sun sets and the garden “keeps softly fading,” an adult – most likely a parent – grabs the boy’s hand and leads him away. The boy leaves with “small stiff steps to walk back home” because he is saddened to be removed from such bliss. Not only does the child’s “ever more escaping grasp of things” represent his disappointment at having to quit playing, it also exemplifies Rilke’s sense of yearning for his lost childhood.
In the final stanza, Rilke reflects upon his childhood, comparing it to the child’s sinking sailboat. As in the first stanza, the child’s life seems much more heavy than his peers’. He writes “to forget it, because other, similar / and more beautiful sails glide through the circles.” Just as the other children sail pretty boats, Rilke’s child sees his life as less beautiful than the other children. His childhood is one of confusion that only leads into the greater unknown of adulthood. The poem ends with a final cry to that which can never be reclaimed, “O childhood, O likeness gliding off … / To where? To where?” As the boat sinks into the gray water, the child must turn his gaze from his lonely past towards a baffling, unanswerable future.
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