The Poem

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“Childhood” is a poem of thirty-three lines divided into four stanzas. The title would generally lead the reader to expect a poem describing a time of innocence and joy, and while “Childhood” does this to some extent, it also describes a contrasting sad side to childhood. The poem is written in the third person, which often serves to distance the poet from the speakers or perspectives in the poem. However, in “Childhood” the unnamed, pale child and his feelings of loneliness, isolation, and sadness resemble Rilke’s remembrance of his own childhood quite closely.

“Childhood” begins with a short description of school; it is shown in an entirely negative light. The atmosphere is stuffy, the hours spent there are long and boring, and the feelings the child experiences are of anxiety and loneliness. The relief and joy of dismissal contrasts sharply with the “heavy lumpish time” in school. The streets ring out with children’s voices, the town squares are full of bubbling fountains, and the outdoor world has endless space and possibilities. At the end of the first stanza a small child is introduced as different from all the others. Though he shares in the exultant feeling of release from school, he walks a different path, alone and lonely.

The second stanza shows the wider world from the child’s perspective, one both distanced and perceptive. He watches men and women, children in brightly colored clothes, houses, here and there a dog. This description of the physical world suddenly changes to intense emotions underlying the seemingly simple neighborhood scene; feelings of silent terror alternate with trust. The stanza ends, as they all do, with a few words or phrases expressing the child’s and poet’s emotional perspective of the scene or event described. After observing the peaceful setting and sensing the conflicting emotions of fear and trust, there is a feeling of senseless sadness, dreams, and horror.

The third and fourth stanzas narrow their focus to the child’s more immediate environment and playtime. As daylight begins to fade, the small, pale child plays with balls, hoops, and bats, rushes around blindly playing tag, and bumps into some grown-ups in the process. Evening quietly arrives; playtime is over as the child is led home firmly by the hand. Sometimes the child plays for hours at the pond with his sailboat, trying to forget the others whose boats are prettier. The poem ends with the boy contemplating his reflection in the water, “looking up as it sank down,” wondering where childhood is taking him, where it all will lead.

Forms and Devices

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“Childhood” was published in Das Buch der Bilder (the book of pictures), a collection of poetry that reveals a transition between Rilke’s earlier phase emphasizing emotion and his more mature phase aiming for more precision in imagery and style. “Childhood” demonstrates both these phases of firm structure and impressionistic emotion. Though it appears to have an irregular form, divided into uneven stanzas (ten, seven, eight, and eight lines), there is a regular meter (iambic pentameter) and rhyme scheme. With the exception of the last verse, which introduces a third rhyme in the last line of the poem, there are two rhymes in each stanza, though the pattern varies. No rhymes are carried over to the next stanza.

“Childhood” makes its strongest impact on the reader through the use of juxtapositions of sounds and images. Rilke employs both alliteration and assonance to bring his descriptions to the reader’s attention. The repeating of sounds, whether consonant or vowel, makes the phrase stand out and emphasizes the image. Rilke employs alliteration more frequently,...

(This entire section contains 380 words.)

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and “Childhood” is full of consonantal pairs, for example: “dumpfen Dingen” (musty things), “Welt so weit” (world so wide), “groen grauen” (great gray), “Haschens Hast.” Repetitious use of vowel sounds is also used effectively, but to truly notice these, the reader must read the poem aloud: “o Traum, o Grauen” (o dream, o horror), “kleinen steifen” (small stiff), “o entgleichende Vergleiche” (elusive comparisons).

Even more than sound, the juxtaposition of contrasting images and emotions alerts the reader to the child’s perception of differences in the world he sees and the sense of otherness in himself. The anxiety, depression, and ennui of the school experience is sharply contrasted with the streets, squares, and gardens coming alive with children and movement. The wonderful time of release is diminished, however, by the continued loneliness of the child. The peaceful image of men, women, and children, and their houses and dogs is diminished by the silent terror alternating with trust, and again with a sadness and horror. A joyful game of tag closes with feelings of anxiety and worry. The final stanza begins with the idyllic image of children floating their sailboats on the pond but ends with a sad call to childhood, asking what the meaning of it all is.