Student Question

What are the figures of speech in the poem "Childhood"?

Quick answer:

In "Childhood," there are multiple figures of speech, including similes and idioms. There is a simile in the third stanza when Rilke compares "things and creatures" to "something human." There is another simile in the next stanza, when Rilke tells of being "lonely as a shepherd." More so, there is a fragment of an idiom in the beginning, when Rilke tries to "find words for something so lost."

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Before we dive into figures of speech in Rainer Maria Rilke's poem, let's come to an understanding of what "figures of speech" means. When we talk about "figures of speech," we're often talking about words that have some other kind of meaning. The alternate meaning might be conveyed with a metaphor, a simile, an idiom, or something else.

In the last stanza, when Rilke says "lonely as a shepherd," we have a figure of speech. Rilke isn't actually a shepherd. He doesn't really tend sheep (nor is he a clergy member). Yet he's as lonely as one. Again, with figures of speech, words take on different meanings. For Rilke, the shepherd's main meaning has to do with loneliness.

There's more similes in the third stanza, when Rilke says, "We lived their world as something human." Here, it’s the "things and creatures" that take on another meaning. For Rilke, during childhood, these "things and creatures" became so vivid it was like they were human.

Lets try and find an example of an idiom in "Childhood." What is an idiom? It's a common phrase or set of words. "Raining cats and dogs" is an idiom, as is "In a nutshell." It's not really raining cats and dogs, nor is it really in a nutshell. Yet these sayings have grown so popular that it's clear to most everyone what’s being said.

In the first stanza, Rilke mentions how we might "try to find words for something so lost." If we focus on the phrase "find words," we might have ourselves a fragment of an idiom. We don't know about you, but we've heard people talk about how they can't "find words” numerous times. Are they physically looking for words? Do they take out a magnifying glass and go searching around the room for words? No. It's a figure of speech.

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