Following on from other poems in the new AQA GCSE English Literature anthology, we’re picking up with the exploration of older family members with Andrew Waterhouse’s Climbing My Grandfather. In that it takes a first-person exploration of an older family member, it compares well with other poems in the anthology such as Follower or Mother, any distance. I think personally, given the idea of the magnitude of his grandfather from the title and the sense of awe, it compares well with Follower by Seamus Heaney.
The poem is a continuous single stanza of 27 lines. This unbroken-ness, this single unit suggests the size and magnitude of his grandfather, as well as the continuous nature of Waterhouse’s ‘climb’. It is one continuous action and in the way it starts at his grandfather’s feet, we get a real sense of the ‘ascent’, as if his grandfather is a mountain. The way the poem continues in this way, unbroken, gives us the idea of his scale. If we took the notion that free verse stanzas may be broken like paragraphs, we can see that there may be no need for stanza breaks: it is one moment in time, focused on one person. Had Waterhouse wished, I’m sure no editor would have argued if he had placed stanza breaks each time he ‘moved up’ a level, each time he climbed higher. Separating them out in such a way would have emphasised each individual component part of his grandfather, rather than focusing on the extent of him, his mass and immensity. That continuous stanza, then, emphasises the physical hugeness of his grandfather in the poet’s mind, and we see what an enormous presence he must have been in the poet’s life.
The poem is written in roughly equal lines, becoming a little more brief in length towards the end, as he reaches “the summit” of his grandfather. Like a mountain, it is broader at the base with lines varying from 6 to 11 words and an average syllabic length over the first four lines of 11 syllables. By the end, there are fewer words per line, varying from 4 to 8 and an average syllabic length of 7 or 8 instead.
Climbing My Grandfather is written in free verse, mimicking the natural rhythms of speech, using frequently enjambed lines. In places, the enjambment is more evident, splitting clauses in line 5-6, “I change/direction”, where the enjambed line emphasises the change in direction itself, just as Heaney does with the movement of his father’s plough in Follower. Waterhouse does the same in line 7-8, splitting “the nails/are splintered” and I think the enjambment in lines 5 – 10 emphasises the breathless climb, pausing mid-clause or mid-phrase and taking a breath in less usual places, just as we do on an ascent. In terms of how the poem is structured, it very much takes the notion of “toe to head”, travelling from his grandfather’s feet to the “summit”, and we follow the contours of the man.
Like most poems in the “Love and Relationships” selection, Climbing My Grandfather is an autobiographical poem, with the poet writing in the first person about his grandfather. Like Follower it is about the subject of the poem rather than directly addressed to them. It doesn’t therefore place us in the shoes of the absent parent, the absent lover or the absent child, and we are left with the sense that this poem is an open letter of admiration for his grandfather. Like Follower, perhaps these are words he could never express directly to his grandfather at the time, or perhaps they are words he was too young to say at the time. We get the sense of the poet writing as his younger self, as Duffy does in Before You Were Mine. I think that’s to do with the way he describes his grandfather’s hugeness – it makes us think that the poet is remembering a time when he was a child and his grandfather seemed more like a giant than a human being. Being awe-struck can have the effect of making the subject of those feelings seem bigger. In my mind, my teacher in Year 4 was a giant of a man who strode around reading Danny, The Champion of the World and yet when I met him as an adult, I realised he was quite slight and short. To me, that’s what’s happening here: it is an adult writing about a time as a child, finding the thoughts he had as a child about the massiveness of his grandfather, just as Heaney does about his father in Follower. And just as in Follower, there is no sense that the poet is a child, or how old they are remembering being.
One difference is that Waterhouse starts with the present tense: he puts us in his shoes at that exact moment of time. Because of this present tense, we get the sense that we are climbing with him, we are alongside him. It makes the moment incredibly vivid and intense.
We start with the focus on the poet in a current state “I decide to do it free”. The title has already given us a sense of what “it” might be, and also a lexical field – we get lots of words to do with climbing, following on from the title. From “free” we get the idea continued through “an easy scramble”, “trying to get a grip”. His grandfather’s shirt is “overhanging” as a rock face might, and we continue with a “traverse”, he gets “good purchase”, “pulls” himself up to his grandfather’s face, “cross[es] the screed”, so we see lots of words to do with climbing. Other than his grandfather’s “overhanging” shirt, we also get the notion of his grandfather as a mountain, a rock face, “a glassy ridge”, a “screed cheek”, his “altitude” and “the summit” which give us the dual image of climber and rock face. It’s a very natural image, seeing his grandfather as a mountain, but it’s also a very symbolic image. Mountains and hills are rich with meaning, representing at once an obstacle and yet also something immovable and constant. When we talk of climbing mountains metaphorically, we mean that we have overcome challenges and obstacles to achieve something. This to me gives a sense of the same difficulty that Heaney has: the immensity and power of this man leaves his descendants always in his shadow. The mountain too can represent something cold and distant, lonely and isolated. To present your grandfather as a mountain shows many possibilities for how you see him: massive, immovable, solid, constant, reliable, strong… but also has less positive associations, someone distant and isolated, an obstacle, something that dwarfs others. Of course, there’s little sense of whether Waterhouse means to present his grandfather as merely a hill or as a mountain, but either way, it gives us a sense that he finds his grandfather both interesting enough to explore, unfamiliar in some ways, but also something of a challenge, something he wants to know better, to explore and investigate.
At the same time, the first line of “I decide to do it free,” tells us as much about the poet as it does about the grandfather. He sounds intrepid, even bold and brave. A climb “without a rope or a net” seems audacious and daring. He certainly doesn’t sound like a child – it sounds like an adult decision that he is making – or at very least, an older child, capable of reasoning out an approach. This decision doesn’t just make the poet seem bold and daring, but also exaggerates the difficulty and complexity of the task: climbing his grandfather.
There’s a level of detail in line two that rivals the detail in Letters From Yorkshire, the “old brogues” and how they are “dusty and cracked.” It reminds me of an Armitage poem called About His Person, which lists the things found on a suicide victim. The things reveal much about the person who kept them, their personality. It’s the same with these old shoes. They’re a sturdy, practical shoe, an outdoor shoe, a traditional shoe that lacks in polish and finesse. I think they’re shoes that reveal much about the grandfather, about the kind of man he is, and the detail about these shoes, uncared for and well-used, fits with other details such as his “earth stained” hand and the “splintered” nails.
In line 5, the poet seems to pick up a sense of rhythm, “I change/direction, traverse along his belt/” and to me it seems very much that this poem is about three things: the poet, his climb and the grandfather. The grandfather seems very passive, unmoving.
Line 10 brings us a brief simile (and an oxymoron), the “warm ice” of his grandfather’s “smooth and thick” fingers, but we remember here that we are in a poem that is an extended metaphor in itself, continuing the idea of exploration and mountaineering throughout. After “warm ice”, we also have the caesura, the only one of the poem, cutting the line in two and forcing us to pause on the warm ice moment.
The minutiae of details that in themselves tell a story is seen once again with “the glassy ridge of a scar” which we may wonder is the consequence of an event, but the poet is unconcerned about its cause, using it only to “move on” rather than reflect on the event surrounding it, like Duffy might have done.
Like Heaney’s father, the grandfather here has a strong and vibrant presence, with his “still firm shoulders”. The shoulders themselves are very evocative. We have many expressions about shoulders, from a shoulder to cry on to having broad shoulders. Many of the expressions relating to shoulders relate to strength, reliability and courage, as if the person with broad shoulders will be ever reliable, trusted to be dependable.
Though the poet “rests for a while” in the “shadow” of his grandfather, I think that the shadow his grandfather casts is perhaps one that is more like that of Heaney’s father, the child feeling that they can never escape from being in their wake, never able to be more than their relative, to excel in their own field, Heaney feels both literally and metaphorically overshadowed by his father, and we have a similar sense of that here, that the grandfather sets a high standard by which to compare himself.
At line 15, there is the line I find most interesting in the whole poem: “climbing has its dangers”. I know this relates to the “not looking down” bit in line 14, but even so, I think it speaks to more than just a sense of vertigo. I’m not sure what it DOES speak to, but it makes me think that “discovering” his grandfather is something that needs doing delicately. He is gentle in how he places his feet “gently in the old stitches” of his grandfather’s scar, but the line makes me think that Waterhouse understands that learning about your family can itself be “dangerous”. For me, we have a tendancy to put our parents and our grandparents on pedestals, and if we discover more than we bargain for, it can strip our idols of their “untouchable” qualities – I’m not sure I’d forgive the person who revealed my Gramps to be an ordinary soul with very human foibles, weaknesses and faults. Unlike Duffy who wants to know more about her mother in Before You Were Mine, wanting to know whose lovebites adorn her mother’s neck, that is stuff I definitely don’t want to know about my own parents and grandparents – and I wonder if Waterhouse is saying the same thing – that he accepts the scars have a story, but he treads carefully around those stories and accepts that his voyage of discovery could end badly.
Line 16 gives us an image I find peculiarly repulsive – though I think it is a personal thing! – the “loose skin” of his grandfather’s neck, which contrasts with the “still firm” shoulders. It seems as if the poet is in the process of accepting that his grandfather is not, in fact, some timeless and immortal mountain who will always be there to climb, but is accepting his ageing. I find other images in this part a bit yucky as well, but that says more about me than the poem. “To drink among teeth” seems peculiar and a bit yuck to me.
For the first time in line 19, we have a sense of movement from the grandfather. He is not this immobile object, this giant frozen Gulliver as we had first imagined, but he is moving, “slowly”. We realise too that there has been no interaction or communication between the two, it is as if his grandfather does not realise that he is the object of inquiry and discovery. He has no sense of his grandson’s voyage. We have the second caesura of the poem in line 20, which focuses us and stops us at that point of movement, drawing attention to it.
The sense of ageing in “loose skin” is developed in the “wrinkles” of line 21 and the “soft and white” hair, as his grandfather replicates quite effectively the snow-capped mountain. I think though we have a very strong sense of Waterhouse coming to terms with the age of his grandfather, the mortality of his grandfather, despite presenting him as a mountain.
By the end of the poem, when Waterhouse is “feeling his heat, knowing the slow pulse of his good heart” we get the sense that he feels comforted and reassured by his grandfather, this solid mass of a man who seems to the poet more like a mountain than a man. But by the end, we have a feeling that the grandfather is less a cold and challenging obstacle to be uncovered, that he is warm and “good”. The poem, then, is a discovery. It is an uncovering, an understanding. Waterhouse journeys through the poem to better understand his grandfather and by the end, feels reassured by the “slow pulse” of his grandfather’s “good heart”. Not quite so cold and daunting as it was at the beginning. I think the poem to me is very much a voyage of discovery and a way of remembering his grandfather, top to bottom. The present tense makes it vivid and real, even though Waterhouse is no longer a boy, and that remembering his grandfather in this way brings him back from an unmoving mountain to being a man with a beating heart. Unlike Heaney, who ends the poem frustrated by his father, Waterhouse seems to find great comfort and security when he feels the “heat” of his grandfather.
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