Waterhouse is a contemporary poet; this was written in 2000, just before he died aged 41. Andrew Waterhouse was a concerned environmentalist, studying an MSc in Environmental Science and this follows through into his poetry. A review written after his death said that “His imagination is both vivid and uncluttered.” He uses his love of nature to inform his imagery.
“The world their writer imagines is full of solid objects and hard edges – stones, wood, frozen ground – which offer little purchase to its inhabitants. These may be familiar problems of modernity, but both the strength and the affliction of the work arise from an inability to domesticate solitude and self-doubt through the daily grind. His world, as it were, has nothing ordinary in it.”
The speaker this poem describes his grandfather with a sense of awe – he is an immense, mountainous man and the speaker decides to ‘climb’ him. It both brings to mind the childish activity of clambering across a relative as well as being an extended metaphor of developing understanding, as the poet gradually moves from foot to head to reach the “summit” of their grandfather. Written in free verse, in lines of more or less equal length, Waterhouse creates an impression of progression. It also contributes to the enormity of the grandfather and his mountainous presence – there is no opportunity for pause and little for reflection. The contrast between his size, evident in the continuous verse and continuous climbing, and the child suggested by the scrambling efforts, is heightened.
Although the poem begins “I decide to do it free”, we’re already aware of what will happen from the title. The speaker is in the present tense in this narrative, storytelling, poem, which gives us the impression that the poet is writing about his past but trying hard to recall the event in a vivid and immediate way, telling us every detail. And although the majority of the poem is focused on the character of the grandfather the opening line presents the speaker as intrepid and adventurous. There is some risk involved in mountain climbing but his lack of safety rope suggests his ambition of discovery.
The extended metaphor of mountain climbing is present from the start, “without a rope” suggesting that although this will be challenging it will also be possible to accomplish. As the poem continues, there’s references to the methods of climbing as well as the ground that is being covered.
We get a sense of the grandfather through the speaker’s description. He wears “old brogues”, similarly to Seamus Heaney’s grandfather and Carol Ann Duffy’s mother, the shoes seem to tell us about the man. These are an old-fashioned style and old themselves, “dusty and cracked”, perhaps uncared for but perhaps simply well-worn in and comfortable. The “dusty and cracked” base of the mountain is an “easy scramble” to get started. The verb “scramble” refers to a specific type of mountaineering, on gentle terrain, but it also suggests a childish movement, quite frantic and unplanned. As the speaker is “trying to get a grip”, we see that he’s not only trying to move up the grandfather’s mountainous body (again implying the age difference – and of course this is a childlike activity, climbing a seated relative!) but it’s part of the extended metaphor of developing an understanding.
The metaphor “climbing a mountain” has come to mean something that presents challenges, that it very difficult for us to achieve but which does give a sense of accomplishment when complete, Here Waterhouse uses it to explore the difficulties of knowing and understanding his grandfather, beginning with “trying to get a grip”. Sometimes this requires a “change of direction”; he describes the shirt, at the waistline, as “overhanging” which is both a description of a rock segment, a shelf or ledge in a mountain, and an affectionate reference to the grandfather’s dress. Climbing is difficult and needs footholds or handholds to keep safe – here they are provided by the “earth-stained hand”. Like Heaney and Dooley, Waterhouse seems to find some comfort in associating his grandfather with the earth. It’s suggestive of gardening, a care for the nature and world around him, perhaps also influential on Waterhouse’s own love of the environment. The grandfather works hard, with “splintered” nails which could sound painful but are used in this poem as part of the way to understand him, or climb higher.
The simile of finger’s skin as “smooth and thick like warm ice” is a striking one the grandfather’s hand is perhaps worn in a particular way (it reminds me of the mark from a pen for example, after many years), and the oxymoron of “warm ice” feels strange and unexpected. The full stop creates a rare caesura and forces us to pause for a moment on it, mimicking the climber’s rest at this point. In these lines about the hand, the rhythm picks up slightly, and an creates an impression of the climbing picking up speed, becoming a little more energetic and breathless.
With the movement onto his arm comes a slight moment of hesitation and reflection: “I discover the glassy ridge of a scar, place my feet gently in the old stitches”. It’s the first hint that there is something more underneath that might be disturbed with this climb. Again, the language is of mountains and nature – “glassy ridge”, “scar” – but the image brings vividly to mind the puckered and worn lines of a healed injury, confirmed by the “old stitches”. Here, the poet is gentle, stepping on the stitches rather than the scar to avoid further injury. It’s interesting that he doesn’t explore the scar in any detail. It isn’t his primary goal, which is to travel up to the summit, but he is also careful to avoid opening up wounds by probing into them.
Beginning the line “At his still firm shoulder” creates a renewed sense of purpose and movement, and here the lines develop into slightly shorter clauses as the climbing becomes more dangerous. The “shade” is a reference to above, perhaps the head – which is described so beautifully towards the end. The poet doesn’t look down;
The speaker notes that “climbing has its dangers”, and so does getting to know your family, particularly older members. As a child we see parents and grandparents as infallible, untouchable beings of immense wisdom that are distant from us in some unknowable way. Closing that gap and learning about them, their pasts, their secrets, can make them more human – both wonderful, in developing a different relationship, and terrible, if losing that sense of awesome inspiration. But Waterhouse decides to press o in hopes of a better understanding. When we get to the “smiling mouth” there’s a sense of welcome; the speaker pauses and perhaps the adjective “refreshed” is a suggestion that he is always interested, even inspired, by the conversation he has with his grandfather. “To drink among the teeth” has connotations of something being taken in, even thirstily or greedily, to fortify and satisfy- the speaker’s satisfaction with their relationship increasing as they get so much from it.
In this second half of the poem we have a further semantic field of aging, as Waterhouse is coming to terms with his grandfather’s age, an uneasy juxtaposition with the immortality of mountains as the “loose skin of the neck”, “soft and white” hair and “wrinkles” all show how closely Waterhouse views the aging man. Even as a child, there is a disbelieving realisation that although he might seem immortal – like mountains – it can’t really be true.
The “screed” cheek is another example of mountainous language and then we’re into the last long final sentence. Eight lines long, the clauses move at a quick pace – the climb here is “easy” – as he aims for the top of the head, the summit of the climb. The pace suggests his continued enthusiasm for the climb, and getting to know his grandfather. When he reaches the summit he is exhausted but finds immense peace and calm. The “clouds and birds circle”, it is warm and beautiful, reflecting the calm nature of the grandfather’s mind. The “soft and white” hair gives an impression of snow, as well as being a very personal identification; like the shoes, writers can often use hair to create a sense of character. The final lines – “knowing/the slow pulse of his good heart” slows the pace again to match the heartbeat, and suggests the two are in sync as Waterhouse has come to know and understand his grandfather. By using “heart” as the final line, Waterhouse also puts the emphasis back on the spiritual and emotional, rather than the physical description that dominated the middle section; this has been a relationship journey, with a successful ending.
Like several poems in the AQA Love and Relationships cluster this poem is one about family relationships. Before You Were Mine and Follower both explore similar ones, with children looking at an adult – in their case mother and father – to consider the relationship. Duffy’s poem is a little more bitter in some respects, and wants different information (her mother then, whereas Waterhouse wants his grandfather now). Heaney’s speaker Is, like Waterhouse, often in awe of his father and the two speakers both undergo a process of discovery. Yet Waterhouse’s is more optimistic whereas Heaney’s shows nostalgic regret, I feel, as the clouds, birds and heart of the end contrast with the sad understanding that Heaney’s father is walking behind the speaker as their roles have reversed with age. In the simple details, these poems also compare interestingly – the focus on shoes as symbolic of personality, for example, and the brief physical details, here the “smooth and thick” fingers with nails ripped and stained with dirt, Heaney’s father’s “eye that narrowed and roved”, Duffy’s Monroe dress.
I also think Dooley’s Letter’s from Yorkshire is an interesting comparison; both relationships are being processed and further understood. The men seem similar, their physical, natural descriptions both suggesting their connection with their environment which for Dooley creates some emotional distance, contrasting with her own technologically driven urban life whereas Waterhouse’s love of nature enables him to consider his grandfather a different way.
Can you answer?
- How does the extended metaphor of climbingrepresent the relationship between speaker and grandfather?
- What can you infer about the grandfather from the way he is being described?
- Why does Waterhouse use one long free-verse stanza?
- How does Waterhouse create a sense of motion and why?
- Does this poem have universal appeal? Are there elements in it most can empathise with?
Thinking about Section B in the poetry exam too, I like Phoebe Boswall’s Baking as a comparison question – it’s so gorgeous, and a little bit heart-breaking. She won the Foyle Young Poet’s Award in 2012 with it, aged 17 (PDF of Baking)
Smells of baking remind me of you.
Your red apron, my small striped one with the torn pocket.
Your soft stretched skin, fingers kneading dough
into a ball. My fat floury hands
grasped for your amber necklace,
Quick, Phoebe, the oven!
You played with flavours,
made little blobs of buttery dough on the tray
Your warm kitchen, my safe haven.
You taught me your language:
bicarbonate of soda, self-raising flour, vanilla extract,
millilitres of milk, grams of sugar:
caster, muscovado, granulated.
Now your apron hangs empty on the peg.
I wear it from time to time; mine with the torn pocket
doesn’t fit anymore.