A Child to his Sick Grandfather
Grand-dad, they say you’re old and frail,
Your stocked legs begin to fail:
Your knobbed stick (that was my horse)
Can scarce support your bended corse,
While back to wall, you lean so sad,
I’m vexed to see you, dad.
You used to smile and stroke my head,
And tell me how good children did;
But now, I wot not how it be,
You take me seldom on your knee,
Yet ne’ertheless I am right glad,
To sit beside you, dad.
How lank and thin your beard hangs down!
Scant are the white hairs on your crown;
How wan and hollow are your cheeks!
Your brow is rough with crossing breaks;
But yet, for all his strength be fled,
I love my own old dad.
The housewives round their potions brew,
And gossips come to ask for you;
And for your weal each neighbour cares,
And good men kneel, and say their prayers;
And everybody looks so sad,
When you are ailing, dad.
You will not die and leave us then?
Rouse up and be our dad again.
When you are quiet and laid in bed,
We’ll doff our shoes and softly tread;
And when you wake we’ll aye be near
To fill old dad his cheer.
When through the house you shift your stand,
I’ll lead you kindly by the hand;
When dinner’s set I’ll with you bide,
And aye be serving at your side;
And when the weary fire turns blue,
I’ll sit and talk with you.
I have a tale both long and good,
About a partlet and her brood,
And cunning greedy fox that stole
By dead of midnight through a hole,
Which slyly to the hen-roost led –
You love a story, dad?
And then I have a wondrous tale
Of men all clad in coats of mail,
With glittering swords – you nod, I think?
Your fixed eyes begin to wink;
Down on your bosom sinks your head –
You do not hear me, dad.
Where does one start with a poem so beautiful and heart wrenching as this?
The obvious place to start is the title. As mentioned before on this site, the title and the poem mostly match in all poems, but sometimes, there are exceptions. This is not one of those exceptions and is as obvious a title as it gets. Think for a minute of a parent or sibling that you love and maybe have lost. Imagine being able to tell them what you think of them even though they are either gone, or at that stage in life where they fail to recognise you anymore through age or illness. Then imagine writing down those thoughts. That is what this poem is, a collection of thoughts on a relationship between father and son. It is a special bond indeed, or at least it should be, so when I see these words, my heart, a usual swinging brick, melts due to several reasons, some of which I am not going to go into here. Suffice to say that I have had my own degree of pain in this relationship but now, all seems well again. For now. I adore my daughter and always will, no matter what anyone else says. So when I see these words, I imagine her, twenty five years from now, when I am a 70 year old, cantankerous old soul, moaning about the world and its woes [I do that now so nothing changes] and her looking at me and remembering the past.
Likewise, I am reminded when I read this of a poem by Seamus Heaney, or Famous Seamus as I know him. I have studied it and taught it and it is called Digging. Give it a read and let it digest before reading and looking at this one. It would not surprise this teacher if AQA or WJEC shoved Digging into the Unseen Poem slot for your exam, given this poem and a few others in this Edexcel anthology.
So, what is this one about? What message is being shared?
The title says it all really. It is aimed at a Grandfather, or “Grand-dad,” who he obviously adores, but his nurses say that he is “old and frail” and that his “stocked legs begin to fail” when he stands. As someone who struggles now with standing at times, due to illness, I know the feeling and can sympathise with this Grandfather, although I am not there yet. He carries a “knobbed stick” when he walks, which is a non-word [or dialectal] that should represent the word “knobbled” or “knobbly” because there are some knots in the wood of it. He then remembers, through use of parenthesis, or brackets, that this at one time, used to be his hobby “horse” when he played with him when he was younger, but now reflects that it “can scarce support [his] bended corse.” By this, because he is so aged, he is bent over, possibly with rheumatism or normal ageing that the body goes through. He has gone from a lean, mean machine of a man to something not good in his eyes. He will feel the pain for him because he is so close to him. Everything he does has to be done with his “back to [the] wall,” where he perches himself, “so sad.” This has such a profound impact to see him this way and he shares this emotion by saying “I’m vexed to see you, dad.” It is as if he is saying it to him directly.
Did you notice that he says “Dad” here? This is done for effect in that he sees this man just like he does his father. Perhaps, he has lost his father and this is one of those moments where you slip up and call someone Dad when it should be Granddad? You now need to find out about the poet and see. Google to the rescue I suppose. If her own father passed when she was in her mid 50s, then this might be the case and the ‘he’ might be her writing in the guise of a man [because of the patriarchal times back then] but if not, then it is something else.
He continues to the Grandfather, telling him directly, even though he may not understand, that he “used to smile and stroke my head and tell me how good children did.” It is as if he is remembering him saying, “in my day it was so different than it is now.” It is a sentence heard by many of us as we grow older and said by so many fathers and Grandfathers. I even see my 55 year old father, in my heart and mind, thirty years ago, saying the same thing to me and I now say it to my 24 year old and 23 year old children. It is a frightening thought that I am turning into my father but there you go. Time has its effects.
“But now,” he says, he “wot not how it be.” This is an old use of language, or what we term an archaism, or a use of archaic language in that it is seldom used any longer. It means he does not want it to be how it is, or maybe even, that he does not understand how it can be, that this lovely Grandfather can get to this stage in life and be so troubled. Archaisms are used by poets to signify age of something, or link a theme of age to someone, as in this case. The man is old so a few archaisms in there have the effect of linking them to the man, in your mind. Or they should do.
This is a time where the man “seldom [takes her] on [his] knee” any more. I remember those times when I was 5 and 6 years old, where my Grandmother taught me the alphabet, whilst I sat on her lap, reciting A through Z and singing it. Then we would do it backwards; Z.Y.X.W.V.U.T etc right back to the beginning. When I then went into a classroom for the first real time, in primary school, I knew them. I remember that with fondness and who knows, my old Grandma may have seen the English teacher in me even then because I sure didn’t. This Grandfather is no different I suppose and this poet is like me, “right glad to sit beside you, dad.” I love to sit with my 86 year old Mum, as adorably dotty as she can be at times, because I adore her so much and will feel the loss, when she passes, like no other I have felt before [or after I suppose]. My love for her transcends all emotions and I see this young man in the poem in the same way with his Grandfather, the one he calls ‘Dad.’
As he looks at him, he ponders on his appearance, adding “how lank and thin your beard hangs down!” Note the use of the exclamation mark here. It signifies that maybe he is not happy with the level of his care, something I see with my own mother. “Scant are the white hairs on your crown” and “how wan and hollow are your cheeks” meet with the same thoughts. He is seeing him deteriorate and cannot take the heartbreak. If you have never read it before, locate Simon Armitage’s poem called “November” and have a read. That has a similar feel to it, even though the context is different. He sees how his “brow is rough with crossing breaks” and sees the strength flowing away from him. Imagine, for a moment, how this feels. I know some of you may be teenagers, but imagine seeing your own parent or carer suffering with something terminal and seeing them wane so quickly. It is a painful sight indeed. I once saw it from the opposite angle, with a Year 8 child I taught in the High School I was in, who had Cancer and an aggressive one at that. Her normal, jovial self vanished in weeks before she died and the effect on us all was catastrophic! Just as much as he sees this, the same feeling emerges from him onto the page, that of adoration and even though “all his strength be fled” he still loves his “own old dad.”
It is such a gorgeous image!
Up till now, we know that the man is ailing but now the poem turns a corner and we see just how close to death he is as “the housewives round their potions brew and gossips come to ask for you.” These are visitors who will be seeing him possibly for the last time. “Good men kneel, and say their prayers and everybody looks so sad,” he says, “when you are ailing, dad.” It is as if he is in a death bed somewhere, or near death at home and the neighbours are coming, the fellow believers are saying prayers over him, asking God to heal him, or more likely, help him be at peace and yet, there is a defiance in the heart of the poet, who asks of him, “you will not die and leave us then? Rouse up and be our dad again.” He is asking, or it could be said, praying, that the old times return, for that is normal in these circumstances. We tend to think back to those wonderful times and wish they could be run again. I would give anything to go back a few years to certain points in my life as a father and make the right decisions instead of the wrong ones. But hindsight is such a wonderfully painful jacket to wear isn’t it?
As the verse continues, keeping the rhyme scheme rolling, we see him doing just that; reflecting on former times. He then tells him how “when you are quiet and laid in bed, we’ll doff our shoes and softly tread and when you wake we’ll aye be near to fill old dad his cheer.” Grandfather is sleeping it seems. He is resting, waiting on God and that is a time we all dread. It is a time some fear but there is no need. But as he reflects, he thinks about how it could be all very different if he would but recover from his ailments. He thinks of how, “when through the house you shift your stand, I’ll lead you kindly by the hand” and “when dinner’s set I’ll with you bide and aye be serving at your side.” If only he would recover, he would be able to help him out so much. It is as if he is regretting not doing more in his life when he had the chance and if true, then this is a painful regret he is experiencing because it can never be recovered. It can never be turned back, just like time. It is also something that we all face from time to time. Feelings and emotions therefore, that are being shared centre on love and adoration but also on loss and regret. The pain is palpable as he watches this old man struggling. “When the weary fire turns blue,” he thinks, “I’ll sit and talk with you.” Why is he thinking this now when he had ample opportunity in his earlier life?
Such is life in the way it is nowadays.
He then goes on to mention something else that we get from our Grandparents, or at least I did. I cannot remember which one taught me which one, but the stories I know come from my mother and my Grandmother, so I see the next section of the poem and smile affectionately at the thought of Susan Spencer and think to myself how blessed I am to have had such a woman as this in my life. The poet says “I have a tale both long and good about a partlet [animal] and her brood and cunning greedy fox that stole by dead of midnight through a hole, which slyly to the hen-roost led.” A story of the animal kingdom that was perhaps shared when he was a lot younger is something that would normally come back to him now because she knows that Grandfather loves a good story. He will be the one who taught him that one when he was very young. Sly Mr. Fox etc. The words “you love a story, dad” are so lovely to see. It is as if he wants to retell that story to him right there at that moment to make the pain go away. It is such a lovely thing to behold in this time of woe.
The last verse though, for me, is perhaps, the most painful and the most poignant. He goes on from the last verse into another story he knows well, more than likely one of his again “of men all clad in coats of mail, with glittering swords.” Now, whenever I see stories of yore like this one, in written form or especially in filmic form, I tend to jump and reel and think to myself that some money will have to be spent to go and see it. The newest King Arthur film, with Jude Law has yesterday, had the same effect on me. Now where did I get that love of the Arthurian legend come from I wonder? I can remember the film The Sword In The Stone for years ago, the Disney classic, but I think I was fascinated earlier than that so I can only deduce that at some point, my mother of Grandma told me stories of men in armour and sword fights and the legend of Excalibur, for I simply cannot get enough of it. Imagine my glee when in my degree I got the chance to study the literature in depth.
This Grandfather nods in agreement, or at least he thinks it as his “fixed eyes begin to wink.” Is it a wink, or is it something else? Be prepared to see more than one reason why this is happening in the poem, especially when you link it with the next line, where we see these words: “Down on your bosom sinks your head.” Has he gone to sleep? Has he simply lost control of his neck muscles? Or is his illness taking him to the land of yore, where men in chainmail reside and Kings and Queens send forth Knights on quests to find the Holy Grail? All sorts of possibilities exist within those two lines.
But above all, just as much as the first line links us into the image of the Grandfather, the last line asks us to consider his end as it approaches, either in this instant or in the future for we see the words “you do not hear me, dad” as he looks on, in pain and heartache. Now the fact that the poet uses “Dad” for “Grandfather” and the hyphenated term of “Grand-dad” at the beginning of the poem makes me ask one thing: when she uses the word “Grand,” is she meaning “Good” or Great?” I ask this of myself because where I am from, if something is “grand” it is considered to be fantastic. If someone asks me what the food is like I have just been served, I may respond with “it’s grand is that!”
Joanna Baillie was my age  when her own father died so this is perhaps her way of remembering him, not only as he was close to death, but also afterwards. It is such a beautiful poem and all the more gorgeous because of the date when it would have been written. In the back of the anthology, you should have dates for that, but my advice is to Google Joanna Baillie and see for yourself where the penchant for storytelling came from and how she was the daughter of a clergyman, which would have given her access to books and literature in bucket loads. Once you have that, you will appreciate this even more.