This is a poem about denial. The speaker appears to be a mother or father (it does not matter which, as this parent speaks for both of them) reassuring a now grown-up child that he or she had a happy childhood. The reassurances are not convincing, as if there is something to hide - but the poem also makes us think of the real fears that parents have, that they will be accused later of some kind of cruelty or deprivation - so they have assembled a record of evidence (“pictures” and “facts”) to refute the child's memories. The child does not speak in the poem, but we do see his or her viewpoint, since the parent is denying or refuting things of which the child has evidently accused the parents.
The poem has a clear formal structure - the three-line stanzas have a loose rhyme scheme (“moors/door”, “tune/boom”, “fear/tears” and occasionally an internal rhyme “occur/blur”). The irregular metre is interrupted by many pauses, creating a slow and rather jerky rhythm as of disconnected statements.
The most obvious unifying feature is the way each stanza opens with a statement (a declarative) in a complete short sentence or main clause: “Nobody hurt you”, “Your questions were answered”, “Nobody forced you”, “What you recall are impressions” and “Nobody sent you away”. The last stanza also opens with a short sentence - but this time it is a question: “What does it matter now?”
The poem explores the gap between appearance and reality. In almost every case the parent does not dispute that something occurred that the child thought was bad. But the parent claims that the child has misunderstood things or remembered them not quite as they were. Partly the explanation for this is that the child's recollections are subjective “impressions” - which are mistaken or false memories.
The parent's reassurance is unconvincing, for various reasons - such as the way he or she shifts ground: “That didn't occur. You couldn't sing anyway, cared less” or the way the parent claims to know the child's own feelings better than he or she ever did - “you wanted to go that day. Begged” and “people/You seemed to like”.
The ending of the poem is very harrowing - it appears that the child blames the parents for ruining his or her life, while they deny this: “nobody...laid you wide open for Hell.”
Not all families are like the one shown in the poem - and perhaps young people (most of whom may not yet be parents) will see things from the viewpoint of the child whose parent speaks here. But the poem challenges us all, if we are to be parents, to find ways to give the right mixture of freedom and discipline. The poem gives a harsh and cynical view of what childhood may be at its worst - we get a more positive view in Ms. Duffy's In Mrs. Tilscher's Class (not in the Anthology) andBefore You Were Mine. It is far removed from the view or parental love for children in William Blake's Songs of Innocence, but close to the harshest of his Songs of Experience.
How does this poem present the ideas of denial and self-justification?
Which, as shown in the poem, is worse - the parents' (past) treatment of their child, or their continuing (present) denial of the truth of what happened?
Does this poem support the idea that parents are really “older and wiser” than children?
How might this poem help real parents to be better in caring for children?
What view of childhood does the poem present? How does this compare with other poems in the Anthology?