Climbing My Grandfather: AQA Love and Relationships

Climbing my Grandfather

I decide to do it free, without a rope or net

Andrew Waterhouse

Welcome back to Beyond English’s AQA Love and Relationships poetry bonanza. This week, we’re exploring Climbing My Grandfather by Andrew Waterhouse. We’ll be focusing on:

  • Context
  • Structure
  • Analysis

Climbing My Grandfather Context

Climbing My Grandfather is a late 20th century poem by the northern English poet Andrew Waterhouse. Waterhouse was born in Lincolnshire in 1958. He lived in Northumberland where he worked as a teacher and freelance writer. In 2000 he won a prestigious poetry prize for his first collection of poetry, In. Following this, he gave up his job teaching so that he could devote himself to writing full time. Sadly, he had always struggled with depression and, whilst working on poems for a second collection in 2001, he took his own life. The poem Climbing My Grandfather is a memorable portrait of his own grandfather and the relationship he had with him. 

Climbing My Grandfather Structure

Climbing My Grandfather is a free verse poem, released from the constraints of a regular rhyme or rhythm. This, and the first person narration, makes the reader feel a part of the poet’s own memories and emotions. Long sentences and enjambment (the extension of a line or phrase of poetry into the next line) are used to reflect the long and steady nature of the metaphorical climb the poet is taking. The poem is written as a journey up the man’s figure. Each line takes us closer to the ‘summit’, learning more about the grandfather and allowing us to feel the extraordinary effort of the progress. Visually, the poem is solid and stable in shape – like the mountain and like the man. 

Climbing My Grandfather Poem Analysis

Climbing My Grandfather focuses on the relationship between the poet and his grandfather. We are left with a rather ambiguous interpretation – on the one hand we can imagine he is describing the real life events of climbing up onto his grandfather’s lap and shoulders as a small boy. On the other hand we can see the comparison between his relationship with his grandfather and climbing to be a metaphorical one, an example of an extended metaphor that continues throughout the poem and expresses the growing bond and connection that the poet feels with his grandfather. The metaphor of climbing gives the poet the opportunity to show the difficulties in traversing and knowing a man he describes as a mountain. 

This is not an easy relationship; like most familial relations it has hardships and worries. From the first line: ‘I decide to do it free’ we see a level of confidence in the relationship with the grandfather, but also an element of risk. The poet does not take the easy option of the ‘rope or net’ and seems to experience more of his grandfather because of it. Later, he describes the reach for the ‘summit’, the knowing of his grandfather as physically draining. It causes him to gasp ‘for breath’ and he ‘can only lie watching’ after the exhaustive trial. 

The grandfather’s physical appearance is lovingly described, from his old brogues (‘dusty and cracked’) to his ‘soft and white’ hair (compared to snow). The old man’s hands are ‘earth-stained’, implying a love of the soil and the outdoors, and the nails ‘give good purchase’, perhaps showing that the grandfather is always there for the poet; he gives a ‘helping hand’ so to speak. 

The grandfather’s body is used as a crutch for the young man as he climbs up the old stitches and scars (‘the glassy ridge of a scar’), implying that he learns from the grandfather’s experiences. The grandfather’s shoulder is ‘still firm’ and the poet can ‘rest for a while in the shade’ showing us that the relationship between the poet and his grandfather is a strong, encouraging and harbouring one. The poet feels safe in the grandfather’s physical and metaphorical embrace. 

Later the poet describes himself drinking ‘among teeth’ referring to the conversations the pair have. The grandfather clearly gives good advice as the poet feels ‘refreshed’ after this. At the end of the poem, the poet has clearly completed a metaphorical journey – he has gone from ‘trying to get a grip’ and discovering his relative to ‘knowing’ his grandfather and ‘his good heart’. 

Language that relates back the childlike wonder of the actual climb up the grandfather appears throughout the poem too: ‘finger is smooth and thick like warm ice’, ‘a smiling mouth’, ‘watch a pupil slowly open and close’; each reflect the simpler language of a small child and the things they focus on, such as the fascination with the opening and closing pupil. 

The theme of family bonds is one that pops up in a number of the poems in this collection and there is a wealth of poems to compare this one to, including Letters From Yorkshire, Follower and Before You Were Mine.

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