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CSEC English B: My Parents by Stephen Spender Poem Analysis

Updated: Jun 7, 2021




My Parents

Stephen Spender


My parents kept me from children who were rough

Who threw words like stones and wore torn clothes

Their thighs showed through rags they ran in the street

And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams.


I feared more than tigers their muscles like iron

Their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms

I feared the salt coarse pointing of those boys

Who copied my lisp behind me on the road.


They were lithe they sprang out behind hedges

Like dogs to bark at my world. They threw mud

While I looked the other way, pretending to smile.

I longed to forgive them but they never smiled.





Summary

In the poem, the persona recalls a childhood where his parents kept him from 'rough' children. His parents hope to protect him from the derision and harassment of these children, which, throughout the poem, is shown to be true. However, it becomes evident that in keeping him from these children (likely of a lower social class than he is), his parents greatly restrict his freedom, and he is jealous of the freedom that these rough children possess. In titling the poem My Parents and then only mentioning his parents once before speaking about bullying, the persona seems to both blame his parents for his lack of freedom and him being the target of the children's abuse. But, he also seems to appreciate their protection, as the rest of the poem essentially proves his parents right. They play in the street and climb cliffs and swim in rivers with no constraint. He feared these children and their abrasive nature; their vituperative words and seemingly insurmountable strength. Even in this fear though, there is an admiration of their strength that far surpasses his own. Nonetheless, they would tease him constantly, mocking his lisp while pointing reproachfully. The persona seems deeply troubled by their endless torment and abuse. He pretends to smile, hoping to inspire some form of peace and fraternity, but to no avail. He always longed to forgive them for their harassment, but is denied when they do not reciprocate any desire for harmony. The persona and the children are of different socioeconomic classes; the children, lower class and the persona, middle-to-upper class. Thus, there is a divide between them, and their mockery of him is suggested to have a separate motivation other than simple childish badinage- they are jealous of his privilege. The persona himself is jealous of the rough children's freedom even though his social class permits him far more privilege than they have. This is the implicit irony of the poem.

The mood of this poem is reflective. The themes include childhood experience, parental influence and social segregation.


Analysis


"My parents kept me from children who were rough"

The persona begins with a somewhat accusatory phrase. His parents restrained him from being near the 'children who were rough' as a preventative measure. They do not want him to be teased and mocked for his disabilities, and the abrasive nature of these children justifies their worry. Describing them as rough instantly creates a contrast between the children and the persona himself, as his parents' effort to keep him from them means that he himself is not like them. The use of the word 'kept' implies that sort of childish resentment that the persona would have felt as a child, wanting to experience the same freedom as these children but held back nonetheless.


"Who threw words like stones and wore torn clothes

Their thighs showed through rags they ran in the street

And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams."

The rough children are said to throw 'words like stones.' This simile gives the reader insight into the character and behaviour of these children, as their use of words is compared to the destructive act of throwing stones. Their words, therefore, are used with the intention to harm emotionally in the same way stones are thrown with the intention of causing physical destruction. The sharp, monosyllabic language used in the simile communicates a harsh use of words without etiquette characteristic of the lower class.

The children wear torn clothes, another indicator of their less than fortunate status. Despite this suboptimal economic status, the children are able to explore and play uninhibited. They run in the street, climb cliffs and swim in streams; all things that our dear persona could never dream of doing. His overprotective parents keep him from both these children and their carefree, unrestricted lifestyle. He is envious of them, and wishes to enjoy the same wonders of freedom as they do. An alliteration is used here in 'climbed cliffs.' This shows the agility of these children, and sort of portrays them in an animalistic and primitive light in their scaling of natural landscapes. Their thighs are said to show 'through rags,' rags being a symbol of poverty and communicating their poorer status in comparison to the persona.


"I feared more than tigers their muscles like iron

Their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms"

Using hyperbole, the persona communicates how great his fear was of these boys. Tigers are able rip a human limb from limb with sheer animalistic instinct and power, but he still places his fear of their muscles above that (hence why it is an exaggerated expression). Coupled with the use of simile to compare their muscles to the rigid strength of iron, the persona conveys a very exaggerated fear along with a possible amount of admiration of their strength. Being of a lower working class, they would perform more manual labour and explore more, giving them physical strength far beyond the reach of the persona.

We also see the harassment he is subjected to, as he is pinned to the ground during some sort of fight. He is made the victim of this torment, and it is possibly because of how different he is from them. His superior social status is a likely cause, along with his disability mentioned later on in the poem.


"I feared the salt coarse pointing of those boys

Who copied my lisp behind me on the road."

The persona now states that he feared their 'salt coarse pointing.' This metaphor directly compares their pointing to the coarseness of salt. The use of coarse continues the description of the children as rough, but it also gives a tangibility to the derision of the boys. The persona feels their mockery to be coarse and harsh, inflicting a near-physical abrasion that goes beyond some sort of friendly badinage. By saying salt coarse, it also alludes to a common phrase 'rub salt into the wound.' Although it is a bit of a stretch, their mockery, on top of forcing him into compromising positions in fights, is like rubbing salt into an open wound, as he experiences the emotional fallout as well as the physical.

The boys copy his lisp behind him on the road, showing that his speech impediment is a point which they use to mock him. His disability is therefore one of the things that make him a prime target of these rough children.


"They were lithe they sprang out behind hedges

Like dogs to bark at my world. They threw mud

While I looked the other way, pretending to smile."

The persona continues to describe their incessant harassment of him. They are lithe and agile, and he is not. Using simile, he compares them to dogs, "springing out behind hedges like dogs to bark at my world." Dogs usually bark to threaten intruders or those they think do not belong. In the same way, like animals, the children jump out at him and threaten him and his highly privileged world. Throughout their mud-throwing he would pretend to smile, as though unperturbed by this torment. He hopes to inspire some form of friendliness through this peaceable smiling.


"I longed to forgive them but they never smiled."

Even though he wants to forgive them for the torment they cause him, they never reciprocate this desire, nor do they return a smile. The difference in their social classes causes the children to envy his fortune while he envies their freedom. These strong societal barriers of envy and jealousy create vitriol between them that cannot easily be overcome.






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3 Comments


Noluthando Thando
Noluthando Thando
May 30, 2023

This is literally the most helpful summary I've seen online, thank you so much.

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Tan Min Li (Qss)
Tan Min Li (Qss)
Oct 03, 2022

much appreciated haha. literature exam tomorrow


Like

This is a good summary thank you so much

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