Childhood Romanticised in Forgive My Guilt and once Upon a Time Poems

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“Forgive my Guilt” and” Once Upon a Time”

Consider the poems “Forgive my Guilt” and” Once upon a Time”

  1. Discuss the presentation of childhood in each poem.
  2. Identify one image in each poem and discuss how it shows this presentation.
  3. Identify one literary device in each poem and comment on its effectiveness.

The poem Forgive my Guilt” by Robert Tristram Coffin is a narrative poem written in the first person. The innocence of childhood is marred by the boy’s wounding of a pair of plover birds. The poem is written in flashback because the persona wrote the poem as an adult with hindsight at his childhood. Innocence is conveyed through the speaker’s childlike uncertainty of “… what things called sin may be.” The persona was young and naive when the act was committed and was not certain of what would be classified as a sin. It is this act that has triggered the feeling of remorse and the title of the poem is a clue to the extent of this feeling. Childhood is also presented as a time of innocence when the boy “… lies in the frost flowers with a gun…” This shows that bird hunting was a pastime for children and this activity was not considered to be a sinful act that would cause a person to be regretful. The persona remorsefully reflects about the end of the birds’ lives and hopes that they were able to survive. He is forever haunted by the birds’ sounds of sorrow and he yearns for forgiveness for wounding and killing the birds all those years ago.

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Similarly, in “Once upon a Time” by Gabriel Okara, childhood is also presented. The poem tells of a conversation between father and son, where the father wants to learn how to go back to normality and no longer be a fake person. The persona stresses how growing older can change a person and how he wishes that he could still have the sincerity that he once had. Okara talks a lot about “they” and he is describing everyday people in present society that have lost their simplicity and naturalness, they have lost the natural world of their childhood. The poet describes how growing up separates a person from his/her true self and lets him/her become corrupted by a world of false appearances. The repetition of the word “they” adds to a more sinister note in the poem as the reader begins to see that the poet has no warmth or respect for “them”. This reinforces the idea or the character that the poet is playing an outsider in society. The portrayal of childhood is evident through the deliberate contrast between a time in the past when things were innocent, pure, true, honest loveable and decent and the present which is the stark opposite. Childhood represents innocence and is the privilege of the young. The persona believes that children represent the uncorrupted society, ‘I want to be what I use to be when I was like you.” He looks at his son with admiration and affection ‘show me, son how to laugh, show me how I use to laugh and smile once upon a time when I was like you.” This means that the persona wants to relearn how to be innocent and loving and kind hearted when he was like his son once upon a time ago.

One image in “Forgive My Guilt” that portrays the presentation of childhood is the boy lying in the frost flowers with a gun with the intention to shoot the plover birds and his reaction when the gun went off and he ran to fetch the birds. There is a simile in the fifth line, “the air ran as blue as the flowers’ comparing the blueness of the air to that of the flowers. The clouds also moved and the sky appeared to be running. This is a personification. There a simile in the following line: “slim as dream things”. The persona then holds his breath showing that he feels the suspense of the moment. He wants the shot to be precise and waits for the moment to come. The images of sight and sound imageries engage the reader in such a way that the picture of the boy with the gun and the birds running when they got shot present the childhood behaviour of a child, especially a boy.

Likewise, an important image that represents childhood in “Once Upon a Time” are heavily concentrated on the body parts: heart, eyes, teeth, face, and hands. The sharp contrast between innocence and ‘soul’ of the past are set against hypocrisy and dishonesty of the present. Body actions once thought genuine such as handshakes and gestures are now empty and do not carry the feelings once associated with them. The persona wants to relearn how to be innocent. It is as though he can no longer find his own voice to express what he really thinks and feels. “… relearn how to laugh, for my laugh shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs.” This gives off negative feeling as a snake is seen to be poisonous and not to be trusted; a symbol of deceitfulness and treachery from the bible.

One literary device that is used in “Forgive my Guilt” is simile. “They cried like two sorrowful flutes.” This simile is effective because it creates an image in the reader’s mind of how the plovers sounded when they got shot by the boy. The speaker is comparing the cries of the birds to the sound that the flute makes. This shows that the birds’ cries were loud and sorrowful because they were in pain and this simile alludes to an impending death of the birds.

Also, in “Once upon a Time” the poet skilfully employs the use of metaphor. This metaphor shows that the peoples’ eyes are as cold as ice which means that there is no warmth or real feeling in the words they say, or how they behave, it gives a very negative, fake and false feeling and it is a very cold description:

“but now they only laugh with their teeth,

while their ice-block-cold eyes

search behind my shadow.”

This metaphor literally allows the reader to visualize a block of ice, cold and unwelcoming. By using a metaphor the persona says that the person who is laughing, laugh with his/her eyes as cold and as solid as ice and there is no happiness what so ever inside the persons eyes while they search behind his shadow as in they look right past him without paying any attention to him whatsoever.

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