Nesbit Likes: For a Five-Year-Old by Fleur Adcock

Throughout life, as children, as adults, we make decisions that change who we are. Some of these will be good, some might be bad, a few may be worse. We carry our histories with us, in scars, in behaviour, in personality. Adcock, in my favourite poem of hers, explores this with a dark sense of humour and simple observation.

It is a straightforward first stanza. ‘A snail’ has ‘climbed’ into the child’s room. The narrator, the mother, provides guidance on what to do. ‘I explain,’ she says, ‘it would be unkind to leave it there.’ It is to be ‘carr[ied] outside, with careful hand’ so that ‘no one squashes it.’ It is even fed a daffodil. The language is simplistic, innocent, directional, as one would talk to a young child.

In the second stanza, the mother reflects that this child has had their ‘gentleness… moulded by [her] words’. What she says builds the child and their morals. The thing is, her actions have been very, very different in the past. She has ‘trapped mice’, ‘shot wild birds’, ‘drowned… kittens’ and ‘purveyed the harshest kind of truth to many another’. She has acted the complete opposite to which she instructs her child.

Perhaps this starts to ring bells for us. When our parents said ‘because I said so’, Adcock writes ‘But that is how things are’. Our parents set the rules.

We all have our ‘grey area.’ None of us are all good, none of us are all bad, and it’s that fluctuation between kind and nasty behaviour which is a morally fascinating occurrence. The poem explores this. Yes, the mother has done awful things to other animals, to other people in her history, but right now, the rule is this: ‘we are kind to snails.’

I absolutely love the juxtaposition presented. The mother gives sweet guidance, careful instruction, to look after another living thing. But this is also the same mother who has done terrible things, performed actions beyond a child’s understanding, for better or for worse. This is reflected, too, in the rhyme scheme. It is the same in both stanzas (with the end of the first and last lines rhyming, couplets in between) and it represents the consistency of her person. She is the same, both when looking after the snail and when capturing and harming others, but it is her words that change. It seems as if even she can’t comprehend it, repeating ‘from me’ in disbelief.

Why does Nesbit like this poem so much? Because it explores our dark histories, our intentions to protect loved ones. Parenting isn’t an easy thing, and both mothers and fathers will understand. But parenting is also a strange thing, often of inconsistency and contradiction. Children have faith in us, trust, to teach them the ways of the world, even when we didn’t get it right the first time.

I do not own the rights to publish this poem but if you’re looking for somewhere to read it, here’s a quick Google search for you!

Looking for more poetry analysis?

Nesbit Likes: Digging by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Nesbit Likes: Visiting Hour by Steward Conn
You broke the ice with a hammer.
I watched the goldfish appear,
blunt-nosed and delicately clear.

Nesbit Likes: The Sightseers by Paul Muldoon
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

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11 thoughts on “Nesbit Likes: For a Five-Year-Old by Fleur Adcock

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