Discuss how poets have presented the loss of childhood innocence in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ by Seamus Heaney, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ by Carol Ann Duffy, and ‘The Evacuee’ by R. S. Thomas. It is clear to all that a key part of poetry is its ability to capture significant moments in our lives. Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and R. S. Thomas do this effectively and uniquely in their poems which I am analysing. These three poems explore, in their own way, childhood innocence.
However, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ by Carol Ann Duffy and ‘Death of a Naturalist’ by Seamus Heaney view childhood innocence differently from R. S Thomas, and also focus on the loss of childhood innocence, unlike ‘The Evacuee’ where R. S Thomas demonstrates childhood innocence almost in reverse, where the young girl regains her innocence as the poem progresses. Despite the fact that all three poems cover the same subject, we understand that all of the children being written about are in varying situations. In R. S Thomas’s ‘The Evacuee’, the poem is set in the rural Welsh countryside, which demonstrates the type of childhood R. S Thomas may have had. Seamus Heaney’s poem also appears to be set in rural countryside.
However, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is set in County Derry’s countryside where he grew up in the 1940s. Unlike the two other poems, Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is set in an urban area. The majority of her poem is set in her old classroom, in Glasgow, where she was educated in her childhood. The settings in each of these poems are important for readers, as they have a large affect on the children’s development. An example of this would be the young boy in Heaney’s poem, where he is terrified by the ugly adult frogs. Another example would be in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’, when she unwillingly discovers about sex in the playground.
The contrast in these two settings underlines the fact that no matter where you are, childhood innocence will unavoidably be affected. While investigating the loss of childhood innocence in Duffy’s poem, the opening half of the poem stresses the child’s innocence to the reader, and as we continue through the poem, the child grows and loses her childhood innocence. This method of structure is used in a similar way by Seamus Heaney. The choice of a school setting in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ is significant throughout, as school is a place where all of us have developed mostly in our lives.
It is also an ideal setting to examine the development of childhood innocence, mainly because we can relate to it directly as we have all been in similar positions. It is apparent that most of Duffy’s poetry is reflecting on her own childhood. She gives the impression that she celebrates childhood, and it also suggests that she was happiest then and wants to go back to that joyful time. Many of Duffy’s poems are about what it is like to have exposed to the world of adulthood and what effect it has on childhood innocence.
During ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ it appears that Duffy has a great desire for knowledge, getting across her own childhood. This enthusiasm is shown by Carol Ann Duffy’s clear fondness for school: “This was better than home”. This childish perception of school reinforces the sense of childhood innocence she once had. Carol Ann Duffy clearly takes pleasure in school life, describing in an enthusiastic tone: “enthralling books”. She uses metaphors and imagery as methods to show us her childish delight in her school life. She shows her enthusiasm when she says such things as “the classroom glowed like a sweet shop”.
The simile “like a sweet shop” is a perfect example to illustrate that Duffy considered school with a sense of childish glee. This language expresses Duffy’s childish wonder at the world. It is obvious that school would have been something Carol Ann Duffy adored, especially considering that when she was a child growing up in Glasgow, she was a gifted student and school would have been a source of great happiness for her. Her teachers advised her to develop her writing talent from a young age and helped her to do so; therefore the childish delight expressed in this poem is unsurprising.
The use of school as a setting and the theme of learning is one strong similarity between ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’, and educational imagery is a method that Duffy uses to great effect right through her poem, mainly in the first two stanzas, to put across childhood innocence. The image of “a good gold star by your name” is an effective use of imagery that gets across the child’s delight in getting a gold star. Duffy also appeals to the senses when she describes things such as the scent of the pencil shavings, the sight of the coloured paper and the taste of the milk.
Thus, Duffy impressionistically builds up a sense of a child’s world. Even when something from the outside world challenges Duffy’s innocence, school is a distraction from the effect the world may have on her childhood innocence: “Brady and Hindley faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake”. This is referring to the Moors Murders, which would have been major news when Carol Ann Duffy was in primary school, but Duffy proves that she could forget about these distractions when she was in school.
Although they “faded”, they have not been totally removed, and Duffy uses an effective simile to show us this: “like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake”. Ultimately, when there is a more relentless challenge to Duffy’s childhood innocence, she tries to protect her innocence: “A rough boy told you how you were born, you kicked him”. This indicates how unwilling she is to discover adult topics such as sex. Her childhood innocence however becomes vulnerable and she can’t shield it anymore when she “stared at her parents, appalled”. As Duffy enters the final stages of the poem she is on the verge of losing her childhood innocence.