Death of a Young Son by Drowning Poem by Margaret Atwood Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” is written by Margaret Atwood. The poem was first published in her poetry collection “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” in 1970. The poem is part of the historiographic meta fiction genre. It consists of elements of history, fiction as well as theory. The poem is a mother’s lament at the loss of her child. The son died after drowning. The speaker is the mother of the dead child. The poem talks about the search for identity and a connection to the roots.

About the poet

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She is a Canadian writer, poet, critic and teacher. She is also an inventor. She is also the founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Writer’s Trust of Canada. She has written and pun;joshed numerous books and poetry collections. Some of her writings have also won many awards like the Booker Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize and the National Book Critics award. Some of her most notable works include “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Blind Assassin” and “The Testaments”.


The poem is written in free-verse. It consists of 10 stanzas. Each stanza is a tercet, containing 3 lines each, except the last stanza which is a couplet.

Lines 1-6

He, who navigated with success

the dangerous river of his own birth

once more set forth

on a voyage of discovery

into the land I floated on

but could not touch to claim.


The poem begins with the speaker talking about someone. The speaker is a mother. She is talking about how her son, who navigated his own birth successfully. She talks about how the son traveled the north journey all by himself. Birth is referred to as a perilous river journey that everyone has to take. After the birth, the son is now on a new journey. He is on a journey to discover and find himself. The mother sees him exploring a distant floating land, but she can’t physically reach or claim it.


In these lines, the poet talks about a mother who is thinking about her son’s life journey. The mother begins by describing her son’s successful journey through birth. She says that he overcame the perilous river of birth alone. This dangerous river is used as a metaphor for life’s challenges. Then the poet talks about how after the son had completed the journey of birth, he is now embarking on a new quest of self-discovery. She uses the image of the son exploring a distant floating land to evoke a sense of mystery about the unknown. The mother is unable to physically reach or claim this distant floating land. The poet uses the image of a floating land to symbolize the emotional distance between the mother and son.

Lines 7-12

His feet slid on the bank,

the currents took him;

he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water

and plunged into distant regions,

his head a bathysphere;

through his eyes’ thin glass bubbles


In these lines, the mother talks about what happened after the son went off to the floating land. She says that in that land, he slipped on the riverbank. The currents carry him away and swirl him amidst ice and trees in the swollen water. The mother talks about how her son must have been pulled and plunged into even farther away regions. She talks about how as he moves, it’s like he’s diving into faraway places, his head compared to a bathysphere. A bathysphere is a machine for deep-sea exploration. The son must have looked out of his eyes, that seemed like “thin glass bubbles”.


In this stanza, the poet continues to describe what happens after the son ventures into the distant floating land. The son slips on the riverbank, and the powerful currents carry him away, swirling amidst ice and trees in the swollen water. The mother imagines her son being pulled even farther away, as if plunging into distant regions. The poet uses the metaphor of his head being like a bathysphere, a deep-sea exploration vessel. The poet calls the eyes of the child “thin glass bubbles” to highlight how a young child’s vision is delicate yet profound.

Lines 13-18

he looked out, reckless adventurer

on a landscape stranger than Uranus

we have all been to and some remember.

There was an accident; the air locked,

he was hung in the river like a heart.

They retrieved the swamped body,


In these lines, the mother describes her son as a daring adventurer who gazes upon a landscape stranger than Uranus, a distant planet. The speaker suggests that this unfamiliar place is one everyone has been to, and only some can recall. However, an accident occurs there, and the air locks, trapping the son on that distant land. She describes her boy as being “hung in the river like a heart” to convey a sense of vulnerability and suspension. Eventually, they recover the son’s body from the water after it becomes swamped.


In these lines, the poet portrays the son as a bold adventurer who is exploring strange landscapes. This land is even stranger than the distant planet Uranus. The poet talks about how everyone has visited this strange and distant place. This place is a shared experience, yet not everyone remembers it. The son, while there, meets an accident where his air is locked out. This is the accident that will cause his death. The accident and the air locking convey a sudden and tragic turn in the son’s journey, leaving him trapped in this unfamiliar land. The poet metaphorically compares the vulnerability of the situation to the son being “hung in the river like a heart”. The son’s body is eventually recovered after it gets swamped in the river of the exploration.

Lines 19-24

cairn of my plans and future charts,

with poles and hooks

from among the nudging logs.

It was spring, the sun kept shining, the new grass

leapt to solidity;

my hands glistened with details.


In these lines, the speaker describes a cairn, a pile of stones, and her future charts. These items represent her plans and future goals. The cairn and charts are decorated with poles and hooks made from logs. She talks about how during spring, as the sun shines, new grass emerges and becomes solid. The speaker describes her hands as glistening with details. This highlights a sense of involvement or purposeful nature of her work.


The poet here creates a vivid scene centered around a cairn. The cairn is a pile of stones which represents her plans and future goals. The poet also talks about future charts, poles, and hooks made from logs to suggest a deliberate and thoughtful arrangement of her ambitions. The poet also makes a mention of the speaker’s hands glistening to give the image a personal touch. She does this to emphasize the hands-on and delicate nature of her work. This could also symbolize the care and attention she invests in shaping her plans.

Lines 25-29

After the long trip I was tired of waves.

My foot hit rock. The dreamed sails

collapsed, ragged.

                   I planted him in this country

                   like a flag.


In these lines, the speaker says that she was tired of the river waves after the long journey. The weariness after a long journey on waves shows the tiredness of her spirit. Suddenly, her foot hits rock, causing the dreamed sails to collapse. The collapsed sails appear worn and torn. After her dreams fail, the mother describes planting her son’s memory, possibly as a symbol of his journey. This journey of the son is a significant experience. She plants these memories in the country like a flag. 


In these concluding lines, the poet talks about feeling tired after a long journey at sea. The weariness of the mother is strong, and when her foot hits rock, the imaginary sails collapse and look worn out. Through this image the poet conveys a sense of exhaustion and the realization of reaching a solid foundation after the uncertainties of the journey. The poet then describes the mother planting her son, like a flag, in the country. This suggests a sort of claiming or marking of a new place. It gives a clear sense of finding stability and relief after the uncertainties of the sea journey. It’s like the end of an adventure and the start of something new.