Introduction

In the poem ‘For a Five Year Old’, the realities of life are depicted. The poet, Fleur Adcock cleverly points out the contradictions in our day-to-day lives. The poem supports her observation, that humans, by their very nature, do not do what they preach. Thus, she draws attention to the contrasts between what elders teach and how different their actions are.

About the poet

Fleur Adcock born on10th February, 1934 in Papakura, New Zealand, is a British poet who is recognised for her pleasant domestic poems peppered with irony. She earned a Master’s Degree in Classics from Victoria University of Wellington. She worked at the University of Otago in Dunedin as an assistant lecturer and then as an assistant librarian. Adcock’s poetry is usually concerned with themes of place, human connections, and everyday life, yet the ordinary events she describes are occasionally given a crisp twist.

Theme

The poem is a parody on the idea that children’s actions can be influenced by words. Adcock, the poet, believes in “practising what you teach.” Elders frequently preach ideal principles to children but fail to follow them themselves.Adcock intends to emphasize on the importance of being truthful while preaching to others and being consistent in their own actions.

Structure

The poem consists of two stanzas, made up of octaves (eight lines each). The lines are irregular in length but consist of a rhyme. The poem has a rhyme scheme ‘abbccdde’.

Stanza 1

A snail is climbing up the windowsill 
Into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain 
That it would be unkind to leave it there: 
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
That no one squashes it. You understand,
And carry it outside, with careful hand, 
To eat a daffodil

Fleur Adcock’s poem, ‘For a Five Year Old’ is a fictitious narrative. After watching a snail creeping up the window after a rainy night, the poet imagines her five-year-old child screaming out to her. Entering the child’s room, the mother (Poet) explains that leaving it there would be cruel since it would tumble to the floor. She tells him that it is advisable to take care of it before it is accidentally squashed. She tells the child to carefully take it up and place it in the garden, where it will eat daffodil flowers.

Stanza 2

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails: 
Your gentleness is moulded still by words.
 From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds, 
From me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed 
Your closest relatives, and who purveyed 
The harshest kind of truth to many another 
But that is how things are : I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

In the next stanza, the poet begins to question how and why this kind of faith prevails, where individuals feel that character is formed more by words of wisdom than by others’ actions. She is happy that the child believed in her words and treated the snail delicately. But she is upset and guilty that she advised her child to do something which she wouldn’t ideally do. She is sorry, but also fascinated, since the child trusted her (Poet’s) words, despite the fact that she was not kind in her deeds.

Even though the mother had trapped the mice, shot birds, drowned the child’s kittens and deceived even her closest relatives, the child had taken her words seriously. She had also been harsh in purveying several facts to others. Essentially, she never put what she intended her child to learn into action. However, she comforts herself at the end of the stanza by adding, “This is how things are.” But she ensures that she and her child are kind to the snail.

The poem brings us to the phrase, “Do as I say, but don’t do as I do,” implying that the elders (in this case, the mother) provide practical guidance to the children but do not implement it themselves.