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There was a Child Once


Louise writes:

I need help to interpret a poem -there was a child once- written by katherine mansfield. ... Im just wondering about how someone else interprets the poem. i realise that it involves the relationship between 2 people and that the relationship ends badly. i think that maybe they are in some way sheltered from the rest of the world "world road". what do you think she means when she says "he was quite pale and silent" and "singing thoughts" . i guess im just confused by what some of it means. im doing an acting exam and i have to discuss it afterwards with the examiner thats why i need another persons opinion!! do u think she is saying that she got too serious with the other person? that she told him too much? i know she had a stillborn baby also, maybe this is relating back to this!! im so confused! please let me know what you think!! ...


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Hi Louise,

First of all, let me say that you are not bothering me. On the contrary, you give me the chance to read for the first time one of Mansfield's best poems. Like most important poems, it's a difficult one and of course it can be interpreted in many ways.


Katherine Mansfield
There was a Child Once

There was a child once. 
He came to play in my garden; 
He was quite pale and silent. 
Only when he smiled I knew everything about him, 
I knew what he had in his pockets, 
And I knew the feel of his hands in my hands 
And the most intimate tones of his voice. 
I led him down each secret path, 
Showing him the hiding-place of all my treasures. 
I let him play with them, every one, 
I put my singing thoughts in a little silver cage 
And gave them to him to keep... 
It was very dark in the garden 
But never dark enough for us. On tiptoe we walked among the deepest shades; 
We bathed in the shadow pools beneath the trees, 
Pretending we were under the sea. 
Once--near the boundary of the garden-- 
We heard steps passing along the World-road; 
O how frightened we were! 
I whispered: "Have you ever walked along that road?" 
He nodded, and we shook the tears from our eyes.... 

There was a child once. 
He came--quite alone--to play in my garden; 
He was pale and silent. 
When we met we kissed each other, 
But when he went away, we did not even wave 


The first phrase already contains much of what follows. A child by itself, besides anything else, denotes impermanence: it is something temporary, something to disappear to let an adult be. Childhood, then, is a special and pure impermanence inside the overall impermanence of all beings in time. "There was a child once" means a double past, the past of a child as a child and the past of a particular child that came to my garden once. This mirroring of time creates the poem as an infinity of perishing that presents life as a nightmare.

All nightmares contain elements of reality, and time, too, needs elements of a relative permanence, like memory, in order to exist. All those elements of reality in the poem - playing, smiling, loving, communicating - emerge from and sink into memory and sadness.

It is not the natural course of things that matters most, the fact that life is exhausted by time; the social dimension is more significant than this, because what in nature is just time in social relationships becomes hostility. This is how I understand the World-road metaphor. A road can be a transformation to a greater reality, but it can also be just a passing by, pure hostility against anything important and permanent.

"He came to play in my garden". Maybe by chance, but I don't think so. The child came from outside, from the World-road, and as he was walking, he saw that garden and he recognised it as a familiar place, a place of someone like himself. After all, a garden is a place beyond time, where everything that exists is well ordered and defined by space and not time relations - this tree is here, that tree is there, and they will remain thus. However, it is not the garden of Eden, since there was "never dark enough" to keep them safe from the World-road: fear is always present, even in the garden.

Katherine MansfieldThe boy came to play - not to hide. That means he didn't came because of fear, but because he finaly saw a place where he could fulfil a wish. He had a wish, silently, but a real one. He came to play, he was able to smile, he gave his hands to the touch of some other's hands, he even spoke and revealed "the most intimate tones of his voice". Inside the nightmare a dream begins, where the child plays and the owner of the garden shares all the treasures of the place and each secret path formed in solitude and isolation for a stranger who might, sometime, come and walk on it.

Secrecy is not a permanent property of the treasures. They are secret to the outside World-road, but in the inside they are objects of a game, they are "singing thoughts" to be shared and kept, they are offered "in a little silver cage" because it is something important that must never be thrown carelessly into a hostile world. They both know it, because they both feal tears in their eyes when they think of the outside.

Finally they had to separate. The boy went away like a dream. He didn't say "good-bye", turned his back and left. "They didn't even wave": he went away means that he disappeared leaving in his place a memory of a child "quite alone", "pale and silent" - leaving in his place a memory, a dream of love inside the nightmare.


I hope these improvised thoughts will help a little.Add a note!


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