Maya Angelou – To Beat the child was bad enough

by Senior reader

The literal meaning of this poem is not immediately clear, but the fragments of images give a strong impression of its feeling and mood.

The poem opens with descriptions emphasising the child’s vulnerability – young.. light; it talks about the promise of the young life – seeds bursting – a promise which is clearly broken by the end of the poem.  The comparison with broken glass, the shards of broken air – indicates the painful consequences of abuse.

Despite the apparent optimism and innocence of the opening, there is another side implied by the image of winter sunshine – cold and faint – suggesting again the vulnerability of the child.  The image of the string of silence is suggestive, but the meaning is uncertain.  The child is hung from this which might imply pain or being trapped, caught; perhaps the silence reflects the role of the abused child, the loss of its voice: children who are abused suffer in silence, their abuse is in secret.  Alternatively, perhaps more simply, the string is the umbilical cord on which the child literally hangs, awaiting its future.

The conclusion of the first section of the poem implies violent change – new hands, strange voices…tearing, but the image of the boiling water seems very personal, its meaning, symbolic or otherwise, unclear.  In the end the child submits, in terror to the abuser, withdrawing from human contact, submitting only in the flesh.  This is an interesting choice of language with the possibility of biblical and religious allusions – the sins of the flesh, or ironically the one flesh of marriage: this relationship of abuse is a travesty of that loving relationship.

Does the poem end in peace?  Beyond the hunger there is the peace of strange hands. Again the references here seem very personal.  Does the hunger just link with the boiling water, so that the abuse happened in a kitchen?  These elements seem deliberately obscure, perhaps reflecting the confusion of the child.  Certainly the conclusion of the poem suggests shock and trauma: A young body floats.  Silently.  There is a sense of disconnectedness and confusion emphasised by the short, abrupt sentences.


Prevent Child Abuse