A climber, climbing up a jagged cliff
Mountaineering vocabulary is used throughout the poem to create an extended metaphor

A number of unifying ideas or themes run through the poem. Different readers may attach more or less significance to each of these themes, depending upon how they view the poem.

Mountaineering: mountaineering vocabulary is used throughout the poem to create the extended metaphor.‘rope’, ‘net’, ‘overhanging’, ‘traverse’, ice’, ‘ridge’, ‘screed’, ‘altitude’, ‘summit’The speaker’s enjoyment for mountain climbing is referenced through his use of mountaineering vocabulary to link with the fondness he has for his grandfather. It allows him to compare his grandfather to an impressive natural feature.
Childhood memories: subtly expressed through imagery of the towering grandfather.‘First, the old brogues’, ‘At his still firm shoulder’The theme of childhood memories is more subtly expressed by the up-close focus on the grandfather, which concentrates on tiny details of his appearance. It is as if a towering adult is being viewed from below by a small child, who knows the feet, legs and hands of a tall adult very well, but has to climb up the adult’s body to see his face.
Nostalgia: there are hints that the speaker finds the process of remembering his grandfather a difficult one.‘not looking down, for climbing has its dangers’The difficult process of remembering his grandfather is highlighted through the ‘dangers’, as long-forgotten grief will perhaps be renewed. Possibly, the speaker won’t be able to recall his grandfather properly and this, too, could be distressing. It is as if the old man only gradually becomes clear in the speaker’s memory.
Family relationships: The sense of a very close relationship is conveyed by the details of the grandfather’s body.‘an earth-stained hand’, ‘the skin of his finger is smooth and thick’, ‘the glassy ridge of a scar’The details of the grandfather’s features are the kind of details that only someone who knew him intimately could have encountered. Again, there’s the suggestion of the unselfconscious scrutiny that very young children give to the adults who nurse them and cuddle them.

What is the significance of the line, ‘I decide to do it free, without a rope or net.’ ?

  • Free-climbing is dangerous. Waterhouse suggests the process of remembering may also be risky. Perhaps sad memories will be uncovered along with the happy ones.
  • In climbing, a rope or net supports the climber. But the speaker rejects any supports to his memory (such as family photographs) to help him recall the old man.
  • The poem offers a child’s perspective, seeing the grandfather close-up. The effect on readers is to prompt them to recall their own childhood memories of significant adults.