I wrote this essay on Childhood in Isobel Dixon’s Poem ‘Plenty’ during a poetry lesson with a student who is taking the CIE / Cambridge IGCSE exam. However, feel free to use it if you’re studying any of the GCSE exam boards — Edexcel, AQA, CCEA, WJEC, Eduqas, OCR, etc.
It wasn’t written under timed conditions so the middle paragraphs are slightly longer than you’d ideally aim for in your own, but I tried to include all of the main important ideas that you’d need for a high A or A* (L7/L8/L9) grade at GCSE — including analysis of form, structure and language, a clear layout, a central argument and understanding deeper meanings and alternative interpretations. Enjoy!
How does the poet present the theme of childhood in ‘Plenty’?
Dixon’s reflective poem explores the difficulties of growing up in poverty as the poet describes her family’s ‘lean, dry times’ during her ‘long childhood’. However, at the same time, she demonstrates positive experiences that can develop from difficult times, and we realise that overall she had a happy start to her life. Overall, though some children have less money than others, Dixon demonstrates that a strong family relationship is the most important factor to a happy childhood, and we get a sense that though she is now richer she also feels more lonely.
Firstly, Dixon explores her own childhood by looking back on the state of poverty she and her siblings lived in as her single mother struggled to provide for them all. The title ‘Plenty’ directly juxtaposes the imagery of the play, as it connotes abundance but we are presented with images of difficulty and hardship: ‘my mother’s quiet despair’, ‘sums and worries’, ‘our expanse of drought’. This destabilises the reader’s sense of the poem, as we at first expect the topic to be about the poet’s wealth and her fortunate circumstances. In particular, the sibilance of the phrase ‘sums and worries’ creates a low buzzing atmosphere, implying that there was always constant anxiety hanging over the mother when she tried hard to provide for her children. Furthermore, the metaphor ‘drought’ references the central connecting image of the poem — taking a bath — and suggests that the poet views having more than enough water as a sign of luxury. Water is symbolic of life, but it is also often considered a basic necessity by many — especially those in the developed world. This makes us compare our own childhood experiences to hers; we either find that we too struggled to have enough and similarly remember basic needs such as water and heat being scarce, or we realise that we have taken them for granted and should appreciate them more because not everyone is lucky enough to have them. The asyndetic listing ‘aspirin, porridge, petrol, bread’ further provides us with visual imagery that represents scarcity — we realise that the poet’s mother has to control her expenditure of even simple and essential items, and the lack of conjunctions in the list reinforces the idea that there was no room for anything extra. Overall, the sense of hardship is present throughout the poem through many smaller descriptions, which lead us to infer that Dixon’s childhood was one of very scant means.
Though money is scarce, we do realise that ‘Plenty’ relates to the poem in other ways, such as the strong family bonds with her sisters that Dixon made in her childhood. Interestingly, we realise that they are especially close because of sharing the experience of hardship together, and poverty becomes almost like a game for them: they ‘Skipped chores / Swiped biscuits’ and ‘stole another precious inch’ of water for their baths. The children’s playful resistance against their mother’s strict rules brings them closer together, as reinforced by the verbs ‘Skipped’, ‘Swiped’, and ‘stole’ creating a sense of constant playful activity and enjoyment of disobedience.
Dixon refers to her siblings using the first person collective pronoun ‘we’, which further creates the sense that they are all working together as one group. However, Dixon’s relationship with her mother is more complex — she asserts that the children ‘thought her mean’ and describes ‘Mommy’s smile’ as ‘a clasp to keep us all from chaos’. This creates a conflicting tone through a double perspective, as we realise that in childhood Dixon didn’t quite understand her mother’s reasons for strict parenting and so interpreted her actions as cruelty, but she has now changed her opinion. When she describes her mother as she saw her in childhood, we are presented with a controlling and angry figure, but as an adult reflecting on her past Dixon characterises her mother instead of with sympathy and respect. She states that she interpreted the mother’s expression as ‘anger at some fault//Of mine, I thought, the use of enjambment across the stanzas creates a reflective pause on the image of the mother’s angry smile (which in itself demonstrates conflicted emotions). It perhaps represents Dixon’s guilt when she looks back on her naive and immature childhood self and her appreciation for her mother’s actions as an adult.
Finally, this double perspective on her childhood is enhanced further through the final stanzas of the poem, which demonstrate a shift from the poet’s memory to her current situation — where she is wealthy and taking a luxurious bath. This is represented by the tense shift from past to present, which creates a volta in the second to last stanza through the time adverbial ‘Now’. The time jump corresponds to a jump in perspective, and we realise that she is looking back at her childhood from a position of luxury. The short sentence ‘I am a Sybarite’ stands out from the flow of the poem and seems to summarise her current position, as Sybarites in Ancient Greece had a reputation for living in excessive luxury; the term has connotations of wealth but also perhaps suggests self-indulgence in a negative sense too. This implies that Dixon has mixed feelings about her current richness: extreme pleasure but also guilt as she tells us she leaves ‘the heating on and ‘the water’s plentiful, to excess, almost’ — the commas create a slight pause that suggests she is switching between these positive and negative feelings. In the final stanza, this image of luxury is compromised slightly by the feelings of longing and nostalgia for the past that are expressed via a series of images — the poet misses her ‘scattered sisters’, the ‘bathroom squabbles’ and even her ‘mother’s smile’. In some ways, we realise, not having enough money can give you more genuine and deep experiences and memories, and the final message of the poem seems to be to appreciate what you have and cherish memories of good times above any pursuit of wealth or luxury.
In summary, in ‘Plenty’ childhood is presented in a complex and subtle way — the tensions between parents and children are playful yet immature, and as an adult, the poet sees that her seemingly strict mother was in fact an excellent parent. Dixon also uses a comparison with her childhood and her present moment to draw some interesting conclusions on the differences between poverty and wealth and certainly invites us to understand that being poor and experiencing hardship does not always equal suffering. Through the poem, we are encouraged to reflect on our own hard and abundant times and to find a deeper appreciation for both these states of being.