Below, you’ll find an analysis of Norman Nicholson’s poem ‘Rising Five’.
This poem is inspirational; it makes me stop and think about how to slow down and appreciate the beautiful moments in life when they happen, rather than rushing ahead to focus on the next thing. It’s simple and complex at the same time, harmonising our knowledge of art and science to give us a well-rounded and refreshing perspective on life and how to enjoy it to the fullest.
This analysis is tailored towards CIE (Cambridge) IGCSE students, but feel free to use it for studying the poem at any level or through any exam board (Edexcel, AQA, Eduqas/WJEC, CCEA, OCR, and so on!)
If you find my analysis useful, you can take a look at the full CIE IGCSE poetry course and other English resources.
To get a full PDF analysis of this poem, click this link.
Rising Five – Norman Nicholson
Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright, but here’s a link to the poem so you can follow it along with this analysis.
Dissected — to ‘dissect’ means to cut something apart, usually for scientific analysis so that we can observe how it works in a deeper way.
Tangential — a mathematical term, in maths a ‘tangent’ is something which travels in a straight line, so here it is used to refer to the suns’ rays as they travel in straight lines through the sky to Earth. We can also use the word ‘tangent’ in a more artistic/figurative sense, to mean something that goes off-topic or breaks from the normal stream of thought.
A boy petulantly tells the speaker of the poem that he isn’t only four years old, he’s in fact ‘rising five’, this amuses the speaker and also gets him thinking about the eagerness of nature and new life to grow quickly and mature, whereas from his mature perspective he feels we should slow down and take time to enjoy the growth process a little more. The speaker is standing in a field, and he notices the same eagerness in the Springtime around him — ‘Not May / But rising June’ — the whole of nature seems impatient, as if it can’t wait for Summer. The poem ends with a reflection on the sadness within this attitude — we all rush forwards too quickly without taking time to appreciate life, and it will be over far too soon.
The speaker observes the little boy’s confidence and stubbornness with amusement, creating a humourous but also respectful tone — he is surprised and impressed by the boy’s wish to be considered older, but also saddened as he realises that we all grow up too fast and don’t appreciate youth or beautiful moments in life until they pass. He suggests in the last lines that if we hold this attitude to life and don’t slow down and appreciate it we are ‘Not living / But rising dead’, we are just heading fast towards death instead of properly experiencing life.
‘We drop our youth behind us like a boy / Throwing away his toffee-wrappers.’ — the poet observes the difference between the innocence of youth and the experience of maturing as an adult. When we’re young we throw away our youthfulness, always wanting to be perceived as older. When we’re older, we miss being young.
‘The new buds push the old leaves from the bough.’ — in nature, new life is always growing out of the old, and youth has a way of pushing forwards, whereas age has a way of giving space to allow for new growth.
Plosive sounds — ‘the cells of spring / Bubbled and doubled; buds unbuttoned’ — the poet uses plosive ‘b’ and ‘d’ sounds in this image to demonstrate the growth of life in Spring, how cells duplicate and create a new life in nature, and flowers pop open.
Visual Imagery — ‘The dust dissected the tangential light:’, Nicholson uses scientific imagery at the time with a scientific register / semantic field of biology (‘dissected’ ‘tangential’ ‘cells’) to emphasise the difference between appreciating the world with an artistic eye for beauty, or a practical and analytical eye for scientific processes — however, we could also say that he views the scientific perspective as beautiful in itself, as this image produces a beautiful picture in our minds of the way that specks of dust catch the sun’s rays and become visible for a moment.
Symbolism — ‘We never see the flower, /But only the fruit in the flower;’ — the use of natural imagery symbolises the processes of life and work that humans undertake, if we are looking always for ‘fruit’ (a possible idiomatic reference to the phrase ‘fruits of our labour’), we are always only measuring the practical outcome of our life and work, rather than appreciating the beauty (symbolised by the ‘flower’). This symbolism is extended in the next clause: never the fruit, / But only the rot in the fruit.’ — here Nicholson is making the point that humans are overly critical, and cannot even fully enjoy the products of their life and work because even then they are looking ahead to the moment where it will ‘rot’, break down and disintegrate.
The child himself is also a symbol of the same new growth and new life that surrounds him in the field where he and the speaker are standing.
There are an irregular stanza and line length — but there is a very clear structure to the poem. Each stanza is intentionally ordered.
Enjambment — “Not four // But rising five.” — the space between these lines creates an emphasis on the distinction between the terms ‘four’ and ‘rising five’, which mean exactly the same thing in terms of years, but are very different in terms of attitude — a child who considers themselves ‘rising five’ is progressive and looking forward to the next step in their maturity, or wanting to be considered older than they actually are as if they are eager to grow and develop and frustrated with their youthful state of being
- This enjambment structure is then repeated further at the end of successive (following) stanzas such as ‘Not day / But rising night’, ‘Not living / But rising dead’. The poet applies the same child’s logic to different concepts in life to emphasise the absurdity of this very human attitude and to shift our perspective on the progress of time. This becomes a message to us all to slow down and appreciate the moments in life that matter, rather than constantly looking ahead and trying to progress to the next stage.
Caesura — ‘We look for the marriage bed / In the baby’s cradle; we look for the grave in the bed; // Not living // But rising dead.’ — the use of caesura (semicolons) and enjambment in the final stanza creates long pauses between the various images — these perhaps signify jumps in time or perspective — we are already thinking of our child’s marriage soon after they’re born, and of death thereafter, instead of living in the present moment.
Norman Nicholson (1914–1987) was a working-class poet whose work is known for its simplicity and directness, he was especially heralded as a poet of the Lake District landscape in Cumbria, UK — this interest in the beauty of nature is present in the poem.
He lived in a small industrial town called Millom in Cumbria, surrounded by beautiful countryside- you can see that the poem starts with pastoral imagery (relating to the genre of pastoral literature, which explores the idyllic beauty of the countryside and the perfection of youth).
He was a religious poet — of the Church of England Christian faith.
Nicholson and his wife never had children, so the poem is not specifically about his son, it’s more commenting on the different attitudes between young and old people, and different perspectives that we gain in youth and old age.
- Science / Nature
- Life’s purpose
- Innocence vs Experience
Thank you for reading! If you found my analysis useful, you can take a look at the full CIE IGCSE poetry course and other English resources.