A father-child relationship can be a beautiful thing for some, and complicated for others. There are different kinds of fathers. There are fathers who are always around for their children, who provide guidance and unconditional love. Then there are impossible-to-please fathers who burden their children with high expectations, leading to a strained relationship. And there are those fathers who, unable to handle the responsibilities of fatherhood, just walk out on their family. Some people may see their father in one way as a child, and grow up to see them in a completely new light. It’s like when you argue about your curfew and your father tells you, “You’ll understand when you have a child.” The complexity and richness of the father-child relationship explains why so many poets write poems about fathers and fatherhood.
In this lesson, you’ll read poems about the father-child relationship. You’ll also find out about the relationship between these poems’ themes and the form and devices used to express them.
The poet Gregory Orr wrote a touching poem about how fathers learn as much from their children as they teach their children. Read Gregory Orr’s poem, “Father’s Song.” What kind of relationship do the father and child in this poem share? What poetic devices does the poet use to depict the nuances of this relationship? This simple 14-line poem is about the relationship between a protective, caring father and a carefree, playful child. The use of free verse and lack of rhyme helps convey the simplicity and spontaneity of how the father feels about his child.
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Which lines in the poem make you almost “see” what is happening? Look at the lines “my daughter balanced on the couch back, fell and cut her mouth.” and the “blood so red that it stops a father’s heart.” These lines tell you how the speaker feels about his child. The poem reflects how the speaker’s experience and caution is balanced by his child’s willingness to experience life freely and take risks, and the circle continues, “round and round.” The last two lines of this poem are the essence of a healthy father-child relationship, “I try to teach her caution,/ she tried to teach me risk.” The speaker tries to protect his child from harm, while the child shows him how to be open to adventure and new experiences.
Poems About Fathers Analyzed
While Gregory Orr’s “Father’s Song” was inspired by fatherhood, other poets have been inspired by their fathers, like the poet Dylan Thomas. Read or listen to Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which is a son’s plea to his dying father to not give in to death. This poem’s central theme is the speaker’s inability to accept his father’s old age and mortality. Now let’s see how the poem’s form and structure add to this theme.
This poem is a villanelle, which is a 19-line poem with five tercets, or three-line stanzas, that ends with a quatrain, or four-line stanza. A villanelle was traditionally used to write simple, pastoral poems. So, why do you think Thomas chose to write this poem as a villanelle? The villanelle form of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” adds to the irony of commanding a weak, dying person to “rage” against death. Just as this poem is nothing like the typical lyrical, pastoral poem, a weak dying man is not likely to “rage” against anything.
Only two rhymes are used across the poem with words like, “night,” “light,” “sight,” and “day,” “way,” “pray.” These two recurring rhymes help build on the speaker’s intensity as he convinces his father to stay alive. The first and third rhymes of the first stanza are repeated alternately in an interlocking rhyme scheme in the succeeding stanzas. The rhyme scheme is aba/aba/aba/aba/aba/abaa, where the first rhyme is joined in the last two lines of the quatrain.
The last two lines also bring together the poem’s two refrains: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Did you notice that these lines recur all across the poem? They depict the urgency of the speaker’s pleas as he consistently and forcefully urges his father to hang on to life.
What effect do the two refrains in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” have? Do you interpret these refrains differently as the poem progresses? Write your answer in 175-200 words.
Besides the urgent refrains, several other poetic devices in the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” help take forward the theme of a son’s unwillingness to let his father succumb to death. Metaphors such as “good night,” “dying of the light,” and “close of day,” are used to refer to death. The words “day” and “light” represent life. That’s why the speaker’s father is urged to “rage against the dying of the light.”
The simile, “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,” implies that although his father may be going blind, his wisdom and greatness will enable him to see clearly with his mind’s eye.
Did you notice the alliteration across the poem? Read the line “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Don’t the alliterative sounds seem to add to the poem’s urgent passion?
Across the poem there are images of bright, illuminating things like lightning and meteors. Why do you think this bright imagery is used in a poem about dying? The speaker tries to persuade his father that a great man like him should not easily give in to death. He should overcome the darkness of death and continue to burn bright, as summed up in the lines, “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright/Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
At the end of the poem, there’s a paradox in the line, “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” The juxtaposition of “curse” and “bless” indicates the son’s desire to take his father’s pain unto himself. It’s as if by cursing his son, the father can share his pain and “fierce tears” with his son who doesn’t want to lose him.
Dylan Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” when his father, David John Thomas who had always been a strong man, was going blind and was on his deathbed. That’s why many read it as an autobiographical poem. The poet and his father had a great relationship and both shared a love for literature. The poet was very disturbed to see his father ravaged by age and wrote this poem to express how he felt.
While Dylan Thomas’s poem is a son’s plea to his dying father, the American poet E. E. Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love” is an elegy. Read Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love.” What’s the first thing that hits you about this poem? Did you notice that the poem is full of paradoxes? Look at phrases like “dooms of love,” “griefs of joy,” and “theys of we.” These and all the other paradoxes used take forward the poem’s theme, lamenting death while still celebrating the life lived.
In this poem, the speaker says his father had lived a full life. Look at the lines “joy was his song and joy so pure,” “his anger was as right as rain/ his pity was as green as grain” and “his sorrow was as true as bread.” These lines tell you that whether the speaker’s father was happy, angry, or sad, he experienced each emotion completely. He inspired others to be the best they could be, “his april touch/ drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates/ woke dreamers to their ghostly roots.” The speaker takes readers across seasons, “april touch,” “septembering arms,” “octobering flame,” that seem to mirror his father’s full life with varied experiences and emotions. The last two lines, “because my father lived his soul/love is the whole and more than all,” convey how the father lived a life filled with love for and from his family.
What do lines like “joy was his song and joy so pure,” “no hungry man but wished him food;/no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile/uphill to only see him smile,” “no liar looked him in the head,” tell you about the speaker’s father’s personality? It sounds like the speaker’s father was liked and revered universally. He lived a pure and full life, which is brought out by the line, “because my Father lived his soul.”
Cummings wrote “my father moved through dooms of love” in his typical style, with no spaces or adherence to structural rules, to ensure that his creativity and feelings flow freely. Like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, this poem is also considered autobiographical. Cummings wrote this poem as an elegy to his father Edward Cummings, a professor at Harvard University, who died suddenly in a car accident. His father’s sudden death sobered Cummings into writing about more serious aspects of life.
Poems About Fathers Compared
While poems like Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love” create a picture of a loved and loving father, others present dark, complicated pictures of fathers, such as the American poet Sylvia Plath. Read Plath’s poem “Daddy.” You can also watch Plath recite her poem, “Daddy.” What’s this poem about?
“Daddy” examines a daughter’s unresolved feelings for her father, who passed away. The speaker’s father died when she was so young that she was in awe of him, but never really understood him. The speaker’s awe for her father is reflected in the way she compares him to “a bag full of God.” She also expresses how she cannot escape from her father’s looming presence, with his “one gray toe/ Big as a Frisco seal,” reaching out across continents. Her conflicted feelings come to the fore later in the poem, when despite efforts she can’t find her father. She then compares him to a devil, with “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot,” a brute, and a vampire. The speaker portrays herself as a vampire killer, her father’s killer, “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two.” The speaker’s frustration climaxes in the last stanza, where she gets defensive and calls her father names, and exclaims she is through with him.
Plath’s poem, “Daddy” is made up of 16 five-line stanzas. The one rhyme that appears in the poem is inconsistent, “You do not do, you do not do,” with some consecutive lines that end with words that rhyme with “do,” like “shoe” and “Achoo,” in the first stanza, and then “you,” “blue,” “Jew,” and so on in the other stanzas. What’s the relationship between the inconsistent rhyme scheme and the poem’s theme of a daughter’s unresolved feelings? The inconsistent, sporadic rhyme scheme seems to reflect the speaker’s emotional turmoil and the conflicting feelings she has for her father. The rhythm created by the sporadically recurring rhyme coupled with the use of symbolism and imagery reflects the speaker’s attempts to try to take control of the emotional turmoil caused by her father’s disturbing memories.
“Daddy” is about a father, and so the imagery, language, and symbolism used are shocking. Look at the poem’s opening lines, “You do not do, you do not do/ Any more, black shoe/ In which I have lived like a foot.” These lines provide a glimpse into the speaker’s contradictory emotions. To show the protective and suffocating side of her father, the speaker uses a shoe as a symbol of her father and the foot inside the shoe as herself. Shoes protect the feet, but also constrict them, thereby symbolizing her conflicted feelings.
Are you wondering what references to fascism, Nazis, and the Holocaust are doing in this poem? These images and references depict the speaker’s confusion about her father. The speaker compares her father to a fascist who puts his “boot in the face.” She calls her father an Aryan and herself a Jew, to convey that her father tortured her, like the Nazis tortured Jewish people in German death camps. There are constant references to “black” in the poem to reflect the speaker’s dark, confused feelings about her father. First, there is the “black shoe” and then the reference to “The black telephone’s off at the root,/the voices just can’t worm through.” to convey that the speaker has permanently severed her connection with her father.
Now look at the last stanza of “Daddy”? The lines, “And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you.” reflect the despicable picture that the speaker creates of her father, in her attempts to free herself of the hold that her father’s memory has on her, “So daddy, I’m finally through.” The strongly worded last line, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” serves as the speaker’s final rant against the memories that cause her turmoil.
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Did you wonder about the speaker’s obsession with her father in this poem? Some critics have tried to explain this obsession by identifying elements of the Electra complex in the poem. The Electra complex refers to a daughter’s unresolved, unconscious desire for her father. Critics believe that this conflict is reflected in the speaker’s desperate and contradictory efforts to go to her father by committing suicide, “At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you,” and conversely to end her unhealthy, traumatizing relationship with her father’s memories wanting to kill him even though he’s already dead, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time–” The speaker’s confused feelings are again reflected when she “used to pray to recover [him].”
If you know anything about Sylvia Plath’s life, you’re probably wondering if “Daddy” is an autobiographical poem? The references, imagery, and symbolism used in Plath’s “Daddy” do resonate with what’s known about her life, like the complex feelings and unresolved issues she had toward her father, a Biology professor at Boston University, who died when she was just eight; her inability to deal with her father’s untimely death; her unsuccessful marriage. When read autobiographically, the line “At twenty I tried to die,” refers to Plath’s attempted suicide at the age of 20 when she overdosed on sleeping pills. The line, “The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year./Seven years, if you want to know.” possibly refer to her unsuccessful marriage to poet Ted Hughes, which lasted for seven years. Plath, burdened with complexities, committed suicide when she was 31, leaving behind two children and her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes. This fact probably explains the use of brutal and violent imagery, which could only be conjured by a disturbed mind as Plath’s was.This autobiographical account would explain the brutal, violent imagery used in the poem, which reflect the poet’s disturbed state of mind and her confusion as a daughter, who feels abandoned and let-down.
While Sylvia Plath’s poem deals with the smothering effect the father’s memories had on the speaker, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” contrasts the speaker’s ideas about his father as a child with how he feels about his father as a grown-up looking back. Read Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” or watch the poem being recited. In this poem, which is a grown man’s reflections on his father, the speaker describes the entire father-son dynamic with one winter memory. He thinks back to his childhood and sees his father differently than he did as a child.
“Those Winter Sundays” is an American sonnet, with the traditional 14-lines, and has three stanzas. The first and third stanzas are five lines long, and the second stanza has four lines. How does the form carry the poem’s theme forward? Using the sonnet form, , the poem presents a problem in the first two stanzas, where the speaker describes how his father went about his chores for his family and was never appreciated. The resolution to this problem is presented in the final stanza-the speaker realizes his father’s value and feels guilty for how he never thanked him.
Focus on the lines, “No one ever thanked him,” “speaking indifferently to him,” and “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” These lines convey the speaker’s guilt and regret for never appreciating everything his father did for him. Look at the way the poem uses repetition, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” This line expresses how bad the speaker feels about being so obtuse about his father as a child. And what does “offices” in this line mean? The word “offices” brings to mind the responsibilities and duties that come with an authoritative position, in this case fatherhood. The “austere and lonely offices” describe how the speaker’s father displayed love by silently and dedicatedly fulfilling his duties to his family.
Though an unrhymed poem, a rhythm is created using poetic devices like consonance, repetition, and alliteration. The use of consonance, with the repetition of the hard “c” and “k” sounds in lines like “cracked hands that ached,” and then in “weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him,” conveys the pain that the father endured, and how his efforts went unappreciated. The alliteration where the “w” sound is repeated, “in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze,” reflects the repetition in the way the father spent his Sunday mornings.
“Those Winter Sundays” is also rich in symbolism and imagery. What comes to mind when you read about the “banked fires blazed” and “the cold splintering, breaking”? This visual imagery makes readers imagine how cold it was through this description of how the logs in the fire would burn and crackle and warm up their home, driving out the cold. The “cracked hands” symbolize how hard the father worked, and the “blueblack cold” depicts the harsh cold that the father endured for his family’s comfort. What comes to mind when you read about the “banked fires blazed” and “the cold splintering, breaking”? The visual imagery makes readers imagine how cold it was through this description of how the logs in the fire would burn and crackle and warm up their home, driving out the cold.
Did you notice the transference in the line, “fearing the chronic angers of that house”? The inanimate house isn’t angry. It’s the speaker’s father who is angry and impatient with his children who were lazy about doing their Sunday morning chores. This line is interesting when you look at the poem autobiographically. Hayden, who it is believed was subjected to beatings by his foster parents Sue Ellen and William Hayden, only cursorily refers to the “chronic angers of that house,” and instead concentrates on the “banked fires blazed” to highlight how his foster father would keep the household warm. In that sense, this poem is not a criticism of his father’s beating, but a delayed tribute to the man who took pains to care for him.
Answer this question in 125-150 words:
What is the significance of the words “Sundays too” in Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”? Why do you think the poet used these words, instead of just, “On Sundays”? Support your answer with examples from the poem.
Another poet, who explored the theme of the father-son relationship, is Theodore Roethke. Read his poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” and watch the poem being recited. What do you think this poem is about? At the outset, especially considering the title of the poem and the quick rhythm as you read, it seems to be about the speaker’s fond recollection of playfully dancing around with his father after he’d come home from work in the evening.
Let’s see what elements of the poem support this interpretation. The structure which is made up of four quatrains and has a tight rhyme scheme of abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh, gives the poem the cadence of a waltz to mirror the ordered steps of the father and son dancing around. However, the waltzing here is rough and energetic, not smooth and graceful like waltzing is supposed to be. Similarly, alliteration is used in lines like, “such waltzing was not easy,” “My mother’s countenance, Could not unfrown itself,” and “the hand that held my wrist” to add to poem’s easy rhythm.
Now let’s examine the imagery in Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”. The line, “The whiskey on your breath” evokes olfactory imagery and the readers can almost smell the whiskey. Similarly, the lines, “We romped until the pans, Slid from the kitchen shelf,” create an image of how boisterous the father and son were as they danced around. Is it surprising then that the “mother’s countenance/Could not unfrown itself,” possibly because she has to tidy up after them? The images of the “battered” hands and the “palm caked hard by dirt,” indicate that the father worked hard all day, probably at manual labor. Finally, the son “Still clinging to your shirt” conveys his unwillingness to let go of father, not wanting their fun to end.
When interpreted in terms of the father and son bonding, this could be an autobiographical poem. The “battered” hand and “a palm caked hard by dirt” relate to the fact that Roethke’s father ran a greenhouse and it involved gardening and manual labor. It is known that Roethke had a happy childhood and was devastated his father died when he was just 14. The “battered” hand and “a palm caked hard by dirt” relate to the fact that Roethke’s father ran a greenhouse and it involved gardening and manual labor. But is this all there’s to the poem? Some critics have interpreted the poem in a dark, ominous way.
Is Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” a poem about a son’s happy recollections of playing with his father or is this about alcoholism and child abuse? You’ve just seen how this can be construed in the light, happy way, not let’s see how this poem can take a dark turn.
The image that the father “beat time” on the child’s head with a “battered” hand, and of the “whiskey on [his] breath” is believed by some to indicate that the father would come home drunk and be physically abusive. This is used to explain why, the son is “dizzy” and “hung on like death.” The line, “My right ear scraped a buckle,” is also interpreted as a sign of violence. When interpreted like this the mother’s “frowning countenance,” is believed to convey her helplessness as she couldn’t save her child from her alcoholic husband.
Which of these two interpretations holds true? It’s interesting that when the poem was published in 1948, it was viewed only as a happy, loud, and strenuous dancing around of the father and son. More recently, this poem has been interpreted as a depiction of child abuse.
Answer this question in 200-225 words:
Which interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” do you agree with? Support your answer with examples from the poem.
Written in the first person, both Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” are about childhood memories about fathers. Interestingly, though Hayden is known to have suffered beatings at the hands of his foster parents, most critics, ignore his background and the powerful image of “the chronic angers of that house,” and view “Those Winter Sundays” as a poem about a son’s regret for being unappreciative of his father. On the other hand, critics view “My Papa’s Waltz” differently; some see it as a poem about child abuse and alcoholism, while some interpret it as a poem about a happy father-son relationship. These interpretations show just how important diction is in interpreting a poem. The use of words such as “blueblack cold” and lines like, “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” and “Sundays too my father got up early” depict the father in Hayden’s poem as an affectionate, caring man. While the use of “dizzy,” “hung on like death,” “battered,” “scraped,” and “battered on one knuckle” creates an image of an abusive father in Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”.
Let’s look at how these two poems compare structurally. “Those Winter Sundays” is an American sonnet with three stanzas, the first and third stanzas are five-lines long, and the second stanza has four lines. This poem does not follow any rhyme scheme. On the other hand “My Papa’s Waltz” is made up of four quatrains and has a tight rhyme scheme of abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh that makes the poem sound like a waltz. Both Hayden and Roethke use powerful imagery in their poems. The lines, “and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,/ then with cracked hands that ached” and “banked fires blaze.” from “Those Winter Sundays” are examples of imagery and alliteration used to describe the father’s hard work. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke also uses alliteration and imagery in lines such as “But I hung on like death,/ Such waltzing was not easy,” “The hand that held my wrist,/ Was battered on one knuckle,” and “With a palm caked hard by dirt,” to help readers visualize how the father and son romped around.
Over the years, poets have explored the father-child relationship in their poems. Sometimes the poem may be from a father’s perspective, sometimes from a child’s, and sometimes from the perspective of a grown adult looking back at childhood memories. And depending on the poem’s theme, poets use different forms and poetic devices to put across their ideas about fathers. While Orr writes about what a father teaches and learns from his children, Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love” is reverential and written in his unique style so he can freely express himself. Hayden’s “Those Winter Days” is written in the American sonnet form, and expresses a son’s guilt at being indifferent towards his father. Roethke’s tightly structured “My Papa’s Waltz” describes the rhythmic and spirited dance of a father-son relationship. Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle In To The Good Night” is about a son who can’t deal with the thought of his father dying. And Plath’s confessional “Daddy” is about the speaker’s inability to deal with her feelings of abandonment at her father’s death.
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