Father to Son by Elizabeth Jennings

I do not understand this child
Though we have lived together now
In the same house for years. I know
Nothing of him, so try to build
Up a relationship from how
He was when small.

Yet have I killed
The seed I spent or sown it where
The land is his and none of mine?
We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.

Silence surrounds us. I would have
Him prodigal, returning to
His father’s house, the home he knew,
Rather than see him make and move
His world. I would forgive him too,
Shaping from sorrow a new love.

Father and son, we both must live
On the same globe and the same land.
He speaks: I cannot understand
Myself, why anger grows from grief.
We each put out an empty hand,
Longing for something to forgive.

Summary

The theme of the poem is the generation gap which occurs when the communication link between two generations breaks due to a mutual lack of understanding, tolerance and acceptance. This poem is the father’s inability to come to terms with the young adult who has replaced the father’s ‘little boy’. The poem highlights the internal conflict a father undergoes when his son becomes old enough to define his own interests, thoughts and perceptions. The brooding father complains that he cannot understand his child despite having lived together for many years in the same house. The father tries to continue a relationship based on what he knew of the son from his youngest years but of course, the son has changed over the time. The tone is almost pleading, attempting to find a link with his grown up son.

The father and son have become strangers with no understanding of each other. Traditionally, the son’s upbringing is in the very environment and with the values the father provided. Thus, the father feels his son is built to his design and should be like his father in most aspects. However, his son now has interests the father cannot share. There is no shared passion, no common ground. Most times, there is only an awkward silence between them. The frustration of the father is evident as he struggles to understand why his own son, his flesh and blood, has turned into an absolute stranger. Using a typically agrarian imagery (Yet have I sown the seed …..), he questions whether he has already lost his own child, his son, due to this distance between them or was the son on a mental plane that was entirely his own and which, the father cannot access. The father uses ‘I’ in these lines acknowledging his own role in creating this communication gap between them.

The father in the poem sees his child as the prodigal (spendthrift, underlying implication: foolish) son and wants him to return to the home he has always known. He does not want the son to make his own world, away from his father. The father says he would forgive his son if he asks for forgiveness like the prodigal son. He would love him again despite the sorrow of the distance that existed between them once. The tone is slightly condescending and implies that the father is unable to let his son go, even at the cost of restricting the son’s personal development and independence.

The son admits that he is at a point where he is struggling to understand even himself. He does feel the grief of the broken relationship he shares his father and yet, there is an anger that arises out of his confused, fraught inner self. The son speaks for the first time and it is quite clear, that the frustration lies on both sides. The father concludes the poem realising that in their hearts, each of them wants to forgive the other. However, neither wants to take the first step and ask for forgiveness. Each puts out an empty hand for the other to take, but neither places theirs in the other’s hand. However, it is positive that at least they long to forgive and find a way to make things work.


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