What is it about? A father, the speaker, watches his son play football at school. As his son walks away from him he becomes worried that their relationship has fundamentally changed, since his son is growing up and becoming more independent. However, the speaker comes to realise that this is an experience all parents have and that it is natural and inevitable.
In some senses, then, the poem describes a rite of passage that all parents must go through.
Thus, the poem might be said to be a meditation on the transience of time and how relationships inevitably alter.
The poem’s first line introduces the importance of time: ‘It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –’
The temporal marker of ‘eighteen years ago’ alerts the reader to the fact that the poet is describing a memory: he is reflecting on a past event. This is similarly used in ‘Neutral Tones’ and ‘When We Two Parted’, but in those two poems the memory is far more negative and pessimistic than the one described here.
What is also interesting about this opening line is just how the specific the speaker is: he pinpoints that the memory being recalled occurred ‘eighteen years ago, almost to the day’.
The event being recalled has clearly affected the speaker deeply.
The hyphen at the end of this first line signals a temporal jump and notifies the reader that what comes next will be the memory itself.
By specifying that it was a ‘sunny day with leaves just turning’ the poet once again uses a temporal marker and thus foregrounds time.
However, this line also suggests a sense of transience and transition: whilst it may be a ‘sunny day’ the ‘leaves [are] just turning’.
Thus, the poem describes the liminal space or transition point between summer and autumn and this in turn reflects the turning point in the speaker’s relationship with his son.
Day-Lewis is therefore using pathetic fallacy in order to capture the precise moment when the father realised his son was ‘walking away’ and becoming more independent.
Just as the seasons change so too does the relationship between father and son.
The poet continues by reflecting on this apparent alteration as the speaker watches his son ‘like a satellite / Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away / Behind a scatter of boys’.
This is an interesting image and is worth exploring at length.
The simile ‘like a satellite / Wrenched from its orbit’ provides a rather negative undertone to the poem as the poet seems to want to resist the change in relationship. By comparing the son to a ‘satellite’ that has left its orbit the poet suggests that his ‘walking away’ is an unnatural act: a satellite, by definition, is designed to stay in orbit just as the boy should stay near his father and as such the movement away is described as almost a malfunction or inversion of the natural order of things.
This is compounded by the space imagery, since the image seems to suggest that the father is no longer the centre of the boy’s universe: whereas he once stayed close to his father now he is drifting away just like the errant satellite.
Furthermore, the verb ‘wrenched’ has violent connotations: the son’s movement away is an emotional act of severance for the speaker. There is also implied that it is done against the boy’s will, since to ‘wrench’ something requires force and determination and so there is evoked some outside force, which has ‘wrenched’ the child away. Perhaps, this outside force is the inevitable march of time from which the father cannot escape.
Once might also notice the syntactic and rhythmic emphasis on this word since it begins the line, which highlights its significance.
However, the power and force behind the lexical choice of ‘wrench’ is then juxtaposed later in the line with the far more aimless image of him ‘drifting away’. Once he has been wrenched apart from his father, the image suggests, he will then aimlessly drift away.
This line conveys the anxiety and fear of the father: in the speaker’s mind the separation will mean that the child no longer has proper guidance and will lose his way in life.
The next stanza continues to meditate on this sense of anxiety.
The poet compares the son to a ‘half-fledged thing set free / Into a wilderness’. The bird metaphor suggests that the father thinks his son is vulnerable and not yet ready to ‘fly the nest’. One might also notice the indefinite article used in ‘a wilderness’: the speaker can’t even begin to comprehend the wilderness that his child will be exposed to, which makes it seem even more remote and dangerous.
The speaker’s apprehension culminates in the final line of this stanza: ‘Who finds no path where the path should be’. One is reminded of the earlier use of ‘drifting’ when describing the boy’s movement away from his father: the speaker is desperate for his son to find the right ‘path’ in life, but is worried that he won’t be able to without his guidance.
This is also reinforced by the frequent use of enjambment in this stanza: just as the boy is moving away from the father so too do the lines flow into one another and as such the structure of the poem mimics its thematic concern.
In the next stanza Day-Lewis repurposes a similar image to the satellite one already used: ‘The hesitant figure, eddying away / Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem’. Notice how both this image and the satellite one describe the movement of a small object (‘satellite’ / ‘seed’) away from its natural habitat (‘orbit’ / ‘parent stem’).
However, there are subtle yet significant differences between the images, which are worth pausing over and exploring.
The fact the seed is ‘winged’ suggests that it has the capability to survive away from its ‘parent stem’. It might also suggest that the seed has been evolutionarily prepared for such an event: it is not against the natural order, but rather a part of it. Indeed, the fact that the seed moves away from a ‘parent stem’ implies that the separation the speaker experiences is replicated in nature again suggesting that it is not against the natural order as was the case with the satellite image. Finally, the lexical choice of ‘loosened’ is far less violent and hostile than the lexical choice of ‘wrenched’.
In fact, when one looks at the two images as a whole as opposed to when they are parsed the seed one is far more natural and organic as opposed to the detached and removed image of the satellite. This effect is compounded by the respective connotations of the two images: the seed image is associated with fecundity and birth whilst the space image is associated with sterility and death.
Day-Lewis’s inclusion of this image brings about a slight tonal shift: there is still implied a sense of anxiety as evidence by the lexical choices of ‘hesitant’ and ‘eddying’, but the more natural imagery suggests a gradual acceptance of the situation.
This tonal shift is further established as the poem continues: ‘About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching / Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay’.
This image proposes that difficult experiences have the ability to strengthen us: it is because the clay survives fire that it made all the stronger.
Referring to the notion that it is all part of ‘nature’s give-and-take’ there is also a sense that these difficult experiences, such as realising that one’s child is growing up, are part of the cycle of life. It will ultimately strengthen the speaker’s relationship with his son so long as he embraces rather than fights against the change.
The final stanza returns to the present time and serves as a more general reflection on the memory and the affect it has had on the speaker: ‘I have had worse partings, but none that so / Gnaws at my mind still’.
The speaker is coming to terms with the difficulty of seeing his son grow up and becoming more independent and the lexical choice of ‘gnaws’ underlines how this process has continued to shape him. The image also suggests something animalistic and violent perhaps suggesting just how difficult the process has been for the speaker.
Indeed, if one considers the rhyme scheme this point is made even clearer. The rhyme scheme throughout is ABACA. The fact that the A begins the stanza, occurs again in the middle and then ends the stanza perhaps suggests how the events that the poem describe have affected the speaker throughout the years and will continue to do so. The predictability of the rhyme scheme could also mimic the steadiness of the speaker’s parental love.
The poet then invokes a Biblical image to probe further the implications of a growing up: ‘Perhaps it is roughly / Saying what God alone could perfectly show’. According to theology, God gave his son, Jesus, for our sins and the father is comparing the necessity of letting go and making a sacrifice to this act. This highlights the magnitude of the event from the father’s perspective.
The final two lines encapsulate the message that the poet is attempting to articulate: ‘How selfhood begins with a walking away, / And love is proved in the letting go’. There are two things at work in this image. Firstly, it is because the boy has walked away from his father and gained his independence that he is able truly to become his own person. This is the first step of ‘selfhood’. Secondly, it is because the father has been able to accept this and, despite the pain it causes, allow his son to walk his own path in life that the father has ‘proved’ his love.
The father may want to protect his son forever, but he also recognises and accepts that to do would not allow his son to flourish.