Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Father to Son' by Elizabeth Jennings
Father to Son
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.
The poem is about the relationship between a father and a son, and the complications involved in it. Its theme is generation gap.
In the first stanza, the father says that he has failed to understand his child even though they have lived together in the same house for many years. The father feels that he does not know anything of the son now, so he will start his efforts from the time how the son was when he was young. The father also wonders if he has let his child grow or killed it, or whether the child has grown entirely different from the design that the father had about him.
The father and the son are like “strangers”. There is “no sign/of understanding in the air.” Though the child takes after him in form (“design”) the father cannot understand what the child loves. There is no talk between them, and “silence” surrounds them. The father would rather have the child like the prodigal son of the Bible, repenting and going back to him. This is better than watching the son creating his own life away from him. Like the prodigal son was forgiven, this father also will forgive his son. Thus, from the sorrow of not understanding each other, a love can arise, if only the son would go back to the father.
In the final stanza, the poet talks about the tragedy that the father and son has to live on the same globe and the same land, but cannot understand each other. A matter of concern and something the father does not understand it that from his grief of not understanding, anger results. Since they do not talk to each other, there is no verbal or physical harm done by one to the other. Therefore, there is nothing even to forgive. Even for the sake of forgiving, they cannot hold hand.
Language and imagery
The poem does not have a consistent rhyme scheme. Enjambment is used to achieve the effect of conversation. Phrases/lines that indicate distance between the father and the son are:
1. ‘I do not understand this child’
2. ‘We speak like strangers’
3. ‘I know / Nothing of him’
4. ‘there’s no sign/ Of understanding in the air’
5. ‘Silence surrounds us.’
The metaphor of the prodigal son is used quite extensively in the poem. According to the bible, the prodigal son was the one who left his house, took his share, and wasted all the money. Then he had a change of mind, and went back to the father, and apologized.
The father in the poem wishes that he had such a dramatic event as that happened to the prodigal son, so that they can at least hold hands, knowing that there was something to forgive.