Father to Son

About the Poet

Elizabeth Joan Jennings was an English poet. She was born on July 18, 1926, Boston, Lincolnshire, England. When she was six, her family moved to Oxford, where she remained for the rest of her life. There she later attended St Anne’s College. After graduation, she became a writer. Jennings’ early poetry was published in journals such as Oxford Poetry, New English Weekly, The Spectator, Outposts and Poetry Review, but her first book was not published until she was 27. Her works relate intensely personal matters in a plainspoken, traditional, and objective style. She died on October 26, 2001 in Bampton, Oxford shire.

Synopsis

The poem brings out the agony of a father who has lost all kinship with his son. The son is now grown-up. He lives in his own world. He has no feeling of any relationship with his father. The father bitterly feels the pangs of this emotional separation. He wants the same kind of bond with his son as he had when the son was a little child. Instead of coming together they are drifting apart. There is a gap of understanding and communication.

Such a situation is a common feature in most of the families. The new generation wants to live life on its own terms. The youngsters think independently. They cease to be on talking terms. Father feels helpless. He is ready to forgive the child provided the latter fees sorry. But he rarely tries to understand the young boy’s likes and dislikes, demands and dreams. The conflict is never resolved because they refuse to compromise.

Summary

The father complains that he does not understand his own child. Though they have lived together for so many years under the same roof. The father tries to build up a relationship with his son from the early years, in a manner when his son began to recognize people around, to crawl and to walk in a desperate attempt. The father wonders whether he has destroyed the seed of his off-spring or sown it where the land belongs to his heir and none is his. Both father and son continue to speak like strangers now and there seem no signs of understanding in the air between the two. In traditional belief, the son is created and born to the likings and designs of his father, yet in this case, the father cannot share what his son loves. Most of the time silence surrounds them. The father’s greatest wish is for his son to be ‘The Prodigal’ son who will very soon return to his father’s house; the home which he always knew. This is definitely the better alternative rather than to see his son move out into the world blindly on his own, by himself and fall into trouble. The father is ready to forgive him at any cost as long as he is able to reshape him up from the long-bounded sorrow to a new love. Both father and son all over the world must learn to live on the same globe and on the same land. The father finally admits that there are times that he cannot understand himself or why his anger grows from grief? However, they have learnt to put out each other’s empty hand and with each other’s heart that is longing for something to forgive.

Explanation

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.

Notes

  • The father in the poem says that he has failed to understand his son because he could not grow with his son.

  • Probably, when the son grew differently, the narrow-minded father felt uneasy and indifferent. He didn’t make any attempt to understand the changed world where his son grew up.

  • The father, having failed to know the height of his son’s emotional growth, is trying to understand him as a child rather than attempting to understand what his son is at the moment.

  • This sort of a relationship that the father is trying to build with his son will do more harms than any good because the father will always think that his son is a little child and will not understand his actual person.

Stanza 2

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.

Notes

  • The father failed to understand his son. Instead of growing with his son, he attempted to build a relation with him understanding him as a little child whom he used to know and used to love.

  • The father feels helpless because he is sad about the gap between his son and himself.

  • The father had always wanted his son built as per his design, but the son went astray and became what he wanted. The son made a design for himself and lived a life that he designed. For the father, the son was his seed that he expected to grow and take branches under his shade but now he finds that his expectations from his son have all gone waste.

  • The father in the poem had a great expectation from his son but the son didn’t grow up to his expectations and designs. This deviation started when the son found his father’s design for him inappropriate and designed his own life in his way.

Stanza 3

This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.
Silence surrounds us.

 

Notes

  • The father of the son appears to be self centered because of a few reasons.

  • He, in the first place, has a design for his son because he believes that the son would not be able to design his own life.

  • The line has got multiple meaning which is a pun.

  • Here, while “what he loves” may refer to the things, trends, and people that the son loves, “I cannot share” has got more than just a meaning.

  • In the first place it means the father is ashamed of mentioning his son’s crazes and in the other, the father is not allowed to or not willing to share what his son uses.

Stanza 4

 

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.

 

Notes

  • No father in his senses would wish his son go away from him, ruin himself, struggle and get lost. The father in the poem, surprisingly, wishes that his son go away from him because he believes that one day his son would return as the prodigal son in the Bible.

  • It is out of his extreme attachment with his son that the father wishes his son go away from him, like the prodigal son in the Bible.

  • Just like the Biblical son had to go through a lot of struggles to finally realize his father’s love for him, the father in the poem also wants his son go from him for some time only to return to his love.

Stanza 5

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.

NOTES
  • The poem ends without any solution for the problem that the father is lamenting/complaining.

  • Like the father, the son also wishes to reconcile (be friendly again).

  • As a sign of reconciliation, each of them welcomes the other with

Textual Questions

Think it Out

Question 1: Does the poem talk of ail exclusively personal experience or is it fairly universal?
Answer: The poem is autobiographical in nature and describes the relationship between a father and his son. Beginning on an exclusively personal experience, the poem rises to a fairly universal phenomenon—the growing generation gap and lack of communication.

Question 2: How is the father’s helplessness brought out in the poem?
Answer: The father’s helplessness is brought about by the existing circumstances. Usually a father is the best friend and advisor of the son. However, there is no bond of affinity or relationship between the two. It seems that the two are not on speaking terms even while living under the same roof. The father feels helpless that he can’t share what his son loves.

Question 3: Identify the phrases and lines that indicate distance between father and son.
Answer: The phrases/lines indicating distance between father and son are:
“I don’t understand this child.”
“I know nothing of him.”
“We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.”
“..What he loves I cannot share.”
“Silence surrounds us.”
“…see him make and move His world.”

Question 4: Does the poem have a consistent rhyme scheme?
Answer: No, the poem does not have a consistent rhyme scheme. The first two stanzas have the rhyme-scheme ab ba ba whereas the third and fourth have a slight alteration. The third stanza has abc aba whereas the fourth one has abbcb scheme.

Important Extracts

1. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:

 

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.

Q1. Who have lived in the same house? How long?
Ans. The father and the son have lived in the same house for years.

Q2. Why does the father say that he knows nothing of him?
Ans. They live like strangers in the same house. Complete silence surrounds them when they are each other’s presence. That’s why he says that he knows nothing of his son.

Q3. What kind of relationship does he want to build up?
Ans. He wants to build up the same kind of relationship as he used to have when his son was a little child.

2. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:

 

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.

Q1. What does the word ‘seed’ signify?
Ans. The word ‘seed’ here refers to all the hard work the father had to do to bring up the child.

Q2. What ‘land’ does the speaker speak of?
Ans. The child’s mind is the land into which the father had tried to sow the seeds of his thoughts.

Q3. Why do they speak like strangers?
Ans. They speak like strangers because they have different ways of life and thoughts.

Q3. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:

 

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.

Q1. What kind of child, had he desired to design?
Ans. He had desired to design a child who shared his likes and dislikes.

Q2. Why does the speaker say, ‘this child’ not ‘my child’?
Ans. Because the child has nothing common with him.

Q3. Explain: ‘Silence surrounds us’.
Ans. There is no communication at all between the father and the son. There is complete silence when they are each other’s presence.

Q4. What does the father want his son to do?
Ans. He wants his son to come back to his father’s home.

 

Q5. What is the father prepared to accept?
Ans. He is prepared to accept his so with all his profligacy.

Q6. What does the father not want his son to do?
Ans. The father doesn’t want his son to make a new world of his own and move into it.

Q7. What would the father do to shape a new love from sorrow?
Ans. He would forgive his son for whatever sorrow he has given him.

Q4. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:

 

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,

Q1. How does the poet feel when his relationship with his son comes under strain?
Ans. The poet is keen to save the blood ties with his son. He wants the son to return to his old house.

Q2. What could be the cause for their distancing from each other?
Ans. The cause of the growing gap between the dad and his son is lack of understanding. Both need each other, yet they turn apart because of ego-problem.

Q3. What do both father and son long for?
Ans. They long for an excuse to forgive each other.

Q4. What do the words ‘an empty hand’ signify?
Ans. The words ‘an empty hand’ signify that neither father nor the son has gained anything from their state of estrangement. Both of them are empty handed.

Q5. What can’t the father understand?
Ans. The father can’t understand why he becomes angry in his grief.

Q6. Does the poem have a consistent rhyme scheme?
Ans. Yes, the rhyme scheme in each stanza is abbaba.

Short Answer Type Questions

Q1. Why is the father unhappy with his son?
Ans. The father is unhappy with his son as there is no interaction between the two. They don’t understand each other and are like strangers. Though they live under the same roof, yet they have nothing common between them. Their thinking and outlook are totally different. So, they remain separated from each other. So, the father is deeply troubled.

Q2. What does the father long for?
Ans. The father is much more tense and upset. He fails to see where he made a mistake. He wants to make peace with his son and keep him in the same house. He is willing to forget and forgive the boy. He is only waiting for an excuse.

Q3. Can you suggest a solution to the widening gap between father and son?
Ans. The tussle between the aged and the youth is very old and universal. Elders see young ones as their property and try to impose their will on them. As a result, the son revolts. The father must try to understand and respect the demands of the son. Not rod but the language of love can bridge the gap and avert the clash.

Q4. Who do you sympathize with—the father or the son?
Ans. Being a youngster, I also often revolt against the authoritarian attitude of elders. They have ego problem. They demand total obedience from young ones. I know that the relationship between father and son is strong yet delicate as well. I would humbly advise grown-ups to be a bit more flexible and liberal in their attitude. In bending, they both will win.

Q5. How is the father’s helplessness brought out in the poem?
Ans. The father is not only sad but also angry. But he feels helpless. He is ready to patch up with the son, forgive him and bring him back home at any cost. He wonders why they have now become strangers. He is ready to overlook his son’s wasteful habits. He is extending his empty hand to get an excuse to welcome the boy into his old home. But the son looks adamant. Ego problem persists.

Q6. Why is the father unable to understand his son in Father to Son”?
Ans. The father is unable to understand his son due to generation gap. It is a psychological and emotional gap between parents or elder people and the young ones. This creates misunderstanding and lack of attachment between the parents and children. The success lies in how effectively the parents can avoid the generation gap or ignore difference with their children.

Q7. ‘I would have him prodigal’. What does the father mean by this?
Ans. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant. In the Bible there is a story, where a father inherits property and gives it to his sons. The younger son wastes a lot but returns to his father’s home. His father forgives him and takes him back home. Here in the poem the father is ready to accept his prodigal son and he may start living with him under the same roof.

Q8. What does the poet mean by `silence surrounds us?
Ans. The father is troubled because there is no interaction between them. Though they have been living under the same roof for years, but they do not understand each other and live like strangers. Their outlook and temperament are different. They have a communication gap along with the generation gap. So, both are unhappy and want to come closer, but they can’t help it.

Q 9: What does the speaker say about father-son relationship?
Answer: Actually, the father-son relationship is non-functional. The father does not understand the aspirations, longings, or cravings of the son. They speak like strangers. Their exchanges, if any, are just formal. Otherwise, silence surrounds them.

Q 10: What do you think is responsible for the distance between father and son?
Answer: The lack of understanding on the part of the older generation (here, father) is the root of the problem. The father wants the young man to stick to home turf. The son, now a young man, seeks fresh avenues and lives in a world of his own. The father finds it hard to adjust to the growing changes.

Q 11: Why, do you think, does the father appear so helpless?
Answer: The father has been unable to understand what his son loves to do. He is not in a position to advise him as there is hardly any intimacy between them. They speak like strangers, otherwise there is silence around them. The son has his own dreams and plans which her does not appreciate.

Q 12: How can you infer that the father wishes his son to remain at home with him?
Answer: The father finds the son’s interests quite different. He is home bound, whereas the son is on the lookout for fresh avenues. He aspires for a world of his own. The father wants him to return home even if he undergoes losses by his extravagant ventures. He is willing to make up with him if he agrees to live with him.

Long Answer Type Questions

Q1. Why in your view has a sense of distance arrived in the modern youth?
Ans. The present era has lost all its ancient moral, ethical, social, and cultural values. The deep sense of joint family system is diminishing to a large extent. The newly married couple wants to lead a life to its own freedom duly away from the parents. They think that the joint family or parents living with them will put a restraint on their freedom.

They fail to understand the real worth of their parents and long to have a deeper distance from them. The media and the western civilization have surrounded their ideology. They do not care for the civility in any sense. Thus, the distance is taking its deep root among the youths. They do not realize their duties for the old aged parents rather they consider it an extra burden upon them. Thus, a sense of distance has become in vogue among the modern youths.

Q2. The poem reflects the realities of the modern times. The aged persons face problems and there is no end to it. How do you feel?
Ans. The breaking-up of the joint family system and the change in our value system have created serious problems for the aged persons. They are denied physical, moral, financial, and emotional support because their children are grossly involved in their own affairs. A feeling that they are unwanted persons has gripped the aged. The attitude towards the aged is marked by hatred, disregard, apathy, and insults. This drowns them in the fathomless chasm of depression. Above all, elderly persons having no source of income are the worst sufferers. Growing materialism is the main culprit. Blood is no longer thicker than water. An elderly person who stands between the heirs and his wealth becomes a thorn in their flesh. Many starts torturing the aged to death.

The aged persons require nothing but love, affection, and respect. So, the children must change their attitude. They must not neglect the very source of their existence. Accept the aged happily and see the blessings of God showering in rapid succession.

Q 3: What sort of father-son relationship has been depicted in the poem ‘Father to Son?
Answer: The poem depicts a father-son relationship which exists in name only. The two have been living together in the same house for years. Even then the father does not understand his son. He confesses that he knows nothing of his son. The bond of affection between them lie broken. They have become formal just like strangers. Although the son resembles his father physically, yet he had his own vision, dreams, and aspiration. He is not home bound and is not afraid to venture forth. The protective father is willing to forgive him for incurring loss of material wealth provided he returns home. The painful experience of lack of communication fills the father with utter helplessness, anger, and grief. His efforts to restore the relationship fail as there is no response from the other side.

 

Q 4: How far has the poet succeeded in transforming a purely personal matter to a universal experience prevalent in modern times?
Answer: The poem begins on an autobiographical note. The speaker i.e., the father recounts his own experience. He talks about the non-functional father-son relationship. He neither understands his son nor knows anything about him. In spite of living in the same house, the distance between father and son has increased. There is lack of communication between them. They either talk like strangers or silence surrounds them. The father is unable to share what the son prefers to do. The distance has reached to sorrowful limit. Even then the father is willing to shape a new love and build up a fresh relationship. His grief takes the form of anger and they fail to reach any compromise.
This maladjustment or growing break-up of relationships is typical of the modem materialistic age.

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