Elegy For My Father’s Father

 Overview

This poem pays tribute to a grandfather who was never really loved, but was still respected. In youth he was a man capable of many feats of physical strength, but his emotional weakness and inability to open up to those around him leaves him lonely and filled with regret as he approaches his end.

Despite this sense of regret, he faces death without fear as there are some hints that he has found some meaning and fulfilment in his life through his experience and appreciation of the natural world.

Mini-Glossary
cairn 
– a pile of stones used as a monument;
aaronsrod – plants with a tall stem leading to a flower, typically weeds;
chain of sods – a pile of turf.

He knew in the hour he died
That his heart had never spoken
In eighty years of days.
O for the tall tower broken
Memorial is denied:
And the unchanging cairn
The pipes could set ablaze
An aaronsrod and blossom.
They stood by the graveside
From his bitter veins born
And mourned him in their fashion.
A chain of sods in a day
He could slice and build
High as the head of a man
And a flowering cherry tree
On his walking shoulder held
Under the lion sun.
When he was old and blind
He sat in a curved chair
All day by the kitchen fire.
Many hours he had seen
The stars in their drunken dancing
Through the burning-glass of his mind
And sober knew the green
Boughs of heaven folding
The winter world in their hand.
The pride of his heart was dumb.
He knew in the hour he died
That his heart had never spoken
In song or bridal bed.
And the naked thought fell back
To a house by the waterside
And the leaves the wind had shaken
Then for a child’s sake:
To the waves all night awake
With the dark mouths of the dead.
The tongues of water spoke
And his heart was unafraid.

James K. Baxter (1926-1972)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Our second poem and our second Kiwi. Baxter led a typical poet’s existence, in that he got up to all sorts of interesting and incomprehensible things in his life.

He began writing poetry at the tender age of seven and published his first collection as he went off to university at seventeen. During his studies he became an alcoholic and dropped out before finishing. A few years later, he found faith and a wife, before losing both (due to converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism). Next he had an extended trip around India, before returning to New Zealand as a writer/postman. A brief stint lecturing for a university was followed by the decision (based on a dream) to give up everything, except for his bible, and head out to a small Maori settlement called Jerusalem. The move wasn’t good for his health and just three years later he would pop his clogs.

Throughout this rollercoaster of a life, Baxter was prolific with his poetry and in his lifetime 35 different collections were published, with more posthumously.

There isn’t too much I can dig up that has direct relevance to this poem, but his family origins might hold some clues. His grandfather (father’s father – John Baxter) was a Scot who emigrated to New Zealand in 1861. Whether he is the inspiration for this poem is unclear, but there are some details that suggest the emotional distance between him and his children may not have been as dramatic as this poem would make out.

Baxter’s father became a fairly prominent conscientious objector during the First World War. He married Millicent Brown, from a very prominent New Zealand family, to some uproar from her family due to the disparity in their levels of education, as Brown held multiple degrees and was widely travelled, while Baxter’s father had left school at 12. They got together as she was inspired by his letters he’d written to his parents about his treatment as a conscientious objector who had been sent to the war regardless.

If his father wrote to his grandfather about his experiences that would suggest some emotional connection. The poem, however, seems to suggest the deceased was a difficult person to get on with and never really open with his family.

 

 Themes

The major theme here is family, love and relationships explored through the grandfather’s inability to really make the most of them and his sense of regret that stems from this. However, this is contrasted with nature, which is the backdrop of his salvation.

Content

We begin at the side of the poetic voice’s grandfather’s grave, contemplating the kind of life he led.

Although the title is presented from the grandchild’s perspective, it makes judgements as to how the deceased must have felt about his life and in particular his end and we are seeing the grandfather’s life through his own eyes (as imagined by the poetic voice). The first three lines signal a sense of regret about the fact that he was never emotionally open nor did he love or be loved.

This emotional weakness and inability to follow his heart or demonstrate his feelings is shown as being something that was always hidden behind the fact that he was a physically strong and impressive man of nature. Despite his evident impressively manliness, he dies without any great memorial or fan fare as he does not have any strong emotional bonds with any of his family.Although his family are at his grave they are presented as being there through duty rather than through grief.

A flashback to his youth again demonstrates his physical feats, but is quickly contrasting with the frailty of his last years. Here is presented as being incapable, partially crippled or disabled and all on his own. There is a suggestion that he drank heavily as he contemplated his life, nature and his coming demise. Baxter repeats the opening lines again demonstrating this strong sense of regret further by revealing that it is pride preventing him from finally opening up, he cannot bring himself to reveal his true feelings as it would give a lie to the life he led.

As he approaches his final hours, he contemplates his life in relation to the only thing that he has ever really been connected with: nature. An image of his youth by a river and with the wind blowing is connected with the current sound of waves, seen as the voices of ghosts beckoning him to his end. Despite the regret revealed in the poem, there is a sense that this connection with the natural world is enough for him and he welcomes death without fear.

Language and techniques

There is loads going on in this poem and I think it is likely that many of you will reach the end and be scratching your head as to why he does not seem to fear his demise: we will get to that!

The title is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, an elegy is usually reserved for someone who we have a high level of respect for and is delivered as a type of mourning upon their death. However, this suggested respect is undermined by the fact the deceased is referred to as ‘My Fathers Father’ as opposed to Grandad or Grandpa or equivalent. By referring to him in these terms Baxter suggests that they did not have a relationship and the poetic voice really does not know the deceased at all. This can be seen to born out in the poem through the deceased’s inability to open up emotionally.

Another reason it is interesting is that it suggests the poem will be told from the grandson’s perspective. However, it actually provides us with the grandfather’s perspective, as imagined by the grandson. Confusing!

Our opening three lines are very powerful and really communicate a deep sense of regret. The fact the deceased’s ‘heart had never spoken’ tells us that his feelings have been oppressed and he has never really been able to tell people how he feels or open himself up emotionally. He has not opened up at any stage in his long life, which is emphasised with the phrase ‘eighty years of days’, which really draws attention to how long a period of time this actually is as in our heads we do a quick bit of mathematics and work out is something like 20,000 days of keeping your feeling squashed down.  This is sad enough, but Baxter adds a sharp sense of regret in the first line as the deceased is clearly contemplating this lack of emotion as ‘he knew [about it] in the hour he died’ and thus demonstrates he has spent time dwelling on this point.

The poem paints the grandfather as a physically strong outdoorsman or farmer, capable of impressive feats such as carrying a tree ‘on his walking shoulder’ and moving more ‘sods’ or turf than others. However, for all his youthful strength and prowess, this fades with age and it is his inability to feel, or communicate his feelings, that remains and leaves him very little in life. ‘Memorial is denied’ suggests that for all his achievements there is no one to celebrate them or who will remember them. Although he was a ‘tall tower’ of a man in his life, he is now ‘broken’ and thus there is no longer anything left to celebrate of him. All that is left is a pile of stones as a monument, but as this is described as an ‘unchanging cairn’ that is ‘set ablaze an aaronsrod’ it is clear that it is not tended to and is left to be consumed with weeds.

We see this as his family at his graveside are described as being of his ‘bitter veins’ and only ‘mourn… in their fashion’. There is an implication that this bitterness runs both ways, perceived through the deceased’s lack of emotional openness and from his children as a result of not feeling that their father ever loved them. If you do something in a fashion, it suggests you don’t do it properly or fully and therefore the mourning at the graveside was clearly not overly powerful.

Immediately after the lines describing the deceased in his prime, Baxter presents an image of him in old age as he awaits death. ‘Old and blind’ paints him as now being incapable and is furthered by the fact he is sitting ‘all day by the kitchen fire’. He can no longer carry trees and slice turf, in fact he can no longer walk or be active in any way and is evidently frail and in decline as he seeks constant warmth from the fire. However, the most depressing element of this is that he is alone, all day and every day, which no doubt gives him ample time to stew on his regrets. There is a further clue as to his depressed and miserable state as Baxter hints at alcoholism as he sees stars ‘drunken dancing’ and his mind is a ‘burning-glass’, as if he is contemplating life and nature whilst drinking heavily and perhaps the alcohol leads him to his deepest regrets.

In this state he also knows he is dying as he recognises ‘the winter world’ ‘folding’ his life away. His prime is pictured as ‘the green boughs of heaven’, but he summer is long gone and Baxter uses the seasons to reflect on the stages of life.  Despite this realisation and his contemplation of regrets, ‘pride of heart’ prevents him from admitting he has lived life in the wrong way and opening up to his family. Instead he dies as he lived, with his feelings bottled up and hidden from those closest to him. Baxter repeats the opening two lines to reinforce the deep feeling of regret, further adding that he never opened up ‘in song or bridal bed’, which shows that he was not even able to open up in times of great celebration or even on his wedding day and with the woman who he should have been able to share anything.

Reaching this stage of the poem you could be forgiven for thinking that the message is basically that grandad should have opened up and has led a life of no worth or regard. However, the last eight lines make the reader reconsider his life. In this final reflection the deceased sees his childhood through a pastoral image of a childhood home by the water with a gentle wind blowing the leaves. His mind returns to the present and another natural image with the sounds of ‘waves all night awake’ having reminded him of the still of his childhood, but also representing the ‘dark mouths of the dead’ whispering to him that it is time to join them. In both these images and the way they are reflected upon, we see that the deceased was at peace with nature and found joy in it.

Revisiting the rest of the poem, we see that he is at peace and in his element only around nature. Although he is denied a memorial in the world of humankind, the fact that his grave is ‘set ablaze by aaronsrod and blossom’ almost suggests that the natural world is celebrating the man. Baxter could be using ‘aaronsrod’ symbolically here as Aaron’s rod in the Bible is the tool that Moses uses to guide his flock and is a powerful symbol of shepherding. We also see the deceased’s time as a farmer/outdoorsman framed with beautiful imagery with the ‘flowering cherry tree’ on his shoulder and ‘the lion sun’ shining overhead. In addition, his life is contemplated in natural terms with his prime ‘the green boughs of heaven’ giving way to the ‘winter world’ of old age.

This connection and appreciation of the natural world is seen as having given the deceased some joy. As he faces death, in the final line, ‘his heart was unafraid’, which suggests that despite his regrets he feels like his life has had some meaning and merit and been enjoyed in his own way.

In a way the ending of this poem connects again with the title. Where we initially saw a contradiction in the respect of the term ‘elegy’ and the emotional distance of ‘father’s father’, it now makes some sense. Although Baxter or his poetic voice may never have really known this man, there is a sense of respect for someone who has lived their own life and found their own worth. I also get the impression that this may be a grappling with finding the meaning in someone’s life who has lived it in a way different to how most people appreciate it. The grandson does not want to consider his grandfather to have lived an empty life or to think he died full of regret and feeling he had lived life the wrong way.

Structure

I’m going to be brief here and comment on two things.

The poem is presented as a continuous stanza without a regular rhyme. It is dominated by enjambment as ideas and imagery is presented in an almost matter of fact manner. This structure mirrors the ‘tall tower’ of the deceased and the unchanging ways. The lack of rhyme or break and change suggest a disconnect with emotion and the floweriness of poetry and instead present the image of the deceased.

However, there is one jarring line that breaks the pattern of lines running on: ‘The pride of his heart was dumb.’ While this is still very matter of fact in its assertion, it is the only line in the entire poem that is stand alone and the idea begins and ends in the same line. It is the heart of the poem, it forces the reader to contemplate the dangers of pride and being too afraid to admit to our mistakes and demonstrates the regret not only of the deceased, but also the family who were never allowed in emotionally because of the stubbornness of pride.

Tone

Read the poem a couple of times (if you haven’t already). At first I felt the poem was quite cold and harsh, and it definitely is at points. However, within this lament at a man not able to demonstrate his emotions is a mark of respect and a feeling that although the poetic voice cannot understand it, the deceased found some value in the world without emotional openness.

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