The good thing about analysing this selection of poems is that a good number of them don’t ever seem to have been analysed anywhere, ever! Therefore, I am going to be the starting point for everyone’s research! However, it probably means that I am more likely to err as there is no one else to point out where I am wrong.
Having said that I think I have a pretty good handle on this one. As the title suggests, this poem is about a father coming to terms with the fact that his sons are setting off into the real world and away from the safety of their family home.
While they stride off filled with confidence and optimism, their father is very aware of the potential dangers and threats out there. However, in the end, the sons become beacons of hope for the father in a wider world that has become strange and unpredictable to him.
diminuendo – a decrease in loudness.
They walked away between tall hedges,
their heads just clear and blond
with sunlight, the hedges’ dark sides
sickly with drifts of flowers.
They were facing the sea and miles
of empty air; the sky had high
torn clouds, the sea its irregular
runs and spatters of white.
They did not look back; the steadiness
of their retreating footfalls lapsed
in a long diminuendo; their line
was straight as the clipped privets.
They looked at four sliding gulls
a long way up, scattering down frail
complaints; the fickle wind filled in
with sounds of town and distance.
They became sunlit points; in a broad
Haphazard world the certain focus.
Against the random patterns of the sea
their walk was one-dimensional, and final.
John Cassidy (1928-)
Before I’d even read this poem I was a fan of Cassidy’s as his life and mine share some parallels. He’s a Lancashire boy, attended the University of Manchester, taught English and Literature and spent some time in East Africa. However, I was teaching, while he was fighting in the Second World War in the East African Company.
Also he’s a celebrated and published poet and I’ve yet to add that to my bow. Maybe in the next few years, although I suspect a book is more likely.
Anyway, there isn’t a huge amount of information out there about him, but you should be aware that he often uses animals symbolically in his poetry. Usually he uses them to represent a struggle between urbanity and rurality, but here I think he uses them in a slightly different manner.
A different kind of departing here to Jonson’s. This is a father having to let go of his children, straining against his protective instinct to let them forge their own stories. As such we see the depth of Cassidy’s love through his fear and worries, but ultimately see that despite his loss he acknowledges his sons are the most important things in the world to him, and the only things that make any sense to him.
We’ll keep it brief here and in Language and techniques delve further.
We start with the sons walking away from their father and the family home. The poet positions us from the father’s perspective and we hear his doubts and concerns throughout. The hedges the sons walk past represent a protective wall that has shielded them up to this point from the outside world. In the second stanza, Cassidy suggests what awaits them, which is a whole lot of empty or more to the point unexplored space in the form of the air and the sea. Both are described in slightly ominous terms implying they could become dangerous.
Despite the hinting at various dangers from papa, the boys are confident and don’t look back or falter. In the fourth stanza again we have a suggestion of danger with opportunist seagulls circling above, perhaps on the look out to exploit these weak fledgling boys. We hear the distant sounds of urban life in the distance, which stands in contrast with the peaceful life between the hedges and suggests an unknown world.
In the last stanza the boys have truly gone forth into the wider world. The poem reveals that the father is really the one at odds with the world (he’s scared of it in a sense), but he recognises his sons as focal points for him in the wider world. In a world he cannot fully fathom, they give him purpose and the world meaning.
Not as brief as I’d imagined, but hey ho!
Language and techniques
The title here is important for two major reasons. Firstly it connects us with the perspective of the poem. It is important because it tells us that the fears and dangers hinted at in the poem are all from a father’s or parent’s point of view and reflect his protective nature for his children.
The second reason connects in with this too. By referring to his children as ‘sons’ he makes us picture them in their guise of children as opposed to the adults they must surely be, given the nature of this poem and them leaving home. The father still sees his boys as his little babies that need to be wrapped up in bubble-wrap and this demonstrates just how deep the parental bond is.
I suppose we should also consider the word ‘departing’. It is a bit more significant or permanent than a word like ‘leaving’ or ‘going out’. We should connect the word ‘departing’ to significant journeys, like train or plane journeys where we are travelling potentially hundreds of miles. It also suggests a permanence about the journey, which moving from childhood to adulthood certainly is.
As we dive into the poem proper, there are loads of examples of figurative language and connotations you need to comment on. Immediately we are confronted with imagery of two sons walking out of a garden surrounded by ‘tall hedges’. These ‘hedges’ clearly represent the protective bubble that is provided for children by their parents and while in their family home. They are not exposed to the dangers or evils of the world beyond, which are alluded to when Cassidy refers to their ‘dark sides’.
However, if we slip for a moment away from the father’s perspective, the hedges are also a clearly a barrier to all the good things in the world. The fact that the ‘hedges’ dark sides’ are facing in towards the garden suggest that they are casting shadows from the sun blaring on the other side. A further hint of this can be seen in the fact that the ‘drifts of flowers’ (that’s just petals that have floated off) have blown over onto the hedge. If the world beyond is full of flowers then consider what this could represent.
Even with something the sons could interpret as exciting and beautiful opportunity, the poem’s perspective and protective instincts leads us to view these flowers as ‘sickly’. Here you should imagine an overly strong perfume, it is alluring, but when you get closer it makes you a bit sick. These flowers/this opportunity tempts the sons, but the father sees threats and dangers at the end of this temptation.
You should also deal with the representation of the sons. Their ‘heads [are] just clear’ and they are ‘blond with sunlight’. This isn’t meant to make them sound like focused Scandanvian Adonises, but is meant to paint them in idolised terms as this is how a father sees his children. I would take both their clear minds and blondness to represent an innocence of childhood where they have not yet been exposed to life’s worries, cares and darker sides. Thus when their hair starts to become a bit darker, you can consider them to have been thoroughly corrupted! As lovely as this image is, it isn’t how I remember myself before I left home!
The second stanza moves us onto some rich imagery of the world beyond the hedges. This could be literal to a certain degree (if Cassidy is a big ruralist his home may very well have been in some remote sea side spot), but regardless it is more interesting metaphorically. The boys were ‘facing the sea and miles of empty air’, both of which sound like a huge amount of empty or unexplored space. This is meant to represent the uncertainty of where their lives will go, particularly in their father’s head. Again we could see the opportunity in this, but as we are looking through the father’s eyes we focus on the dangers. The ‘high torn clouds’ don’t suggest impending downpour, but are slightly ominous as they could quickly gather and drench the sons. The sea is representing in a similarly non-immediately-but-nevertheless-threatening way as it is ‘irregular’ and thus could turn rough at any moment.
Back to the sons in the third. Now we see their confidence and purpose stand in stark contrast to their father’s doubts. Never ‘look[ing] back’ and their ‘steadiness’ (and also the non faltering straight line whose perfection is compared to manicured ‘clipped privets’) suggests they are completely calm and in control of their destinies. This could also be seen as a sort of blind confidence based on their innocence after being cocooned in the safety of family life up until this point.
My favourite word choice in the whole poem is ‘retreating’. Actually the opposite is happening, the sons are venturing forth. The word usually has connotations of a fight, with one party retreating when they are defeated. However, it is the opposite here as the father feels defeated because his sons are leaving. Perhaps this suggests that the sons cannot yet conquer the world of comfort and stability (that a family home represents) at this stage of their lives and need to go out and find their own path to it as they discover what they want to do with their lives.
We also have the lovely image of the father following his sons long after they have gone as he describes the ‘long diminuendo’ as if he is listening to their steps until they become too faint. Again this demonstrates the fatherly love and protective nature that he is finding difficult to give up. It is a surprise he let them go in the first place! You might find when you go to university that your parents linger with you because they just can’t quite bear to leave you alone for the first time in your life (first meaningful time, at any rate).
Now we have some of Cassidy’s symbolic animal usage. Why ‘four sliding gulls’? I see the seagulls as being chosen because of their nature as scavengers and opportunists (don’t know what I’m talking about? Trying eating fish and chips while walking along a peer. Bastard birds!). Their sliding represents them sort of hovering back and forth with a watchful eye on the sons. Much like me on Blackpool pier, the sons represent an opportunity because they are innocent and don’t have experience of the real world. Their ‘frail complaints’ are the shrill cries they emit constantly and could represent a warning of the ugly side of the world that the sons are walking out to meet.
Four? In the father’s mind could they represent the four principles dangers of the world: Conquest, War, Famine and Death. In a simplified form we all face these risks when we go out on our own, so could Cassidy be casting these seagulls as the Four Seagulls of the Apocalypse? It sounds ridiculous, but I quite like it!
Similarly, ‘the sounds of town and distance’ connect us with an idea of the sons being exposed to new experiences. The ‘town’ represents the real world, no longer cocooned in familial safety. Cassidy adds the word ‘distance’, which isn’t really something we can here, to emphasis how these sounds represent danger or fear for him as he will not be there to pick his sons up if they do fall victim to any of the evils of the world. They’ll be fine, dad! Chill!
I see the ‘fickle wind’ as possibly representing two different things. Firstly, opportunity and fate. The father may feel he is now trusting his sons welfare to fate, as he is no longer able to exert parental influence, and he is thus concerned about how fate and the wind is easily changeable, blowing one way, for a minute favourable, and then the other, disastrously. It could also represent Cassidy’s fear that his sons may also become ‘fickle’ and become lost amongst the ‘sounds of town and distance’ and thus disconnected with their family. It happens at uni, trust me! A call once every three months and a week at Christmas, mark my words!
In the final stanza Cassidy’s imagery we return to the tempestuous and dangerous world of stanza two, but now he reveals that it is him, the father, who faces these dangers and uncertainties. I picture an old pirate map with dragons and sirens represented in the ‘haphazard world’ and ‘random… sea’. I’m pushing it too far here, but in a world that is unpredictable to the father he finds his sons as two ‘sunlit point’, which suggests they give his world meaning and let him understand one aspect of the world – i.e that he lives for his sons.
The description of their walk as ‘one-dimensional’ could suggest again their certainty and focus, or it could link to this idea of the father understanding them. The prior seems more likely as the poem ends reflectively with the word ‘final’, which represents the father realising that his role as protector-in-chief is over – well, he’s at least being demoted to part time, distance working.
The poems five stanzas are regular quatrains and the shape of the poem on the page could be seen to represent the straight and focused path of the children leaving home.
This also seems to be reflected in the consistent use of enjambment with each of the first stanzas barely pausing and thus symbolising the ‘steadiness’ of the sons’ movements away from their family home.
This changes in the final stanza as the father moves beyond melancholy at his diminishing role to reflecting on his sons representing the only thing that makes sense to him in the world. The second line of the stanza is punctuated with a full stop (the only one that appears anywhere other than at the end of a stanza). This longer pause gives us time to share the father’s reflection and show that his concentration has moved on from the immediate departure and now to thinking about the importance of the changing relationship for the rest of his life.
We begin with a father wracked with worry for how the world will treat his sweet, innocent boys. However, the worry transfers to the father who seems lost or confused by the world, with his sole and ‘certain focus’ being his boys.