So we leave the couples therapy behind and move back to parent-child relationships for this post, exploring Walking Away by C. Day Lewis, written for his son Sean. It compares well with other poems in the “Love and Relationships” section of the AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry Anthology, especially poems such as Follower. This one, from a father to his son, is a twist on many, which focus on the feelings of a child towards their parent.
He has a lyric style that is very similar to that of Heaney, which means the poems are interesting to compare, especially in use of rhyme and rhythm. The poem was written in 1956 and recalls his son’s first day at school.
The poem is split into four stanzas of five lines, with an ABACA rhyme scheme, which is sustained throughout the poem. Syllabic length varies from 9 syllables to 12 syllables. The poem is marked by occasional enjambment and caesura, playing with the rhythm a little just as Heaney does in Follower, and it’s more useful to explore those moments as and when they happen in the poem.
Like many other poems in the AQA collection, this one is a deeply personal first-person narrative that is directed at his son, putting the reader into the place of the son. By doing this, we not only get an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the poet, but for the time the poem takes us to read, we too are part of that relationship. It feels kind of ironic that many of the posts about this poem refer to the distant relationship between C. Day Lewis’s surviving family, stemming it would seem from who talks to the public about their father and who doesn’t, when here is their father laying out his feelings to his son in a public poem. As with other first-person poems that are directed to a clear audience, it puts us in an unusual position and we wonder if the poets have chosen NOT to keep the poem private and keep their thoughts and feelings between themselves and their intended audience because these are words they could never say directly, or they are words they cannot say any longer, if someone has died or moved on. Or perhaps the poets find something so very common in what they are saying that they’re sharing it because they know that it’s a sentiment that many people have felt too. For whatever the reason, we must ask ourselves why the poem was published, especially when it is so intensely personal. But many poets lay their thoughts and feelings out on a slab for readers to carve up and dissect – it is often what touches us most about their poems, because they speak about the human experience and something of what they say resonates within any of us who have shared that experience. Like Follower, it is the emotional intensity of the poem that is central to its success. And like the Heaney poem, it too has a brevity and a neatness focusing in on one central moment.
The title is immediately ambiguous, because there’s no subject to it. We don’t know who is walking away. Is it the reader or the poet? The meaning only becomes clear when we have read it: it refers to his son. It’s also ambiguous being the present participle, “walking” which suggests no sense of time – it has an immediacy and feels very much like it is happening in the here and now. But the words suggest a distance and sadness.
This immediacy is continued in the first line, which is written in the present tense, although it refers to the past: “It is eighteen years ago,” in which the narrative is established. The poet is writing about that moment now, although it happened so long ago. It suggests that it has been playing on his mind, that it is an incredibly significant moment. There are few events that stay in our memory so long, that we can remember the exact day and date, and usually ones to do with love or loss. Day Lewis knows: “almost to the day – ” which suggests his memory is exact and precise of this particular occasion.
The pair of parenthetic dashes surrounds an addition, ” – A sunny day with leaves just turning,/the touch-lines new-ruled – ” Like many other poems in the selection, this particular detail of the weather not only sets the time and gives us a sense of setting, but it also evokes a turning point as things move to autumn, the leaves “just turning” are evocative of a changing and a passage of time. Of course, as the seasons move on, the sense of autumn’s arrival is sad and wistful. capturing the pensive mood of the poet perfectly. It is both a literal detail – it is autumn and the leaves were just turning – and a symbol of the change that is about to happen both in the poem and in the poet’s relationship with his child. Upon a first reading, we have no sense yet that this is his child he is writing to. We do get a sense of place, though, with the “touch-lines” evoking a sports field, and couple the autumn with newly marked-out sports pitches and you have the beginning of school term in September. Lines 1-3 run on naturally and easily. The rhythm is natural too. Line 3 runs into Line 4 separating “you play” from “your first game of football,” but the break feels easy and natural too, though it throws a little emphasis on the word “play”, since it falls at the end of a rhymed line. That makes us realise the object, “you” is active, playing football, and the writer, C Day Lewis, is passive, watching from the sidelines. That in itself makes the father/poet a bystander. Heaney uses the same sense in Follower where he recalls his father at work. The tense shifts to the past once more as we are taken back to that moment, almost eighteen years ago.
In line four, the poet uses a simile to convey the moment, “then, like a satellite/Wrenched from its orbit,” The enjambment of the lines splits up this phrase into two, echoing the feeling that the poet has, of his son being pulled away from him. A satellite is a smaller object kept in orbit by gravity around a bigger object, like the moon is a satellite of the earth. There is a sense in this simile of something smaller, something that has been reliant on the major object. When we say something is a satellite of something else, it is also lesser in importance, held in check by the gravity or power of the bigger thing. It conveys both the size of the child (who we begin to discern as being the audience of the poem, the “you”) and the dependence that the child has on the parent. The verb “wrenched” really conveys the power behind that separation. Obviously, to pull something out of the orbit or influence of something else, it takes a very powerful force. There is both a violence and a sense of distress in this word. We feel that separation very powerfully because of this word. At that moment, as the first stanza ends, the father realises his son is “drifting away”, just as a satellite would if it lost its centre. It makes me understand there are two things that can happen here: first the object holding the satellite in orbit might have lost its power. If the earth lost its force of gravity, the moon would go spinning off, for example. Second, there can be other things that exert more of a force in order to pull the satellite away – other influence. Thus, the father may have lost his hold over his child, or the child may be being pulled away by other influences.
The enjambed line from stanza one to stanza two also duplicates this split, “go drifting away/behind a scatter of boys”. The way he writes about the boys is interesting: “a scatter”, which suggests the casual way that the boys are dispersed, almost as if they are the thing that has “wrenched” his son away from the poet. The poem is very visual with both the simile and the description of the boys, and moves back to the present with “I can see/you walking away”. For me, this makes the moment seem very vivid and fresh – the poet can see the child walking away in his memory, which is happening now, and it makes the moment very current once more, a little like Seamus Heaney’s use of tense in Follower.
The diction here becomes very elaborate, “with the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free”, using a similar th/f alliteration as that in Follower. Look at them all in this line: “with the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free” – lots of those fricatives give it an airy, light sound… rather reminiscent of flight, no? Even if you don’t think all those sounds echo the subject perfectly, you can’t argue that they are gentle and breathy, making it a very wistful, melancholic line. Where Heaney uses it to show the lightness and smoothness with which his father works the plough, C Day Lewis seems to use it to suggest the hotion of his son being “set free”. He’s using “pathos” here to show how emotional he finds this moment: this separation causes him real anxiety. He calls his son “half-fledged” like a baby bird, not ready to fly, immature and unprepared to face the world. It seems to me that he could have easily chosen other words to fit instead of “pathos” and “thing”, and that these words are used to capitalise on that th/f thing.
It’s a fair-old cheesy image, that. If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be. But when C Day Lewis wrote the poem, it had not become part of everyday wisdom. All I can find on it is a vague suggestion it might have emerged around the 1950s and had started to be written down in the 1970s, so very unlikely that it was such a cheesy cliché when C Day Lewis first wrote it. Google Ngrams shows it really started to hit paper in the late 1970s.
Day Lewis clarifies further in the poem, writing, “set free/into a wilderness,” – he really feels that he has let his child loose without proper preparation or care; he feels all the concern and doubt that any parent would upon seeing their child move to independence and leave them behind. His worry is almost palpable when he says, “the gait of one/Who finds no path where the path should be” – all mono-syllabic and very terse, tense in fact. His son is aimless, wandering and unsure.
We move into the third image as we move into the third stanza. His son is a satellite out of orbit, a fledgling bird, and now “a winged seed”. Day Lewis picks up on his son’s confusion, calling him a “hesitant figure” and chooses an unusual verb to describe his son’s movements: “eddying away”. The dictionary describes this as “a current at variance with the main current in a stream of liquid or gas” and we get the sense of his son, fighting against the tide of boys, going in the wrong direction almost, at odds and out of sync. It all ties together with his son’s sense of aimlessness and wandering. The phrase “eddying away/like a winged seed” is also enjambed, as we keep finding with these images, splitting the images over two lines. This division seems to perfectly emulate the sense of tearing apart that Day Lewis feels, seeing his son walking off.
Stanza three offers more than a simple description of this “wrenching” apart, saying that his son “Has something I never quite grasp to convey/About nature’s give-and-take – ” when he says he never quite grasps “to convey” the cyclical nature of life – how it brings us children and then they grow up, leave to have their own children or their own lives” – it means he struggles to put it into words. To me, it feels like this is what the poem is really about and he is using the moment as a way of conveying that, of expressing his understanding about the “give-and-take” of life. To be honest, I’m not sold on “grasp to convey” – with the “I never quite grasp” makes sense. “I never quite convey” makes sense. I’m personally unsure how you “grasp to convey” something. If he means “try”, it makes no sense. “I never quite try to convey” – it’s a little awkward. Ironic, really. Here he is struggling with the wording of something which sounds odd and awkward and not-quite-sense, and it’s also him saying how hard it is to communicate that experience. I know I’m not the only one to find it a strange turn of phrase. Google gives only 40000 returns for “grasp to convey” as a search term, and all the first three pages relate to this poem or “…grasp. To convey…” Not a common collocation, by any stretch of the imagination. “Try to convey” has over three million returns. Even “struggle to convey” has three hundred thousand. It feels wrong. I can’t decide if it’s accidental or purposeful. I’ll give our former Poet Laureate the benefit of the doubt as I’m sure his editor wouldn’t have let him get away with something that doesn’t fit like this, and say that I think it must be purposeful to show literally how hard it is to communicate this feeling.
Line four of the third stanza also contains an enjambed line which runs into the next: ” – the small, the scorching/Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.” Here, he uses a metaphor as an analogy to make clear that we are like soft clay at the beginning of life, and as we go through life like this, experiences like these harden us, or “fire” us. Firing is the process by which clay strengthens and hardens, fixing shape. Normally, though, clay is not “scorched”, and this word, along with others such as “wrenched” suggest how painful the experience is for him. It burns him. But these are the experiences that toughen him up. Day Lewis suggests that it is not the big moments that make us, but those small moments, such as this, where his son walks off after the football match and he realises his son is making his own path now. As he says, “I have had worse partings”. “Irresolute” suggests that we are weak and uncertain until such moments harden us and make us firm and determined.
As we move into stanza four, Day Lewis tells us that even though this moment was not particularly bad, this one “gnaws” at his mind. This present-tense verb tells us that this moment, eighteen years ago, still eats away at him. He struggles again for words to convey his understanding: “it is roughly/saying what God alone could perfectly show – ” that the moment taught him that all creatures “become” by separation, and that our parental love is “proved” in letting our children go. In order to become an individual, we must walk away and make our own path, and our parents can do nothing but watch us leave. The verb “proved” is particularly effective: it means “to test or analyse” but also to establish the truth of a thing. It means both “to confirm” and “to test” which is perfectly apt in both senses of the word.
Overall, then, a poem about a child making his first steps in life whilst his father can only watch. As we end the poem, the similarities between this poem and Follower are evident, but we get a sense of the divide that still remains as a child grows up. I feel, though, that this poem is much richer in terms of imagery, but it feels very much to me that Day Lewis is struggling for the words to express this division, a satellite out of orbit, a fledgling bird, a winged seed, and it feels as if he can’t settle on one image that fits just perfectly, as if he can’t find the perfect way to describe his son and the shift in their relationship. That’s very different from Follower, which is very spartan in terms of figurative language. I do feel that Day Lewis’s failure to settle on one central image that works is very interesting: he says himself that he is (or the moment is) “roughly saying” and it is really as if he can’t find the perfect way to express this “wrenching” and “scorching.”
This is your starting point to think about your own interpretation of this poem and what you think it means. Make sure you root your response in the text and in what you know, so that you can justify your answers.
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