Class XI: Hornbill - Father to Son

Father to Son
By Elizabeth Jennings

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.


Introduction

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

The theme of the poem is the generation gap which occurs when the communication
link between two generations breaks due to a mutual lack of understanding,
tolerance and acceptance. The poem highlights the internal conflict a father
undergoes when his son becomes old enough to define his own interests, thoughts
and perceptions. The brooding father complains that he cannot understand his child
despite having lived together for many years in the same house. The father tries to
continue a relationship based on what he knew of the son from his youngest years
but of course, the son has change over time. The tone is almost pleading, attempting
to find a link with his grown up son.

Using a typically agrarian imagery, he questions whether he has already lost his own
child, his son, due to this distance between them or was the son on a mental plane
that was entirely his own and which, the father cannot access. The father uses ‘I’ in
these lines acknowledging his own role in creating this communication gap between
them.

The father and son have become strangers with no understanding of each
other. Traditionally, the son’s upbringing is in the very environment and with the
values the father provided. Thus, the father feels his son is built to his design and
should be like his father in most aspects. However, his son now has interests the
father cannot share. There is no shared passion, no common ground. Most times,
there is only an awkward silence between them. The frustration of the father is
evident as he struggles to understand why his own son, his flesh and blood, has
turned into an absolute stranger.

The father in the poem sees his child as the prodigal (spendthrift, underlying
implication: foolish) son and wants him to return to the home he has always known.
He does not want the son to make his own world, away from his father. The father
says he would forgive his son if he asked for forgiveness like the prodigal son. He
would love him again despite the sorrow of the distance that existed between them
once. The tone is slightly condescending and implies that the father is unable to let
his son go, even at the cost of restricting the son's personal development and
independence.

The son admits that he is at a point where he is struggling to understand even
himself. He does feel the grief of the broken relationship he shares his father and
yet, there is an anger that arises out of his confused, fraught inner self. The son
speaks for the first time and it is quite clear, that the frustration lies on both sides.
Pablo Neruda once commented on the sadness that arose from being unable to
understand oneself. The son seems to be in the same confused, sad and yet, angry
phase of growth. This stanza is reminiscent of the poem 'Childhood' which outlines a
child's struggled to understand himself as he turns into a young adult.

The father concludes the poem realizing that in their hearts, each of them wants to
forgive the other. However, neither wants to take the first step and ask for
forgiveness. Each puts out an empty hand for the other to take, but
neither places theirs in the other’s hand. However, it is positive that at least
they long to forgive and find a way to make things work.

Usually, by the time parents accept the new individuality of their children, the
damage has already been done and the process of coming together is difficult and
painful. Respecting each other’s’ differences is the only way to alleviate the distance,
the strange and awkward silence.

While the father’s anguish and frustration is highlighted, the ego comes through as
well. It is also noteworthy that the poem is written by a woman and not a man. A
number of questions remain open to speculation.

THE PRODIGAL SON is a Biblical reference from the New Testament's parables of
Jesus. The story is of a father with two sons. The younger demanded his inheritance
despite the fact that traditionally, the eldest born is heir. The father accedes and the
spoilt younger son leaves home. He spends his fortune foolishly, eventually returning
to his father's house with barely a stitch of cloth on his body. The father forgives him,
and welcomes him into his embrace with open arms and a celebratory feast. Artist
Pompeo Batoni represented this parable beautifully through the following painting:

Passages for Comprehension

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

1. 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.

Q. Who have lived in the same house? How long?


Ans. The father and the son have lived in the same house for years.

Q. 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.

Q. 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. 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.


Q. 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.


Q. 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.


Q. Why do they speak like strangers?


Ans. They speak like strangers because they have different ways of life and
thoughts.



3. 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.

Q. What kind of child had he desired to design?


Ans. He had desired to design a child who shared his likes and dislikes.


Q. Why does the speaker say ‘this child’ not ‘my child’?


Ans. Because the child has nothing common with him.


Q. 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.


Q. What does the father want his son to do?


Ans. He wants his son to come back to his father’s home.


Q. What is the father prepared to accept?


Ans. He is prepared to accept his so with all his profligacy.


Q. 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.


Q. 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.



4. 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,



Q. 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.

Q. 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.


Q. What do both father and son long for?

Ans. They long for an excuse to forgive each other.


Q. 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.

Q. What can’t the father understand?

Ans. The father can’t understand why he becomes angry in his grief.


Q. Does the poem have a consistent rhyme scheme?

Ans. Yes, the rhyme scheme in each stanza is abbaba.

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