The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Feelings” is a forty-one-line poem in free verse, artistically recounting the poet’s feelings immediately following her father’s death. It is highly personal and familial, as are many of Sharon Olds’s poems. Written in the first person and past tense, the experience seems fixed, inevitable, available to retrospective analysis. The poem begins in a hospital room, the poet watching as an intern “listened” to her father’s stopped heart, and concludes with the poet contemplating the meaning of life the following morning as her husband lies atop her. The “feelings” include physical sensations—such as her father’s “faintly moist” face and hair “like a wolf’s”—and emotional and philosophical reactions to the father’s death.

Inasmuch as it recounts her reaction to her father’s death and moves her beyond that death, “The Feelings” may be considered an elegy. However, unlike traditional elegies such as John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais,” or Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” there is no recounting of the wonderful qualities of the deceased or sorrow at the loss of this positive force in the world. Olds’s father apparently deserved no such praise (a conclusion bolstered by references to him in other Olds poems). Nor was he a figure to arouse intense hatred, as is found, for instance, in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” He was more of a nonentity, whose claim to attention is that...

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The Feelings Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In a strong juxtaposition of contrasts, this poem is at once sensual and philosophical, concrete and abstract. The father’s silent heart, the poet’s wet face, their dry lips, and the weight of the husband’s body all locate the poem firmly in the physical world. The dissonance between the poet’s atheism and the Christian beliefs of other people in the “death chamber,” as well as the conclusion—“there are/ laws on this earth and we live by them”—make this poem a philosophical disquisition.

Another forceful contrast is the relationship between death, with her father, and life, with her husband (the latter also associated with procreation). The paradox of juxtaposed life and death appears succinctly in the image of the fruit, which is crushed “sweetly,” where tears are like juice and sugar, and where they come out to be tasted only as “the skin thins and breaks and rips.” In some ways, this “contrarieties of life” paradox is similar to the paradox in John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where “in the very temple of Delight/ Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”

In another contrasting juxtaposition, Olds shares a physical intimacy with both dead father and living husband. She “held hard” to her father’s foot, “felt the dryness of his lips under/ [her] lips,” and “felt his hair rush through [her] fingers.” She imagines herself at the crematorium, touching “his ashes in their warmth” and bringing her “finger to [her] tongue.” This intimacy with the dead father provides continuity and contrast with the image of her “husband’s body on [her]/ crushing [her] sweetly.” Ironically, the live husband does not demonstrate any more life than the dead father: In this poem, he is just a sweet, crushing weight. However, these two bodies are not the focus of the poem; as springboards for the poet’s ruminations, they serve their purpose silently.

All these paradoxes enhance the sense of mystery about death and its meaning, which in turn illustrates the paradox of life itself: It is a sweet fruit and a fragile container that, at some moment, will inevitably burst into death (“tears” and “sugar”). The extensive use of paradox appropriately conveys the wide, even irreconcilable, range of the feelings expressed in the poem.

The Feelings Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dillon, Brian. “’Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go.’” The Literary Review 37 (Fall, 1993): 108-119.

Kirsch, Adam. “The Exhibitionist.” The New Republic 221 (December 27, 1999): 38.

Lesser, Rika. “Knows Father Best.” The Nation 255 (December 14, 1992): 748-750.

McGiveron, Rafeeq. “Olds’s ’Sex Without Love.’” The Explicator 58 (Fall, 1999): 60.

“Sharon Olds.” The Writer 114 (April, 2001): 66.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Tucker, Ken. “Family Ties.” The New York Times Book Review 104 (November 14, 1999): 29.

Wineapple, Brenda. “I Have Done This Thing.” Poetry 185 (December, 2004): 232-237.

Zeider, Lisa. Review of The Father, by Sharon Olds. The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, 14.