Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An overriding theme of “Here, But Unable to Answer” is the concept of loss or abandonment, as seen through what poet Marvin Bell has called “the vengeance of time [and] the clarity of failure.” The poet mourns not only the loss of the father through death but the loss of a father who was absent in life as well. This idea of loss is pervasive in Hugo’s poetry, whether of a lost era or a past that never was, whether of the faded dreams of “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” or the collapsing buildings of a “Montana Ranch Abandoned,” two of Hugo’s best-known poems.

Here he adopts a typical stance, that of a solitary figure with a desire for connection who views past and present with what critic Frederick Garber has identified as a “stereoscopic vision” of what is and was or, more often, what was not but should have been. In this poem, Hugo views the father in his imagination not from memory but on the bridge of his ship. The father stands alone, as does the poet, who envisions a powerful union between them: “what a team/ and never to be.” This statement embodies a kind of wishful thinking. The bond between solitary father and isolated son in this poem is a yearned-for relationship rather than a real one. In truth, they have always been separated.

A related theme, again very typical of Hugo’s work, is the undercurrent of personal guilt, as if the poet somehow bears responsibility for the physical and emotional distance...

(The entire section is 509 words.)