Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“My Father in the Night Commanding No” is a meditation on the strange role of memory in human life. In Louis Simpson’s view, memory establishes permanent images that a person, later in life, does not necessarily understand and cannot change. As an adult, the speaker in the poem wonders about his parents: Why did his father’s work make him seem harsh and distant; what was there in the music (which the boy found grating) that made his mother cry? Did the mother have more personal reasons for crying? Why has his adult experience not made him capable of knowing what they felt? The answer to some of these questions may be carried by the wind. The first mention of this conventional symbol of change comes in the pivotal paragraph in which memory brings back the images of the father reading and the mother crying. That stanza ends, “And the dark wind/ Is murmuring that nothing ever happens,” a paradoxical notion, given the wind’s usual symbolic role.

In the final stanza, the wind is referred to once more: “‘Listen!’ the wind/ Said to the children, and they fell asleep.” The wind here seems to be saying that some things, specifically those things of childhood which are held in the memory, are not subject to change. People change, as the speaker’s boyhood fantasies have become a kind of adult reality, even though what is recalled from youth remains; but this is adult knowledge. When the memories are being formed, one is unaware of the process that is taking place, ignorant that what one learns then will stay with one for the rest of one’s life.

“My Father in the Night Commanding No” is a gentle poem. It contains no images of violence, and other than the early sense of the father as a menacing figure there is little of an overtly sinister nature. There is sorrow in the poem, however, as well as a sense of the mystery of human memory. A dark undercurrent suggests that in some ways people’s characters and attitudes are fixed at an early age, without their knowledge. Finally, there is regret that while the speaker’s memories will never change, he will never fully understand them.