Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
Harrison is often a strongly autobiographical poet and, as such, is not shy about the difficulties he had with his parents as a result of being educated out of his class. He comes from the working-class world of northern England; his parents never left the area around Leeds, Yorkshire, where Harrison was born. His father was a baker; Harrison became a classical scholar, a part-time academic, a poet, and eventually established connections in the theater and the opera through his translations of classical and European texts. He had continuing difficulty in relating to his parents as his world expanded, and they, in turn, had considerable suspicion of the life he led, despite his determination to keep his connections with northern England open. Harrison writes about working-class life and keeps a home in the north when he is not working in London or New York. The battle with his parents shows up regularly, somewhat ruefully, in his poetry.
In this poem, it takes an elegiac turn since he is contemplating the death of his father. That death is put in the context of a further theme: the inability of his father ever to express love for his son openly, a common idea which the poet often explores and sees as an example of the stunted emotional lives of the working classes as he knows them. The idea that his father was so incapable of expressing his feelings that he could never show his love openly is a common theme in Harrison’s poems, and the act of dropping a cold bar of ice cream into his son’s hands as a measure of his love is an appropriate symbol for his incapacity to love his son with any show of warmth.
The poem also hints at the problem of the way in which the son’s life has separated him from his parents. Significantly, father and son shared two enthusiasms, for ice-cream bars and Cagney movies. The movies, something of a minor art form, give Harrison an opportunity to comment upon the fact that those films were the only “art” the two ever shared. Harrison seems to expect the reader to know that he is an artist with wide-ranging interests in literature, theater, and the opera house. It could be argued that the idea of the problem between Harrison and his father might still have force as an example of the general problem that grown children often have with parents whom, through no one’s fault, they have outgrown intellectually. Its deep poignancy is best felt in knowing that Harrison often writes about how hurt he often felt because of his parents’ inability to understand his work, and how his parents, in turn, had sometimes been confused and ashamed of the frankness and ribaldry of some of his poetry.
The poem can then be read as a personal statement or as a general statement on the matter of mutual failures of children and parents. Its tone, however, is basically tender and forgiving, and its wittiness is tempered by the sense that for all their differences there is something that connects father and son which goes beyond the ring, and that it lies in this grieving memory that the poet, a middle-aged man, sitting in a theater watching Jimmy Cagney and nursing his ice-cream bar, has of his childhood moment of union with his father. Like his father, he seems able to express his feeling only in a roundabout way.