The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Tony Harrison calls this poem and the others in this collection “sonnets” although they are not, strictly speaking, since they consist of sixteen rather than fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. They are sometimes metrically uneven, quite deliberately, to enhance their informality and the themes of the individual poems. The title refers to a major subject of the book: the relationship of a son to his parents before and after their deaths. The poem, written in the first person, takes as its beginning a memory of the father and son enjoying a visit to an English motion-picture theater in 1949, when the narrator was a child.

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He remembers that they both enjoyed James Cagney, the American actor famous for his portrayal of gangsters. The experience is a common one, only slightly complicated by the English setting. The narrator remembers, for example, that his father bought him a “choc ice,” the British equivalent of an ice-cream bar or Eskimo Pie. At that time, some larger theaters in England and America used to employ an organist who would play between showings of films, and who was often positioned on an elevated platform at the front of the screen. As the curtains parted for the beginning of the film, the platform would descend and the organist would disappear into the pit. The narrator remembers two further things: the ring that his father wore, which had belonged to his father before him, and the fact that in 1949 his father would have been the same age as he is at the time the poem is written.

In the third stanza, he remembers his father’s cremation, and the connection is made between that sad affair and their times at the films. The organ music is there, as at the films, but on this occasion, his father’s coffin is on the platform and is lowered into the furnace of blinding flames, an image which is something of a counterpart to the blinding light of the film as it begins out of the dark. The ring is on his father’s finger and is the only thing that will come through the flames unscathed.

In the last stanza, the speaker is wearing the ring, retrieved from the cremation ashes. He now goes to the films alone wearing his grandfather’s ring, and he thinks of his father’s hands, cold from holding the choc ice, so much colder now in death—as if they held the ice-cream bar through an entire film. White Heat (1949), a famous Cagney film, is appropriately titled for the juxtaposition of the chill of death and the heat of cremation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Harrison is something of a late twentieth century Metaphysical poet in that he likes to manipulate images in clever (and sometimes slightly tasteless) ways but often so tenderly that the reader is willing to accept them even if slightly uneasy about their propriety. He has, in this poem, at least five points of comparison which he uses to deal with this memory of the dead father: the film, the temperature of the “choc” and the fact of its melting, the organ, the disappearing platform, and the ring.

In the first, second, and third stanzas these objects are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) manipulated to explore the relationship between the loving, if inarticulate, father and the worldly-wise son, now looking back on their simple, somewhat banal moments of togetherness. It is deliberately antiromantic, and fittingly so in the context of the wider meanings that are revealed in a reading of all the poems in the collection. Harrison, born into the English working class, often writes of the simple lives of his parents, attempting to express the narrowness of their lives and their lack of sophistication without patronizing them. In this poem, the mundane objects of a childhood memory are established in the first two stanzas. Then, in a manner reminiscent of the practice of Metaphysical poetry, they appear again, shifted ever so slightly, but sufficiently to create aesthetic pleasure in the modification. The motion picture becomes the tape upon which the music is played in the crematorium; the organ is now mute, reduced to holding the body of the dead father; the music which was “live” in the theater is now, in a sense, dead, simply a recording. Given the serious nature of the occasion, it is religious as opposed to popular, as it would have been in the theater. The “choc ice” is now the cold, dead hand of the father; the light on the screen becomes the light of the furnace. The platform remains, and descends as it did in the theater, but this time at the end of a life rather than the end of an organ concert. All is changed save for the ring, which goes through the flames and, in the final stanza, is worn on the finger of the son who, when he goes to see a Cagney film, remembers his time with his father and buys himself a “choc ice.” These correspondences, or parallel images, are somewhat far-fetched, as is often the case in Metaphysical poetry; it could also be argued that Harrison is “metaphysical” in the word’s other sense: in writing about the mystery of humankind and its relation to life and death.

It is a deceptively interesting poem, complicated in its use of image and time. It starts back in 1949, then moves to the cremation of the father sometime later, then to sometime around 1980 when the poem was written, and back into time in the choice of the old Cagney film and the ice-cream bar. The “circling” image pervades the poem, and is most obviously represented by the ring.

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