Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Father and Son” is about the desire for a source of psychological and spiritual certitude. It is also about the acute frustration in the individual prematurely deprived of one who could have provided it. Yet the poem is not for the fatherless or orphaned alone. In the ordinary course of life, everyone loses his or her parents. Later, one may yearn, consciously or not, for a bygone security that they represent. Such feeling does not require that security to have existed in fact. It is fueled by loss and by the alienation and dissolution which often follow from it. Moreover, the one lost may or may not have possessed the love requisite to this need. By its nature, desire requires no such guarantee.

Does the concluding couplet, then, cynically denigrate this yearning? Probably not, because this desire and its gratification are imagined as in a dream, suggesting their unconscious nature. The voice of the poem is not engaged in a realistic social exchange. What the son finally realizes is not the sort of rebuff one gets from an impatient realist. It is more like the half-conscious, desultory insight that follows a dream embodying some personal unhappiness. Such an insight could be as salutary in the long run as it is disquieting for the moment.

Maturity finally requires one to acknowledge that a dead source of surety cannot be otherwise. In addition, an absolute and dead guarantor of one’s well-being, by its magical, unconscious empowerment, enslaves one. (The dead father’s “indomitable love” has kept the son in “chains.”) One may esteem that love, real or not, but one wishes the person who seeks it free of bondage as well. Thus, the terrible experience of the “white ignorant hollow” is ultimately liberating. Learning to live independently of perfect guidance is often a painful experience, but it vitalizes one’s autonomy and self-reliance. The son is finally free to be a real moral agent, to act through his own judgment, even ignorance, there being no morally omniscient guide anyway, as the innocently “ignorantface” makes clear.