Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Grandfather” is not an easy poem to understand completely, although its basic sense is clear enough; it is almost as if Harper, as in many of his poems, wants his readers to have to work to grasp his meaning. To try to achieve that meaning, it is important to note first that the poem is really about two characters, both the grandfather and the grandson; if it is the former who is the subject of the poem, it is the latter, the speaker of the poem, who learns the most important lessons embodied in his grandfather’s life.

The grandfather faces two great battles in his life, according to this metaphorical account by his grandson: the violent racial incident earlier in his history, which perhaps defines it but which he overcomes, and the cancer that will apparently soon kill him. What is curious is that Harper uses the same word—“nation”—to describe both. The mob is a “nation” that tries to burn him out in 1915, and the cancer is a foreign “nation” that has invaded the grandfather’s body. Racism, Harper is saying subtly but clearly, is a social disease in the United States that kills just as violently as cancer. Put another way, the white “nation” of the Griffith film at the beginning of the poem has some of the same deadly properties as “the great white nation immovable” in the grandfather’s body at the end.

The grandson learns from his grandfather’s struggles. He describes the scene from 1915, which he has only heard about, but he clearly imparts the dignity and humanity his grandfather marshaled in the face of the violent forces that were trying to...

(The entire section is 658 words.)