Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

An overriding theme of “Here, But Unable to Answer” is the concept of loss or abandonment, as seen through what poet Marvin Bell has called “the vengeance of time [and] the clarity of failure.” The poet mourns not only the loss of the father through death but the loss of a father who was absent in life as well. This idea of loss is pervasive in Hugo’s poetry, whether of a lost era or a past that never was, whether of the faded dreams of “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” or the collapsing buildings of a “Montana Ranch Abandoned,” two of Hugo’s best-known poems.

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Here he adopts a typical stance, that of a solitary figure with a desire for connection who views past and present with what critic Frederick Garber has identified as a “stereoscopic vision” of what is and was or, more often, what was not but should have been. In this poem, Hugo views the father in his imagination not from memory but on the bridge of his ship. The father stands alone, as does the poet, who envisions a powerful union between them: “what a team/ and never to be.” This statement embodies a kind of wishful thinking. The bond between solitary father and isolated son in this poem is a yearned-for relationship rather than a real one. In truth, they have always been separated.

A related theme, again very typical of Hugo’s work, is the undercurrent of personal guilt, as if the poet somehow bears responsibility for the physical and emotional distance between the two men. His tone is melancholy and even apologetic. The phrase “Me and my unwanted self” expresses a clear discomfort with his own identity. The poet urges his father to “forgive the bad nerves I brought home,” as if the post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences as a bombardier in the war were something for which he was personally responsible. Even in his final vision of the father, there is a stab of regret for a relationship, a love, never fully realized.

The outer landscape of Hugo’s poem mirrors the inner psychological landscape of the speaker. The scene is one of vast space and isolation. At the beginning of the poem, dawn is breaking over the ocean; at the end the dead father, who in reality is buried on land, remains alone on the bridge under a night sky studded with distant stars. This is the landscape of solitude, of sea and sky. The poet remains a contemplative observer throughout, his voice thick with sorrow. Even though he expresses his grief and admiration for the father, they do not touch. There is never a physical connection between them.

Close friend and poet James Wright has written of Hugo’s work, “The absence of outcry seemsdeeply significant. It suggests the spiritual silence at the heart of the poet’s imagination.” Indeed, one often encounters in Hugo’s poetry a quiet loneliness, a reaching out, and here it is very appropriate as he mourns the death of his father.

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