The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

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“My Father in the Night Commanding No” is a meditation on the permanence of childhood experiences and impressions. One of the poet’s earliest recollections is of evenings at home when his father would order him to stop whatever he was doing. The father, depicted as silently reading and smoking, is a forbidding figure. Even in the evening he has no time for amusement; he “Has work to do.” The phrase “Smoke issues from his lips” suggests something more sinister than the smoking of a cigarette or pipe, something almost demoniacal.

The mother, on the other hand, provides the child with entertainment. She plays a record on the phonograph, perhaps an aria from an opera, which the boy finds jarring. She may also read to him—heroic tales that enable his imagination to stretch to encompass heroic deeds and strange sights. He may even be transported, through these tales, to the mythical island of Thule.

In adulthood the speaker has, in fact, traveled far and seen many things. He lists the cities to which he has gone: Paris, Venice, Rome. He has experienced, he says, “The journey and the danger of the world,/ All that there is/ To bear and to enjoy, endure and do.” The language suggests that the journey has not been entirely safe or pleasant, but he has experienced what he had hoped, as a boy, to experience. He is now grown, with children of his own. They play in his presence, not fearing him as he had feared his father: “they were expecting me.” Strangely, however, his father is still present in his mind, sitting and reading silently. His mother cries in his memory, presumably for something that happens in an opera or a tale; there is a sense that the past never changes. The speaker has moved beyond them, has avoided the rigidity which marked his father’s behavior, but this does not alter their stance.

These figures are fixed and are rigid like puppets. The fact that he cannot change their relationship to him frustrates the speaker. He tries, still, to understand them, to see the reasons his father always seemed to be working, and the cause of his mother’s tears, but they are gone and there are no answers. The conclusion of the poem suggests that children, whether his remembered self or his own children, do not realize what role memory will play in their lives.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

“My Father in the Night Commanding No” consists of eleven four-line stanzas. In each stanza, the first, second, and fourth lines are written in iambic pentameter, and the third line, containing four or five syllables, is in irregular meter. The first and fourth lines rhyme, although the rhyme is not always emphatic or exact. Thus, in the third stanza, “hill” is rhymed with “still,” but in the eighth the rhyme words are “move” and “love,” in the ninth “sit” and “puppet.”

The early part of the poem relies on imagery more than figurative devices for its effects. Some of the images are homely, as when the mother winds the old-fashioned record player (the “gramophone”). Others romantically evoke the stories that aroused the boy’s imagination: “a prince, a castle and a dragon.” In memory he stands “before the gateposts of the Kingof Thule, at midnight when the mice are still.”

The second part of the poem, dealing with his adult life, finds the speaker moving to more general images and more use of figures of speech: “Landscapes, seascapes” suggest the places he has been but also paintings that depict places he has seen only in works of art. The cities he visited “held out their arms.” His imagination lured him on: “A feathered god, seductive, went ahead.” When he returns to the memory of his parents, he sees them metaphorically as figures in a puppet show. He speaks of “the stage of terror and of love” on which actors sit, but these actors have wooden heads, and their positions never vary.

The tone of the poem is ironic. The speaker, until the end of the poem, directs the irony at himself rather than at his parents. He is almost sarcastic about what he has done in life and the places he has seen. The flat tone in which he describes the events of his adult life is in sharp contrast to the romantic language about the castle and the prince: “All that there is/ To bear and to enjoy, endure and do.” The stronger irony comes when he sees himself in relation to his parents as if they were all mere puppets with no volition of their own. What they felt and why they did what they did is no longer important. Their roles have been fixed by the action of memory. The irony changes in the final stanza; it is made more general, so as to include all memories of childhood and the fact that people do not recognize what is happening while it is going on.