The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 404 words.)