Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
The first stanza of “To a Sad Daughter” provides a snapshot of the girl who is the subject of this poem. If we did not know the title, our first assumption may be that the speaker is describing his son who is a typical sports enthusiast. Knowing the name of the piece, however, we are intrigued by the description of the bedroom that belongs to a girl and by her behavior at the breakfast table. She has not only selected sports figures as her idols, but she has chosen players from a very violent, rough, and highly male-dominated sport: “Belligerent goalies are your ideal.” She has posted pictures, probably from sports magazines, of hockey players on the walls of her bedroom where most young girls may hang photos of popular singers or handsome movie stars. She does not sleep in a pretty gown or in typical girls’ pajamas, but in a tracksuit. Perhaps most revealing in the description of the daughter is that “Threats … / cuts and wounds” please her. These are words not commonly thought to describe pleasant circumstances for anyone, especially a young female, but, nonetheless, the subject here is attracted to the bloodshed, bruises, and ruthlessness of the sport of hockey. The only hint of “girlishness” that appears in this first stanza is in line 8 where we see her italicized reaction to a sports page article: “O my god!” she exclaims, and it is easy to imagine the scene as a father watches his wide-eyed daughter hold a newspaper over her bowl of cereal (“Alpen”) and spout out her alarmist remark about a broken ankle or fight between player and coach. Obviously, in the sport of hockey, neither of these incidents is even unusual, much less alarming, but Ondaatje is careful to let us know there is still a bit of innocence and “silliness” beneath the otherwise tough exterior of his little girl.
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The second stanza discloses more of the daughter’s vulnerable, softer side and also provides insight into the father’s personal assessment of his female child: “When I thought of daughters/ I wasn’t expecting this/ but I like this more.” He also confesses that he likes her “purple moods” when she demonstrates a typical teenager’s aloofness and reclusiveness, probably stalking off to her room “to sit in bed under a quilt” with a nobody understands me attitude. Ondaatje admits that he uses the word “like” only in deference to his daughter’s embarrassment over hearing a parent talk about love, although love is precisely what he feels for her. We also see the girl’s youthful disposition in her scoffing at things old-fashioned, as she feels “superior to black and white movies.” In the last three lines of the stanza, the poet returns to the image of a daughter with prevalent tomboy features, telling us that she had to be “coaxed for hours to see Casablanca,” a romantic love story that many women, as well as men, have watched over and over, but that she was “moved / by Creatures from the Black Lagoon,” an old horror movie featuring a web-footed lizard-like creature who rises from murky waters and terrorizes everyone in its pathnot typically a “girl’s” movie.
The third stanza gives us a first look at the father’s main concerns involving his daughter’s future. Some parents may find his advice unthinkable and even dangerous, but Ondaatje delivers such a compelling rationale that we cannot help but understand he has the girl’s best interest in mind. In the first five lines, the poet uses striking mythological imagery to make his “cautionary” point, although we may see it as “reverse” caution, since he urges her to do exactly the opposite of what many fathers would advise. In mythological tales, sirens were sea nymphs whose sweet singing lured unsuspecting sailors to their island. The catch was that the island was surrounded by craggy rocks, and the mariners met their fate when their ships were destroyed by the hidden danger. Eventually, some sailors learned to cover their ears and pass the seductive singing without falling victim to it, but many failed. In this poem, the father tells his daughter, “One day I’ll come swimming/ beside your ship or someone will / and if you hear the siren / listen to it.” This may sound like astonishing advice—a father telling his daughter to follow a path to sure destruction, but he offers his reasons in the next lines: “For if you close your ears / only nothing happens. You will never change.” Here, the poet indicates that “change” is vital to growth and to living a fulfilling life. He would rather his daughter take risks and discover what the world has to offer than to hide away in a protective shell where “nothing happens” but the same experiences, the same thoughts, the same beliefs. He refers back to hockey and to the old horror movie in saying, “I don’t care if you risk / your life to angry goalies / creatures with webbed feet.” He then goes on to reiterate his point that he’d rather his daughter go out into the world and learn from her own mistakes than be led by the opinions and actions of others: “You can enter their caves and castles/ their glass laboratories. Just / don’t be fooled by anyone but yourself.”
In the fourth and fifth stanzas the father declares that his poem is “the first lecture” he has given his daughter who is “’sweet sixteen,’” and he also reveals a confession about his relationship with her: “I’d rather be your closest friend / than your father.” Lines 44-46 tell us why: “Sometimes you are so busy / discovering your friends / I ache with a loss.” Most parents go through a time of “losing” their chil- dren to friends who seemingly become more important to the young people, and with whom they prefer to share their most private thoughts. The father also confesses he is “not good at advice,” but he asks his daughter to bear with him while he performs his paternal duties (“… but ride/ the ceremonies”), and he asks for her patience only until those duties fade with age and no longer shed light on her future: “until they grow dark.” As a final confession, the father states that he too has bad moods and retreats into his own “purple world” where feeling the loss of his daughter is his own fault.
The sixth stanza captures beautifully a single moment in time—one that is now only a memory for the father and that the daughter does not even know occurred. The father remembers stepping into the girl’s room, probably just in the doorway long enough to see her busy doing homework while sunlight and shrubs with bright yellow blooms cast a “thick yellow miracle” over her. Although his daughter is oblivious to the significance of the moment (“and you, meanwhile, busy with mathematics”), the father imagines the golden glow surrounding her as “another planet / … coaxing you out of the house.” Referring back to his notion that there is so much of life and so many opportunities out there for his daughter, he exclaims “all those possible worlds!” and we sense both excitement and resignation in his remark.
The seventh stanza is a reaffirmation of Ondaatje’s advice to his daughter which he so fervently conveyed in the third stanza. He begins by conceding that he cannot think of the other worldly yellow light he envisioned luring the girl away from him without feeling both pain and joy. He has already claimed to want her to explore all the options the future holds for her, but he also must face the sadness it will bring him when she leaves home for good. Because she is still innocent and naive in many ways and unaware of all the world’s dangers, he sees her “… step delicately / into the wild world.” Lines 65-66 present an intriguing comment on what the father hopes his daughter discovers out there, and it is not any one thing in particular. Rather, it is the search itself that will be most fulfilling for her to experience, that will be “the real prize.” She should “want everything,” not just one thing or another, for that would leave her short of discovering the countless opportunities (as well as misfortunes) that real living has to offer. He then reiterates his provocative advice: “If you break/ break going out not in.” By this, he means that it is better to try something and fail than not to try it at all. If his daughter is going to “break,” he would rather it be after she has already attempted an opportunity instead of before she has ever tried to get “in.” Lines 69-70 present an interesting juxtaposition of emotions, first depicting a seeming nonchalance, and then describing love so strong that it is the ultimate in selflessness. The father claims, “How you live your life I don’t care,” and then quickly announces his willingness to sacrifice for her no matter what path she chooses: “but I’ll sell my arms for you / hold your secrets forever.”
In the final stanza, the poet makes first mention of death, and he offers his advice regarding it in a much more somber and gentler manner than that regarding life. He acknowledges that the young girl fears death and admits that he cannot really explain or understand it himself—he is “without answers,” except for one. What he does know is that each time someone we know dies, we die a little bit ourselves, for “each / one we know is / in our blood.” Accepting that, the father cautions his daughter not to dwell on the deaths of loved ones, not to “recall graves” because if she does, that is all she will remember about them: “Memory is permanent.” Instead, he encourages her to “Remember the afternoon’s / yellow suburban annunciation.” In other words, he wants her to share his anticipation and wonderment at all the possible worlds calling her, the worlds he imagined when he came upon her in her room with the sunlight pouring over her in the backdrop of yellow flowers outside the window. The father obviously clings to this memory because it is one of both peacefulness and possibility, both tranquility and hope. He ends the poem on his own note of hopefulness, telling his daughter that even her tough, frightening goalie “dreams perhaps / of gentleness.” By saying this, he puts all his other, less “typical,” advice in perspective. He wants his daughter not to be afraid to explore and take chances and not to back down from the challenges or hardships of a full life; but he also wants her to understand that beneath even the roughest, coldest exteriors, we may find a longing to be tender and kind.