I tend to think of Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) as the archetypal career poet: his work accomplished, urbane, but a little manufactured, a little safe, not often charged with the excitement that real poems bring, that sense that something not entirely under the poet’s control has taken him or her by the scruff of the neck and said ‘Oi! You! Listen up!’. But I do very much like this wise, empathic piece that must surely resonate with anyone who has ever been a parent, and if it should prove in the end that a poet’s fate is to be remembered for just one poem, well, that most of us should be so lucky.
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.