Week 277: A Father’s Death, by John Hewitt

Another lesson from the Irish poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) in how form may be used to contain feeling as a cartridge-case contains gunpowder.

A Father’s Death

It was no vast dynastic fate
when gasp by gasp my father died,
no mourner at the palace gate
or tall bells tolling slow and wide.

We sat beside the bed: the screen
shut out the hushed, the tiptoe ward,
and now and then we both would lean
to catch what seemed a whispered word.

My mother watched her days drag by,
two score and five the married years,
yet never weakened to a cry
who was so ready with her tears.

Then, when dawn washed the polished floor
and steps and voices woke and stirred
with wheels along the corridor
my father went without a word.

The sick, the dying, bed by bed,
lay clenched around their own affairs;
that one behind a screen was dead
was someone’s grief, but none of theirs.

It was no vast dynastic death,
no nation silent round that throne,
when, letting go his final breath,
a lonely man went out alone.

John Hewitt

5 thoughts on “Week 277: A Father’s Death, by John Hewitt

  1. “It was no vast dynastic death” – Eg King Edward VII lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days in May 1910. “An estimated half a million people visited the hall during the three days that it was open.”

  2. “tall bells” – the church tower is tall not the bells? “to catch what seemed a whispered word” – it’s not a whispered word, he’s struggling to breath? “around their own affairs” – absorbed in their own affairs?

    • Yes, but ‘clenched around’ is so much more visceral than ‘absorbed in’, conjuring up the image of sufferers in the kind of foetal position one adopts in extreme pain, with no thought to spare for anything else. And ‘tall bells’ – yes, I think this is an example of hypallage, aka transferred epithet – at one time English teachers expected you to know these terms for figures of speech, as if understanding the difference between synecdoche and metonymy, or what a hendiadys might be when it was at home, had anything to do with good writing!

      • I don’t really understand these terms. Here apparently is an example of metalepsis from Milton’s Lycidas. “oat” = oaten flute = song. (Milton prepared the ground by mentioning the oaten flute earlier in the poem.)

        “But now my oat proceeds, / And listens to the herald of the sea / That came in Neptune’s plea.”

      • Don’t worry about them. It’s a dry taxonomy that nobody needs either to write poetry or to appreciate it.

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