4. Snatching Meaning from a Poem: C Day Lewis’ ‘Walking Away’.

My Grandpa gets a lot of mentions in this blog, for reasons that should be obvious: we are very alike, he and I. Every Christmas there’s always one person for whom I do not consult a ‘Wish List’ when buying presents: him. We have too much in common for that to be necessary. So whether it’s poetry anthologies, music scores, jazz, or something in French, I always seem to know what to buy him. Probably because it’s mostly stuff I’d love to receive myself! And indeed, I am always the recipient of something equally special, equally well thought out, and I always treasure the presents I get.

This year was no different: I received the most wonderful anthology called ‘Poems for Life’ from he and Grandma, selected by Laura Barber for Penguin. Anthologies are one of my favourite things to receive because they aren’t something you devour straight away, like a novel or a play, they’re something to dip in and out of throughout your life – always there just when you need it. When you’re after some inspiration or guidance, words have a funny knack of jumping off the page and stopping you in your tracks.

Today, whilst flicking through this new selection I stumbled across Walking Away by C Day Lewis. A fairly unambiguous poem, here it is:

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day-
A sunny day with the leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of fotball, 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 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 proved in the letting go.

I don’t think it takes much effort to work out that it is a father addressing his son, and finding comfort in accepting that he has grown up and so he can let him go. I don’t have a son – I don’t have any children – but somehow I found myself frozen in recognition when I read the final verse.

I’ve recently let someone for whom I had been clinging on to hopes of a resolution walk away from me, quite possibly for good. It wasn’t easy – in fact it took far too long – and it’s taking some getting used to. That last verse put into words the exact kind of comfort I need.

But is it right to do that? Or do I just sound like I have monumentally missed the point of the entire poem. I am, after all, completely disregarding all the other verses. I barely even read them. And my ‘letting go’ has nothing to do with allowing a young one independence, it has everything to do with me, and allowing myself independence from them. I’ve taken the words, and manipulated them for my own meaning.

They speak to me so strongly that I cannot feel guilty for borrowing them in this way, but I can’t decide if it sort of defeats the object of writing a poem – especially one with a singular meaning so clearly displayed. I just can’t help feeling that they might as well have been written for me, and my exact situation. It’s certainly worded my feelings in a clarity I could never have hoped to have achieved without it. But perhaps my enjoyment of the poem is somehow muddied by the fact I am totally missing the point. Or perhaps the clarity it has provided, even without my situation in mind, only serves to inspire me to learn how to better word my own feelings in future.

Either way, I hope you enjoy it.

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2 thoughts on “4. Snatching Meaning from a Poem: C Day Lewis’ ‘Walking Away’.

  1. Hi Laura,

    Enjoyed this piece and, as a father, can sympathise with the idea of letting go as my eldest left for another city to continue her studies. Not looking forward to a similar parting from my teenage son.

    You say that you like anthologies as you can dip in and out of them as, indeed, I do myself. I have found that my interpretation of poems that I have read as a young man alters significantly when I re-read them in later years. It is also true that they sometimes have profound effects on me too and the way I feel about myself and some of the decisions that I have – or have not – made.

    I suppose what I am saying is that one should not be too hasty in judging a poem’s personal meaning as it too alters over time – especially when our own life experiences add so much to it. Your writing and analysis is however inspiring and I look forward to reading more.

  2. While Day Lewis’ poem describes a very specific moment, the epiphany that comes at the end of the poem isn’t tethered to that moment alone. Reflecting on his feelings in that moment helps him discover a truth. I don’t think that truth applies to just father and son relationships. So, no, I don’t think you’ve totally missed the point of the poem. I think you’ve just discovered a broader meaning in it. That’s a wonderful thing.

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