Class XI – Hornbill – Father to Son

Father to Son

By Elizabeth Jennings

About the Author

Elizabeth Joan Jennings was an English poet. She was born on July 18, 1926, Boston, Lincolnshire, England. When she was six, her family moved to Oxford, where she remained for the rest of her life. There she later attended St Anne’s College. After graduation, she became a writer. Jennings’ early poetry was published in journals such as Oxford Poetry, New English Weekly, The Spectator, Outposts and Poetry Review, but her first book was not published until she was 27.  Her works relate intensely personal matters in a plainspoken, traditional and objective style. She died on October 26, 2001 in Bampton, Oxford shire.
Poem – Father to Son
I do not understand this child
Though we have lived together now
In the same house for years. I know
Nothing of him, so try to build
Up a relationship from how
He was when small. Yet have I killed
The seed I spent or sown it where
The land is his and none of mine?
We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.
Silence surrounds us. I would have
Him prodigal, returning to
His father’s house, the home he knew
Rather than see him make and move
His world. I would forgive him too,
Shaping from sorrow a new love.
Father and son, we both must live
On the same globe and the same land.
He speaks: I cannot understand
Myself, why anger grows from grief.
We each put out an empty hand,
Longing for something to forgive.


The poem brings out the agony of a father who has lost all kinship with his son. The son is now grown-up. He lives in his own world. He has no feeling of any relationship with his father. The father bitterly feels the pangs of this emotional separation. He wants the same kind of bond with his son as he had when the son was a little child. Instead of coming together they are drifting apart. There is a gap of understanding and communication.
Such a situation is a common feature in most of the families. The new generation wants to live life on its own terms. The youngsters think independently. They cease to be on talking terms. Father feels helpless. He is ready to forgive the child provided the latter fees sorry. But he rarely tries to understand the young boy’s likes and dislikes, demands and dreams. The conflict is never resolved because they refuse to compromise.


The father complains that he does not understand his own child. Though they have lived together for so many years under the same roof. The father tries to build up a relationship with his son from the early years, in a manner when his son began to recognize people around, to crawl and to walk in a desperate attempt. The father wonders whether he has destroyed the seed of his off-spring or sown it where the land belongs to his heir and none is his. Both father and son continue to speak like strangers now and there seem no signs of understanding in the air between the two. In traditional belief, the son is created and born to the likings and designs of his father, yet in this case, the father cannot share what his son loves. Most of the time silence surrounds them. The father’s greatest wish is for his son to be ‘The Prodigal’ son who will very soon return to his father’s house; the home which he always knew. This is definitely the better alternative rather than to see his son move out into the world blindly on his own, by himself and fall into trouble. The father is ready to forgive him at any cost as long as he is able to reshape him up from the long bounded sorrow to a new love. Both father and son all over the world must learn to live on the same globe and on the same land. The father finally admits that there are times that he cannot understand himself or why his anger grows from grief? However they have learnt to put out each other’s empty hand and with each other’s heart that is longing for something to forgive.

Detailed Explanation

The theme of the poem is the generation gap which occurs when the communication link between two generations breaks due to a mutual lack of understanding, tolerance and acceptance. The poem highlights the internal conflict a father undergoes when his son becomes old enough to define his own interests, thoughts and perceptions. The brooding father complains that he cannot understand his child despite having lived together for many years in the same house. The father tries to continue a relationship based on what he knew of the son from his youngest years but of course, the son has change over time. The tone is almost pleading, attempting to find a link with his grown up son.
Using a typically agrarian imagery, he questions whether he has already lost his own child, his son, due to this distance between them or was the son on a mental plane that was entirely his own and which, the father cannot access. The father uses ‘I’ in these lines acknowledging his own role in creating this communication gap between them.
The father and son have become strangers with no understanding of each other. Traditionally, the son’s upbringing is in the very environment and with the values the father provided. Thus, the father feels his son is built to his design and should be like his father in most aspects. However, his son now has interests the father cannot share. There is no shared passion, no common ground. Most times, there is only an awkward silence between them. The frustration of the father is evident as he struggles to understand why his own son, his flesh and blood, has turned into an absolute stranger.
The father in the poem sees his child as the prodigal (spendthrift, underlying implication: foolish) son and wants him to return to the home he has always known. He does not want the son to make his own world, away from his father. The father says he would forgive his son if he asked for forgiveness like the prodigal son. He would love him again despite the sorrow of the distance that existed between them once. The tone is slightly condescending and implies that the father is unable to let his son go, even at the cost of restricting the son’s personal development and independence.
The son admits that he is at a point where he is struggling to understand even himself. He does feel the grief of the broken relationship he shares his father and yet, there is an anger that arises out of his confused, fraught inner self. The son speaks for the first time and it is quite clear, that the frustration lies on both sides. Pablo Neruda once commented on the sadness that arose from being unable to understand oneself. The son seems to be in the same confused, sad and yet, angry phase of growth. This stanza is reminiscent of the poem ‘Childhood’ which outlines a child’s struggled to understand himself as he turns into a young adult.
The father concludes the poem realizing that in their hearts, each of them wants to forgive the other. However, neither wants to take the first step and ask for forgiveness. Each puts out an empty hand for the other to take, but neither places theirs in the other’s hand. However, it is positive that at least they long to forgive and find a way to make things work.
Usually, by the time parents accept the new individuality of their children, the damage has already been done and the process of coming together is difficult and painful. Respecting each other’s’ differences is the only way to alleviate the distance, the strange and awkward silence.
While the father’s anguish and frustration is highlighted, the ego comes through as well. It is also noteworthy that the poem is written by a woman and not a man. A number of questions remain open to speculation.
THE PRODIGAL SON is a Biblical reference from the New Testament’s parables of Jesus. The story is of a father with two sons. The younger demanded his inheritance despite the fact that traditionally, the eldest born is heir. The father accedes and the spoilt younger son leaves home. He spends his fortune foolishly, eventually returning to his father’s house with barely a stitch of cloth on his body. The father forgives him, and welcomes him into his embrace with open arms and a celebratory feast. Artist Pompeo Batoni represented this parable beautifully through the following painting:

Important Extracts

1. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:
I do not understand this child
Though we have lived together now
In the same house for years. I know
Nothing of him, so try to build
Up a relationship from how
He was when small.
Q1. Who have lived in the same house? How long?
Ans. The father and the son have lived in the same house for years.
Q2. Why does the father say that he knows nothing of him?
Ans. They live like strangers in the same house. Complete silence surrounds them when they are each other’s presence. That’s why he says that he knows nothing of his son.
Q3. What kind of relationship does he want to build up?
Ans. He wants to build up the same kind of relationship as he used to have when his son was a little child.
2. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:
Yet have I killed                                                                                         
The seed I spent or sown it where
The land is his and none of mine?
We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.
Q1. What does the word ‘seed’ signify?
Ans. The word ‘seed’ here refers to all the hard work the father had to do to bring up the child.
Q2. What ‘land’ does the speaker speak of?
Ans. The child’s mind is the land into which the father had tried to sow the seeds of his thoughts.
Q3. Why do they speak like strangers?
Ans. They speak like strangers because they have different ways of life and thoughts.
Q3. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.
Silence surrounds us.
I would have him prodigal, returning to
His father’s house, the home he knew, 
Rather than see him make and move
His world. I would forgive him too, 
Shaping from sorrow a new love.
Q1. What kind of child had he desired to design?
Ans. He had desired to design a child who shared his likes and dislikes.
Q2. Why does the speaker say ‘this child’ not ‘my child’?
Ans. Because the child has nothing common with him.
Q3. Explain: ‘Silence surrounds us’.
Ans. There is no communication at all between the father and the son. There is complete silence when they are each other’s presence.
Q4. What does the father want his son to do?
Ans. He wants his son to come back to his father’s home.
Q5. What is the father prepared to accept?
Ans. He is prepared to accept his so with all his profligacy.
Q6. What does the father not want his son to do?
Ans. The father doesn’t want his son to make a new world of his own and move into it.
Q7. What would the father do to shape a new love from sorrow?
Ans. He would forgive his son for whatever sorrow he has given him.
Q4. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow:
Father and son, we both must live
On the same globe and the same land.
He speaks: I cannot understand
Myself, why anger grows from grief.
We each put out an empty hand,
Q1. How does the poet feel when his relationship with his son comes under strain?
Ans. The poet is keen to save the blood ties with his son. He wants the son to return to his old house.
Q2. What could be the cause for their distancing from each other?
Ans. The cause of the growing gap between the dad and his son is lack of understanding. Both need each other, yet they turn apart because of ego-problem.
Q3. What do both father and son long for?
Ans. They long for an excuse to forgive each other.
Q4. What do the words ‘an empty hand’ signify?
Ans. The words ‘an empty hand’ signify that neither father nor the son has gained anything from their state of estrangement. Both of them are empty handed.
Q5. What can’t the father understand?
Ans. The father can’t understand why he becomes angry in his grief.
Q6. Does the poem have a consistent rhyme scheme?
Ans. Yes, the rhyme scheme in each stanza is abbaba.

Short Answer Type Questions

Q1. Why is the father unhappy with his son?
Ans. The father is unhappy with his son as there is no interaction between the two. They don’t understand each other and are like strangers. Though they live under the same roof, yet they have nothing common between them. Their thinking and outlook are totally different. So they remain separated from each other. So, the father is deeply troubled.
Q2. What does the father long for?
Ans. The father is much more tense and upset. He fails to see where he made a mistake. He wants to make peace with his son and keep him in the same house. He is willing to forget and forgive the boy. He is only waiting for an excuse.
Q3. Can you suggest a solution to the widening gap between father and son?
Ans. The tussle between the aged and the youth is very old and universal. Elders see young ones as their property and try to impose their will on them. As a result the son revolts. The father must try to understand and respect the demands of the son. Not rod but the language of love can bridge the gap and avert the clash.
Q4. Who do you sympathize with—the father or the son?
Ans. Being a youngster, I also often revolt against the authoritarian attitude of elders. They have ego problem. They demand total obedience from young ones. I know that the relationship between father and son is strong yet delicate as well. I would humbly advise grown-ups to be a bit more flexible and liberal in their attitude. In bending, they both will win.
Q5. How is the father’s helplessness brought out in the poem?
Ans. The father is not only sad but also angry. But he feels helpless. He is ready to patch up with the son, forgive him and bring him back home at any cost. He wonders why they have now become strangers. He is ready to overlook his son’s wasteful habits. He is extending his empty hand to get an excuse to welcome the boy into his old home. But the son looks adamant. Ego problem persists.
Q6. Why is the father unable to understand his son in Father to Son”?
Ans. The father is unable to understand his son due to generation gap. It is a psychological and emotional gap between parents or elder people and the young ones. This creates misunderstanding and lack of attachment between the parents and children. The success lies in how effectively the parents can avoid the generation gap or ignore difference with their children.
Q7. ‘I would have him prodigal’. What does the father mean by this?      
Ans. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant. In the Bible there is a story, where a father inherits property and gives it to his sons. The younger son wastes a lot but returns to his father’s home. His father forgives him and takes him back home. Here in the poem the father is ready to accept his prodigal son and he may start living with him under the same roof.
Q8. What does the poet mean by `silence surrounds us?
Ans. The father is troubled because there is no interaction between them. Though they have been living under the same roof for years but they do not understand each other and live like strangers. Their outlook and temperament are different. They have a communication gap along with the generation gap. So both are unhappy and want to come closer but they can’t help it.

Long Answer Type Questions

Q1. Why in your view has a sense of distance arrived in the modern youth?
Ans. The present era has lost all its ancient moral, ethical, social and cultural values. The deep sense of joint family system is diminishing to a large extent. The ne
wly married couple wants to lead a life to its own freedom duly away from the parents. They think that the joint family or parents living with them will put a restraint on their freedom.
They fail to understand the real worth of their parents and long to have a deeper distance from them. The media and the western civilization have surrounded their ideology. They do not care for the civility in any sense. Thus the distance is taking its deep root among the youths. They do not realize their duties for the old aged parents rather they consider it an extra burden upon them. Thus a sense of distance has become in vogue among the modern youths.
Q2. The poem reflects the realities of the modern times. The aged persons face problems and there is no end to it. How do you feel?
Ans. The breaking-up of the joint family system and the change in our value system have created serious problems for the aged persons. They are denied physical, moral, financial and emotional support because their children are grossly involved in their own affairs. A feeling that they are unwanted persons has gripped the aged. The attitude towards the aged is marked by hatred, disregard, apathy and insults. This drowns them in the fathomless chasm of depression. Above all, elderly persons having no source of income are the worst sufferers. Growing materialism is the main culprit. Blood is no longer thicker than water. An elderly person who stands between the heirs and his wealth becomes a thorn in their flesh. Many start torturing the aged to death.
The aged persons require nothing but love, affection and respect. So the children must change their attitude. They must not neglect the very source of their existence. Accept the aged happily and see the blessings of God showering in rapid succession.

Courtesy : CBSE