Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Walking Away, by Cecil Day-Lewis

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-72) is best known for being Great Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death and for being the father of renowned actor Daniel Day-Lewis. However, one of his most memorable poems, “Walking Away”, is about Sean, Day-Lewis’s son from his first marriage. Sean was born in 1931 and “Walking Away” was written in 1956, the year before Daniel Day-Lewis (son of Cecil’s second wife, the actress Jill Balcon) was born.

The poem

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.


“Walking Away” is a poem written in four five-line stanzas, in which the first, third and fifth lines rhyme but the second and fourth lines are unrhymed. Only a few of the lines are end-stopped, which means that the sentences of the poem flow across the lines, and in one case between stanzas, so that the whole poem reads like a meditation with the poet thinking aloud and allowing his thoughts to take him where they will.

The poem, which is subtitled “for Sean”, is addressed to his grown-up son but looks back, as the first line states, to a day “eighteen years ago” when Sean had recently started as a seven-year-old boarder at Allhallows School in Somerset. Day-Lewis had been to a boarding school himself (Sherborne School) and therefore knew all about how the enforced separation of a boy from his parents affected the child, but on this occasion it is the feelings of the parent that also concern him.

The opening stanza sets the scene, on “a sunny day with the leaves just turning”, thus indicating that the time is early autumn but also hinting that change is in the air in other respects. The long summer is over and new things are about to happen. In Sean’s case, a fresh era dawns as he starts at a new school. The third line mentions “The touch-lines [of the football pitch] new-ruled”. Not only has the football season got under way but, symbolically, the lines have been drawn for a different way of life, governed by “new rules” that will apply throughout the boy’s school career in many different respects.

However, the main thrust of the poem comes from the sensation felt by the poet after the first-day football game has been played and, instead of going home with his father, young Sean heads off in the opposite direction and is absorbed into the group of people who will be his fellow-pupils.

Day-Lewis uses an interesting simile in the opening stanza: “… like a satellite / Wrenched from its orbit”. It has to be remembered that this poem was written in 1956 and the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was not launched into orbit until 1957. For Day-Lewis and the poem’s first readers, therefore, a satellite meant a natural object such as a moon in orbit round a planet. For a moon to be “wrenched from its orbit” it would need to be hit with great force by another celestial object before it would “go drifting away”. By analogy, the event that has caused Sean to cease to be subject to the gravitation pull of his family and to move towards another focal point, namely the new school, must have been a considerable one.

In the second and third stanzas the poet wonders about the new course on which his son is now set. He worries about the replacement of fixity by uncertainty. The “walking away” is described in terms of “drifting” and “eddying”, with “the gait of one / Who finds no path where the path should be.”
The similes that Day-Lewis uses back up this sense of aimless wandering and hesitancy; Sean is “… a half-fledged thing set free / Into a wilderness” and “a winged seed loosened from its parent stem”.

The poet’s thinking then moves onto a more general plane, that of “nature’s give-and-take”. The parting from his son is likened to other “small … scorching / Ordeals” which must be suffered in order to produce a desired result. The analogy used is that of a clay pot which must go into a kiln to be fired and made into its final form. Day-Lewis uses the expression “one’s irresolute clay” to emphasise the change from drift and eddy to firmness and finality.

The final stanza reminds the reader that the poet is looking back over a gap of eighteen years, with the surprising statement that this parting “gnaws at my mind still”. The concern here is less for the wellbeing of Sean, who was left to cope with a new environment without the direct support of his parents, but with his own worry about whether he was doing the right thing in sending his son away to boarding school. He is still unsure after all this time, as is made clear by the use of “Perhaps”.

That said, the conclusion of the poem harks back to the idea of clay being perfected by being fired. People become themselves, the finished article, when they can stand on their own, such that “selfhood begins with a walking away”. A father can best show his love for his son by “letting go” and allowing the ties that bind them together to be cut.

At least, that is what Day-Lewis is trying to persuade himself is the case. All through the poem there is a nagging doubt as to whether this is really so. There is a tension between what the mind knows is the right thing to do, but which the heart wishes was otherwise. The emotional pull of the walking away “gnaws at the mind”, which is the seat of the intellect, so it is significant that, in the final line, “love” has the last word in that it is love that is “proved in the letting go”. However, that apparent resolution of the tussle is still governed by “Perhaps”. It is left to the reader to decide where the ultimate rights and wrongs of the matter lie, and to ask him/herself whether their own experiences of walking away, whether as the walker or the one left behind, have been any easier to deal with than the one under discussion in this poem.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs

GCSE English candidates may be particularly interested in:

Love's Philosophy, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Neutral Tones, by Thomas Hardy
War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy )

© John Welford