Elegy For My Father’s Father by James K Baxter

Recently in English we started studying a poem called Elegy For My Father’s Father by a NZ poet called James K. Baxter. It’s interesting because most people in my class dislike the poem, and even my teacher admitted that she didn’t like it at first, but I disagree—I think it’s a beautiful poem and I love the way the words sing, especially when you read it out loud. The meanings within the words are seemingly endless and I love the effect of the enjambment and the caesuras. My interpretation is that this speaks of regret, missed opportunities, second chances, and an examination of our relationships with those closest to us and of our own lives.

He knew in the hour he died
That his heart had never spoken
In eighty years of days.
O for the tall tower broken
Memorial is denied:
And the unchanging cairn
That pipes could set ablaze
An aaronsrod and blossom.
They stood by the graveside
From his bitter veins born
And mourned him in their fashion.
A chain of sods in a day
He could slice and build
High as the head of a man
And a flowering cherry tree
On his walking shoulder held
Under the lion sun.
When he was old and blind
He sat in a curved chair
All day by the kitchen fire.
Many nights he had seen
The stars in their drunken dancing
Through the burning-glass of his mind
And sober knew the green
Boughs of heaven folding
The winter world in their hand.
The pride of his heart was dumb.
He knew in the hour he died
That his heart had never spoken
In song or bridal bed.
And the naked thought fell back
To a house by the waterside
And the leaves the wind had shaken
Then for a child’s sake:
To waves all night awake
With the dark mouths of the dead.
The tongues of water spoke
And his heart was unafraid.

11 thoughts on “Elegy For My Father’s Father by James K Baxter

  1. i agree.but conventionally we should look at the bias from the narrators view…my fathers father????hello…what ever happened to grandpa?the narrator might as well be resentful.

    1. Yes, I agree that there is definitely resentment due to issues hinted at throughout the poem, which sort of turns into resignation at the end.

    1. I do agree with you in a way, as the evidence of his love of nature helps us to understand the poem on a deeper level because I think his love for nature results from and is intensified by the fact that he does not know how to connect with his family on an emotional level. However, my opinion is that the focus remains on the grandfather’s life as a whole. This is a really interesting thought, though!

    1. I haven’t looked at this poem in a long time, but that line has always puzzled me! I think it’s best viewed in relation to the following line, possibly as an allusion to Moses and the burning bush. In the context of the poem, fires could perhaps be linked to funeral pyres or something more metaphoric relating to emotions or the continuance of his grandfather’s lineage through him.

      1. I think of the line as the “unchanging cairn” being the grandfathers heart, and that the “pipes could set ablaze” could signify an issue in the authors past with his Grandpa, and knowing that the author was a sensitive person, the weak “pipes” could be enough to make the author feel that fire in his heart.

      2. I love your idea of the “unchanging cairn” as the grandfather’s heart. And I think the juxtaposition of “pipes… ablaze” and “aaronsrod and blossom” really supports what you’ve said about sensitivity. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  2. Could the pipes possibly be connected to his Scottish background? Maybe the bagpipes and the flowers could be nature actually taking place in the memorial that is otherwise denied to him.

    1. I’ve never thought of “pipes” in that way! Really interesting, and it certainly fits well with “could set ablaze” in an almost synaesthetic expression of the bagpipes’ music. Not sure how that would exactly link up with setting ablaze the “aaronsrod and blossom” (I’m also not quite following what you mean by “nature actually taking place”), but yours is a fresh perspective. Thanks!

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