Parents everywhere can relate to this poem, Walking Away, by Cecil Day-Lewis. Here, the speaker is a parent who thinks back upon the life of his child. It is the child’s eighteenth birthday, or nearly, and the speaker cannot believe how much time has gone by and how much has changed. He clearly wants to hold on to his child, to keep him young and under his wing, but he knows that it is a natural part of life for parents to let their young go. Just as the fledgling bird leaves the nest, so the young adult must move from childhood to adulthood, leaving the protection of his parents to venture out on his own and make his way in the world. Walking Away is relative to any who have experienced letting go of a child who has entered adulthood.
Walking Away Analysis
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
The first stanza of Walking Away, which can be read in full here, reveals that the speaker is thinking back upon the past eighteen years of his life. These past eighteen years have been centered around his child, the one he watched grow up as the seasons turned, and the “sunny day” turned to fall while the child grew and changed immensely in only the time it takes for the season to turn. The speaker then describes the way he watched the child play his “first game of football”. He addresses his son in the second person, giving the poem an intimate feeling of the personal relationship between father and son. The father, the speaker, can still remember his son’s first football game, but now he has taken off “like a satellite wrenched from its orbit”. His son was once within his father’s “orbit” but now he is “drifting away”. Readers who have experienced having and raising a child can relate with this bittersweet feeling of having successfully raised a child to independent adulthood, and then having to watch them drift away to create his own independent life.
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
Who finds no path where the path should be.
In this stanza, the speaker reverts to his reminiscence of the past as he remembers his son “behind a scatter of boys”. The memories are so clear and vivid that the speaker claims, “I can see you walking away from me towards the school”. This is, perhaps, the son’s first day of school. The father felt the sting of the child growing up even back then when the child was only “a half-fledged thing set free”. It seems as though the speaker has experienced letting go of his child in other times and situations, such as the son’s first day of school. However, it was different back then because the child was only, as the speaker describes it, “half fledged”. Thus, the son was still within the father’s care. He was learning to do things on his own, but the father was not asked to let go of him entirely. Still, he felt that sending him alone to school was like sending him “into a wilderness” and he feared that his son might “find no path where the path should be”. Still, he sent him, trusting that his son would find his way.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
The speaker remembers that on his son’s first day of school, the boy seemed “hesitant” as he moved away into the school. He seemed “like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem” as he seemingly fluttered away, unsure of himself or where he would go. The speaker admits that this is “something [he] never quite grasp[ed]”. He further describes this feeling that he could never grasp or “convey”. He says that it is all a part of “nature’s give-and-take”. That nature gave him his son, and yet nature would take him away little by little as the boy grew into a man. The speaker describes this feeling as “the small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay”. In this line, the small scorching ordeals are those small moments in time in which the parent must loosen his grip on his child and let the child experience life for himself. These are the incidents which act as fire, to one’s clay. Here, the clay represents a person who is able to be molded and changed by life circumstances. However, just as fire hardens clay, each of these “ordeals” act as fire to the clay, making it harder and harder for the parent to let go of his child, as each incident reveals that as the child grows, the parent has to let go of him more and more.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
And love is proved in the letting go.
In stanza four of Walking Away, the speaker explains to his son that he has experienced “worse partings” or perhaps partings that were more painful at the moment, such as loss through death. However, none of the partings he has experienced has had the same effect on him as the parting which happened little by little as his little boy grew into a man. The speaker claims that this loss is what “gnaws at [his] mind still”. The speaker cannot make sense out of the feeling, but he does believe that it is revealing “what God alone could perfectly show”. These lines unconnected to the rest of the poem at first, until the final line of the poem, when the speaker says that “selfhood begins with walking away” and that “love is proved in the letting go”. With these lines, the speaker takes the entire poem to a deeper level by comparing the parent who lets go of his child to God. The reason that God was the alone one who could perfectly show what the speaker is feeling is because of what God did when He allowed his son to leave Heaven and come to earth as a man. God has shown, perfectly, that true love lets go. This is what the speaker is experiencing as he struggles with letting go of his son, as he is about to turn eighteen and is ready for life on his own.