Farther by Owen Sheers

Farther is a free verse poem written within the form of a single stanza. The lines vary greatly in length and syllable count. There is no distinctive pattern in rhythm. The poem was first published in Sheer’s second collection, Skirrid Hill, in 2005. The title of the poem, Farther, is a play on the word “father” and is in reference to the distance that the two men have to go to resolve all of their problems. You can read the full poem here. 

 

Summary of Farther

This poem begins with a clear setting and location, December 27th, on Skirrid Hill. The two characters in the poem, the son, who is the speaker, and the father, in an attempt to become closer are repeating an activity they must have once found enjoyable, climbing Skirrid Hill. The men do not seem to commune as they progress up the mountain but are consumed in their own worlds.

The climb is treacherous, but no one is hurt, the ground is steeper than they expected, but they make it to a resting spot. An altar that is “split…by a father’s grief / at the loss of his son to man.” This is the reader’s first hint to why the two have grown apart. The son is aging, becoming his own man and the father does not know how to communicate with him anymore. As they continue to climb up the hill the son looks back at his father and is able to feeling how he is breathing and connect those feelings to his own. This is a clue that the two are actually becoming more similar and this is what is taking them apart.

They eventually make it to the top of the mountain and pose for a photo the son sets up. The son is seeking evidence, or some kind of proof that they were here, that they did try to fix things. He hopes in this moment that they have made some kind of progress in improving their relationship, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

 

Farther Analysis

Farther  begins by giving the reader an exact time of the year and physical setting. The action in this piece is taking place on “the day after Boxing Day.” This would be the 27th of December, two days after christmas, and one day after the British Bank Holiday, Boxing Day. The speaker is speculating on what to call this particular day of the year, a day that comes after a day that is after the largest Christian holiday of the year, but decides he does not know what to call it. This placement of the action, on a day that is almost significant, but is not at all, speaks about the relationship between the father and the son that is explored. They are attempting to become closer through this December excursion, but they have just missed their chance at experiencing what’s important, Christmas has already passed.

It is on this day that the speaker and his father decide to climb “the Skirrid again.” They have done this walk in the past, and are recreating it an attempt to reconnect. Skirrid Hill comes from the Welsh for Ysgirid Fawr, meaning “shattered mountain” and implying are detail about the father/son relationship. The phrase can also mean, “seperated.” As these two clearly are as the poem progresses.

For their walk they have chosen,

…the long way round

through the wood, simplified by snow,

They have not chosen the easy path, nothing is straightforward. They have a long way to go, just as their relationship does, and the only simple part is the snow that makes the ground a single color (but it also is another danger on the walk). The speaker describes sights along the way,

…the dry stone wall, its puzzle solved

by moss

Or more simply, the spaces between the stones are filled with moss. While this may make it seem like a steady wall, moss is just a place holder. This could be a reference to how they have patched up their relationship in the past.

They reach a resting point on the mountain that is described as being a “cleft of earth” that was split in two by the grief of a father whose son is becoming a man. This gives the impression that the reason that the two have drifted apart is just because the son has grown up.

They rest for a moment, perhaps contemplating why this fact of life has split them, and they watch their dog disappear over the hill into the distance, continuing a long the path and so they follow. Nothing seems to have been resolved.

As they progress, the hill becomes steeper. They are in more treacherous territory now. The ground is unsteady and rocks slip under their feet. The speaker gives the impression that they are being observed,

and the broken stone giving under our feet

a crowd sigh[s]

The crowd is reacting to the near accident. They are now halfway up the mountain the son looks back to observe his father who’s head appears the same as “the color of the rocks,” and is able to relate to the feeling of his father’s breath. The speaker and his father, are growing apart because of changes that come with age, it is them becoming more similar, they are both grown men now.

Their dog comes back to them without having caught anything, another non-resolution, that seems to bring them closer together. They climb to the top of the mountain together and see their

country unrolled before [them]

They can see the edge of Wales, and the fields breaking at the coast, dropping off into water. They are able to see how small their world is, and how close they are to the edge of it atop this mountain. Even though they have climbed it before, it is still a shock.

The speaker then sets up his camera and joins his father in a picture. He stands waiting

for the shutter’s blink

that would tell me I had caught this:

the moment that the two of them are attempting to share. He needs evidence, proof that they were here and they did everything they could to fix their relationship. They are,

…together against the view

and the speaker is attempting to find some way to grasp the idea that the two of them have taken a step closer. This is not a happy ending, they have not resolved anything on this journey except perhaps made their problems a little clearer. While the son is hoping that they became closer, there is “no handhold” to show that this has truly happened.

 

About Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers was born in 1974 in Fiji, but was raised in South Wales. He was included in the top 30 young British writers after the publication of his first book of poetry, The Blue Book. While working as a poet, he also writes prose and drama, as well as presenting on television. He has won the Welsh Book of the Year Award, a Gregory Award, and the 1999 Vogue Young Writer’s Award.

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