James K. Baxter

Elegy For My Father’s Father by James K. Baxter

‘Elegy For My Father’s Father’ was written by James K. Baxter. The poem has only a single stanza with 38 lines, which develop a set of responses to death.

Elegy For My Father’s Father’ was written by James K. Baxter. The poem has only a single stanza with 38 lines, which develop a set of responses to death. The idea of death becomes universal, as it is the main theme of the poem. The tone of the poem is celebratory but also expresses sorrow and regret. The pace of the poem is slow and dull. Moreover, ‘Elegy For My Father’s Father’ is written in the past tense and has a free verse.

The title of the poem (Elegy For My Father’s Father) is crucial. First of all, the title is very direct: the poem is about sorrow and praise for the death of a loved one. An Elegy is a sad and mournful poem, which laments the death of a person. Therefore, the content of the poem can be easily read in the title. Secondly, the poem is targeted to a very specific figure “My Father’s Father”. Notice how the term “My Father’s Father” creates a certain distance from the bond that the lyrical voice possessed with this family member that died.

As already mentioned, the main theme of ‘Elegy For My Father’s Father’ is death. Death is described as a natural process and the lyrical voice makes remembrance of the past. The poem also explores the phases of life and relates them to the change from one season to another. The lyrical voice expresses grief constantly and explores the motifs of aging and time through natural imagery. The single stanza structure allows the poem to represent life as a continuous and long process, as it starts and finishes with no pauses in the middle. Moreover, the unstructured lines and the lack of rhyme scheme represent the absence of any kind of pattern in life. You can read the full poem here.

Elegy For My Father’s Father by James K. Baxter


Elegy For My Father’s Father Analysis

The beginning of the poem is very straightforward. From the first line, the lyrical voice refers to a “he” (His “Father’s Father) and how at the moment he died he realized that “his heart had never spoken” throughout all his life (“In eighty years of days”). This man, apparently, had never expressed his feelings and, consequently, the lyrical voice describes the man as cryptic as the language that is used in the poem. The “tall tower broken” is used as a metaphor for life. Then, the lyrical voice depicts the moment of the burial and how he was treated after his death (“Memorial is denied”). The theme of death is very present; as the lyrical voice explains that “They stood by the graveside […] And mourned him in their fashion”.

Furthermore, the way “he” lived is described: “He could slice and build/High as the head of a man”. The lyrical voice depicts a moment in his grandfather’s life when he worked all day every day. He appears to be an adult at the peak of his productivity. This moment in life is associated with spring (“a flowering cherry tree”) and with summer (“Under the lion sun”); these were happy and cheerful moments. However, there is a great contrast with how the lyrical voice describes him as an old man: “When he was old and blind/ He sat in a curved chair/ All day by the kitchen fire”. Notice the dissimilarity in both descriptions and the difference between his young age and his old age. The lyrical voice’s grandfather is described as incapable of doing most things (“old and blind”) and as a fixed figure that doesn’t move (“All day by the kitchen fire”). His mood shifts and he starts being more introspective, as he sees life but he can’t enjoy it (“Many hours he had seen/ The stars in their drunken dancing”). This moment is associated with autumn (“Boughs of heaven folding”) and winter (“The winter world in their hand”).

The first two lines of the poems are repeated (“He knew in the hour he died/ That his heart had never spoken”) in order to emphasize the realization that the man had when he was about to die.  However, the third line changes and refers to the moments when this man didn’t talk: “In song or bridal bed”.  The lyrical voice furthers on the epiphany (“And the naked thought fell back”) and how his grandfather becomes aware of the circle of life (“And the leaves the wind has shaken”). He has a moment of happiness (“Then for a child’s sake) and finally responds to all that his “heart had never spoken” (“ To the waves all night awake/With the dark mouths of the dead/ The tongues of water spoke/ And his heart was unafraid”). The final two lines are crucial to the poem, as they give a dramatic closure to the narration. There is a personification of the water (“The tongues of water spoke”) and the man is aware that a voice is talking to him in his dreams. Both the “heart” and the “water” are natural elements of life and they also introduce death as a natural element. The man shows himself sensitive to the natural world around him and ends up opening himself, as “his heart was unafraid”.


About James Keir Baxter

James Keir Baxter was born in 1926 and died in 1972. He was a New Zealand poet and he is a celebrated figure from his country and most commonly referred to as one of their best known poetic figures. James K. Baxter started writing at a very young age and by the time he was eighteen he published his first poetry collection. He was strongly influenced by classical mythology and the Romantic Movement. Moreover, James K. Baxter was a controversial figure because of his criticism of social inequality and poverty. Nevertheless, he wrote a great number of poems, plays, literary criticism, and more.

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Julieta Abella Poetry Expert
Julieta has a BA and a MA in Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team back in May 2017. She has a great passion for poetry and literature and works as a teacher and researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
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