‘Farther’ was first published in Sheer’s second collection, Skirrid Hill, in 2005. The poem depicts the relationship between the poet and his father.
This poem is one that explores the connection between father and son, bringing to light issues of miscommunication, the idea of aging, and the changing relationship between the two men. Sheers focuses on the way his father is getting older, their relationship now ’tipping’ into Sheers caring for his father, not the other way round. Once they arrive at the top of the hill, Sheers and his father take a photo together, with the sprawling landscape of Wales as their backdrop.
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 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 as 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 can feel how he is breathing and connect those feelings to his own. This is a clue that the two are 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 at this moment that they have made some kind of progress in improving their relationship, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Meaning of Farther
The title of the poem, ‘Farther’, is a play on the word “father” and is about the distance that the two men have to go to resolve all of their problems. Sheers combines the intersection of the ideas of moment and family within this reference. This poem documents the movement over a distance, the two men scaling the hill. Yet, it is one that also explores the connection between father and son. Therefore, by choosing a title that allows for these connotations to spring forth from one word, Sheers effectively summarises the major themes of the poem under one umbrella reference.
The final two lines reflect upon the title, with the idea of each ‘step’ they take on this shared journey (each ‘step’ further away), being one that brings them closer together.
Context of Farther
Owen Sheers begins ‘Farther’ by giving a geographical location within which the poem is based. The eponymous ‘Skirrid’ gives a name to the hill they’re climbing and also the title of the anthology. The context of this particular hill is based on a Welsh myth which states it was formed at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion due to God’s grief. The word ‘Skirrid’ itself comes from the Welsh ‘Ysgirid,’ which roughly translates as ‘shattered’ or ‘separated.’ This context is important to bear in mind as it introduces themes of the father and the son, basing the poem in a geographical context which mirrors the subject content.
A reference to the myth directly reflects this context: ‘split they say by a father’s grief.’ The ‘loss’ which is alluded to is that of the crucifixion. However, Sheers could also be using this idea to relate to the idea of a father losing touch with his son as he grows up. The boy changing into a man and getting further away from the father. This awkwardness within the father-son relationship is something Sheers tries to overcome within this poem.
Structure of Farther
‘Farther’ is a free verse poem written within the form of one unbroken stanza, spanning 32 lines. The lines vary greatly in length and syllable count. There is no distinctive pattern in rhythm. As a poem that touches on the delicacy of connection, it seems appropriate that Sheers has selected a form that is in itself interconnected. The continuous form could also be a reflection of the narrative of the poem, with the long, arduous hike being symbolized through the continuous stream of poetry.
Literary Devices in Farther
Typical from a poem about Sheers’ father, ‘Farther’ constantly draws from the semantics of nature to build the scene. The beauty of nature, ‘simplified by snow’ is reflected through the aural softness created by sibilance. The semantics: ‘wood’, ‘snow’, ‘stone’, ‘moss’, ‘trees’, ‘earth’, completely saturate these opening lines, creating a scene composed of the beauty of Welsh nature. Apart from that, the poet uses allusion in the reference to “Skirrid”. There is personification in the lines, “through the wood, simplified by snow,” and “its puzzle solved by moss.” Moreover, there is a metaphor in “an altar of rock.” Alongside that, the poet also uses alliteration, metonymy, hyperbole, and epigram throughout the poem.
Analysis of Farther
I don’t know if the day after Boxing Day has a name
through the wood, simplified by snow,
‘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 as 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, “separated.” These two are separated 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).
It is also true that they walk together, ‘choosing the long way round’, not only purposely extending their time together, but also walking directly through the ’wood’, embracing their Welsh tradition which links closely to nature. Yet, this idea of ‘the long way’ could also be a reference to the type of relationship the two men have. Instead of being direct with each other, they tend to meander in their conversation, finding it hard to connect directly to one another.
along the dry stone wall, its puzzle solved by moss,
at the loss of his son to man.
In this section, 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 as the son has grown up.
We stopped there at an altar of rock and rested,
with the sound of a crowd sighing.
Within these lines of ‘Farther’, Sheers points to the state of their relationship. Although they have taken this journey together, looking to become closer, they find the ‘slope steeper than expected.’ This is a reference to how difficult Sheers and his father find it to connect. The physical journey acting as a mechanism to represent the emotional lengths they are moving.
The pronouns selected up to this point have been almost entirely in the collective ‘we’. This drawing together of the two men, represented through the pronoun, display them acting together. Sheers is actively trying to connect with his father, painting them under one pronoun.
However, 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 along the path and so they follow. Nothing seems to have been resolved.
As they progress, the hill becomes steeper. They are in the 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/ with the sound of a crowd sighing.” Here, the crowd is reacting to the near accident.
Half way up and I turned to look at you,
the intersection of our ages.
The emotional intimacy of ‘I turned to look at you’ is poignant after the repeated ‘we’. The middle of Farther, also represented by the pair being ‘half way up’ is a point in which Sheers begins to reflect on the nature of their relationship.
Sheers realizes that his father is growing old. ‘Head the colour of the rocks’ links the father’s greying hair to nature. This not only paints a picture of the aging process but also likens the man to nature, a typical element of Sheers’ Welsh identity. The panting of his father, suggested by ‘your breath’, is then represented through the sibilance of ‘short and sharp and solitary.’ The employment of polysyndeton in the repetition of ‘and’ furthering this sense of being out of breath.
The ‘tipping in the scales of us’ again is an incredibly personal image. Bound together through the linking ‘us’, Sheers explores the intricate change within the pair. The ‘intersection’ of their ages points to both men aging. Whereas during his childhood, Sheers was looked after by his father, it is now Sheers that will look after his father. The ’tipping’ of this relationship is slow, but certain for both men. It seems appropriate that Sheers comes to this realization at the half-point of the journey.
To sum up, they are now halfway up the mountain the son looks back to observe his father whose head appears the same as “the color of the rocks,” and can 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.
The dog returns having caught nothing but his own tongue
the hedged fields breaking on the edge of Wales.
These lines in ‘Farther’ focus further on the beauty of Wales. The playful energy of the dog is echoed within the stunning imagery of ‘Wales’. The ‘shock of the country’, one in which both men have grown up suggests the incredible nature of the scenery here. Although familiar, the ‘hedged fields’ stretch on in a stunning image of the beauty of nature. This elevation also relates to Sheers’ identity as a Welsh poet, being proud of the spectacular nature around him.
The return to the personal, Sheers constantly trying to link the two, ‘you are with me’ resounds on this idea of connection. Sheers, throughout Farther, is trying desperately to link himself to his father. The very purpose of the walk to reestablish a connection they have both felt grow old.
Moreover, 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 the water. They can 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.
Pulling a camera from my pocket I placed it on the trig point
that with every step apart, I’m another step closer to you.
As they reach the top Sheers seeks to capture the moment, immortalizing the memory within a photograph. He sets up the camera and then joins his father, capturing their moment together. Sheers places the beauty of Wales before the idea of the two men. It could be that Sheers is using the linking factor between the two, their Welsh heritage, as something that binds them together. Indeed, the elevation of the beauty of the scene, focusing on the ‘mountains’ arrives before the description of them.
They are placed ‘together against the view’, connected by their Welsh heritage and love for nature. It seems that even after this journey, Sheers still cannot think of more than their shared history as something which binds the two characters. This moment in Farther gives way to a soft feeling of sadness, yet is quickly dismissed in a positive final statement.
The connection of ‘view’ and ‘you’ through rhyme further the sense of Welsh identity being the only thing holding the two men together. Sheers links his dad directly to nature, echoing the Welsh traditional love for nature. It seems that Sheers finds difficulty getting further than this idea, something which suggests a pessimistic end to the poem.
Although they have a long way to go, Sheers appreciates the effort that his father and himself have made to reconnect. The final lines draw one back to the title, ‘every step’ becomes one that brings Sheers ‘closer to you’. This is a flash of optimism within ‘Farther’, giving tribute to the possibility of their connection being re-established.
The final lines are ambiguous, depending on how the reader interprets these final lines, the poem can be negative or positive. On one hand, they are certainly closer before, but yet they still have an incredibly long way to go. But is the gap between the generations too far to cross, ‘farther’ than Sheers imagined?
To summarize, the speaker 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.
Like ‘Farther’ by Owen Sheers, here is a list of a few poems that similarly depict the theme of the father-son relationship.
- Father to Son by Elizabeth Jennings – In this poem, the poet portrays the generation gap between a father and his son. The poem presents a father’s illusions regarding his son.
- You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll – This poem presents a conversation between a father and a son. It similarly involves the themes of the father-son relationship and the generation gap.
- I Will Go With My Father a-Ploughing by Joseph Campbell – This poem describes the months of a boy’s life as he works alongside his father. It also explores the emotional connection between a father and his son.
- Digging by Seamus Heaney – It is one of the best Seamus Heaney poems. Here, the poet talks about his family tradition and how he is also upholding this tradition through his poetry.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.