Father and Son

Stanley Kunitz

‘Father and Son’ is a touching expression of a child’s longing for the presence of his deceased father in his life. The poem honors the author’s father and prompts readers to cherish their relationships with loved ones.


Stanley Kunitz

Nationality: American

Stanely Kunitz was the 10th poet laureate of the United States, named as such in the fall of 2000.

Throughout his career he won the Robert Frost Medal.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: The value of spending time with loved ones

Themes: Death, Nature

Speaker: The author himself

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Fear, Joyfulness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Father and Son' honors the author's father and advises readers to cherish their relationships with loved ones.

The poem is a part of Kuntz’s 1995 collection “Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected.” It expresses one’s longing to connect with a passed loved one and pays tribute to the poet’s father, who is still sought after for advice and support. As in his other works, a sense of longing and mortality’s impermanence recurs throughout the moving piece.


Father and Son‘ is a poignant piece about a father-son relationship that emphasizes the fleeting nature of time and reminds us to value our bonds with our loved ones.

The poem is about the speaker’s futile search for his long-dead father. Yearning to be with him, he is willing to seek his advice on how to become kinder and more hardworking. He seeks him as his confidant for all his fears and apprehension. He even goes back to a place he once went to with his father in the hope of encountering him there. However, the truth soon hits him. The father’s silence is deafening, leaving the speaker feeling lost and uncertain.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Now in the suburbs and the falling light

I followed him, and now down sandy road


The night nailed like an orange to my brow

The speaker begins in the past tense, alluding to a memory. When he is following some “him” across a number of locations, he locates himself and the time. He is in the suburbs at dusk, traveling through the countryside on a “sandy road” that’s “whiter than bone-dust.”  He passes through the “sweet curdle of fields” until he arrives at a spot where overripe plums are falling.

Next, he calls attention to the sound of his footsteps – “skimming feet” – which suggests a comfortable familiarity between them as he is free and at comfort with his companion. He then reveals with “master of blood” that this person is actually a family member – his father. This is where the phrase “kept in chain” comes in, conveying the sense that he feels safe and secure in this father’s presence, as though they are bound together.

This phrase also suggests the speaker’s profound emotional and spiritual attachment to his father. He is unable to let go of the attachment and move on from this person’s loss, which becomes apparent later in the poem.

As the poem continues, the speaker alludes to a transition in his life. From strides to “stretched into bird” suggests his transition from a dependent child to a self-sufficient adult. He describes himself as “racing through” the country, which could suggest a sense of eagerness and excitement but also a hint of anxiety.

When he arrives at the same destination he once went to with his companion, silence greets him. His father is not with him this time, and the lonely night feels like a heavy “orange” to “brow,” the speaker’s mind.

Stanza Two

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,

How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,


I am alone and never shed a tear.”

The speaker is going through a really tough time, and he’s struggling to find the right words to talk to his father about it. He thinks about using a fable or a metaphor to make things easier, but he still finds it hard to express himself naturally. The family home, “the stucco one,” which his father built, is lost.

This loss weighs heavily on the speaker. Even though he doesn’t state it explicitly, it’s clear that his sister’s marriage may have played a role in it. It implies that his sister may have been the central figure in the family, and her departure may have increased the speaker’s sense of loss and disconnection from the world.  

He, at present, lives on a hill, where the atmosphere is full of rooms and light but not “enough warmth.” This implies that there is no human connection present and no one to share those rooms with.

“Climbing under the hill” when the light goes out is a metaphor for retreating into oneself. The delivery of “papers” is the only thing that breaks up the monotony of life. The speaker is in full isolation, which he believes only his father can help him overcome.

Stanza Three

Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted


0 teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

The stanza is an earnest plea of a child to his deceased parent. The speaker feels suffocated, and even ferns feel like “smothering” him. He cries out for his father’s help. The desperation for his return is apparent, and he is willing to do anything to have him back, even if it means cleaning mudstones off clothes. 

The speaker is caught between two wars. This implies unspecified external and the other internal struggle. Here “Gemara” alludes to Jewish oral law, which emphasizes the importance of kindness and compassion. The speaker yearns for his father’s presence in their life – to instruct and lead him to the path of empathy and kindness.

The stanza conveys the speaker’s profound desire to have his father by his side, both physically and as a guide. He yearns for his father’s wisdom and counsel, hoping to find solace and reassurance in his teachings.

Stanza Four

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me

The white ignorant hollow of his face.

It’s in the brevity of these lines that the poem lays the explicit truth. The serene and peaceful setting of turtles and lilies contrasts with the gloomy reality that strikes the speaker.  “Ignorant hollow” or skull is a metaphor for unconsciousness and non-presence.  The skull becomes a metaphor for death. It becomes precise: the memory is all that could accompany him of his father.  

Form and Structure

Father and Son’ by Stanley Kunitz is a 23-line poem in 4 stanzas.  The last two lines work as a powerful denouement. That is to say, it is the final revelation that brings closure to the poem. The stanzas are in free verse – they don’t follow any rhyme or meter scheme.  

Literary Devices

  • Imagery: Imagery is the use of descriptive language. It invokes vivid pictures in the reader’s mind by using figurative language. “Curdle of fields, where the plums/Dropped…,” “The night nailed like an orange to my brow” and “Whiter than bone-dust” are examples from the poem.
  • Allusion: It is an indirect reference to something or someone, but not explicit. “Instruct / Your son, whirling between two wars, / In the Gemara of your gentleness.” Here, “Gemara” refers to a body of Jewish oral law, which alludes to kindness and compassion.
  • Personification: a good example is: “the silence unrolling before me as I came.” Here, the poet gives silence a human quality of action which “unrolls. It conjures up a vivid image of the speaker approaching a silent vastness that appears to stretch out in front of them like an unrolling scroll.


  • Mortality: The poem highlights the unchangeable nature of mortality. Despite the speaker’s longing to reunite with his deceased father, he finds out it is impossible. His desperation leads him to visit a suburb he once visited with his father. He is even willing to make spotless his father’s mud-stain cloth. The theme of hope for a son-father reunion lingers in the reader, but mortality ultimately triumphs. This serves as a reminder of life’s transience and the significance of nurturing relationships with loved ones.
  • Nature: Nature in the poem plays a great role as it becomes solace in the melancholic mood of the speaker. Imagery in the poem maintains the joy that is lost in the gloomy mood of the speaker. The poem is set in a natural environment. Nature provides companionship from the start when the speaker follows his father and greets the natural elements along the way. Memories of turtles, lilies, and ferns bring peace and tranquility in a somber atmosphere, contrasting the speaker’s inner turmoil.


Why did Kunitz write ‘Father and Son?’

Father and Son’ is Kurtz’s tribute to his father, who passed away when he was just 14 years old. The poem presents a deeply personal perspective on the enduring bond between a father and his son.

What are the main themes in Stanley Kunitz’s poetry?

Mortality, nature, love, family, and spirituality are common topics in Kunitz’s poetry and are seen in ‘Father and Son,’ one of his best-known poems.

What does the house represent in the poem?

The home in ‘Father and Son‘ represents the speaker’s past. It symbolizes the symbol of contentment and comfort that is now lost.

What does the poem title ‘Father and Sonsymbolize?

The title emphasizes the importance of the father-son relationship in the author’s life and serves as a terse indication of the poem’s subject matter.

Similar Poetry:

  • Those Winter Sunday by Robert Hayden: The poem examines a complex relationship between a ‘Father and Son.’ It explores the sense of guilt of a son over his lack of appreciation for his father’s hard work.
  • Digging’ by Seamus Heaney: The poem explores the tension between a writer’s son and his father, who is a farmer by profession.
  • The Armadillo’ by Elizabeth Bishop:  While not specifically on a father-son relationship, the poem deals with the theme of mortality and the passage of time.
Tripti Kandari Poetry Expert
Tripti Kandari is an accomplished poetry expert with a Master's degree in English Literature. She has analyzed and evaluated hundreds of pieces of literature to aid post-graduates. Looking ahead, Tripti aims to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature.

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