Goodbyes: the good and the bad

A poetic techniques/theme essay for “Walking Away” by Cecil Day Lewis

William Shakespeare’s Juliet once said to Romeo “Parting is such sweet sorrow”. This use of oxymoron highlights the key idea of “There are both positive and negative aspects to saying goodbye”. ‘Walking Away’ by Cecil Day Lewis is a poem that explores this theme through recounting an incident where young Sean Day Lewis leaves his father for his friends after a football match. As a parent, the poet had mixed feelings about this event as it symbolized much more than brief physical distance. Cecil Day Lewis utilizes a variety of literary techniques to encourage consideration of both the good and bad that comes out of parting.

Farewells bring about separation and the poet uses structure and connotation to convey this. ‘Walking Away’ consists of four stanzas with five lines each. By using lines of similar lengths and distributing words carefully in the text, a steady rhythm is created within. This reflects the steady gait of walking and adds an extra dimension to the idea of walking away creating distance between loved ones. Connotation is contained in the form of “touch lines new-ruled”. Lines are commonly associated with division they parallel the physical and emotional separation that is beginning to develop between father and son. Day Lewis’ son was about to begin boarding school and the use of “new-ruled” suggests the start of a new chapter in their relationship and also a loss of intimacy. The likes of Skype and phone calls are mediocre attempts to bridge physical separation while there is virtually no remedy for patching up psychological separation. This is why partings bring such heartache and is also why Day Lewis chose to place emphasis on this particular aspect of the theme.

Letting go will inevitably produce pain. “Like a satellite// wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away” is a simile used to compare with Sean’s symbolic act of walking away. A smaller satellite is held securely in its orbit by the gravity of a much larger celestial body; this is the cosmos expressing the natural dependency in a parent-child relationship. However, this perfect image is ruined by the word “wrenched”, which indicates excruciating agony. The poet feels tormented as he realizes that Sean will not require his guidance for much longer and that he will be unable to protect his precious son from the harsh world. Enjambment is used to suddenly split the train of thought and reflect the abrupt – and obviously violent – pain that Sean’s independence has brought about. The author further reinforces this by using personification through “[the parting] gnaws at my mind still”, implying that the pain is on such a level that he can almost feel it leave a physical wound. These techniques combine to communicate the negative consequences of parting.

Leaving a loved one is not always a bad thing; it can bring about a sense of independency and a brighter future. The simile “Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem” is used to highlight this particular point. A winged seed is designed to be carried far away from its ‘parent stem’ by the wind. With no oppressive shadow to block out light and with less competition for resources, the young sapling is able to grow into a strong tree. In many families, elders tend to cast expectations on the younger generation and oppose anything which deviates from the path that has already been selected. However, this path may not be the best choice and there could be an even better option somewhere else.  Day Lewis uses this comparison to point out that parting can often bring about better opportunities and generate self-sufficiency. It also reminds parents that there is no Neverland in real life; children will grow up and leave the nest to start their own families. Parents must accept this and let their children determine their own futures.

Refining of one’s character is possible through parting with a familiar environment and entering an unknown world. “Small scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay” catches the reader’s attention due to its use of sibilance in the words “small scorching”. Repetition of ‘s’ sounds create an onomatopoeic effect, mimicking the crackling of an intense flame and the difficulty of leaving one’s comfort zone. Clay is a soft impressionable material and the shaping of it mirrors the molding of one’s personality. Sean is like this clay – pliable in mind and moral. After it has been fired in a kiln, clay comes out strengthened and sturdy, just like we will be after facing such difficult circumstances. Day Lewis uses this line to convey that facing hardship- such as parting with one’s beloved- will develop one’s mental strength and is actually beneficial for us.

Tears accompany farewells, as we see so often at airports, hospitals and funerals. It is painful to know that we cannot be with the ones we love, even if this parting is not permanent. However, Cecil Day Lewis’ use of poetic devices has shown us that there is a silver lining to every cloud as these difficult goodbyes often yield positive results as well. Whenever you are faced with a similar parting, remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. After all, a farewell cannot kill us and what does not kill us will make us stronger. Instead of being caught up in the negative outcomes, why not focus on the positive ones instead?