Reading “To a Daughter Leaving Home” and “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”: Poetry Comparisons through Imagery and Symbolism

Linda Pastan’s To a Daughter Leaving home and Margaret Atwood’s Death of a Young Son by Drowning both apply imagery and symbolism to exemplify the difficulties of being a parent. These poems describe the moments and instances that no parent wants to consider. They confirm that parenting can be the hardest job in the world. Both of the poems use similar styles of imagery and symbolism; they focus on two very different painful situations some parents have to experience.

To a Daughter Leaving home is describing an unfortunate situation where a mother comes to the realization that her daughter no longer needs her to guide her in life. It is never mentioned where the daughter is headed, instead, the poem focuses on the mom’s feelings and how hard it is to see her daughter go. She reminisces of the first taste of independence her daughter got years ago when she first learned how to ride a bike without her mother’s help. She describes her fear of when her daughter first rode away on the bike while she was left behind as her daughter vanished out of sight. She mentions that her daughter grew “more breakable with distance” (16-17). This phrase showcases her feelings of fear and anxiety which this situation has evoked. She has to watch her daughter slip out of her grasp and accept the fact that she is leaving. She feels nervous for her daughter stepping out into the world alone because she is easily breakable and vulnerable without her mom at her side. Death of a Young Son by Drowning portrays a far worse parenting nightmare that no parent wants to imagine. It is focused on the emptiness felt after the loss of a child. The mother watched her hopes and dreams slip away as “his feet slid on the bank, the currents took him” (7-8). It is obvious that her she was very fond of her son and looking forward to this voyage with him and losing him meant “The dreamed sails collapsed, ragged” (26-27). This phrase is used to describe how she feels after experiencing the loss of her son. Atwood utilized imagery to further explain the mother’s personal experience the day her son passed away. She had to witness her son’s passing without being able to do anything to save him because everything happened so fast. She describes seeing him when “he was hung in the river like a heart. They retrieved the swamped body” (17-18). Her in depth knowledge of the incident portrays a very dark side of her son’s unforeseen death.

To a Daughter Leaving Home and Death of a Young Son by Drowning both rely on symbolism in a prominent manner. In To a Daughter Leaving Home, the author uses the memory of the first time her daughter rode a bike alone to symbolize her and her daughter having to go their separate ways. In the last line of the poem makes she makes an analogy saying “the hair flapping behind you like a handkerchief waving goodbye” (21-24). She makes the connection of her daughter currently leaving to the first time she left on her bike. In this moment, it hit her that her daughter was leaving and she would have to be strong and let her go. This analogy was an important symbol mentioned in the poem because it gives the reader understanding of why she was thinking about her daughter’s first bike ride and how that moment compares to the current situation. Margaret Atwood used an abundance of symbolism in her poem Death of a Young Son by Drowning as well. She is trying to showcase the idea of the river symbolizing life itself saying “navigated with success the dangerous river of his own birth” (1-2). Through this phrase she conveys that her son was born because of how he successfully navigated the river of life. Water is a substance that helps life thrive but as Atwood makes it known, it also has the ability to destroy life. More specifically so, the river symbolizes how peaceful and unbothered life can be one moment and the next it can become miserable and burdened with anguish and hopelessness. In line 16 she mentions that the “air locked” and she began to comprehend that the dreams and hopes she had moments ago are now out of reach. She continues with saying how the world must go on even though as a mother who just lost a child, her world halted. The last two stanzas the poem is concluded straightaway with direct statements of how hopeless the mother’s life has been left. This is done to symbolize how horrifying it must be to lose a son at such a young age. The mother mentions that “My foot hit the rock. The dreamed sails collapsed, ragged” (26-27). This is symbolizing the moment she comes to the realization that her son is gone for good. This voyage was supposed to be a trip a trip of discoveries and new beginnings but it was left with her world falling apart after her son’s passing. The last two lines she says she “planted him in this country like a flag” (28-29). The flag symbolizes the impression her son left on the world no matter how young he passed. Although he is gone physically, there are pieces of him spiritually that he left behind during the time he was alive. Both of the authors use symbolism within their poems to display two different mothers dealing with similar yet very different situations and the agonizing pain that they have to deal with as parents.

Another stylistic element the authors use is imagery to demonstrate the mothers and how they are emotionally burdened by the situations being dealt with. In To a Daughter Leaving Home, Pastan uses language throughout the poem to add imagery to her writing. The mother is experiencing one of the hardest things she has go through as a parent and wants the audience to recognize her pain by creating a visual of a child learning to ride a bike for the first time and falling of that bike. She says “you grew, smaller, more breakable with distance” (15-17), giving the audience the sense of sadness and hopelessness that the mother is feeling knowing her daughter is leaving. The visual image is created to get the reader at the same emotional level the mother is which is the feeling of despair and that thirst for the past many people also have. In Death of a Young Son by Drowning, Atwood uses imagery to showcase the mother’s personal experience with the drowning of her son and her emotions along with it. In the third stanza of the poem, she gets very descriptive with how her son ended up dead saying “the currents took him; he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water” (8-9). The example of imagery she utilized here has a very chilling tone. It is done so that the audience could see through the mother’s eyes and experience what occurred on that day. She is building up this experience in such great detail to showcase how much it has affected her and how it left her life damaged and hopeless.

These two poems are very different contextually describing two very different hardships a parent eventually has to experience. They both make use of imagery and symbolism to evoke specific emotions and get their message across. Death of a young Son by Drowning is a poem that begins very hopeful an exciting for a new journey but turns into a devastating life altering experience for the mother that loses her son. The symbols and images throughout the poem give a firsthand view of what the mother had to see with her own two eyes. On the other hand, To a Daughter Leaving Home is not as devastating but still evokes feelings of sadness and hopelessness because a mother has to deal with the fact that her daughter has grown up and does not need her help anymore. Altogether, Margaret Atwood’s Death of a Young Son by Drowning and Linda Pastan’s To a Daughter Leaving Home utilize imagery and symbolism to address very different hardships of parenting that no parent can ever prepare for.

Growing Up and Growing Away: Linda Pastan’s “To a Daughter Leaving Home”

Linda Pastan’s 1988 poem, “To a Daughter Leaving Home”, concerns the idea of children growing up and leaving, whether it be for college or simply riding a bike for the first time. The speaker of the poem starts out with a nostalgic feel, addressing the child and reminiscing on a time the child was eight and being taught how to ride a bike. The speaker follows their daughter until it is hard to keep up and they can do nothing but stand and watch as the child rides away. The title of the poem draws a more in depth look at this seemingly simply affair that almost every parent and child has by connecting it to the idea of a child leaving home for a short period of time or permanently. The poem, “To a Daughter Leaving Home”, speaks on a theme of children eventually being old enough to leave home, or their parents, and how hard it is to embrace.

The title of the poem, along with the beginning, sets the scene with a nostalgic feeling of the speaker’s child growing up. The first line, “When I taught you/at eight to ride/a bicycle” sets the poem apart from the title immediately (736). The title encapsulates a sense of a child leaving for college or to live on their own while the first few lines brings the reader back to an earlier time. The first line also creates a strong relationship between the speaker and the daughter, claiming the speaker as the teacher and the daughter as someone who is being taught. The book “Poetry for Students” states that “The phrasing in this line, isolating the two persons’ pronouns and the mother’s role as a teacher, implies that the relation between the mother and daughter is a central concern of the poem”. The first line makes it clear that the reader is primarily addressing the daughter, their relationship proving to be the main source of the poem itself. The title of the poem creates the idea that it is about a child, who is older, leaving permanently, while the first few lines set a drastically different scene in which the child is only eight, creating nostalgia.

The remainder of the poem focuses on the idea of not wanting to let the child go, but eventually doing so. Line 11 shows the speaker worrying that their daughter may crash and trying to run along with her: “I kept waiting/for the thud/of your crash as I/ sprinted to catch up” (737). The speaker is holding onto their child, hoping to protect them at any moment, but struggling to keep up with the rapid pace at which the daughter is moving, and moving away. The literary overview talks about this by focusing on the speaker’s state compared the daughters: “Line 11 returns focus to the narrator, who follows the description of the girl’s physical activity by detailing her own emotional state, one of anxiety with regard to how successful the daughter will prove in pedaling off on her own”. The speaker is waiting for the daughter to fall off the bike and get hurt, for the daughter to need her. The daughter, on the other hand, is speeding up and moving quickly, unaware of her mother trailing behind. The speaker goes on to say that her daughter grows “smaller, more breakable” as she continues to ride her bike alone through the park. The speaker is watching her daughter move further away, getting smaller in her vision and seemingly more fragile. At the end, the speaker compares her daughter’s hair to a “handkerchief waving goodbye” signaling that the daughter has rode her bike far away from the mother and has created a physical distance between the two (737). The poem encapsulates the struggle the speaker, and most parents, have when it comes to seeing their children grow up and become independent.

Linda Pastan’s “To a Daughter Leaving Home” tells a nostalgic tale of a child’s first time riding a bike and how it affected the parent. The speaker relives this moment in a gloomy way, pinpointing it as one of the times her daughter had left home. The poem speaks on a theme of children growing older and growing apart from their parents, and how the parents view this change. Although the first time riding a bike is exciting for a child, to a parent, it could seem as a first step in letting the child grow up and, in turn, grow independent. The speaker remembers this time as a moment in which she lost her daughter, even if she was only going down the street.

Works Cited

“Overview: ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 46. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Paston, Linda. “To a Daughter Leaving Home.” The Norton Production to Literature. 11th ed. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 736-737. Print.

Jump Cabling: Connecting Cars and People

Sometimes a stranger offers to help, sometimes a person is forced to ask a stranger, but when the car won’t start, odds are two strangers are going to meet. Linda Pastan’s 1984 poem, “Jump Cabling,” reveals how the simple act of jump-starting a car may jump-start love. Through repetition, alliteration, simile, metaphor, and a unique structure Pastan creates an uncommon poem that ties a common and mundane occurrence to romance.“Jump Cabling” is a poem about a dead battery, a stranded motorist, and the stranger that stops to help. Presented in eight lines of free verse it is a monologue in which the speaker is never quite identified but seems to be female while the rescuer is presumably male.Repetition and alliteration provide tone and pacing as well as some thematic tie-ins. The word “when” is the first word in lines 1 and 2 and is repeated in lines 4 and 6. Although presented without an inquisitive sense, the repetition of “when” in four of eight lines gives the poem a wistful, expectant tone. The alliteration of the oft-repeated “when” with other “w” words such as “we were,” (4) “woke,” (7) “why,” (8) and “way” (8) provides a flowing pace throughout the poem. In such words as “cars,” (1) “workings,” (3) “pure,” (5) and “energy” (5) the repetition of the “r” sound in twenty percent of the words, twelve of fifty-two, seems to give a subtle background sound of a motor trying to start. In the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, Ian Hamilton agrees that Pastan’s work often records “everyday happenings” (Hamilton 400) by using “harmonizing… metaphors.” (Hamilton 400) This is obvious in Pastan’s treatment of “Jump Cabling.” Along with the tale of getting a car to start there is an overall allusion to a fairy-tale throughout the poem. This can be seen most distinctly in the simile “when my car like the princess / in the tale woke…” (Pastan 6-7). Line 5 also states that the energy between the two cars is “pure” (5). Further, in the last line the speaker, rather than say “why not go” says “why not ride….” (8) This choice of wording seems more appropriate to a horse rather than a car, a horse being the usual means of conveyance for the hero in many fairy-tales. Saving the poem from being overly sentimental and fanciful is another metaphor: the understated comparison of jump-starting a car with a sexual or erotic encounter. The cars “[touch,]” (Pastan 1) the mechanical aspects of the car are referred to as “intimate workings,” (3) and the speaker says suggestively that the rescuer lifts “the hood of mine” (2) rather than the hood of the car. When the cars are connected by jumper cables the speaker claims that “[we] were bound together.” (4)Possibly the most intriguing aspect of “Jump Cabling” is its unique structure. The first seven lines of poetry display significant spacing between the first part of the line and the last word or two. This separation of these two groups of words is symbolic of two vehicles separated by a short distance as they are during the act of jump cabling. This is further supported by the last line which has no separation, and, like a pair of jumper cables, joins the two parts. The sense is that it also symbolizes the distance between to strangers connected by chance occurrence.It also must be noted that the separation between the words creates two, or possibly three, different poems: the first part, the second part, and the whole. While the first part read without the second part does not differ significantly from the poem as a whole, the second, or separated part seems to be a poem unto itself. Haiku-esque, or perhaps Modernist-inspired, the second section reads “touched / of mine / underneath / together / energy / princess / start.” This concise poem implies that the speaker’s life as a “princess,” a better life, begins with an intimate touch. Pastan weaves together various poetics to create a poem about failing cars and finding love. The repetition and alliteration used to maintain pacing and to provide a hopeful tone also serves to provide a backdrop of a car engine rumble. Metaphors of fairy-tales and sexuality keep the poem interesting and add suggestions of both pure and erotic human connection. Finally, “Jump Cabling” symbolizes the connection between two cars and two lives by presenting a poem separated at first, but joined together in the end like the individuals described in the poem. Works CitedHamilton, Ian. Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Oxford University Press, 1994. 400. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 Sept. 2012. Pastan, Linda. “Jump Cabling.” An Introduction to Literature. 16th ed. Sylvan Barnet, William Burto, and William E. Cain. New York: Longman, 2011. 589. Print.