Life, Death, and Fatherhood in “A Call”
“A Call” Commentary“A Call,” by Seamus Heaney, traces the growing import of death, and therefore appreciation of life, on the speaker. By making a simple call to his father, he is thrown into a series of reflections on his father, as well as time, which force him to deal with the inescapability of time and unpredictability of death. The speaker’s intense reflection on his father, his joyful yet rueful process of weeding, and the inevitability of time and death, leads him to realize the brevity of human life and the suddenness of death’s “call,” producing an intense feeling of love for his father.
In the first stanza, the trivial nature of the call, and the mother’s rhetoric, reflects the lack of concern the speaker has for his father. Presumably after the speaker has asked to speak to his father, his mother replies “hold on” (1), stressing the lack of urgency in the interaction, and revealing that neither party on the call is concerned about time. While the father is about to be summoned, the mother makes some small talk with her son, noting that the “weather here’s so good” (2). These trivial bits of conversation again highlight the two’s lack of concern for time, and the calm, serene nature of the weather reinforces the expectations of this call being a simple check in to see how his father is doing. However, the word “here” reveals that there is a distance between the speaker and his mother, and when the mother has to “run out” (1) to reach the father, the speaker begins to reflect on his father once their separation is highlighted. This state of reflection is accentuated when the mother mentions how his father “took the chance” (3) to do work, showing that he is not capable at all times to do the hard work that weeding entails. Though still quite healthy, he is not in perfect condition, leading the speaker to begin pondering the state of his father, however unjustified this worry may be given the lack of urgency or worry in the nature of a simple “check up.”
In the second stanza, the speaker, intimately reflective in his recollection of his father’s weeding process, imagines the saving yet destructive nature of weeding, causing him to grapple with life and death. The indentation of the first line, which seems to literally stem off of the previous stanza, is a key piece of structure, which reveals the speaker’s constant flow of thought and progression towards reflection. Though the speaker does not literally see his father, he is so close to his father in spirit that he is able to perfectly picture him weeding, “[seeing] him” (4) in his mind. Still, the speaker is still not concerned about his father’s health, as his father is able to preform the difficult processes of “touching, inspecting, [and] separating” quite successfully (6). Despite this sense of normality and content, as he reflects further, he finds his father pulling the plants up which are “not tapered, frail and leafless” (8). This, albeit gentle, ending of lives firmly plants the idea of death in the speaker’s mind, an idea that he will become extremely preoccupied with as his reflection continues. His father, in this situation the bringer of death, is both “pleased” (9) by the removal of weeds, but also “rueful” (10). Though the father, by this weeding, is bringing about life and growth for the garden, highlighting the necessity of this process, he is also taking life away, which is inescapable in weeding and leads the father to feel regret. This necessity for death begins to instill worry in the speaker, and begins to manifest itself in his increasingly moribund thoughts and reflective progression, stressed by the ellipsis that links the poem to his next, grave train of thought.
In the third stanza, the speaker’s inundation with the incessant ticking of time causes him to realize the unceasing and ultimate power that time, and therefore death, holds, no matter how tranquil a life may be. As mortality overtakes the speaker’s thoughts, he notes that he “found himself listening” (11) to clocks. This passive action shows the powerlessness of the speaker to ignore death, and its inevitability in both the mind and in life. However, the active verb, “listening,” works to reveal his current awareness of time’s passing, and his recognition of the relevant threat it poses. Furthermore, the “amplified grave ticking” (12) shows that the passing of time has taken a greater significance to the speaker, as when he hears it, it is “amplified.” The description of the ticking as “grave” shows how uncontrollably morbid his thoughts have become: death has invaded his mind, and its inevitability is all too apparent. However, all of this has happened in a place of “calm” (13), full of “sunstruck pendulums” (14). This is even more ominous for the speaker, as the unavoidable call of death can penetrate even the most serene, beautiful, and ordinary situations. This has a massive import on the speaker, as he realizes that although his father’s life seems to be in no apparent danger, which certainly will not prevent death from calling, when the time comes. This leads the speaker to feel intense fear for his father’s life, which is compounded in the next line as an ellipsis again connects the two and highlights the morbid flow of thought which the speaker is a victim of.
In the 4th stanza, the speaker’s comparison of the suddenness of death in morality plays and the graceful nature of time and death at his father’s home instills fear in death’s unpredictable inevitability, highlighting the great significance of the “call.” Again, just as in the third stanza, the speaker is both active and passive in his reflection, noting that he “found himself then thinking” (15). His passive nature once again reveals death’s envelopment of his mind as he loses control to escape his macabre reflection. However, the “then” shows the constant flow of thought which is overtaking him, and the active verb “thinking” shows that not only is he again actively dealing with this frightful subject, and taking in its unpleasant implications, but also beginning to understand the significance of the call. This significance is made explicit with the allegory of “Death summon[ing] Everyman” (16) introducing the truly morbid idea of the unpredictable nature of death. In the morality play to which the speaker alludes to, when it is time for the unknowing Everyman to die, he gets a tap on the shoulder from death, and is instantly dead. This is the climax of the speaker’s fearful reflection, as he now fully comprehends the importance of the phone call he has made. Everyman being tapped on the shoulder stresses the suddenness and unpredictability of death, and the speaker connects this to his father, as his death could be just as sudden and unpredictable. Thus, the significance of this call is that it is not simply a “check up,” but could in reality his father’s death, because of the suddenness with which death calls. Once the true significance of the call is appreciated, the speaker can stop his process of reflection and deal with the unsettling reality of what he has just come to terms with.
The final line’s intense outburst of passion reveals that the minutes of deep reflection the speaker has gone through has caused him to be overwhelmed by an powerful appreciation and love for his father’s life. The speaker’s thought process has been abruptly interrupted by the “Next thing [his father] spoke” (17), revealing that this intense willpower that he used to reflect has now been replaced by the pure emotions that follow. However, the speaker refrains from expressing his true emotions, and notes that, “I nearly said I loved him”. This abstention from brining up the speaker’s important revelations shows what he has truly learned, as if he had told the father of death’s unpredictable call, which could occur at any moment, this would frighten the father. The importance of nearly telling him highlights the power in the irony of what is left unsaid, as what is really important is to appreciate the beauty of life, and the mortality of human life is what makes it even more special, and worthy of being appreciated. Thus, the purpose of the reflection is to show that what should be focused on and reflected upon is not mortality, which the speaker has been consumed with, but rather the importance and beauty of life, which remains for the speaker to appreciate in a silent fortitude.
The speaker’s intense reflection and understanding of the significance of the call truly show the meaning of life. Despite his increasing worry over his father from stanza to stanza, in reality, his father is perfectly fine, reflected by the calm tone throughout, especially in the beginning, and instead of worrying about his father’s possible death, the speaker learns to appreciate the beauty and meaning of his life. Life indeed does end, but this is what makes it so valuable and necessary to focus and cherish its beauty while it still exists, and live everyday with an intense sense of appreciation for the life humans are allowed to experience with each other.
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“A Call” Commentary“A Call,” by Seamus Heaney, traces the growing import of death, and therefore appreciation of life, on the speaker. By making a simple call to his father, he […]