Formalist Criticism on the poem.
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Analysis of “My Son, My Executioner” by Donald Hall
Donald Hall brings to the table the issue of fatherhood, but not fatherhood as to be a father, having a child and raise it. In the poem, parenthood is seen as a link to immortality. Its central theme is the father-son relationship. He uses the metaphor of the son as an executioner to convey the meaning of the growth of the child and the aging of the father. To see the child as an executioner is not a sweet metaphor, but it’s crude, and raw meaning is a staple of Hall’s poetry. In Hall’s style, we see a plainspoken rural poet who relies on simple and concrete diction. Limiting the superfluous, and imbuing them in a tone of authority with a simplicity that engages the reader in the first lines (Poets.org). In “My son, my executioner” the discourse centers on two things with similar qualities. On one hand, we have the father, who represents life. A man who gave part of himself to bring his child to life, and receives it in his arms to protect and warm. “Quiet and small and just astir/and whom my body warms” (Hall). On the other hand, we have the child, a product of the father, and his “executioner”. The use of the son as a figure of death is an interesting metaphor, as Hall documents the growth of the child. He also records the death of the father, who despite being young when he bears his son, dies every day his it grows. In the same way, as we mentioned before, the son is also a figure of immortality, as it represents the enduring qualities of the human. The father might die, but his son precedes him, carrying and conveying his name and teachings, as his father did before. We see a chain in the poem, the circle of life that completes when a man holds his son. To Hall, the man who was full of life, starts to die, and the circle continues, and on. After seeing the two possibilities on the son, it is important to note the paradox existent in the poem, on the figure of the child as an instrument of immortality, and death. How can he be both at the same time? The only idea that occurs to us is that life is a circle, and our children connect us with immortality by carrying our teachings and connect us with death by growing every day. Their immortality is also a connection to death, as their youth represents our age. In that way, the paradox can be regarded as death and immortality as two sides of the same coin.
Another way we can see this poem is like an ode to life. In that way, it is possible that death is not regarded as something unwanted, but something welcomed, as the father understands that after bearing a child, his life is completed. His life as a man is an entirely different subject, nonetheless. Also, upon seeing the meaning of executioner, we can strip it from its relation with death. An executioner is someone who executes an action. In this case, the action can be to live, and to grow. The son can be the execution of his father’s wishes, and will. It reminds his father that life is precious; life is an instant, and his son is a reflection of that moment.
What we did here is a formalistic approach to the poem, stripping it of all the elements extrinsic to it, to focus on the poem itself. To do a formalist approach, the poem has to stand its ground, without having to refer to extrinsic images to keep viable, and good. In this essay, we shall give an academically supported definition of formalist criticism. Also, we shall find three images of the poem, to submit them to our criticism, to expand on them, and their significance to the poem.
About these adsFORMALIST CRITICISM
The formalist theory has dominated the American literature for most of the twentieth century, and it still retain a significant influence on literature academics and scholars. The formalist method holds that the texts should be read methodical, and systematically (Gillespie 1). The Formalist criticism considers that the text’s content is the same as the text’s form and that texts should exist in, and for themselves. Which means that the only way a literary work can be regarded is regardless of the author’s conditions and circumstances. What is in the text is what should be criticized. The aim of Formalist criticism is developed a theory, and a series of reading strategies that isolate the techniques used by the author, and the way it uses the language. Formalist intends to classify; categorize, and catalog works concerning their formal attributes (IEP). The Formalists placed great importance on how literary the texts were, as a way to distinguish the literary texts from those who were not. As we said, it was not the author what interested the formalists, but the narrative. In a formalist analysis, the narrative strategy and plot are seen and put in context against other works to see how well, or bad it goes, or if it holds the scrutiny. In that way, only by defamiliarizing from the text, and taking it away from the everyday experiences, the critic is capable of performing a thorough analysis (Encyclopedia Britannica)
“MY SON, MY EXECUTIONER” ANALYSIS
To do our analysis, we have selected the image of death. In the poem, death presents itself both literal, and implicitly. The image shows explicitly in two verses of the poem. In the first, it presents through the figure of a newborn child that rises to become death. The executioner through whom the Father sees the passage of time and realizes he is getting old, and that life is passing through his fingers. The second verse where the image of death is explicitly shown in the third verse of the poem where the author draws the picture of youth against the image of the newborn child. The author shows that men think they will live forever until they see their children. Afterward, they realize their death is a certainty, as they grow old, and their children become stronger. Implicitly, the image is foreshadowed in the first line of the poem with the figure of the executioner. However, as we noted before, the image of executioner can be regarded in different ways, as it can denote various types of execution.
Concerning the poem’s diction and meter, the poem shows alliteration in the “s” of “sweet death, small son”. In the “i” in “instrument of immortality”, and “we twenty two and twenty five”. The poet also uses slant rhymes that refer to words that kind of rhyme, but not totally. These verses are used to create rhythm in the poem and give it a particular cadence.
We chose to analyze two lines. The first is “We twenty two and twenty five”, and the second “Observe enduring life in you”.
“We twenty two and twenty five” refers explicitly to the age of many men when they are parents. And implicitly it refers to that at that age men are still in their prime, full of life and wishes. How a man who is on the top of his life is going to die? The explicit meaning bring us the joy of fatherhood, and the completion of the life circle while the implicit meaning shows a whole different face. The perceived death of the father when he sees his son is not a figure of speech, it is a real death that starts from the moment a father has a child. It does not matter how full of life a man is, his son is his link to death, as it constantly remembers him the passing of time.
“Observe enduring life in you” explicitly refers to the way life shows in the face of a newborn, new beginnings, and new hopes. Implicitly, it is linked with the figure of death, as it relates to the way a father observes how life abandons him and installs in his son’s body. Turning him into a figure of time, and decay. Explicitly, the line is about the pass of time, and how life blossoms and grows in the child. On the other hand, as everything in the poem, implicitly it has another meaning since while the man observes enduring life on his child, he also notes how life abandons him.
As we intended to show, the poem has two faces. The first shows immortality and the other death. We do not consider them as separate entities but as two different faces of the same coin. In that way, “My son, my executioner” is about death, yes; but it is also about how children turn into their parents, as a way to perpetuate the circle of life, and create a new generation. The poem might not be beautiful, in terms of speech, but its directness shows us another face of fatherhood that is passed by sometimes.
“Donald Hall.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web.
“Formalism | Literary Criticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online.Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.
Gillespie, Tim. Doing Literary Criticism: Helping Students Engage with Challenging Texts.1st ed. Stenhouse, 2013. Print.
“Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.