My father and my mother never quarrelled.
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove.
I never saw them casually touch,
Or show a moment’s joy in one another.
Why should this matter to me now so much?
I think it bore more hardly on my mother,
Who had more generous feelings to express.
My father had dammed up his Irish blood
Against all drinking praying fecklessness,
And stiffened into stone and creaking wood.
His lips would make a switching sound, as though
Spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay.
That it was mainly weakness I see now,
But then my feelings curled back in dismay.
Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:
Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns
My blood. The poor man’s curt embarrassment
At such a delicate proffer of affection
Cut like a saw. But home the lesson went:
My tenderness thenceforth escaped detection.
My mother sang ‘Because’, and ‘Annie Laurie’,
‘White Wings’, and other songs; her voice was sweet.
I never gave enough, and I am sorry;
But we were all closed in the same defeat.
People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?
Judgment is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.
It’s my own judgment day that I draw near,
Descending in the past, without a clue,
Down to that central deadness: the despair
Older than any Hope I ever knew.
James McAuley (12 October 1917 – 15 October 1976)
The one word title ‘because’ is suggestive that some reasoning or explanation is about to take place. As soon as we read the first stanza we realise that this will be a well-crafted rhyming poem with pentameter rhythm.
S1 – JM declares the relationship between his mother and father, from his child-view, it was rather bland, routine, regular … without showing any difference from day to day – akin to the delivery of a newspaper (you don’t have to know that the Sydney Morning Herald is a well know Australian paper). A kind of love – gives the feeling of some acceptance to this situation.
S2 – There was no joy or touch – and JM poses the question – why is this important – when reflecting back over the years … a little ambivalence
S3 – It was hard for his mother if feelings were not expressed. Drinking was an issue with his father … to be regarded as fecklessness – a human failing … and his father had damned up feelings into stone
S4 – a physical aspect … his father’s lips twitched at times … and according to JM the real weakness was a lack of being able to show affection
S5 – and then the rebuff when JM does as other children and puts his face up to be kissed after returning from being away … but there is no reciprocation … a moment painfully remembered through the years
S6 – … his sensitivity … his need for affection … was not recognised by his father … his mother was more forthcoming as indicated in the next stanza
S7 – her mother was more open and JM remembers her singing with affection … and while he reminisces he regrets that he was not himself more open … more giving
S8 – now JM looks at the positives of his parents in bringing him up … they were obviously very caring people and loving in their own way … negating any judgemental attitude
S9 – being judgemental defines the nature of those judging … in this case he is perhaps blaming his own lack of sensitivity on the similar approach taken by his parents in his upbringing … and I love the last two lines of this stanza … nothing can be done now … JM is talking to himself … time to move on … so at this stage in the poem there appears to be an acceptance and a resolution in the ambivalence expressed in the opening question
S10 – JM’s thinking now escapes to his own ‘judgment day’ … how his past will be treated … he has no clue … a sense of despair … a lack of any hope in the hereafter
James McAuley (1917 – 1976) was an Australian academic, poet, journalist and literary critic … James McAuley on Wikipedia