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Grandfather by Derek Mahon | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Grandfather by Derek Mahon

Grandfather by Derek Mahon is a sonnet in which Mahon expresses his sadness and anguish by addressing his grandfather who is no more in this world.  

Grandfather by Derek Mahon | Summary and Analysis

Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 1 – 2 

They brought him in on a stretcher from the world,

Wounded but humorous; and he soon recovered.

The poet begins the poem by saying that his grandfather was brought from the world on a stretcher. Just like when a new baby is born, so was his grandfather on that day. The poet was hopeful that this might be a rebirth of his grandparent. He had been in an accident and he was injured but despite being wounded, he was humorous, he was cracking jokes and laughing with his loved ones, and his family. The reader sees an image of an old man laughing and he pictures the poet’s grandfather as someone who was happy and lively, just as the poet describes him. 

 Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 3 – 4 

Boiler-rooms, row upon row of gantries rolled

Away to reveal the landscape of a childhood

The poet’s grandfather used to work on a ship, in a boiler room and the poet is trying to figure out how his days must have gone there between rows and rows of gantries. The reader gets the sense that his grandfather must have been a hardworking man as he worked day and night. The line also gives a sense of foreboding and isolation from the outside human world as the reader gets a sense that he must have spent his days and nights locked up in the boiler rooms. The poet is unable to imagine his grandfather in those rooms and the scene shifts to the poet’s childhood. Just like a child, the port also has fond memories of his childhood spent with his grandfather and now that the grandfather is no more, he is left with the weight of the memories. 

Grandfather | Analysis,  Lines 5 – 6 

Only he can recapture. Even on cold

Mornings he is up at six with a block of wood

The poet says that the childhood he had, can only be recaptured by his grandfather, who is not in this world anymore. He imagines the time he had spent with his grandfather and reminisces those days. The poet says that his grandfather was a very hardworking person and the reader’s earlier suspicions are confirmed. The poet remembers his grandfather waking up at six in the morning, no matter the season, even in winters he woke up early and was fiddling with a block of wood. It seems like his grandfather did some woodwork and made some things. The poet remembers all these little details about the person he must have spent a great part of his childhood. Grandparents are an important part of the life of any child and now that the poet is losing him, he feels disconnected from the world. The reader sympathises with the poet who has lost such a great part of his life. 

Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 7 – 8

Or a box of nails, discreetly up to no good

Or banging round the house like a four-year-old —

 Either, the poet’s grandfather was making something from wood or he was doing some fiddling with a bag of nails, which the poet did not understand. It is clear that the poet looks up to his grandfather and wants to be like him in his life. Some days, he would be banging around the house like a toddler. The reader gets the sense that the poet’s grandfather had a great sense of humour and he was able to make others laugh. The poet’s fondness towards his grandfather is clearly seen through these lines because he always speaks about him in an affectionate way that makes the reader think that no matter how exasperated he is with him, the poet adores his grandfather a great amount. 

Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 9 – 10

Never there when you call. But after dark

You hear his great boots thumping in the hall

The poet also expresses his complaint because his grandfather was not present when someone called. It is perhaps possible that his grandfather was not available for the poet when he needed him. Nonetheless, the poet is grateful for the times that he was there with him. The fact that his grandfather was a busy man is eminent again as the poet says that he came back only after it was dark and the poet, along with everyone else in the house, could hear the thumping sound of his boots. The sound gave relief to the poet and he misses it now that he is unable to hear it.

Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 11 – 12 

And in he comes, as cute as they come. Each night

His shrewd eyes bolt the door and set the clock

The poet repeats that his grandfather returns only when it’s dark outside. He closes the door and sets his alarm clock to wake up the next morning. The poet says that his grandfather is “as cute as they come”. The act of setting the clock is a metaphor because the poet knows that his grandfather’s time is running out. He “sets the clock” because he doesn’t have enough time and is counting his last breaths. The poet knows this and thus, these lines have a melancholic tone. 

Grandfather | Analysis, Lines 13 – 14

Against the future, then his light goes out.

Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all.

The poet is present with his grandfather and sees him as the light goes out of his eyes and he takes his last breath. It is a common notion that the human soul escapes humans when they die, but here, the poet says that he doesn’t see anything escaping him, in fact, it is him who escapes his family as he is going to a place that no one knows. The poet is hopeful that he is n a better place now but he can’t help but be sad that his grandfather is with him no more. The poem ends on a sympathetic note as the reader can’t help but feel the loss themselves. 


About the Author- Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon (23 November 1941 – 1 October 2020) was an Irish poet. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland but lived in a number of cities around the world. At his death, it was noted that his “influence in the Irish poetry community, literary world and society at large, and his legacy, is immense”. President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said of Mahon “he shared with his northern peers the capacity to link the classical and the contemporary but he brought also an edge that was unsparing of cruelty and wickedness.”

Critics have compared his poetry to that of such masters as W.H. Auden, the poet and classical scholar Louis MacNeice, and Samuel Beckett. A voluntary exile from his native Belfast, Mahon explored themes of isolation, loneliness, and alienation in his poetry.




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