In 1995 Kenyon died from leukemia. Hall’s “My Son, My Executioner” was written in 1955. “My Son, My Executioner” by Donald Hall out of Literature and the Writing Process, contains a lot of symbolism, irony, and some contradictions. It focuses on the speaker’s child. The child is an infant, and the speaker is likely the author. The poem discusses struggles new parents feel as they attempt to bond with their new child. The title “My Son My Executioner” sets the mood for the irony of the poem. The speaker seems pessimistic about parenthood, saying their small newborn son’s new life is the parent’s demise.
The writer exaggerates the fact he being a parent is very demanding with irony throughout the poem. Parents generally have mixed emotions as they are giving up who they once were so that they may now bring a new life into the world. The first stanza begins with irony, “My son, my executioner, I take you in my arms, quiet and small and just astir, and whom my body warms”. “My executioner implies the son is killing his father. The first stanza is also symbolic of the parent’s new responsibility to their new child. The father is holding his son who is “stiff or up and about, or moving around, and warming the little child with his own body heat.
This implies the father loves his child. He is caring for the child. This is ironic as the son is the father’s executioner. Most would be nervous or frightened by someone who was meant to kill them. This father is giving a part of himself to the child in the first stanza. He warms his child with his body (Longhand 363). When a couple brings a child into the world they must make many sacrifices. They begin a new life. In the second stanza the speaker says, ‘Your cries and hungers document our bodily decay”. This is symbolic of new parents sacrificing their life for their child.
Parents, especially parents of new baby, sacrifice a lot of sleep for example. When one does not sleep they feel ill in many ways. They may feel like zombies without sleep. They give up time they had once spent caring for themselves. They now spend much of that time caring for a demanding newborn. The physical and emotional demands of caring for a newborn exhausting for parents. Also in the second stanza the speaker writes, “Sweet death, small son, our instrument of immortality”‘ there are two origins of irony here. “Sweet death” to most people does not seem like fitting words for a newborn. Death is not sweet.
Death is sad and cold. However, when thinking about the amount of energy parents spend on their infants, and how at times, they feel like the life has been sucked out of them “sweet death” begins to sound accurate. Parents love their children. They will do anything for their child even if the child has demanding needs (Longhand 363). No matter how exhausting a newborn is they are also so very pleasing for the parents. When looking at the phrase “instrument of immortality’ one has to think of the definitions of instrument and immortality. An instrument is a device used to produce something. Immortality is the ability to live forever.
The writer is saying the infant IS an instrument used to produce the ability to live forever. A child represents the continuity of a bloodline. The parent will live on through their child. Children will many times take traits from the parents. They may have similar habits, possibly a similar character as the parent. A child is generally a symbol of new life (Longhand 363). When a child is born, life is not so carefree for the new parents anymore. There is a greater sense of responsibility. The third stanza begins, “We twenty- five and twenty-two, who seemed to live forever” represents how young people feel like life is never ending.
There is so much life to live at twenty-five and twenty-two. “Observe enduring life in you and Start to die together” symbolizes the parents seeing this new life in their small son. After having a child this young couple may be seeing that nothing is forever. As they see their child grow and change they may begin to see their lives shifting towards the end of life. Children have the ability to fight through things that would bring adults down. The amount of strength it takes to learn to crawl and walk is astounding.
When an adult is injured and must use rehabilitation to learn o walk again it may take them years before they retrain their muscles to hold their body up. Many children can learn to walk in less than a year. They endure much more than an adult would be able to. The parents watch their son through sleepy exhausted eyes. They both realize how amazing this new life is but know they are no longer the same. They have died a little. The individual is forced to take on a new persona when they give birth to a child. A woman is now a mother and a man is now a father (Longhand 363).
This poem is beautifully written and speaks truth to parents who have endured the love and loss of having children. As pessimistic as this poem may appear many parents may be able to relate. Parents generally have mixed emotions as they are giving up who they once were so that they may now bring a new life into the world. After graduating college in 1953 and writing this poem in 1 955 this author may not have felt ready to bring a new life into the world. Not feeling ready for a child and feeling exhausted from the demands of a newborn are common. Some that have children and have felt this way may even find humor in “My Son, My Executioner”.