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The price we pay for love

25 March 2022

For Mothering Sunday, we continue our Lent series from a book of poems chosen and with commentary by Richard Harries

Tatyana Tomsickova/Alamy

Walking away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to
   the day —

A sunny day with leaves just

The touch-lines new-ruled —
   since I watched you play

Your first game of football, then,
   like a satellite

Wrenched from its orbit, go
   drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me
   towards the school

With the pathos of a half-fledged
   thing set free

Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path
   should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying

Like a winged seed loosened from
   its parent stem,

Has something I never quite grasp
   to convey

About nature’s give-and-take —
   the small, the scorching

Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute

I have had worse partings, but
   none that so

Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps
   it is roughly

Saying what God alone could
   perfectly show —

How selfhood begins with a
   walking away,

And love is proved in the letting

C. Day-Lewis (1904-72)


DAY-LEWIS, the son of a clergyman, was of Irish extraction. At Oxford, he was part of the circle round W. H. Auden, and one of the voices of the generation that preceded the Second World War. His first volume of poems appeared when he was 21. During the war, he worked for the Ministry of Information, and, afterwards, he wrote detective stories under the name Nicholas Blake to earn an income, it not usually being possible to live on the money made from writing poetry alone. In 1960, he denounced the Communist Party, of which he had previously been a member. He was very much part of the literary Establishment of his time, and was both Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Poet Laureate.

In the poem above, the poet brings to mind a vivid memory from 18 years before. It is autumn, the beginning of the school year, and, as a loving parent, he is watching his son play his first game of football. After the game, the boy, instead of seeking out his father as he might have done earlier, goes off in a crowd of the other boys. He has his own life with them now. Although this is only a tiny incident, it is one of a number of scorching ordeals that we experience as human beings. Life would bring many partings, but this one clearly gnawed at Day-Lewis’s mind with its wider lesson.

Saying what God alone could
    perfectly show —

How selfhood begins with a
   walking away,

And love is proved in the letting

THOSE three lines are profoundly true, and in them is contained a deep theological point: “Love is proved in the letting go.” When God said, “Let there be . . .”, he gave the universe a life of its own. It was given the freedom, within the essential constraints of what we call the laws of nature, to go its own way. Indeed, to be created is to have a life of one’s own. That freedom becomes conscious and self-conscious in us human beings. We can, within certain limits, shape our own future. Then, when Christ comes among us, we are again left free to respond or not. We are not coerced.

God’s amazing love is shown first of all in bringing independent life into existence, life that can turn its back on its Creator and spurn its divine Redeemer. As the poem says, God alone could perfectly show such letting go, but doing so is an essential prerequisite of our existence as selves. We can be a self only if we can make our own choices and fashion our own future. That is the gift we have been given.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter by Richard Harries is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-0-281-08629-0.

Walking Away © Estate of C. Day-Lewis

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