How are the themes of Family and Death treated differently or similarly in Harrison’s poem ‘Long Distance’ and Jennings’ poem ‘My Grandmother’? ‘Long Distance’ is an elegy written by Tony Harrison. The poem begins with Harrison explaining to the readers’ how his father reacted to his mother’s death, and then he goes on to explain how he himself came to terms with the death of both his parents. ‘My Grandmother’ by Elizabeth Jennings, also an elegy, is a narrative in which she describes her personal relationship with her grandmother, and the effect it had on her after her grandmother’s death. Both poems are similar because their main themes are family and death, which are portrayed in different ways.
We are introduced to the theme of death in the first line of ‘Long Distance’. Harrison begins by telling us his mother was already “two years dead”; however his father still felt affection for her. This is evident because his father “still went to renew her transport pass”. The use of “pass” in this sentence also shows the northern dialect in which Harrison came from as he rhymed the word “gas”. This also shows that the father was in denial over the death, even though her death was two years ago. ‘My Grandmother’ begins with Jennings’ telling us her grandmother “kept an antique shop -or it kept her”, which showed her grandmother was lonely, and she was reliant on the antique shop to keep her occupied and feel wanted, while the antique shop was also reliant on her to ensure that “polish was all”, also signifying that she kept the shop clean and tidy.
The lack of family for Jennings’ grandmother led to her obsession with the antique shop. She would watch “her own reflection in the brass” which shows that she was used to keeping the shop clean, and most of her time was spent looking after the shop. The quote also expresses that there was a weak bond between Jennings and her grandmother because she wouldn’t see any reflection of her family or her granddaughter, because she was a lonely person.
Harrison’s father shows obsession because his father still “put hot water bottles her side of the bed” showing his obsessive nature, and that he still has not forgotten about her. The use of death and family are both factors to the theme of obsession in these quotes and they both share the feeling of attachment to important things in their life, which is another similar characteristic in the family of the poets.
The relationship between Jennings and her grandmother is clearly weak. This is evident as she “refused to go out with her” because she was “afraid” to go out with her, as she feared her grandmother would treat her the same way she treated antique objects. This also indicates that the bond between them was not strong because she bluntly ‘refused’ to go out with her, showing her decisiveness.
The same distance between the author and family can be seen in Long Distance as Harrison manages to avoid the same emotional trap his father fell into, and only calls “the disconnected number” which shows the “Long Distance” between him and his parents. It is also ironic because he fell into the same predicament as his father, almost in denial that his parents were gone. Although Harrison keeps his distance from his parents, he still is connected with his father and has a good relationship; however, no sign of a relationship is apparent with Jennings and her grandmother.
In addition, Jennings also uses words such as “long narrow room” to create a negative imagery of death. This quote has an ambiguous meaning to it, one being the room in which her grandmother put “All her best things” in. The quote could also refer to a coffin, and it also tells the reader that the grandmother’s death is soon to follow. The use of imagery is quite opposite in the first stanza of Harrison’s poem when he first mentions death. While referring to his father’s obsession, he uses words such as “warming” and “hot water bottle” so that the reader is not too affected by the negative use of death, while giving the poem a story and a feeling that makes the reader want to carry on reading.
This creates a positive atmosphere to lighten the situation. However, by the time we reach the end of the poem, Harrison changes the mood and it becomes sad and depressing with the use of words such as “alone” and “rusted lock” to show that not only was Harrison’s father lonely, but he had not left his house after the death of the mother because his father felt that he “knew she’d just popped out to get the tea”. The use of italics on “knew” shows his father’s absolute certainty of the fact but in reality, it only showed that he was in a state of denial and desperation for the mother. Harrison also creates a depressing atmosphere by describing his new phone book “black”, the colour to signify death.