Tony Harrison’s Book Ends shows the relationships between father and son during a difficult and grieving time from their point of view. In this poem, past and present relationships are portrayed, along with conflict between educated and uneducated people, however the concluding revelation of the poem is that knowledge and education are consequentially useless.
Grief and loss are main themes of this poem,
“Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
We chew is slowly that last apple pie”
The idea portrayed by Tony Harrison, is that the woman was a mother figure right up until her death, the relationships must have been content because it appears as though she was eager to fulfil the role of the maternal wife and mother. From this, we can see the death was sudden, unexpected and abrupt. They are eating the apple pie slowly out of respect for her, and to prolong her life, digesting the information gradually just like they are digesting the pie. The impression portrayed is that they are eating it slowly because it might stick in their throat, just like when one is upset and a lump develops in ones throat. From this first couplet we see that the love for the deceased mother was strong, the father and son are grieving in their individual but similar ways, the relationships between them appear strong, affectionate and caring.
Harrison reveals the disturbing tumult being tolerated by the father and son,
“Shocked into sleeplessness, you’re scared of bed.
We never could talk much and now don’t try.”
The use of sibilance symbolises ambiguous silence, silence representing an empty space of deluded calm created by the loss of someone close to them, or the shocked silence of her sudden death. However the silence could be between the father and son, separated crudely by their education and differences, they no longer feel they have anything in common. Harrison is exposing to us the feelings of fear of the father and son, when somebody close to you dies to reminds you of your immortality, they are too frightened to sleep, when really they are in a deep sleep of ignorance, believing that education is keeping them from grieving in unity.
The rhyming couplets symbolise specific things such as relationships,
“Your like book ends, the pair of you, she’d say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…
The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,
Only our silence made us seem a pair.”
The structured couplets, not just here but throughout the poem, continuing the A B A B sequence, symbolises how father and son are together to deal with the tribulation as a partnership or couple, this shows the relationship between them as strong and in unanimity with their emotions, the impression portrayed is that the death could bring them closer together. They are reminiscing on memories of the deceased, remembering what she used to say, this illustrates that they can never forget her, or her memories, the love that they shared for her will not go, it will linger along with the pain of her death.
The use of structure in this poem is interesting, the sequence A B A B is continued throughout the whole poem,
“Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.
A Night you need my company to pass
And she not here to tell us we’re alike!”
Despite the regular pattern, Harrison takes us from image to image, jumping fragmentally from different ideas, this reflects the disarray of grief, but the ordered structure counteracts that and Harrison gives us the combination of order and disorder, creating the chaotic ambience to his poem which reflects the emotional turmoil that the father and son are enduring.
Book Ends II is mainly about educational differences,
“Come on it’s not as if we’re wanting verse.
It’s not as if we’re wanting a whole sonnet!”
Harrison mocks himself, he appears angry at himself that he cannot find words to suit the tombstone. Harrison is concentrating far too much on his education, and is not thinking of the real reason he is doing this, the tombstone is a sign of respect, possibly he should respect his mothers education and make the tombstone wording simple.
In this poem, Tony Harrison is validating the language of the working class. When it really matters, education and knowledge are unimportant, but love and expressing your true feelings whether in sonnet or just in a few words is far more important.