The Guild by Sharon Olds is one of the several poems in which the poet attempts to produce some description of her father and his negative influence on the family. The relationship between the daughter and the father is clearly dysfunctional, and in The Guild Olds shows that such difficulties are generational. The author aims to portray her father as her grandfather’s “apprentice” in an attempt to find some justification for the dysfunctionality of her family.
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The poem is written in neutral diction and lacks apparent rhythm and rhyme schemes. There are only two sentences in the entire poem; hence, most of the lines are incomplete, and the sentences are frequently spread out across several lines through the use of enjambment. The frequent use of listing adds to the effect of continuity. Such a structure of the poem creates an impression of the author telling a private story rather than writing a poem for a broad audience. The form of the poem also highlights the delicate nature of the subject: long sentences are not entirely coherent, and thus they are read as an emotional speech, enabling the audience to feel the author’s sensitivity towards the subject.
In The Guild, Olds uses a seemingly common idea of father and son drinking together by the fireplace into an exploration of how darkness and evilness are transferred from one generation to another. The repetition of the words such as “darkness,” “oblivion,” “cruelty” creates a dark and bitter atmosphere within the poem, reflecting the author’s emotions toward the subject. Despite the fact that the author’s relationship with the father is not addressed directly in the poem, the reader can easily guess its complicated nature by looking at the description of the characters.
The first several lines of the poem are focused on the narrator’s grandfather. His image is neutral in the first three lines: “Every night, as my grandfather sat/ in the darkened room in front of the fire,/ the bourbon-like fire in his hand.” The conventional image of an elderly man drinking bourbon in his armchair by the fireplace is, however, challenged with further development of his portrait: “his eye/ glittering meaninglessly in the light/ from the flames, his glass eye baleful and stony.” The picture presented by the author is static; there is no action or movement to the character. This stillness adds to the impression of a poem as being deeply personal: there is a feeling that the author is recreating a distant memory of her grandfather or an old photograph. There is no direct connection between this image and the present, implying that the author’s grandfather is dead. However, the rest of the poem makes it clear that some of his teachings have outlived him and caused significant damage to the author and her family.
Similarly, the representation of the author’s father is neutral at the beginning, although there are some dark hints to it. Olds devotes six lines to the description of her father’s appearance in his youth, discreetly connecting each feature with some aspect of his personality. For instance, “a college boy with/ white skin, unlined, a narrow/ beautiful face” creates an impression of timelessness, youth, and purity. The overall mood of this portrayal, however, is dark and mysterious. The whiteness of the boy’s face creates a ghostly image, which adds to the author’s idea that her father is her grandfather’s ghost.
There is a lot of repetition throughout the poem, which the author uses to highlight the importance of particular ideas. For example, the image of a tree is used twice in work, which adds significance to the allusion in lines 16-18: “that young man/ not yet cruel, his hair dark as the/ soil that feeds the tree’s roots.” Here, the tree represents the author’s grandfather, creating an allusion to the saying that an apple does not fall far from the tree. The saying is especially relevant to the subject of the poem: the author implies that it was her grandfather who taught her father to act in a cruel way. This thought is rooted in the very name of the poem and supported throughout the work: “that son who would come to be in his turn/ better at this than the teacher, the apprentice/ who would pass his master in cruelty and oblivion.”
Despite the fact that it is evident right from the start of the poem that the boy described is Olds’ father, the author only confirms it in the very last line: “that young man my father.” This is done not to clarify the connection between the author and the characters portrayed, since it is already established, but rather to highlight the importance of her father’s complicated character on her life: it is her father, “who would pass his master in cruelty and oblivion,/ drinking steadily by the flames in the blackness,” and it is her grandfather who was the cause of such cruelty. The poet attempts to shift the blame to her grandfather but does not succeed: her father would still “surpass” his master in the damage he inflicted. Overall, Olds effectively uses the poem’s atmosphere, structure, and the various stylistic devices to provide a retrospective analysis of the causes of her father’s damaging behavior.
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