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Unit 1.14 – A Poem About Death

I’m after losing the name of the poet, but if anyone knows maybe give us a shout? It’s an Irish poet from the north of Ireland.

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds


A Father’s Death 

It was no vast dynastic fate

when gasp by gasp my father died,

no mourners at the palace gate,

or tall bells tolling slow and wide.


We sat beside the bed; the screen

shut out the hushed, the tiptoe ward,

and now and then we both would lean

to catch what seemed a whispered word.


My mother watched her days drag by,

two score and five the married years,

yet never weakened to a cry

who was so ready with her tears.


Then, when dawn washed the polished floor

and steps and voices woke and stirred

with wheels along the corridor,

my father went without a word.


The sick, the dying, bed by bed,

lay clenched around their own affairs;

that one behind a screen was dead

was someone’s grief, but none of theirs.


It was no vast dynastic death,

no nation silent round that throne,

when, letting go his final breath,

a lonely man went out alone.



1. Who does the first stanza suggest the poet’s father was?

  • A      A man of political importance
  • B      Not a king
  • C      A man who was disliked by many
  • D      A wan who was well loved


2. The predominant imagery in the poem appears to be:

  • A      The palace throne
  • B      The quiet corridors of the ward
  • C      Light
  • D      The bedside screen


3. Based on evidence from the poem, which of the following does the poet most closely associate with death?

  • A      Isolation
  • B      Silence
  • C      Pain and Loss
  • D      Slowing of time

  • Answers:

    Q1: B
    This stanza should not be real literally. The mention of [no] mourners at the palace gate does not indicate that they were in a palace. We can’t say that he was unliked or loved from the information given, as it is more heavily suggesting that he was simply not very well known. No dynastic fate – not a king. Probably an overly-easy question on reflection.

    “We sat beside the bed; the screen” – the screen, suitably isolated at the end of the sentence, because that is what it symbolises. Even when it is not being mentioned directly, the screen is effecting the dynamics in the hospital ward. The other patients are disconnected from him because of it – if they look over at him they’ll just see the screen. The corridors of the ward are only mentioned once. The palace throne twice, but is absent from the body of the poem. Light is hinted at when dawn washes the polished floor, but only briefly.

    To refer back to Q2, the screen represents isolation. It shuts out the rest of the ward. There was no crowd of people there with him. His child and wife, and even then, “a lonely man went out alone.”
    Time appeared to slow from the poet’s mother’s perspective, but is not directly connected to how the father is feeling. It is suggested that he is in pain ‘gasp by gasp’, but more significant than his pain is his loneliness.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    May 25, 2012

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