I’ve been meaning to having a stab at this for a while. Apologies, but I hope the delay doesn’t mater. Awful joke that I’ve spent twenty minutes thinking about.
This is an autobiographical poem about the relationship between Hunt’s parents. A 30 year age gap between his mother and father is initially seen to create an imbalanced relationship, but this then balancing out when his father becomes a doddering old man and his mother has to run things.
Hunt’s mother puts a humorous slant on his father’s deterioration, but the title (translating as ‘sorrowful mother’) reveals that the humour is a mask to some feeling of regret and misery at the deterioration of the older partner.
My mother called my father ‘Mr Hunt’
For the first few years of married life.
I learned this from a book she had inscribed:
‘To dear Mr Hunt, from his loving wife.’
She was embarrassed when I asked her why
But later on explained how hard it had been
To call him any other name at first, when he –
Her father’s elder – made her seem so small.
Now in a different way, still like a girl,
She calls my father every other sort of name;
And guiding him as he roams old age
Sometimes turns to me as if it were a game…
That once I stand up straight, I too must learn
To walk away and know there’s no return.
Sam Hunt (1946-)
Hunt is a Kiwi who began publishing poetry after leaving school at 16 after a turbulent relationship with the Christian college, which had seen him belted for reciting some sexy poetry in class at 14! He is still publishing today, when he is not touring with a rock band who he’s recorded song interpretations of some of his most famous poems.
Much of his poetry is directly autobiographical and this is definitely personal to his life. He was born to a 60 year old father and a 30 year old mother, who were evidently in love and he had a happy childhood and loved his family dearly. This is important as it is possible to read this poem as portraying both his parents somewhat negatively.
It is important you have a grasp of what the title means. It is the title of a medieval Christian hymn about Mary’s suffering and desire to replace her son (Jesus) upon the cross. Literally, the Latin title means ‘sorrowful mother’. You can read it here, if you wish, but you don’t need to – summary – Mary is miserable and moans about it. It’s up to you to decide whether this poem represents the same kind of emotion or the polar opposite.
Obviously focused on family, but this time our focus is on Hunt’s mother. I’d compared this to something like My Father Returning in the sense that it is about parental sacrifice for their children; here it is of a slightly different nature as the sacrifice comes in the form of covering up pain and suffering in order to protect her son from her sadness using humour.
We also address the ravages of age and human mortality. Hunt’s father clearly was an impressive man, somewhat cowing his new wife with his accomplishments. However, by the end of the poem he is weak and having to be guided and not really having an awareness of what’s going on around him. This could just be old age, but potentially could suggest he has a common ailment of the elderly like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
So, we have a tale of the relationship between his ma and pa. Hunt is looking through his father’s things and finds a book with a dedication to ‘Mr Hunt’ from his wife. This is an odd way for a wife to address her husband.
Although his mum is somewhat embarrassed by this, she explains that the age difference between them (her husband being 30 years her elder and older than her father) made her feel somewhat inferior initially in the relationship. You could interpret this as a negative thing, but I think this speaks more of the respect that Hunt’s mother had for her husband. She feels ‘small’ because she is somewhat overawed by him, but not because he treats her that way necessarily.
The third stanza skips us forward from the beginning of his parents’ relationship to the present day. His mother is described as being somewhat similar to her former self, but her father is now having to be guided in his old age. Presumably this suggests that he has been ravaged by age and is not the same imposing and impressive figure he used to be. Is this just old age or could he have been ravaged by dementia or Alzheimer’s? The fact that his wife now calls by the opposite type of names (as opposed to Mr Hunt I imagine she is now calling him names we typically save for our children, like sweetie, darling, honey) suggests the relationship has turned on its head and while he used to be the more senior figure in the relationship, he is now treated like a childhood. Shakespeare’s All the World’s a Stage speech from As You Like It (the Seven Ages of Man) ends with man returning to a child-like state in old age and I believe this is what we’re seeing here.
The last couplet left me scratching my head for a while. I think that Hunt sees a message in his mother’s hidden misery as to the nature of life. His father’s deterioration makes us address our own mortality and provides the message that we need to get on with living our lives as we will not get another chance.
There is a decent interpretation of the poem here that could help further. I don’t agree with the final paragraph that links this last couplet with our connection with religion as I don’t think this poem has anything to do with religion (the title is a nod to the similarity of Mary’s feelings and those he sees in his mother), but instead all about his parents and more broadly about our mortality. Nor do I agree that we see the mother regretting marrying someone older in terms of it being a waste of her life.
Language and techniques
We’ve established the translation of the poem as ‘sorrowful mother’ and linked to Mary’s pain at seeing her loved one suffering and wishing to ease or assume his burden. This is important because it reveals what Hunt infers from his mother’s behaviour. Her actions as discussed in the poem do not reveal this.
In the first stanza the only thing I would focus on is the oddity of the mother referring to her husband as ‘Mr’. The title infers a distance between the two, with the mother very much the junior partner looking up to her husband’s accomplishments. While this could be interpreted as suggesting a lack of warmth or love between them, this idea is betrayed by her ’embarrass[ment]’ at being reminded of this and the fact that she dutifully cares for her husband in old age.
Make sure you explore this clearly. I’d roll around the different possible interpretation of his mother’s suggestion that he ‘made her seem so small’. Initially we feel that she feels almost oppressed by the relationship as being ‘small’ represents weakness in the face of another – this is true physically and emotionally. However, on rereading the poem it is clear that she love this man and this feeling of inferiority should be reinterpreted as her sense of awe, respect and wonder for this man she considers to be so much more accomplished than her.
The way she addresses him is flipped on its head when he reaches old age and incompetence. Hunt’s mother refers to her husband by ‘every other sort of name’, which suggests a polar switch from respectful to caring and authority. His mother has switched from being an admiring lover to a responsible carer. Imagine this shift in your own relationship with your parents when they are old and you are left to care for them (directly or indirectly – don’t panic!); it’s not a pleasant change and it is a switch that would leave all of us nostalgic for the past and the former glory of our loved one.
The third stanza is the real weeper. The line that suggests Hunt’s mother is ‘still like a girl’ is used to draw a stark contrast between their states. By emphasising her continuing connection with youth and life, Hunt provides a polar opposite to the picture of his father as incapable of leading himself as his wife ‘guiding him’. Additionally the description of him ‘roam[ing] old age’ suggest he has lost direction and is aimless, and doesn’t seem to know what he is doing – I remember my granddad with Alzheimer’s before he died and this is a perfect description for his behaviour – confused and lost with brief moment of confused clarity (in his head).
What I admire about Hunt’s mother, and something that is no doubt shared by Hunt himself, is the way she faces up to this miserable reality of his deterioration. She puts on a brave face and tries to protect her son from her misery and vulnerability. We don’t see her moaning and wailing (like Mary – Jesus’s mum) , but instead she tries to position his father’s doddering old age ‘as if it were a gamer’.
However, Hunt uses an ellipsis at the end of this line and stanza to suggest that the feelings and attitude projected by his mother do not tell the full story and this links us back to the title and the inference Hunt makes into her own internal suffering.
It also links the stanza to the final couplet. He perceives the game she is seeing to be the game of life, so to speak. He is meant to read into his father’s deterioration and recognise what it means for his own life. ‘Once I stand up straight’ represents his maturity from youth to adulthood and realising at this point that he must ‘learn to walk away’ and go and do something with his life. Why? Well, his father serves as an example that ‘there’s no return’ to youth and adulthood once you’ve entered the second childhood of old age.
I’ve touched on a couple of the main things in my comments above, but there are a few other interesting things to note.
The most useful of these is the nature of the stanzas. We have three four line stanza, but a couplet to end. The brevity of this final stanza links to the message about our mortality and the fact that life is short and we have to make the most of it. We could also see it as being cut short as it doesn’t reach four line like the others, which could again reflect how he and his mother feel about the father’s life.
Let’s also examine the rhythm of each stanza. We start with two examples of enjambment in the opening stanza, which allow this thought of Hunt’s father’s earlier life to flow quickly, but with purpose as we have an absolute stop at the end of lines 2 and 4. However, life flows quickly and the description of his father in his prime flies by with barely a pause (to add detail of the age gap) with enjambment on each line until the pause at the end of the stanza.
If this represents life flowing by quickly, the third stanza represents the effects of ageing. It begins to slow down with a caesura in the first line and then the ellipsis at the end causing us to stop and ponder the imagery presented to us.
I think I’d describe it as wistful. There is no out and out misery here, it is merely inferred by Hunt, but there is a sense of the regret Hunt feels for his mother having lost her husband and having to deal with the effects of ageing.