Stabat Mater

 Overview

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-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

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.

 Themes

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.

Content

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.

 

Structure

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.

Tone

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.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

38 thoughts on “Stabat Mater”

    1. Not a lot. Often this is just about form.

      I suppose you could relate the fact it is a sonnet to the idea that this romantic love was something his mother deserved, while the poem reveals her life is effectively just a sacrifice.

  1. Sir. If I am planning to divide this essay in about 4 Topic statements.
    will these 4 look organised and effective ?
    1. The formal relationship of the pair is sketched to explore the ideas of pain and agony due to the enormous age difference between the two.
    2. The relationship is then seen to morph into a loveable and comfortable one, as the Mother learns to accept reality and view the positivities.
    3. The poem’s agony and pain is heightened through the metamorphic reference to Virgin Mary who witnessed the crucification of her son Jesus.
    4. The poem ends on a note to walk away from pain – by contradicting to the standing mother (Virgin Mary) who stood suffering.

    Sir these 4 points are basically my ideas for each paragraph. Sir as this is the hardest poem I feel – may I know if structuring on these 4 points in such a order can be effective. As I am really struggling on the organisation.
    PS : The question can be on either religious connotations or magnitude of pain and agony in the poem?

    1. Hi Arnav,

      Sorry, I am completely swamped with the baby. I will try to reply to your messages in the next week or so.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  2. Oh my god, thank you for clearing it out, i always had a feeling that the 7,7,6,5 was a weird way of marking. but i have asked my teachers a couple of times and they say that is the way it is corrected so i cant really go against them. So, do you mind correcting an answer of mine, with a brief explanation on how you marked it? it will be a great help and i have my exam in like a month!!!
    Thank you!

    1. Yeah, I’m happy to have a look, but I expect your teachers will still have been giving you decent advice as mark schemes really don’t count for much.

      Pop something over to cieliteraturecontact@gmail.com and I will give it a run over when I have some free time.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

      1. Hello Mr Sir,
        I have emailed you an answer, please look through it as soon as you have time
        Thankssssss!!

      2. Hi Kratz,

        Yes, yes, all in good time. I am trying to clear my inbox at the moment (while watching the football) so may get around to it today! 🙂

        Cheers,

        Mr Sir

  3. I believe Stabat Mater is Latin for ‘The (sorrowful) Mother Stood’ – The stood being different to what you said, and sorrowful isn’t included in the Songs of Ourselves translation I think.

    1. While you are literally right, it is a reference to a Catholic hymn, which begins ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’. The standing here can be seen to mean enduring and thus the miserable/suffering bit is the more important part of the meaning.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  4. the analysis is amazing!! but i had a couple of doubts regarding answering extract questions for poetry

    1. what all points do we focus on, like stanza length, literary devices, rhyme scheme, etc. do we just structure our answer with paragraphs devoted to each of the points?

    2 in extract answers, can we include points about the themes of the poem or do we only analyse the language and structure and link it to the question/main idea.

    1. Hi Kratz,

      I’m planning a full post on this, which should be ready this weekend. Watch out for it and it should answer your questions. If not, by all means ask me again about specifics.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

      1. What exactly is the marking criteria for igcse literature. My teachers say that 25 marks is split into 7, 7, 6, 5 for knowledge, understanding, literary devices and originality/style/personal response. Does the board do it that way too?

      2. Your teachers are WRONG!

        You are being judged on the following assessment objectives (AOs):

        AO1 show detailed knowledge of the content of literary texts;
        AO2 understand the meanings of literary texts and their context, and explore texts beyond surface
        meaning to show deeper awareness of ideas and attitudes;
        AO3 recognise and appreciate ways in which writers use language, structure, and form to create
        and shape meanings and effects;
        AO4 communicate a sensitive and informed personal response.

        This changes when you get to AS-level.

        Anyone this is then judged together and not as separate components/objectives, but rather a best fit to the descriptors in the following grid (I’ve only included the top half of the grid, there are 9 bands in total):

        Band 1
        25-23
        *Answers in this band have all the qualities of Band 2 work, with
        further insight, sensitivity, individuality and flair. They show
        sustained engagement with both text and task.
        Band 2
        22-20
        * Sustains a perceptive, convincing and relevant personal
        response
        * shows a clear critical understanding of the text
        * responds sensitively and in detail to the way the writer
        achieves her/his effects
        * integrates much well-selected reference to the text
        Band 3
        19-17
        * Makes a well-developed, detailed and relevant personal response
        * shows a clear understanding of the text and some of its
        deeper implications
        * makes a developed response to the way the writer
        achieves her/his effects
        * supports with careful and relevant reference to the text
        Band 4
        16-14
        * Makes a reasonably developed relevant personal response
        * shows understanding of the text and some of its deeper
        implications
        * makes some response to the way the writer uses
        language
        * shows some thoroughness in the use of supporting
        evidence from the text

        If you want to see this in full, go here http://papers.xtremepapers.com/CIE/Cambridge%20IGCSE/English%20-%20Literature%20(0486)/0486_s15_ms_11.pdf. That is the mark scheme as of 2015 for Paper 1, there isn’t much (any?) variation in the mark scheme paper to paper.

        Cheers,

        Mr Sir

      3. Also, what is meant by personal response? Does it mean we have to write “I/me” in the essay or something.

      4. No necessarily, but it means they are looking for your analysis to be driven by your ideas. I take this to mean individual analysis where you explore what you think the poem means (this can be the same as me or anyone else, but you are exploring the ideas). If you use the phrases ‘this implies’ or ‘this suggests’ or similar, then you’ll be responding personally throughout.

        It is a confusing term to use, but exam mark schemes are always like that!

        Cheers,

        Mr Sir

  5. This is the best analysis I’ve seen of a poem; brief, easy and understandable. Thanks a lot, helped me get a good grade in my test.

  6. Thank you so much for this, i have a presentation coming up, and this helped me a lot.
    But there’s something that i can’t figure out, and it’s the Mood, I always struggled with tone and Mood. I was wondering if you could suggest any possible moods
    Thank you again, have a great day

    1. No problem, thanks for commenting.

      Tone and mood are simply the feeling of the poem when it is read. In Stabat Mater I see Hunt as feeling a sort of sympathetic misery on his mother’s behalf as she puts a brave face on the struggle she has seeing her husband deteriorate to a shadow of his former, impressive self.

    1. No problem, Susie. Just one more to do, which I will try to bash through tonight. I really enjoyed Stabat Mater.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

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