This is a lovely poem about regret about losing a loved one.
The poetic voice loses her mother suddenly without warning. She feels a sense of regret that her mother sacrificed so much for her and is haunted by the feeling that she never actively appreciated her mother while she lived.
While the title initially appears to refer to the dead mother, at the end of the poem it is revealed that it is the living daughter who is lost without her mother’s love and direction.
Brook – small stream;
Tendrils – something like an overshoot of a plant (long thin thing possibly with a curl at the end);
Extra-mural – an activity outside her regular life (think of the clubs you attend after school or outside of school altogether);
OU – Open University;
Benign – harmless, calm;
Crepuscular – relating to twilight;
Chide – tell off.
My mother went with no more warning
than a bright voice and a bad pain.
Home from school on a June morning
And where the brook goes under the lane
I saw the back of a shocking white
Ambulance drawing away from the gate.
She never returned and I never saw
Her buried. So a romance began.
The ivy-mother turned into a tree
That still hops away like a rainbow down
The avenue as I approach.
My tendrils are the ones that clutch.
I made a life for her over the years.
Frustrated no more by a dull marriage
She ran a canteen through several wars.
The wit of a cliché-ridden village
She met her match at an extra-mural
Class and the OU summer school.
Many a hero in his time
And every poet has acquired
A lost woman to haunt the home,
To be compensated and desired,
Who will not alter, who will not grow,
A corpse they need never get to know.
She is nearly always benign. Her habit
Is not to stride at dead of night.
Soft and crepuscular in rabbit-
Light she comes out. Hear how they hate
Themselves for losing her as they did.
Her country is bland and she does not chide.
Patricia Beer (1919-1999)
Patricia Beer was another Literature teacher who actually turned her hand to poetry and writing with some success.
Born in Devon, England, at the end of the First World War, she was raised in a strict religious household and her mother is said to have been particularly demanding, but proud of her daughter and wanting her to excel in education and later to become a teacher.
This poem is autobiographical as Beer introduced the poem in a reading by saying:
I’d like to finish with this one called ‘The Lost Woman’. The more one reads poetry or novels, the more one realises that almost every writer has a lost woman somewhere or other – a woman he deserted, as in the case of Wordsworth – that applies to Wordsworth too, but I was thinking much more of “surprised by joy, impatient as the wind” – a daughter who died, mothers, mistresses, girlfriends, daughters, grandmothers, anybody. Every writer nearly always has a lost woman. And it was a great stimulus to me to suddenly realise that so had I and this is ‘The Lost Woman’. And this is as far as I’ve got in speaking about this event. –
Her upbringing appears to have been rather overbearing and she escaped to Oxford University and then to Italy. However, she did follow her mother’s wishes as she taught in Italy for seven years before returning to lecture at Goldsmith’s University in London.
This poem can be seen as a reappraisal of her relationship with her mother who died while she was relatively young.
Similar to For My Grandmother Knitting and Father Returning Home, this poem deals with the idea of parental and familial love. Here we view this through Beer’s sense of regret that she never truly showed her mother her appreciation and respect while she lived and thus is haunted by guilt. This guilt recognises the sacrifices of her mother, which were to ensure she had the best opportunity in life.
In the opening stanza Beer describes the suddenness of death. Her mother’s passing is made to seem almost casual and the imagery used in the scene is tranquil and pleasant, upset only by the brightness of the ambulance.
There is a huge hint of regret or misery at the beginning of the next stanza as Beer emphasises the permanence of death. However, from death her mind romanticises her mother and sees more clearly the strong influences her mother has had in influencing her own development.
In the years after her death, Beer tells us how she has developed a life her mother could be proud of. She presents this life as if it were her mother’s and escaping marriage surely represents her mother directly as she imagines that her life is what her mother would have wanted to do with her own if not confined by family.
Next Beer addresses her mother’s role in her life through generalised comparison. She talks about every writer having ‘a lost woman’ of their own – whether that be through death, romantic heartbreak or geographical error – that marks their lives and their work continually. This tells us that Beer’s mother has played the same role in her life and influenced her work considerably.
In the fifth stanza she goes on to explain exactly how her mother stays with her. She is presented as a ghost, but not one of those nasty ones that wanders around in the middle of the night rattling chains and making strange noises (‘woooooo’, ‘boooo’, ‘aaaaahhhh’). Rather she appears at twilight, before Beer sleeps and is gentle in her memory, just listening to Beer’s guilt for not demonstrating her affection when she lived.
The final stanza seems to start with the mother ghost snapping at Beer, until we recognise that this is actually a voice within Beer’s own conscience. The speaker in this stanza represents her own anger with herself for not loving her mother dearly or clearly enough and failing to appreciate the sacrifices made for her. This voice claims that Beer is the one lost without her mother’s guiding influence anymore.
Language and techniques
The title is deliberately meant to be misleading or ambiguous. The word ‘lost’ has several connotations that relate to the key ideas in the poem; the most straightforward of these is its use to represent the deceased, as this woman is no longer around. However, it also describes someone without direction in life. This second connotation seems t win out by the end of the poem as Beer suggests she misses he mother’s guiding influence and without it has some uncertainty about her focus. The title thus refers to both of these elements within the poem.
However, when we review this title we should also ponder why Beer has chosen to address ‘The Lost Woman…’ rather than ‘My Mother’ or something more personal. The use of the impersonal ‘woman’ reveals a frostiness or difficulty within their relationship.
The opening of the poem itself has been the subject of some analysis that suggests it indicates an icy or frosty relationship between mother and daughter. ‘Went’ seems to be a casual and potentially dismissive verb choice to describe her death. However, I think this is more clearly a comment on how suddenly death can strike and the hopelessness of it.
What I mean by this is that as the death came with ‘no more warning’ that it seems to have happened without any build up or chance for the family to brace themselves. I think this is meant to provoke reflection from the reader about their own relationships and attitudes with loved ones as there will often never be that chance to reconcile your feelings and tell loved ones how you feel about them.
This lack of build up is reflected with the natural imagery provided. ‘A June morning’ implies that this is a pleasant day and temperature, while the fact that Beer notices the ‘brook’ flowing under the ‘lane’ suggests a quiet and peaceful scene. Brooks are very gentle and shallow streams, while lanes tend to be small roads with very few houses on them, creating an overall image of rural calm. There is no trace of pathetic fallacy here as the world seems to continue in bliss despite this clearly significant event in Beer’s life. The only hint of anything amiss is in the ‘shocking white Ambulance’ that clearly stands out like a sore thumb in this tranquil countryside village. This phrase is almost oxymoronic as white is not seen as a brash colour – in this wash of natural rural imagery, which suggest greens, browns and blues it does seem somewhat out of place – but it is the purpose of the ambulance that really makes it stand out and disrupt the imagery so completely.
Beer uses repetition of ‘never’ at the beginning of the second stanza to emphasise the permanence of death. Although we all know what death means, it is quite one thing to know it and to experience it for the first time with someone you love. It is as if in this line she is taking in the finality of the situation for the first time.
I really like the end of the second line in this stanza. Coming after a caesura and a very short statement of fact, as if it is inevitable: ‘So a romance began.’ Don’t worry, this isn’t something odd and perverse going on (although wouldn’t that make for an interesting poem!), instead she is talking about the relationship we have with someone when they die. When we romanticise, we remember the good bits and exaggerate them, while the bad bits just seem to be forgotten. Case in point, when people in England think about Winston Churchill they remember him as some sort of hero generally and gloss over the fact he was a drunk, misogynist and wanted to do some terrible things to people in Russia in order to stop Communism.
Thus upon her mother’s death she forgets all the problems or issues she might have had with her (if we take this as strictly autobiographical then this could be the controlling element of her mother’s behaviour). The ‘ivy-mother turned into a tree’ suggests to me that she has gone from being an influence that she perceived to be cloying and reaching out to control her (like ivy) to one that has provided her with great roots and stability. The relationship has clearly altered as rather than trying to escape from her mother she now has to chase her as she ‘hops away like a rainbow’ and it is Beer’s ‘tendrils… that clutch’ in a reverse of the imagery of her mother reaching out like ivy to control her. In contrast the mother now seems happy to be free in death of having to guide her daughter, which we can see from the verb choice ‘skips’ further modified by ‘like a rainbow’ suggesting she is full of life and happiness… in death.
In the third stanza I am torn. At first I read it as Beer imagining her mother’s life if she’d never been born, but I can also see an argument for it being about Beer making her mother proud through the life she has led herself – fulfilling her mother’s ambitions for her. I will explain both:
‘I made a life for her’ could suggest a fictional visualisation of what could have been. Removing a ‘dull marriage’ could represent her mother abandoning the idea of family and pursuing her own life where she is able to establish herself as something of a matriarch ‘[running] a canteen’ and ‘the wit’ of her village. The ‘extra-mural class and OU summer school’ could represent a chance for her to pursue her interest in education, that she demonstrated by backing her daughter in her actual life.
However, if we flip it, ‘I made a life for her’ could mean that Beer has tried to make her proud with her own life. Perhaps the ability to avoid the ‘frustat[ions of a]… dull marriage’ could represent the life of most women who would have been expected to marry within their community that she has been able to escape through her education. The rest of the details seem to resonate with elements of her actual life as she did help during at least one war and would have been ‘the wit of a cliche-ridden village’ while in Italy as she was a brain box at a time when there weren’t many about. The final detail is the most conclusive for this interpretation as she says she met ‘her match’ at the ‘OU summer school’, where her first husband (P. N. Furbank) was a professor.
The fourth stanza is interesting as it abandons the specific focus of the poem to give us a generalised view on things. She compares her romanticism in relation to her mother as similar to something that happens to all heroes and poets, and presumably everybody else too. She talks about ‘a lost woman’ that needs to be ‘compensated and desired’, which puts those pinning for this loss in a disadvantageous position where they always feel they owe a debt to this figure and are always left wanting. However, Beer acknowledges that this attitude isn’t right and knows that no amount of mourning will allow this person or the relationship to ‘alter’ or ‘grow’ and that ‘they need never get to know’ the real dead person because the romantic version takes over and consume them.
In doing this she seemingly goes against her former attitude which seems to be based on respect and guilt. This may reflect her actual relationship with her mother that appears to have been somewhat fraught.
However, she softens again in the next stanza. Although her mother ‘haunts her’, she is ‘nearly always benign’ implying that her memory does not often lead Beer to feel angry, scared or guilty. However, note the ‘nearly always’ as she does come back in this form in the final stanza. Before we get there Beer makes the distinction between what we normally think of as ghosts, who ‘stride at the dead of night’ and so wake and frighten us, and her mother who appears as she goes to bed and ‘does not chide’, but instead listens to Beer’s regret ‘for losing her’. This creates the image of a forgiving and loving ghost that is almost a form of comfort for Beer as she thinks about her, not judging, but simply there for her daughter.
In the final stanza though sees her ‘snap’ and deliver a nasty piece of half truth to her daughter. The onomatopoeic verb ‘snaps’ suggests a viciousness and malice, which again perhaps reveals part of the unromanticised version of Beer’s mother. However, this voice comes from ‘somewhere else’ suggesting it is not the ghost of her mother, but really the feeling within Beer herself. This other version accuses Beer of being ungrateful as she ‘sacrificed too much’ and after guiding and giving her daughter every opportunity to rise above her ‘you took it’ implies that Beer has been somewhat ruthless in stepping over her mother to take the opportunity, but not appreciating the mother’s sacrifice it took to make this possible.
This version of her mother comes from the guilt Beer feels inside. Each of these criticism toward Beer represents what she feels about the way she treated her mother. While she may have felt justified at the time, she feels such guilt as a result of only ever thinking of the romanticised version of her mother and what she has done for her.
The mother ends by telling her she is the’ghost/With the bat-voice’, which makes me think of blindness and lack of purpose and direction. Again this is Beer’s conscience suggesting to her that without her mother she has no clear direction or knowledge of what she should do. The final thought that ‘I am not lost’ uses italic to suggest that it is the other way around and Beer and not her mother who is lost because of this lack of direction and purpose.
A few things to mention here.
Although we have a regularity in terms of stanzas organisation – 6 lines, similar lengths the whole way through and an ABABCC rhyme scheme – that suggest order and direction in Beer’s writing, this is undermined by her choice of rhymes. Unless you read the poem out loud (you monster! – if you haven’t done this) you might not notice, but most of the rhymes are half rhymes and this makes the poem read in a slightly odd way. This is aided, if I can put it like that, by the use of caesuras in the first, fourth and sixth stanzas that really disrupt the flow and rhythm of the poem.
There isn’t the peace we’d maybe expect from a poem celebrating the loss of a loved one, but an awkwardness. This reflects the nature of her relationship with her mother. where in life it was a strained relationship that she felt she needed to escape, but in death this is tempered by respect for the sacrifices she has made and her intentions of giving Beer a good life.
This is explained well here (scroll down), albeit briefly.
Difficult to explain, but perhaps we can say a strained form of respect intermixed with guilt. We lurch from respect and romanticising to acknowledgement of the difficult nature of their relationship and neither come out as overpowering the other.