This is an autobiographical poem about family relationships. It seems that Hunt’s mother is much younger than his father, and so whilst initially intimidated by him has now become his carer, with the power roles reversed. Although it is in some ways humorous, showing that she puts on a brave face, the final stanza also reveals the narrator’s sadness at his father’s old age.
Title is from a medieval hymn about the ‘Suffering/Sorrowful Mother’, referring to Mary. The poem then relates to his mother’s suffering, and the way in which she bears this with grace, despite having to witness her husband’s slow decline. In the original hymn, Mary laments as she witnesses her son (Christ) being crucified, and in this poem she refuses to show an outward lament for her husband’s suffering. In some ways, though the poet himself laments for his mother’s suffering now, showing another role reversal.
Parents’ early relationship
‘My mother called my father ‘Mr Hunt’/ For the first few years of married life.’ - The opening of the poem begins with a conversational tone, recounting the idiosyncratic habits of his parents. Initially, this might seem cold and distant when the reader sees what she calls him, but it quickly becomes apparent that they were in fact deeply in love. The fact that she calls him ‘Mr Hunt’ endears the mother to the reader, as she is seen to be shy and respectful, in a slightly absurdly comical way. It also shows us the passing of time, when now it would be extremely unusual to refer to someone in this way. ‘The first few years’ also suggests that they have been married for a long time.
‘To dear Mr Hunt, from his loving wife’ - The poet is then shown uncovering a books sent by his mother to his father, which pre-modifies their roles in the relationship with ‘dear’ and ‘loving’, showing the deep love which exists beyond the formalities with which they address each other. The formality of the letter may even be contrasted with the informality of the poem, showing how time has changed. The fact that the narrator has discovered these facts from letters and books further suggests a distance between the child and his parents. Generally, a slightly mournful and disconnected sense of this family juxtaposes their loving words.
‘How hard it had been/to call him any other name at first, when he -/ Her father’s elder - made her seem so small.’ Alliteration in ‘how hard’ creates a double stress here, mirroring his mother’s exclamation. Dashes also create a sense of disruption and disbelief as she is trying to explain what had caused her to call her husband by his last name. ‘Elder’ and ‘small’ are also juxtaposed in order to emphasize the age difference between the poet’s mother and father. ‘At first’ does however suggest that gradually they grew to be on a more balanced level with each other, and that she forgot her early shyness. The age gap here is another kind of distance represented in the poem - though is also literally true: Hunt’s mother and father had a 30 year age gap between them.
‘Now in a different way, still like a girl/ She calls my father every other sort of name’ - As his mother is still younger than his father he still perceives ‘like a girl’. This could be complimentary, suggesting that he still sees her as youthful and beautiful, or could suggest that she still feels emotionally ‘smaller’ and less respected than him. ‘Every other sort of name’ is also very ambiguous, and could suggest affectionate nicknames or insults, suggesting either love or resentment for her place in life.
‘Guiding him as he roams old age’. Assonance in ‘roams old’ creates a long, drawn out sound which shows the slowness of his movement as he walks as an old man. Where once the poet’s mother felt like like she was looking up to her husband, now she is ‘Guiding him’, showing their role reversal. She has become the person that he must follow.
‘Sometimes turns to me as if it were a game...’ We see in this how his mother tries to put a brave face on her circumstances by pretending that it is all ‘a game’, again relating to the suggestion of her child-like nature, always younger than his father. It shows a hint of self-delusion her, as though she is trying to trick both herself and the poet into thinking that things are not as serious as they are.
‘She was embarrassed when I asked her why’ - This embarrassment may show the mother’s shame at how she used to act around her husband, but also suggests a kind of distance between the mother and her son. It is as though it is unusual for him to ask her personal questions, and it is telling that she does not reply straight away, but ‘later’.
‘That once I stand up straight, I too must learn/To walk away and know there’s no return’. The final couplet of the poem moves away from inferences about his parents, to the narrator’s direct thoughts about what he has been observing. Once he ‘stands up straight’, or becomes a man, he like his mother must learn that there is ‘no return’ to the past. Once his mother has walked away from her youth by marrying an older man, there is no going back, and once his father has begun to deteriorate there is no return to a happier time. Yet ‘walking away’ or distancing - from each other and from the past perhaps - is seen as inevitable in the poem.
The poem is in free verse with a generally conversational tone, helping us to feel closer to the poet.
Made up of three quatrains and one couplet. The first three quatrains present the parents’ relationship, while the couplet goes briefly and bluntly into the narrator’s fears. The shortness of it exacerbates the narrator’s fear and anxiety about mortality, the brevity of the stanza perhaps mirroring the unnatural brevity of life.
This also means that the poem resembles a sonnet, a traditional form of love poem. Where sonnets generally describe the loved one, this sonnet describes several relationships in a way that is almost a nostalgic lament for the way things have changed. No problem is resolved in the final couplet, simply a lingering sense of inevitable regret that there can be ‘no return’ from time and age.
First and third stanza use one rhyme between the second and fourth lines, creating a childish and sing-song rhyme which propels the poem forward. Couplet in the final stanza gives a sense of dull finality.
Enjambment is also frequently used for effect in this poem, adding to the sense of flowing conversation in the second stanza, and speeding up the final two stanzas, perhaps evoking how time now passes by his father too quickly.