The poem, To My Mother, can be seen as an elegy for the speaker’s deceased mother, as he remembers her fondly and chronicles the aspects of her character which he shall miss most acutely. There is a sense that the Speaker is working through his grief at her loss through the poem. The main feature of the sonnet is a series of comparisons of the mother with huge geographical features, be they continents, earthquakes, or mountains. We can glean from these the extent of the Speaker/poet’s admiration for his mother, and thus also his devastation of her loss.
The sonnet form was often used for love poems, most famously by Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Always fourteen lines long, there are two types of sonnet, English, and Italian. The English usually follow the pattern of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, whereas the Italian or Petrarchan, (named after the Italian poet Petrarch,) follow the form of an octave and sestet. In both forms, an idea is developed and worked through, with a conclusion being reached in the couplet in the English sonnet and in the sestet in the Petrarchan. The conclusion can also be seen as a volta, or change in tone.
The fact that Barking chose this form to eulogize his mother, could suggest the strength of his love and admiration for her. You can read the full poem here.
Both octave and sestet consist of one full sentence each, broken only by commas, and a dash in line six. The poet may have written the sonnet like this in long unbroken sentences to represent the energy contained in his mother, and his unchanging devotion to her. The dash in line six could indicate a sad, wistful sigh, as it sinks in to the Speaker/poet that now she has died there is no one who could adequately fill her shoes.
Analysis of To My Mother
Stanza One (or octave)
Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.
The repetition of ‘most’ in the first line suggests the prominence of his mother in the Speaker’s life. She is conversely, ‘most near’ yet also ‘most far’ from which the reader can deduce that although she has passed away she remains ever close to her son’s heart. He remembers her: ‘under the window where I often found her’. The word ‘often’ indicates how close they were by how regularly they spent time together. The simile ‘as huge as Asia’ is effective by comparing her to the largest continent. This could connote both her physical presence and the sheer force of her personality. This is further emphasized through the metaphorical image of her ‘seismic with laughter’. The reader has the comical image of the earth-shaking when she laughs, and can only imagine this laugher to be infectious.
The Irish have the reputation of being great drinkers and this is alluded to in the next line ‘Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand’. This line further suggests her love for life and the personification of the gin and chicken rendered ‘helpless’ indicates not only her appetite for food and drink but for the good life too. This is confirmed in the simile ‘Irresistible as Rabelais’ in line five. Rabelais was a fifteenth-century French writer, famous for his bawdy humour and irreverence, as well as his lack of regard for conventions of the time. Although this description could portray the mother as somewhat of a ‘BonVivant,’ there is also a very caring side to her nature. She is a person of contrasts and infinite variety as she is also ‘most tender’ to those vulnerable such as ‘lame dogs and hurt birds’. The use of the superlative ‘most’ once again shows the depth of her compassion.
Such is the force of her vital and magnanimous character that the Speaker seems bereft now that she has gone. There is a tone of sadness in lines seven and eight when the speaker personifies her as a ‘procession no one can follow after.’ This hyperbole effectively illustrates the hole left in his life now she is gone. The simile of a ‘little dog following a brass band’ reinforces this loss. The concluding line of the octave shows how others pale into insignificance in her wake, such as the force of her personality.
Stanza Two (sestet)
She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.
The image of a brave and resilient woman is reinforced at the beginning of the sestet. There is a palpable sense of pride from the poet that she will not deign to ‘glance up at the bomber’ or ‘scuttle’ off to the cellar. We can deduce from this that she has perhaps lived through the London Blitz. The use of the word ‘condescend’ shows her contempt for those who would try to compromise her liberty, or even worse, come between her and her beloved gin. The final simile of her ‘leaning on the mahogany table like a mountain’ leaves a lasting impression of a woman of immense fortitude. This is a woman who loves her home comforts and will not be driven to seek shelter by anyone. The Speaker is clearly in awe of her stoical defiance.
The fact that ‘only faith will move’ her suggests that this strong character is perhaps bolstered by faith, and perhaps this is where her strength comes from. She will not budge for anyone of mere human status! The final lines of the poem show a change of tone from the Poet/Speaker. There is a sense that he has grieved enough and is now ready to remember her with love and pride instead of sadness. The use of the apostrophe ‘O’ shows him addressing her directly, telling her that he is ready to move on. She will be forever in his heart as he sends her ‘all his love’ and ‘all his faith’. In this line, there is a feeling of comfort that she can hear him addressing her, and the repetition of ‘all my’ shows his love. The final line ‘That she will move from mourning into morning.’ has within it a sense of joy and peace. The poet has cleverly placed the two rhyming words together, but while they sound the same their difference could not be more distinct. The Speaker has lamented enough, and is now ready to let his mother go, and his life continues. This is signaled by the word ‘morning’ which signifies a bright new day, and life going on, as we can only imagine his mother would have wished.
About George Barker
George Barker, (1913-19991) grew up in Essex, with an Irish mother and English father. While achieving great acclaim for some of his poetry from the likes of W.B. Yeats, he caused controversy with the publication of his long poem, ‘The True Confession of George Barker‘, which Faber refused to publish on grounds of obscenity.