Within ‘The Locket’ Montague explores themes of mother/son relationships and love. The mood is solemn, and at times depressing, throughout. From context clues and the fact that the son is named “John” in the poem, the speaker in this piece is generally considered to be Montague himself. The relationship between himself and his mother is explored in other poems within his oeuvre.
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Summary of The Locket
The poem takes the reader through a series of moments, from his birth to his mother’s death. Their relationship was fraught from the moments of his birth. Montague describes how from the start his mother was disappointed and pained by him. He felt guilt over this and tried throughout his life to make her love him. She sent him away in his youth but he continued to visit her for a time until she told him to stop.
The poem concludes with the revelation that throughout her life she wore a locket with the poet’s picture inside.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘The Locket’ By John Montague is a seven stanza poem that’s separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets do not follow one single pattern of rhyme. Instead, each stanza contains a variety of end and internal rhymes that provide the poem with a pleasing rhythm throughout.
Montague also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Locket’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The latter, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line three of the fifth stanza reads: “lovely Molly, the belle of your small town”
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “wrong way” in line five of the second stanza. Or, another example, “cue to come on” in line five of the first stanza.
Analysis of The Locket
Sing a last song
my first claim to fame.
In the first stanza of The Locket,’ the speaker asks that one final song be sung for his deceased mother. She was an important force in the poet’s life and caused him a great deal of pain and stress. In the third line, she’s referred to as a “fertile source of guilt and pain”. She made him feel both these things at once, as is depicted in the following lines.
He speaks on his birth and entry into the world. The second stanza provides more details, but in this section, he alludes to a terrible birth and this being his “claim to fame”. The internal rhyme in this line helps the overall rhythm of the poem, especially as it comes at the end of the stanza.
Naturally, she longed for a girl,
Not readily forgiven,
In the second stanza, he adds in additional details. He explains that his mother didn’t want a boy child, she “longed” for a girl. There was nothing that he could’ve done, as a sweet young child, to make up for the fact that he is a boy. There’s another more physical element of pain connected with the birth as well. He was born the “wrong way around,” making the birth even more painful for his mother. She could never forgive him for these two “blunder[s]”.
So you never nursed me
your favourite saying,
In the third stanza, he moves into the second-person narrative perspective, directing his words to his mother. He tells her that she never nursed him, and her coldness never warmed. His father sang kind songs, a hint at his overall personality, but the “lack of money” hurt their relationship. The poet references her “favourite saying,” about love flying up the chimney when poverty “comes through the door”. This is yet another element that damaged their family dynamic.
Then you gave me away,
drinking by the fire, yarning
One of the major sources of the poet’s own pain is the fact that she gave him away as a young child. He was sent to live with other family members as though his mother couldn’t stand to be around him. The only way the two maintained a connection at all is because the poet “cycled down / to court” his mother “like a young man”. He had to get himself to his mother’s home and remind her that he’s her son that he wants a relationship with her.
Of your wild, young days
wound into your cocoon of pain.
The speaker addresses his mother’s pain in the fifth stanza. He alludes to her lost youth, her previous beauty, and the now “mournful” state she exists in. The repetition of the “l” consonant sound in this stanza is powerful. It speaks to the rain and “lashes” that wounded his mother.
Standing in that same hallway,
resigned to being alone.
In the most painful moment of the poem, Montague’s mother tells him that he shouldn’t “come again” to her house. She says it “roughly”. But, it appears that he understands her coolness and cruelty in this moment. She is “resigned to being alone” and his intermittent presence in her life is painful to her. But a reader can’t help but consider the fact that his presence is only intermittent because she sent him away.
And still, mysterious blessing,
of a child in Brooklyn.
The poem concludes with one final stanza. It reveals that all the time that the two fought and the speaker felt unloved and lost, his mother was wearing a locket with his image in it around her neck. Her loving heart was unable to shake off its cold exterior and it is only after her death that the poet realized that he was loved by his mother.