For so many of us, mothers come first. They are first to see us draw breath, first to hear us cry. They are first to feed us, and first to see us walk. They help teach us to talk, to read, to expand our understanding of the world. They are often the parent who knows us best, having scrutinised our every movement since we became their own flesh and blood. We are their world, because by coming into theirs, we changed their lives forever.
Understandably, poets have attempted to transcribe this closest of all human relationships, each varying in approach. In doing so, they produced some of the most moving poems in the English language. In his sonnet ‘To My Mother’, Edgar Allan Poe describes:
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of “Mother” […]
Where Poe describes the importance of motherhood as ‘devotional’, Walt Whitman describes a traditional ‘wholesomeness’ in ‘There was a Child Went Forth’:
The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes
on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words – clean her cap and
Gown, a wholesome odor falling off her
clothes as she walks by […]
Whitman and Poe share an overwhelming feeling of respect for mothers, and the complete unselfishness the occupation requires clearly fascinates them.
Sylvia Plath tempers these interpretations with the brutal knowingness of one writing as a mother:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Plath’s emphasis upon the mechanical nature of reproduction, the gold watch an ironic metaphor for the time and cost of bringing a child into the world, contrasts starkly with the idealism with which Poe and Whitman view motherhood. Plath often approaches motherhood with bitterness. In ‘Tulips’, the thirty-year old speaker lies in her hospital bed after a procedure, tormented by her ‘husband and child smiling out of the family photo;/Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.’ Her child and husband are pulling her back into the world, forcing her into reality, which is arguably one of the key functions of family. However, Plath argues a mother can also feel smothered or drowned by her matriarchal obligations, and her speaker states the tulips they have brought: ‘eat my oxygen’, their gift having become ‘a dozen red lead sinkers around my neck’.
The lines of Langston Hughes strikingly encapsulate advice given from a mother struggling against racial inequality and poverty, though they can also be interpreted as hauntingly universal:
[…] son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters […]
Hughes achieves a striking simplicity in these lines. ‘Crystal stair’ arguably references a fairy tale the mother speaker was promised as a child. Her stoical warning is not to expect much from life; to be wary of, and avoid, its ‘splinters’.
But, however much we might like to idealise our mothers, and our parents in general, on days such as Mother’s Day, it is hard to imagine a human being who has not blamed their mother – and father – at some stage for advice they have given which turns out to be misguided, or, even more unsavoury, for prejudices that have been ingrained in them from birth. Perhaps the most bitter poem on the subject of a preordained failure of parenthood is Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’:
They f*** you up your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
For Larkin, in this poem at least, imperfection is an inherent aspect of parents, and so, by default, the vast majority of the human race: for Larkin, mothers and fathers are the reason imperfection is perpetuated.
William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 3’ focusses upon the importance of parenthood, particularly in enabling us to recall our younger days. His words emphasise the joy he anticipates his friend’s beloved will experience in being a mother, using his own as an example:
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thy age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
There is a remarkable, psychological wisdom in this, the mother who is reminded, in viewing her son, of the time of his conception, beautifully termed ‘the lovely April of her prime’. The sonnet concludes with the speaker warning his friend: ‘Die single, and thy image dies with thee.’ Shakespeare’s words are a powerful reminder that each mother makes at least one telling contribution: she ensures continuance of the human race.