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On the Characterisation of Male Poets’ Mothers

May 2020, no. 421

On the Characterisation of Male Poets’ Mothers

May 2020, no. 421

Listen to this poem read by the author.


Charles Baudelaire’s mother—
                       orphaned at seven—living
                       on the charity of friends—
                       at twenty-six married
                       an ex-priest, widower—     
After her husband died she married again
                       and was happy—

It is said—     ‘This second marriage
                       was to have a disastrous effect on his life’—
                       ‘No longer being the sole focus
                       of his mother’s attention gave him a trauma’—

‘When you have a son like me
                       you do not remarry’—

                       He asked her endlessly for money—
                       She repaid his publishers—

He wrote to her—
                       ‘I am the only object which makes you live’—
                       ‘After my death, you will no longer live, that’s clear’—

He wrote repeatedly of returning to Honfleurs—
He passed through there once by train
                       and did not stop—



Rainer Maria Rilke’s mother—
                       whose first child died at two weeks—
                       it is said—      ‘acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl
                       through the boy
                       by dressing him in girl’s clothing’—
                       and hurt her husband’s ‘sensibilities’
                       by ‘parading the boy in female dress’—

Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood—
                       ‘In Western European countries until about 1920
                       boys would wear dresses until they were ‘breeched’—
                       ‘breeching’ happened from the age of about four-
                       to eight-years-old’—

She gave him the doll, doll-bed and kitchen that he wanted—
He spent hours combing his doll’s hair—
He had a ‘saber hammered in gold’, a knight’s ‘tin decoration’—
He was, he wrote, ‘eating like a wolf, sleeping like a sack’—

When he turned six she breeched him and took him to school—
He suffered from headaches and fevers—
She sat by his bed, through all the hours, to soothe him—
                       In his second year of primary school, 200 hours—
                       In his third year of primary school, two whole quarters—

His father left—The grandparents were no help—
His father blamed his mother for his unhappiness at the military school
                       that his father had chosen—

He wrote to her almost every day—
He wanted letters, food packets, skates, visits—
She gave him these—
Whenever she left—they say—he felt abandoned—

‘If in my father’s house’
                       (his father had left)
‘love was shown me with both care and concern only by my father’
                       (he lived with his mother)
‘you know those persons who are to blame—
and that the woman whose first and most immediate care
                       I should have been
loved me only when bringing me out in a new little dress’—

‘Quiet endurance and courageous resignation’,
                       he said, were his thing—
                       and his suffering, ‘only the whim
of a pitiful, pleasure seeking creature (Mother)’ —



Arthur Rimbaud’s mother—
                       according to reports—
                       was ‘sour-faced’—
                       was ‘narrow-minded, stingy,
                       completely lacking in a sense of humour’—
                       was ‘renfermée, têtue et taciturne’—
He named her his ‘Mouth of Darkness’—

His father—
                       ‘good-natured, easy-going, generous’—
                       came home on leave only to give her another child—
                       ten weeks with her—five children—
                       after which he did not come back again—
                       When the youngest was four he retired
                       easily to Dijon—

She named herself a widow—
She worried about the children’s education—

She had to call the police to bring him home—

In Paris, he put sulphuric acid into Charles Cros’s water—
He stabbed a knife into Verlaine’s wrist—
His ‘teen rebel phase’—they say—was ‘a reaction to life with Vitalie’—

He stayed with her all summer writing ‘A Season in Hell’—
She paid for it to be published—
When she asked him what it meant he answered
‘It means what it says’—

From Africa, he kept writing her letters—
he wanted books, goods—he had tasks for her—
He had ‘a romantic view of his father’—

‘My dear Mummy—
                       I got your letter and the two stockings alright—
                       Do not be upset about all this, however—
                       But it’s a poor reward for so much work—
                       so many privations and troubles—
P.S. As for the stockings, they are useless—I shall sell them somewhere’—

In 1890, a photo—she stands in her garden with flowers—



Philip Larkin’s mother
                       sent him ‘seven enormous pairs of socks’
                       and lilies to brighten up his room—

‘Dear Creaturely Mop, this seems a good time to warn you
                       I am down to my last three pounds’—

She wrote to him—
‘Marriage would be no certain guarantee
as to socks being always mended,
or meals ready when they are wanted.
Neither would it be a good idea to marry
                       just for these comforts. There are other things
                                              just as important’—

for which, she has been held responsible for his not marrying—
                       ‘He couldn’t marry anyone
                       because he was involved with his mother’—

It is said—      she was ‘nervous, constantly whining’—
                       ‘she was the poet’s muse—and his millstone’—
She wrote—   ‘When I came to the sketch of me, I laughed outright’—

His father attended Nazi rallies—
In his mother, though, he complained of
                       ‘a kind of “defective mechanism”. Her ideal is
                       “to collapse” and to be taken care of’—

‘Dear Mop Creature—send some underclothes please’—

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Comment (1)

  • The mystery of modern poetry solved. It seems that poets are born that way and that their poor mothers' fates are dutiful indulgence from square one to blame and ridicule in the end. Fresh air in my sick room.
    Posted by George Smiley
    30 October 2020

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