Poem of the week

A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months by Thomas Hood

This early 19th-century domestic ode makes a stunningly modern and poignant footnote to Father’s Day

Thomas Hood

A master rhymester and outrageous pun-maker … Thomas Hood

The last time I smiled out loud at a poem was while hearing Ian McMillan on Radio 4 yesterday morning, reminding English football fans to cherish nostalgia and low expectations. Good stuff it was, and a reminder of an even greater – do I mean infinitely greater? – English tradition than football: that of the comic poem.

Thomas Hood (1799-1845) wrote all kinds of verse besides the comic, some of it conscience-piercing social commentary. He could be conventionally romantic or fashionably gothic. Mixing genres and registers came naturally to him, and the “protest” poems may have broad jokes in them, and the comic ones, political edge. Like Dickens’s novels, Hood’s best poetry teems with the sights, sounds and smells of London, and happily rubs shoulders with butchers, clerks and shirt-makers. Hood himself is a hard-working craftsman of a poet – a master rhymester and outrageous pun-maker.

He never seems to have felt professionally secure. Often ill, always over-worked, he combined a day-job as an engraver with endless editorial activities. The wild energy and eclecticism of his writing sometimes seems born of freelance desperation. And, of course, he had a large family to support.

You can hear the cri de coeur in this week’s poem, A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months. It’s number three in a group of four of what he called “Domestic Poems”, all worth reading. Though it can be found in earlier poetry, the domestic poem became a speciality of Hood’s, and for modern readers it may seem braver and more original than his excursions into the gothic. Here, he gives it extra zest with the mock-heroic treatment.

He had already written Domestic Asides, or Truth in Parenthesis, which can be seen as a sort of trial-run for the device used here – the alternation of a public, social voice and a subversive, private one, sheltering between brackets. In the ode, however, the “asides” are spoken aloud, bathetically interrupting the elevated poem the speaker is presumably trying, and failing, to write. These interruptions, combined with the different line-lengths befitting the formal ode, produce a sense of restless energy and anxiety.

Hood’s narrative poems are usually spacious, sometimes a little too spacious. This “ode”, however, earns its scope. The child, never still, teases the dog, sets fire to his pinafore, climbs on a table, tries to cut his mother’s dress, etc. We never know where he’ll be going next, so we follow the narrative willingly. Occasionally, there’s an artful connection between the parenthetical line and the preceding apostrophe. “Thy father’s pride and hope!” is followed by the reference to the danger of breaking the mirror, taking us on a brief flight into metaphor (the child might not mirror the father’s pride and hope, after all). Despite all the random movement, there’s a distinct sense of (oedipal?) climax in the concluding exclamation of this stanza: “He’s got a knife!”

While the point-of-view is that of the frazzled father, the parenthetical material is often a disguised plea to the mother, a “can’t-you-do-something”, or an outright “I-told-you-so”. Whether intentionally or not (and in a poet so aware of social exploitation, I think the intention is there), Hood reveals the imbalance between the male and female roles. This becomes explicit in the politely phrased demand of the last two lines: “I’ll tell you what, my love/I cannot write unless he’s sent above.” Incidentally, the reader assumes “sent above” means “put to bed” and not “despatched to the angels” – but with Hood one can’t be entirely sure.

Of course, we read the hyperbole as Wordsworthian parody, a mockery of the male poet’s elevated view of childhood, based on the fact that his wife and female servants do most of the work. But even this “voice” is oddly convincing. Despite the interpolations, and partly because of them, we understand that the child really matters, and actually is rather wonderful. Those delicate comparatives (elf, humming-bee, thistle-down) remind us of his real vulnerability in the hard material world.

I always want this poem to make me laugh, but it doesn’t, quite: it touches too many once parental (now grandparental) nerves. Complex with parentheses (there’s surely a Hoodish pun in there) this early 19th-century domestic ode makes a stunningly modern and poignant footnote to Father’s Day 2010.

A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

   Thou happy, happy elf!
(But stop, – first let me kiss away that tear) –
   Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he’s poking peas into his ear!)
   Thou merry, laughing sprite!
   With spirits feather-light,
Untouch’d by sorrow and unsoil’d by sin –
(Good heavens! The child is swallowing a pin!)

   Thou little, tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air –
(The door! The door! He’ll tumble down the stair!)
   Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he’ll set his pinafore a-fire!)
   Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In love’s dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents – (Drat the boy!
   There goes my ink!)

   Thou cherub – but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
   In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
   Thou human humming-bee, extracting honey
From ev’ry blossom in the world the blows,
   Singing in Youth’s Elysium, ever sunny –
(Another tumble! – that’s his precious nose!)

   Thy father’s pride and hope!
(He’ll break the mirror with that skipping rope!)
With pure heart newly stamp’d from Nature’s mint –
(Where did he learn that squint?)
   Thou young domestic dove!
(He’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
   Dear nursling of the hymeneal nest!
   (Are those torn clothes his best?)
   Little epitome of man!
(He’ll climb upon the table, that’s his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life –
   (He’s got a knife!)

   Thou enviable being
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
   Play on, play on,
   My elfin John!
Toss the light ball – bestride the stick –
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies buoyant as the thistle-down,
Prompting the face grotesque and antic brisk,
   With many a lamb-like frisk –
(He’s got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

   Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star, –
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove –
   (I’ll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jun/21/poem-week-parental-ode