Week 330: Jesus and his Mother, by Thom Gunn

This is a relatively early poem by Thom Gunn (1929-2004), first published in 1954. While it is very different in subject-matter from his later, American-based work, it shows the same discipline and command of form that characterised his poetry throughout his life. Despite the narrative, it does not strike me as primarily a religious poem: I see it as more about the estrangement that must almost inevitably grow between any child consumed with a sense of mission and uncomprehending parents who simply wish it to have a normal life of uncomplicated contentment.

Jesus and his Mother

My only son, more God’s than mine,
Stay in this garden ripe with pears.
The yielding of their substance wears
A modest and contented shine,
And when they weep with age, not brine
But lazy syrup are their tears.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

He seemed much like another man,
That silent foreigner who trod
Outside my door with lily rod:
How could I know what I began
Meeting the eyes more furious than
The eyes of Joseph, those of God?
I was my own and not my own.

And who are these twelve labouring men?
I do not understand your words:
I taught you speech, we named the birds
You marked their big migrations then
Like any child. So turn again
To silence from the place of crowds.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Why are you sullen when I speak?
Here are your tools, the saw and knife
And hammer on your bench. Your life
Is measured here in week and week
Planed as the furniture you make,
And I will teach you like a wife
To be my own and all my own.

Who like an arrogant wind blown
Where he may please, needs no content?
Yet I remember how you went
To speak with scholars in furred gown.
I hear an outcry in the town;
Who carries that dark instrument?
‘One all his own and not his own’.

Treading the green and nimble sward
I stare at a strange shadow thrown.
Are you the boy I bore alone,
No doctor near to cut the cord?
I cannot reach to call you Lord,
Answer me as my only son.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Thom Gunn


5 thoughts on “Week 330: Jesus and his Mother, by Thom Gunn

  1. “lily rod” – an attribute of St. Joseph. “that dark instrument” – the Cross. “nimble” [adj] – responsive? I think a quoted last line in a verse is Jesus speaking.

  2. Hi David, I’ve been reading a few of Gunn’s later poems. I don’t (on the whole) love his poems but I think he’s good. Would you like to feature him again in your blog?

    • I’ll by all means take another look, but no guarantees! – admiration is certainly one of my criteria for inclusion, but on top of that I have to feel a positive affection for the work, and that’s a very personal matter dependent in part on the random accidents of a very unprogammatic and undutiful reading life. You could always start your own blog, Chris – I would be very happy to visit it!

      • Hi David, fair enough, only you can decide if he gets another turn. If I did start a blog I’d probably choose poems not covered elsewhere on the internet. I sometimes look up your poems and quite a few of yours aren’t covered elsewhere. Regards, Chris.

  3. In the last verse she seems to be standing before the Cross. The words from her thought about the birth are those she might speak before the Cross: “… No doctor near to cut the cord?”.

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