A reading of a modern elegy
Stephen Spender (1909-95) said of Tony Harrison’s series of elegies for his parents that they were the sort of poetry he felt he’d been waiting his whole life for. ‘Timer’, which was published in Harrison’s 1981 collection The School of Eloquence, is one of the most famous of these. You can read ‘Timer’ here; in this post we’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of Harrison’s poem.
In summary, ‘Timer’ sees Tony Harrison reflecting on the death of his mother, and on his father’s insistence that the eternity ring he bought for Harrison’s mother should be cremated with her body, since it was his way of ensuring that, when Harrison’s father died, he would be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. After the cremation, Harrison goes to collect his mother’s clothing and the eternity ring – which went in the incinerator but survived the heat of the flames – is also among his mother’s belongings. The poem ends with Harrison pouring the ashes of his mother’s body through the gold ring, observing that this dust – all that remains of his mother’s body – is like the grains of sand falling through the hourglass of an egg-timer – an image which calls to mind a time when Harrison was a boy and his mother got him to time the eggs she was cooking.
This poem is a masterclass in how to write with feeling while also very cleverly, using an extended metaphor (though it’s also a simile, since Harrison likens the ashes in the eternity ring to the sands of an egg-timer). The gold ring is an ‘eternity’ ring because it really is a gift frequently given between lovers, to pledge their undying love for each other; but at the same time such a gesture is counterbalanced by the poem’s title, ‘Timer’, which principally refers to the egg-timer Harrison mentions at the end of the poem but which also stands more widely as a reminder that our time on Earth is in fact limited: indeed, sand running into an hourglass is an age-old symbol of the passing of time and, by association, the brevity of human life. ‘Timer’ also suggests an oven-timer, which yokes together the egg-timer Harrison recalls from his childhood and the ‘oven’ at the crematorium, that ‘incinerator’ into which his mother’s body passed. But even those ‘eggs’ which provide the poem with its final word are to be associated with the poet’s earlier reference to his mother’s ‘ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs’ (our italics), reminding us that eggs are the female cell that is responsible for creating new life, just as it was Harrison’s mother’s womb that incubated him. It’s a matter-of-fact reference to her body parts – which saves the poem from sentimentality – but also an intimate acknowledgment of her motherhood and, in a very literal sense, where he himself came from.
‘Timer’ is a Meridithian sonnet: that is, a sixteen- rather than fourteen-line sonnet as was pioneered by the Victorian poet George Meredith (1828-1909). This extended version of the more traditional fourteen-line sonnet form allows for variations on the expected rhyme scheme and structure to the poem’s argument. Most of the sonnets in The School of Eloquence are Meridithian sonnets. Here, the abab quatrain structure of ‘Timer’ is partially disguised by Harrison’s decision to break up the third and fourth quatrains, allowing a slight pause at key places towards the end of the poem.
In the last analysis, ‘Timer’ is a cleverly constructed poem written in a clear, authentic voice, and because of this, and its subject-matter, it is an emotionally powerful elegy for Harrison’s mother, but also a celebration of the role mothers play in giving us life and making us who we are.
Image: Egg sand-timer.