Household Gods, by Philip Hobsbaum

Household Gods

“I mirrored their breaking lives,I saw their pale
Distraught coming and going, lined despair,
His shaken bulk, her calm pose in the doorway—
I saw them. I was there.”

“I have so long been silent, even now
Hardly at all remember how her slim
Long fingers once caressed me—was that how
At one time she touched him?”

“His lips on mine in the morning, or, in darkness,
After a happy embrace, warmed my clay.
Where is the firm mouth now, where the kiss?
Broken and swept away.”

“They lay me down to serve their steady feet,
How many times they strode over my pile!
Of late those steps were tentative. Now, a street
For strangers, I am so much jute and wool.”

“Bit by bit they painted my walls, the ceiling,
Made me in terms of their vision—I was glad.
But signs of time flake down, the walls are peeling,
What is a house when occupants are fled?”

“My hands repeat themselves, so does not time.
The climactial moment is past, whoever will come.
I gather myself to cough one cautious chime,
But the works are rusted. Henceforth I am dumb.”

“I mirrored their coming here, I see their going,
Together once, now separately. Their outer
Semblance concerns me. I have no way of knowing
Their motives, or their reasons for departure.”

“Dust settles in the fireplace, and the curtains
Hang without a purpose in neat folds.
The books are stacked, chairs not to be sat on
Grouped over-nicely in a house grown cold.”

“I see no more. Their life gave our lives meaning,
But broken homes will not set again.
Their parting was our dissolution, they
Will never know their household gods are slain.”

Philip Hobsbaum, The Pattern of Poetry (196) – no copyright infringement intended.

I stumbled across this poem on one of the unseen poetry papers (IB HL Literature, one of the rare perks). The exam board has a predilection for incredibly obscure texts, and more often than most students loathe them for it. But I do have to say I absolutely adored this piece. I was starting to doubt my own sanity and the practicality of my choice to take four highers – why on earth would I impose that sort of ridiculous unnecessary challenge on myself? But coming across this poem reminded me of why I took HL Literature in the first place –  poems like this one remind me of that love for the beauty of language.

Some poems are chocked full with innocuous, subtly hidden literary devices that can only be detected after a few reads; after long periods of undisturbed concentration and analysis. I’m naturally impatient when it comes to reading- I devour rather than savor (quite like the way I eat, unfortunately for my expanding waistline). The only reason why I would sit down and pick apart the fabrics of a poem would be because my course demands it, and it is in this initial (semi)unwilling state that I find love in literature.

We accept the things we have to do, even if we’re unwilling, because more often than not they open up new windows of opportunity.

Household gods originate from Ancient Rome – and having pulled out this past paper on the flight back from Rome to Singapore, I suppose it was a stroke of fate, chance, coincidence that it was this poem… Written in first person, the confusing persona speaks from the point of view of a house – or rather many objects in a household. At first glance the poem is wildly confusing, but a closer read reveals the house as a reflection of a couple’s relationship. The entire poem is an extended metaphor, slowly agglomerating little gems of hidden information (in the form of rhetorical questions, changing syntax, caesurae, oxymorons – literary heaven!) that paint a picture of a deteriorating relationship. It is ambiguous, frustrating even – but the ambiguity of it is its genius and allure.

But I risk turning this post into an unseen literary commentary – it is not the literary devices themselves, but the puzzle they piece together that matters.

The house has been left to deteriorate, as has the relationship. What is a relationship? A profound connection between two people. It is the effort, the determination and desire for things to work out that matters- for what is a house when the occupants are fled? This isn’t just pertaining to romantic love – all relationships deteriorate with time- signs of time flake down, the walls are peeling.

We have to treasure the people we have today, and make a conscious effort to keep in touch with the people in our lives. Family, friends, people who have left the country and are halfway across the world – they all matter. We don’t quite realize what has been lost, what household gods are slain until we lose the cherished connection. I was reminded of all the friends I’ve lost touch with, all the people whom I love, but haven’t made a conscious effort to support through hard times…

What are we humans but social beings, people who stumble through life seeking connection, seeking love (in whichever form it may materialize in)? We are born into this world with an ineluctable connection to our parents; our family – and even the loneliest of us die leaving behind people they have interacted with, people they have known.

There is a slightly contentious adage that goes: we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. {Orson Welles} But people don’t often hear the next sentence, which goes: Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we are not alone.

I think it’s a beautiful quote, but something innately disturbing about it prevents me from agreeing with it. Is love and friendship an illusion, a veneer we hide under to mask the loneliness of human existence? The thought that the fundamental pillar of our lives is simply an illusory delusion is somewhat unsettling. That in itself isn’t very comforting at all. I think Welles meant to say that it is love and friendship that makes our existence truly meaningful – but if, au fond, we are alone – is it not the love for ourselves that truly matters?

There are many things about life that still confuse me, and will baffle me till the very end of my existence.

But somehow I know one thing for sure – there is nothing more important than the people we love.

I see no more. Their life [gives] our lives meaning.

Published by ruruhoong

Part-time economist, writer, tanguera. Full time glutton.

2 thoughts on “Household Gods, by Philip Hobsbaum

  1. Hi,

    I took the HL IB test the same year you did. And I agree with your analysis, as it is the same conclusion I came to. I Googled the poem because I enjoyed it so much during the test, and I wanted to read it again. I realize this post is almost 3 years old, but then the last time I read the poem before now was 2008. 😊

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