Material – Ros Barber

The poem Material focuses heavily on motherhood and how the upbringing of children has changed as time progresses. The narrator in this poem compares herself to her mother and is reminiscent about the material things that have been lost in the past. She is critical of herself as a mother, yet near to the end accepts that change is a part of life.


  • The past – the whole poem consists of nostalgia and anecdotes of the past. The speaker continues to compare how things were before, to how they have changed in the modern day.
  • Childhood – I think that the narrator is regretful for the way she saw her mothers love as a child. The way in which she saw ‘hankies’ as ‘the naffest Christmas gift’ is symbolic of the way she was embarrassed of her mother as a child. Now that the speaker is a mother herself she regrets not reciprocating the love and affection the ‘hankie’ represented to her mother.
  • Death – A theme that continues to be shown throughout the poem is death. Not only death of the past but all that was a part of it, from ‘Greengrocer George’ to the ‘annual talent show’. The death of a generation brought about the death of tastes and preferences.
  • Identity – The speaker identifies her mother through the ‘farm’ of hankies she had ‘tucked into the wrist of every cardi’. It was her mothers way of showing that she loved her daughter. There is also this idea of lost identity in the new generation, gifts used to be personal with ‘script initials’, however now what we buy is meaningless like ‘paper tissues’.

Tone of the poem

  • Essentially the poem is all about the changing role of a mother and how important that strong, durable (hanky) role of a mother is. There is a lot of nostalgia around this poem about the narrators childhood, also regret that she couldn’t give her kids the same love her mother gave her. But at the end there is a tone of acceptance as she comes to term with the fact that times change and there is no use in mourning the loss of ‘material’ things. Her mothers voice at the end tells her to stop crying about the past and take action and responsibility for her and her childrens future.


  • The poem is made up of nine stanzas of eight lines each. However, as we get into the sixth stanza we see a disruption to that flow as the sixth stanza consists of nine lines. I think this disordering is symbolic of how the change into the new generation causes disruption and disturbance into the narrators life. The transition from stanza five to six is also the only stanza to use enjambment to lead into the next, I think that this gap between the sentences signifies the loss of a period of the narrators life.
  • The fact that the poem (with exception to the fifth stanza) finishes with full stops at the end of each stanza mirrors the traditional ways of the past. Like the traditional way to end a section is with a full stop.
  • The author also occasionally uses half rhyme (‘cloth’ and ‘shop’… ‘brood’ and ‘lassitude’) which I think shows the uncertainty and doubts that the narrator has on her efforts of being a good mother.


  • Barber uses symbolism through the ‘hanky’, the author uses this as an underlying theme of love. The strength and durability of the handkerchief is a symbol of the strength the speakers mother always had. She always had a hankie ‘up her sleeve’, which is a symbol of how her mother was prepared and made sure she was up to the task of being a mother.
  • We also see the speaker personify this ‘hanky’ as is ‘demanded’ to be properly cared for, which could be mirroring how children should also be properly cared for.
  • The narrator shows how personal and significant her past was to her through the proper nouns used (‘Greengrocer George’ and ‘Mrs White’) to highlight how much of an impact these acquaintances made in her life. It’s the little things that she remembers.
  • There is a use of sibilance through the line ‘spittled and scrubbed’ to imitate the sound of the mothers spitting into the handkerchiefs to then be used to clean their children. Something that children feel quite embraced about.

Important quotes

‘But things for waving out of trains’

Handkerchiefs also had a romantic nostalgic memory to them, a symbol of both motherly love and romance. But ‘paper tissues’ have no value or memories attached to them. The fact that they can be bought from ‘late-night garages and shops’ enhances how worthless and meaningless ‘paper tissues’ are.

‘hanky’s loss’

The generation that dies takes with it other industries. The loss of the handkerchief is a symbol of a time, economy and culture that how now died and is gone like the hanky.

‘Would whip a hanky from their sleeve

And smudge the rouge from little dears’

This is a nostalgic exploration of memories and what the hanky was used for. The hanky was not only used in moments of sadness but also happiness and pride.

‘killed in TV’s lassitude.

And it was me that turned it on’

There is a feeling of guilt from the speaker here, she uses the TV as a babysitter to care for her children. She is not the traditional mother her mother was, she does not stay home and ‘bake’ because she is a modern day mother who cannot ‘commit to being home’. Women now work and do not have the time to spend with their children that mothers in the past once did.

End of the poem

I think that as you go down the poem you are taken down the stages of grief. First the initial shock that hankies have been replaced with ‘paper tissues bought in packs’, and then ending with the acceptance that times change and so do traditions.


2 thoughts on “Material – Ros Barber

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