‘Jugged Hare’ appears among a group of ‘new poems’ included in Earle’s Selected Poems, published in 1990. The title refers to a traditional way of cooking game or fish, in which the whole animal, cut into large pieces, is stewed slowly in a sealed pot. Conventionally the dish is thickened with the hare’s own blood, and served with port, a sweet fortified (red) wine. It is worth knowing that a number of ancient cultures ascribed the hare sacred or magical powers, and that – as well as being widely constructed in folklore as a trickster, sometimes benign, sometimes not – in classical sources the animal is associated (along with rabbits) with love and its deities.
‘Jugged Hare’ offers a touchingly detailed portrait of a mother remembered in the act of preparing the dish of the poem’s title for her husband. The poem uses the memories it recovers to examine as well as honour the creative purpose and determination of the woman it places centre stage, while obliquely protesting at the way her domestic circumstances define and seem to confine her. It is tempting to imagine that the voice of the poem belongs to Jean Earle herself, and that the woman under scrutiny is the poet’s own mother, but there is no direct or explicit evidence of this link. It does not seem particularly helpful to tie any of the characters to an actual family context or story.
For the most part, the poem’s language is direct and straightforward; it uses the vocabulary of the child who reports the events it recounts. Towards its end, as the speaker’s perspective shifts to that of the adult recovering a childhood memory, the word use grows more sophisticated.
‘Jugged Hare’ is lightly, rather than elaborately, formal. It falls roughly into two halves. Each half comprises three loosely built stanzas (or parts), each one ‘end-stopped’, or brought to a distinct and definite close by a full stop. The two halves are separated from each other by the single isolated line which marks the poem’s centre.
The first three stanzas, which introduce the scene, the woman, and the process she is absorbed in, are all six lines long. The last three stanzas, in which the poem’s reflection on that peaceful domestic scene grows broader and implicitly darker, are seven, nine and five lines long respectively. In this variance, the poem’s form helps to trouble both the apparently calm scene it starts by describing, and the relationship that the meal seems intended to celebrate.
Comments on the Poem as a Whole
Jean Earle’s portrait of a mother’s devoted and selfless (if not necessarily entirely loving) nurturing (‘sustenance’) of her marriage in the early twentieth century offers a sympathetic but also unvarnished portrait recovered with as much scepticism as respect. The poem implicitly takes a less forgiving view of the gendered power relations which govern the life, habits and expectations of the woman it studies, and that are likewise woven through the domestic world it seems to suggest she has created.
Straightforwardly, the poem might be read as an elegy for the hare. It also seems a sympathetic testament to the hidden complexities of the marriage partnership the speaker conjures, with affection but also insight, from memory. In some ways the implicitly critical strand which runs through the poem, emerging most powerfully in those economical final lines, helps to hold the text and its equivocal implications together. We cannot know the precise cause of the weeping which the speaker remembers overhearing, still less what that unhappiness might suggest about the mother’s feelings about her situation. However, the poem also leaves us in little doubt of the speaker’s suspicion that to some extent, if forgivably, the woman can be held at least partly responsible for the position in which she is pictured, for all the softness and sensitivity we glimpse in her. If she gives her labour, time and energy freely, she seems implicitly aware that there might be other ways to personal fulfilment, and – being, we know, ‘resolute’ – to have decided against them. Indeed, by the end of the poem, we are invited to think of this ‘freakish’, admirable woman as being as helplessly trapped in (her blood metaphorically drained by) the deadening necessities of her domestic existence, as the hare was trapped by its hunter.
Both animal and mother, then, can be understood as victims – in their different ways – of the man whose desires are framed in and called into question by the poem. The resonances deepen when they are extended to encompass the cooking method which is (superficially) the poem’s chief concern, and the parallels between the methods of preparing and cooking the hare itself, and the life of the speaker’s mother. The poem implicitly suggests that the woman is herself ‘jugged’ (cooked slowly in her own blood in a sealed cooking pot) by the constraints of her life, circumstances and her devotion to her husband and family. And it is in this process, in the same way that the hare is transformed into a feast of magical (aphrodisiacal) powers, that she somehow maintains her own creative powers of control and enchantment, and sustains herself, her marriage and the family through them.