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In Ted Hughes' Examination at the Womb-door (of the Crow collection), Crow's organs are listed with certain kinds of descriptions (bold is mine):

Examination at the Womb-door

Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Held.

[...]

I group those descriptions into two*:

  1. Moral/Trial
    Some of the descriptions are in accord with the title of the poem, and with that concluding line: they hint about Crow being the subject of a judicial scene, as a result of some morally questionable acts or traits.
    Those are the "unspeakable guts", "questionable brains", "messy blood", "wicked tongue", "occasional wakefulness" (that last one is maybe of a thief awake at nights).

  2. Mockery
    The other descriptions are simply mockery, in the spirit of many other Crow poems.
    Those are the "scrawny feet", "scorched face", "still-working lungs", "minimum-efficiency eyes".

* Though I wish I could explain all descriptions with the "moral/trial" theme of this poem.

My question:
The "utility coat" image doesn't seem to belong to any of these groups.

  • I considered it may refer to Utility Clothing - but then if Crow's muscles are as practical as utility clothing, then that's a good thing, not a mockery. And if they are as simple in shape, then that's not really mockery, too.

Can you help me put it in either of these groups? Or perhaps you have a different interpretation to understand the first verse?

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I don't think Crow is the subject of a judicial scene. The title "Examination at the Womb-Door" suggests that Crow is being tested before he can be born. The last line, "Pass, Crow," reveals that Crow has passed the test and is able to pass the gate into birth.

The questions, then, aren't mocking or moral in nature. They are existential. Before Crow is allowed to pass, he has to be examined to make sure he understands life correctly. His body is the subject of the first stanza. Even though it's a living body, it still belongs to death. A utility coat is a functional garment, just as muscles are functional. It's not an elegant or beautiful piece of clothing, just as nothing else about Crow's body is elegant or beautiful.

The second stanza says that Crow, or life, is held pending trial. This also works against the interpretation that the scene is a judicial trial, because the trial is still pending. The idea is that Crow's or anybody's life isn't a gift that's given, nor is it something undeserved that we steal. Rather, to be alive is to await death, so we are in a holding pattern.

The rest of the poem shows that death is stronger than the natural world (stony earth), the cosmos (space), human emotions (hope, love), and even life itself. Despite that, Crow says he is stronger than death, and this is evidently a correct answer, as the response is Pass, Crow. Accepting life while acknowledging death's strength and inevitability makes Crow stronger than death. The test here is to ensure that Crow is strong enough to get through the womb-door; despite his inadequate (scrawny, minimum-efficiency) body, he passes the examination and passes through the womb-door into life.

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  • Thank you, but I think the question still remains. what is the inadequacy with his "utility coat of muscles"? that's the only description that actually sounds adequate (as opposed to "minimum-efficiency"-like descriptions), isn't it?
    – HeyJude
    Mar 29 at 18:50
  • It’s like still-working or minimum-efficiency; does the job, nothing special
    – verbose
    Mar 29 at 20:18
  • Can we also render "unspeakable guts" and "wicked tongue" in that "minimum-efficiency" meaning as well? Don't these adjectives imply something immoral being done?
    – HeyJude
    Mar 30 at 12:05
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I came across an article entitled Utility Futility, which discusses Britain's WW2 Utility scheme.
The article expands upon the word Utility and its associated negative meanings which were present before the commissioning of the scheme.

It could be that what Hughes had in mind were these negative, mockery meanings, which may had prevailed even after the scheme was abandonned.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article (bold is mine):

Why was “Utility” such an inadequate label? First, it had been used in the clothing industry before to describe a type of heavy-duty garment designed to weather tough use, the equivalent of what consumers today might think of as blue-collar “work clothes.” It appeared with relative frequency in advertisements for coats and jackets well before the Utility scheme’s conception, proving that consumers already had a preexisting idea in mind when they heard the word “Utility,” an idea contrary to the reality of Utility scheme clothes. While the world (sic) “Utility” made consumers picture drab, unflattering jumpsuits, in actuality Utility garments differed little in appearance from non-Utility attire. Second, like the word “standard,” “Utility” conveyed a degree of standardization to British consumers, or at the very least failed to erase the fears that had cropped up while rumors of the return of the 1917 ‘standard’ scheme still circulated. Consumers were afraid the government would force them all into wearing uniforms for the duration of the war.

[T]he Drapers’ Record, a prominent journal for clothiers and other sectors of the clothing industry, released one of the earliest articles surveying women’s initial receptions of the Utility scheme. The article began by pointing out that since Utility had yet to make a significant appearance in stores, many of the women interviewed based their opinions solely on their impressions of the word “Utility,” rather than on firsthand experience. One interviewee commented that “Utility” made her think of a uniform - “government stuff, sackcloth.” Another interviewee worried Utility clothing would be “clumsy and heavy.” Still another expected colors to be “dark and uninteresting.” The reporter even added that these three women had not heard about the scheme before being interviewed about it, further demonstrating the power of the word “Utility” to produce negative first impressions of the entire project.

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