The best poems about motherhood selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Looking for a classic poem for Mother’s Day? Look no further. Whilst sentimental rhymes and rather sappy doggerel fills many a Mothering Sunday greetings card, these ten poems represent some of the best statements about mothers and motherhood ever written.
Ann Taylor, ‘My Mother’.
Ann’s sister Jane Taylor (1783-1824) is best-remembered for having written the words to the children’s rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, but this poem, written by Ann, is also well-known and has been much imitated and parodied. It begins:
Who sat and watched my infant head
When sleeping on my cradle bed,
And tears of sweet affection shed?
When pain and sickness made me cry,
Who gazed upon my heavy eye,
And wept for fear that I should die?
My Mother …
The poem takes the form of a question-and-answer back-and-forth where the answer is always ‘my mother’. ‘My Mother’ is easy to parody and ridicule as a sentimental encomium to all mothers, but the poem, especially its second stanza, is a reminder that infant mortality was a very real danger in Taylor’s time, with many children not surviving past their first couple of years of life. Being a mother is never an easy business, but mothers in Ann’s time lived with the very real threat that the child they had so lovingly borne and nurtured would never live to see adulthood.
John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘Tribute to Mother’.
A picture memory brings to me;
I look across the years and see
Myself beside my mother’s knee …
So begins this short poem, in which the American Romantic poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) recalls the time when he was a small child and sat beside his mother’s knee. The poet’s mother restrained his ‘selfish moods’ and taught him a ‘chastening love’. His mother was gentle but firm, inspiring in him a sense of right and wrong, and knowing what’s best for her son (‘My childhood’s needs’). The love a mother has for her child is ‘chastening’ not just because it is designed to chasten or subdue the child’s wilder or more unacceptable impulses, instilling a strong moral sense into the child, but also because Whittier, now older and wilder, feels chastened by the love and patience his mother had for her son.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To My Mother’.
Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother’ …
Although not Poe’s most famous or best poem (that prize would surely go to ‘The Raven’), ‘To My Mother’ – an example of the Shakespearean sonnet form – is a touching tribute to mothers. But whose mother? Not, in fact, either Poe’s birth mother, nor his foster mother, but instead the mother of Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm, who was also his cousin and just thirteen years old when Poe married her in 1836; she died in 1847.
Despite this rather intricate family history underscoring the poem, its sentiment – love of one’s mother-in-law – is not one that’s often expressed in poetry, so deserves inclusion here. ‘To My Mother’ is an intriguing poem negotiating a complex nexus of family relationships in Poe’s life: a poem called ‘To My Mother’ which is not about his own mother, and in fact mentions his biological mother only to highlight how much closer he is to someone else; and a poem which praises his mother-in-law, and becomes as much a poem about the love for a wife as it is a poem about a mother.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Sonnets Are Full of Love’.
In this sonnet, Rossetti (1830-94) praises her mother, ‘my first Love’, ‘on whose knee / I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome’. It’s a nice tribute to the poet’s mother and the role she played in making her daughter the poet – and woman – she had become:
Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome …
Elizabeth Akers Allen, ‘Rock Me to Sleep’.
Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen (1832-1911) was an American author and poet whose 1859 poem, ‘Rock Me to Sleep, Mother’ (the ‘mother’ word is sometimes omitted) is still relatively well-known, thanks to the opening lines: ‘Backward, turn backward, O time, in thy flight; / Make me a child again, just for to-night’. The request to be rocked to sleep, bordering on a desperate command, comes at us again and again, mimicking the soothing repetition that it yearns for in the desired movement back and forth, the rocking to sleep. Elizabeth Akers Allen wrote ‘Rock Me to Sleep’ while in Europe in the 1850s, but her home was in the United States, in New England. Here is the final stanza of the longer poem:
Mother, dear mother, the years have been long
Since I last listened your lullaby song:
Sing, then, and unto my soul it shall seem
Womanhood’s years have been only a dream.
Clasped to your heart in a loving embrace,
With your light lashes just sweeping my face,
Never hereafter to wake or to weep;—
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!
Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mother o’ Mine’.
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
So begins this poem which was published as a dedication to Kipling’s 1892 book The Light That Failed. Because of the less-than-happy ending of that book, Kipling probably added ‘Mother o’ Mine’ to the beginning of the book as a way of saying sorry to his mother for having displeased her; she’d have preferred the happy ending.
A mother provides unconditional love for her children, and Kipling’s ‘Mother o’ Mine’ pays tribute to this fact. If Kipling were charged with some crime or misdemeanour, his mother would still love him; if he suffered some tragic misfortune such as being drowned, his mother would mourn him; and if he committed a sin so terrible that he was damned in body and soul, he knows that his mother would pray for his salvation.
Lola Ridge, ‘Mother’.
Lola Ridge (1873-1941) was born in Ireland but lived much of her adult life in the United States. She’s not read much now, but she was a pioneer of what some call ‘Anarchist poetry’, though her style might be co-opted more broadly under the banner of modernism.
The moon, the mirror, the shining stream: Ridge homes in on images of reflection in her poem, seeing a mother as someone who gives an ethereal beauty to the children’s image of themselves, not simply returning but magnifying it. The image of the ‘shining stream’ returns later in the poem as ‘broken water’, suggesting that Ridge’s memory of her mother from her childhood is impressionistic and unclear. This short poem’s description of a mother’s love being like moonlight ‘turning harsh things to beauty’ makes it well worth reading:
Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors . . .
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not …
Carl Sandburg, ‘Poems Done on a Late Night Car’.
The third poem in this short sequence is only three lines long, and is titled simply ‘Home’. It features ‘a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness’, and the way this sound suggests the idea of home to the poet.
Philip Larkin, ‘Mother, Summer, I’.
In this poem, Larkin reflects how his mother is suspicious of a nice summer’s day in case it is secretly harbouring thunderstorms; Larkin concludes that he has inherited his mother’s suspicious attitude towards perfect weather (and, by extension, perfection in general), and prefers the arrival of autumn as a time when expectations are lowered. Despite his reputation as misanthropic and curmudgeonly, Larkin was a devoted son and, after his father’s death, he would frequently visit, and stay with, his mother at her house in Loughborough during the Christmas and Easter holidays (he had a day job as a librarian at the University of Hull).
Sylvia Plath, ‘Morning Song’.
This poem is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, and so doesn’t celebrate the beauty of the sunrise or an aesthetically pleasing landscape as seen at dawn, like some of the poems on this list. Instead, we have Plath’s speaker (based on Plath, herself a mother to a small child when she penned this poem) stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown. For our money, this is one of Plath’s finest poems.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). Check out more of our literary recommendations with these poems about fathers, these great poems for daughters, poems for sons, these classic plays by women, these great short poems by female poets, these classic sonnets by women, and some epic poetry by female authors.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain. Image (bottom): Carl Sandburg (photographer: Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer, 1955), via Wikimedia Commons.