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 takes the form of a question-and-answer back-and-forth where the answer is always ‘my mother’.
John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘Tribute to Mother’. In this short poem, the American 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’.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To My 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.
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.
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.’
Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mother o’ Mine’. This poem 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.
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. This short poem’s description of a mother’s love being like moonlight ‘turning harsh things to beauty’ makes it well worth reading.
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.
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.