One of the best-known poems about mothers
‘My Mother’ is a famous poem, but its author is not so well-known. Ann Taylor (1782-1866) was not only a popular poet (who is best-remembered, in so far as she is remembered at all, for her verses for children) but also a literary critic of some repute. But it is for ‘My Mother’ that Taylor is now chiefly known.
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?
Who taught my infant lips to pray
And love God’s holy book and day,
And walk in wisdom’s pleasant way?
And can I ever cease to be
Affectionate and kind to thee,
Who wast so very kind to me,
Ah, no! the thought I cannot bear,
And if God please my life to spare
I hope I shall reward they care,
When thou art feeble, old and grey,
My healthy arm shall be thy stay,
And I will soothe thy pains away,
‘My Mother’ takes the form of a catechism, with the first three rhymed lines of each stanza posing a question or setting out a series of descriptive statements, to which the answer is always returned in the final line: ‘My Mother’.
Born in Islington, London in 1782, Ann Taylor was part of a successful literary family. Ann’s younger 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.
‘My Mother’ is easy to parody and ridicule as a sentimental encomium to all mothers, but the poem, especially its second stanza (‘When pain and sickness made me cry, / Who gazed upon my heavy eye, / And wept for fear that I should die?’) is a reminder that infant mortality was a very real presence 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. Like the poetry of Anne Bradstreet from a century-and-a-half earlier, ‘My Mother’ is a reminder of how precarious life has been for much of human history.