A Short Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘To My Mother’

A charming sonnet by Poe about mothers

Edgar Allan Poe’s mother died in 1811, when Poe was only two years old. His father had walked out the year before, so Poe became an orphan with his mother’s death. He was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia, and would live with them until he had reached adulthood, although the Allans never formally adopted him. His middle name (really a second surname) was derived from his ‘adopted’ parents. He was probably named Edgar, by the way, after Edgar in King Lear: his (biological) parents were both actors, who were starring in a production of Shakespeare’s play when their son was born. Poe wrote ‘To My Mother’ in 18

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,’
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you –
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother – my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.

With a title like ‘To My Mother’, surely we can confidently identify the subject of Poe’s poem. But in fact the poem was not written about Poe’s biological mother who died when he was still an infant. Nor, though, was it written about his adopted mother, Mrs Allan. Instead, the subject of ‘To My Mother’ is in fact Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm – the mother of Poe’s wife (and cousin), Virginia Clemm, whom he married in 1836. Virginia died in 1847, two years before Poe wrote this touching tribute to both Virginia and her mother.

Not only this, but Poe is somewhat dismissive of his biological mother – whom, having died when he was so young, he can hardly be expected to remember – but he combines such dismissiveness with a touch of modesty and self-effacement:

My mother – my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly

In other words, ‘I value the woman who brought little me into the world far less than I value you, mother-in-law, because you have acted like a mother to me and you gave birth to the wonderful woman who became my wife.’ Viewed this way, ‘To My Mother’ becomes a more 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 (either of them), and in fact mentions his biological mother only to highlight how much closer he is to someone else; and a poem which (contrary to all those old jokes throughout history about the wife’s mother) actually praises the mother-in-law, and becomes as much a poem about the love for a wife (an uxorious poem, if you like) as it is a poem about a mother.

‘To My Mother’ was published in July 1849, only months before Poe’s untimely death, aged just 40. The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed ababcdcdefefgg, and shows that Poe retained his literary skills right up until shortly before he died, not long after he was found delirious and wearing somebody else’s clothes on the streets of Baltimore.

3 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘To My Mother’”

  1. I volunteer at the Baltimore home of Edgar Allan Poe—a tiny row house where he launched his writing career—and I’ve always wondered about his relationship with his aunt Maria. She sheltered him when he needed a place to live and loved him when he found himself parent-less. This poem is quite touching about the relationship of Poe and the women surrounding him in that little house on Amity Street.


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