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A Short Analysis of Elizabeth Akers Allen’s ‘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.’ Here is the poem in full:

Rock Me to Sleep

Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep;—
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!

Backward, flow backward, O tide of the years!
I am so weary of toil and of tears,—
Toil without recompense, tears all in vain,—
Take them, and give me my childhood again!
I have grown weary of dust and decay,—
Weary of flinging my soul-wealth away;
Weary of sowing for others to reap;—
Rock me to sleep, mother – rock me to sleep!

Tired of the hollow, the base, the untrue,
Mother, O mother, my heart calls for you!
Many a summer the grass has grown green,
Blossomed and faded, our faces between:
Yet, with strong yearning and passionate pain,
Long I tonight for your presence again.
Come from the silence so long and so deep;—
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!

Over my heart, in the days that are flown,
No love like mother-love ever has shone;
No other worship abides and endures,—
Faithful, unselfish, and patient like yours:
None like a mother can charm away pain
From the sick soul and the world-weary brain.
Slumber’s soft calms o’er my heavy lids creep;—
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!

Come, let your brown hair, just lighted with gold,
Fall on your shoulders again as of old;
Let it drop over my forehead tonight,
Shading my faint eyes away from the light;
For with its sunny-edged shadows once more
Haply will throng the sweet visions of yore;
Lovingly, softly, its bright billows sweep;—
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!

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!

Sentimental and nostalgic? Certainly. Moving and emotionally powerful? That depends on what sort of thing you like in your poetry, we suppose, but also on whether the poem manages to reach you at just the right time. Doubtless many of us find ourselves nostalgically returning to our childhoods when our mothers took care of us and rocked us to sleep, singing us a lullaby and keeping us safe from the harshness of the world. There is something pathetic about wishing to return to such a state of childish passivity, of course, but it is a pathetic impulse to which we can feel sympathetic. ‘Pathetic’ in the true sense of ‘pathos-filled’, perhaps.

‘Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!’ The request, 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. Her life was marred by tragedy and misfortune: in 1851, she had married Marshall Taylor, but he abandoned her and their daughter. They got divorced in 1857, and three years later she married Paul Akers, a sculptor from Maine whom she had met in Rome, but he died of tuberculosis a year later. Their only child died shortly afterwards.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on November 24, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I don’t find anything pathetic about the poem. The poet has poured the poignancy of a lifetime in her strains and has fervently wished a release from the agonies hounding her, the seemingly shortest rout to which is reversal to infancy. It’s appeal may vary among readers depending on one’s circumstances, disposition, passiveness or objectivity. There are whiffs of suicidal notes in those refrains.

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