By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Some of the greatest poets in the English language have penned moving poems to their mothers. Similarly, many great poets who are also mothers in their own right have celebrated and praised their own daughters in their verse, composing heartfelt poems to the women who represent the next generation.
So, ‘mother-daughter poems’ can refer both to poems written by mothers for their daughters, and poems written by daughters for (or about) their mothers. Below, we select ten of the best mother-daughter poems of both kinds, spanning several centuries, from the early nineteenth century to the present.
1. Christina Rossetti, ‘To My Mother’.
To-day’s your natal day;
Sweet flowers I bring:
Mother, accept, I pray
And may you happy live,
And long us bless;
Receiving as you give
The prolific Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) wrote not one but two classic poems about her mother (we’ll come to the other one in a moment).
In this short lyric, reproduced in full above, Rossetti brings her mother flowers as tribute and ‘offering’ in return for all that her mother has done for her, giving her life and also raising her. She hopes that her mother will live a long time and know great happiness.
2. Gillian Clarke, ‘Pheiddipedes’ Daughter’.
Written for her own daughter Catrin, this touching poem from Clarke’s 2012 collection Ice (Carcanet Press) weaves in Welsh myth (Clarke is among the finest Welsh poets of the last half-century) and the classical story of the man who supposedly ran from the Battle of Marathon to tell the people of Athens that they had won the battle.
Clarke uses pararhyme delicately in this quatrain poem, before the half-rhymes harden into fuller rhymes in the poem’s closing stanza. She also suggests her daughter has had to overcome difficulty in order to triumph (note the ‘inhaler’ her daughter carries).
3. Sylvia Plath, ‘Morning Song’.
Sylvia Plath wrote this poem for her newborn daughter, Frieda, in 1961 when the baby was just eight months old.
Plath is ambivalent about the experience of motherhood in this poem: ‘Morning Song’ is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown.
4. Ann Taylor, ‘My Mother’.
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 by Ann Taylor (1782-1866) 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.
Ann’s sister Jane Taylor also left her mark on the world of poetry: she wrote the words to the children’s rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’.
5. Ada Limón, ‘The Raincoat’.
Ada Limón, born in 1976, became the US Poet Laureate in 2022; in doing so, she was the first Latina to take on the post. Her poetry collections reveal a poet writing in a personal and even conversational manner about both her life and the lives of others.
This moving poem from 2018 is Limón’s finest exploration of a daughter’s relationship with her mother. Recalling visits to the osteopath and massage therapist as a child to treat her ‘crooked spine’, Limón reflects on the fact that she is now the same age as her mother was then.
The image of the raincoat, which concludes the poem and provides its title, is achingly beautiful, using the idea of the coat as a form of protection to say something profoundly true about parent-child relationships.
6. Nayyirah Waheed, ‘Land’.
One of the most sophisticated of the poets whose work has become popular on social media, Waheed wrote this short poem in tribute to her own mother, the first ‘land’ she ever knew. And isn’t it true that, in terms of our birth, our mothers are the ‘homeland’ where we first find our way in the world?
7. Lola Ridge, ‘Mother’.
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 …
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.
8. Maggie Smith, ‘First Fall’.
Maggie Smith is a contemporary American poet whose poem ‘Good Bones’ was widely shared on social media in 2016, going viral.
This poem, ‘First Fall’, is spoken by a mother showing her young daughter the beauty of nature in the park during the autumn; the imagery, from the frosts of the coming winter to the darkness of the encroaching evening, lends the poem a poignancy as the speaker considers the fleetingness of all things.
9. Nikki Giovanni, ‘Mothers’.
Here’s a 1972 poem from the contemporary African-American poet Nikki Giovanni (born 1943). Although the poem begins with a mother-daughter relationship, as Giovanni recalls her own mother’s habit of sitting in the dark, the plural in the title, ‘Mothers’, is explained in the final stanza, as the poet tells us how she taught her own son to recite a poem which her mother had originally taught to her one night when she was a little girl.
The poem doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the ‘pains’ as well as the pleasures of family, and is beautifully frank about how our memory can fail us: although the poet can remember her mother sitting in the dark, she cannot recall why her mother was sitting up that night when she taught her daughter the poem. What matters is that the poem, a short rhyme, has stayed with her for all these years.
10. Christina Rossetti, ‘Sonnets are Full of Love’.
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 …
Let’s conclude with that other poem from Rossetti: a sonnet in which she 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.