A Summary and Analysis of Audre Lorde’s ‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’ is a 1963 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92), which was later included in her 1968 collection The First Cities. Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’

Lorde wrote ‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’ when her daughter, Elizabeth, was just one year old. Let’s summarise the poem’s content before offering an analysis of its meaning.

‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’: summary

The poem is divided into three stanzas. In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem considers her new-born daughter and the knowledge she will acquire as the speaker herself grows older. Much of this knowledge and wisdom will come to her when the mother is in her ‘twilight’ years: namely, old age. Her daughter’s growing awareness of nature and the seasons will, like the seasons themselves, be ‘revised’ or updated every autumn with each passing year.

In the second stanza, Lorde’s speaker states that, as her daughter experiences more winters and these pass out of existence, becoming her own past, this knowledge she gathers is knowledge that originated within the mother’s own body, and was there in her daughter’s eyes when she was born.

The third and final stanza of the poem sees Lorde’s speaker declaring that this shared knowledge, which her daughter has inherited from her, is the main reason her daughter will one day cut the ‘ropes’ that bind the two of them together. Even more than their shared blood (or genetics) and the mother’s breast milk which nourished her daughter when she was a baby, this knowledge binds them together – but this knowledge is also the reason the daughter will ultimately cut herself loose of the mother.

This is because the daughter will learn to be her own person, and rather than continuing to live under her mother’s shadow, or as her reflection in a mirror, she will have to become ‘strange’ to her, to forge her own path and become different and individual. (The image of the ropes summons the umbilical cord, nature’s ‘rope’ which originally bound daughter to mother when the former was still in the latter’s womb and depended wholly upon her.)

Lorde’s speaker concludes the poem by stating that she, the mother, already stands ‘condemned’ of having shaped the daughter’s thinking: the way she experiences the autumn, the language she uses to describe winter and her attitude towards it. Even though the daughter will cut herself loose of her mother and become her own person, she will carry the stamp of her mother’s attitudes and thought about nature and the world, and the daughter will not be able to shake these off so easily.

‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’: analysis

When she wrote ‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’ in 1963, Audre Lorde was a young mother living in New York. Her daughter, Elizabeth, had been born just a few months before: Lorde had written a poem about her pregnancy, ‘Now That I Am Forever with Child’, and this poem might be regarded as forming a pendant with that earlier poem.

However, this poem sees the mother-daughter relationship as one marked by change and flux, because as the daughter grows to maturity, she both remains her mother’s daughter and becomes a person in her own right. She changes, and yet part of her remains inextricably bound to her mother’s influence.

Here it is noteworthy that the symbols Lorde uses to represent the daughter’s independence from the mother – the ropes, and the mirror – are man-made, whereas the knowledge which will continue to bind daughter to mother is figured as natural, in tune with the annual cycle of the seasons. This suggests that nature is more powerful than social pressure or even individual agency: the apple never falls far from the tree, as the old adage has it about children being shaped by their parents’ teaching (and also by their natural, genetic predispositions).

But of course these natural symbols – the seasons, the way we feel about autumn and winter – are themselves sites of natural change, and remind us that ageing – and therefore growing apart from our parents as we attain maturity – is also a natural and inevitable part of our lives. ‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’, then, enacts a tension between the tendency to move apart from our parents and our (natural) inability to do so completely. We may learn to step out from their shadow or stop being their reflection, but every year, as the falling leaves and the cold of winter remind us of the passing of time and our own mortality, we will remember the wisdom we learned from them.

The sea, meanwhile – that symbol which provides the poem with its title and first line – is often associated with femininity, suggesting that the knowledge and wisdom the mother passes on to the daughter is in part a specifically female knowledge: the truth about growing up as a young woman, the monthly cycle that her daughter will experience (with this menstrual cycle echoing the annual one of the seasons), and the motherhood she may herself experience one day.

This is in keeping with what Lorde would later write, in her 1977 essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, concerning the idea that poetry is a kind of linguistic network between women, and a way of them sharing their wisdom and experience with each other. In short, Audre Lorde viewed poetry as an essential component of women’s struggle to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression and control. We may wonder if the ‘thunder’ in this poem is an oblique reference to this kind of oppression and struggle.

‘What My Child Learns of the Sea’ is written in free verse: this means it is unrhymed, with no regular metre or rhythm, and contains irregular line lengths (and stanza lengths, for that matter). This is in keeping with much of Audre Lorde’s poetry, and here gives the poem a natural, loose form which echoes its subject matter.

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