‘Our Mothers’ by Christina Rossetti is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The poem is a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. This means that it can be separated into one set of eight lines, or octet, and one set of six, or sestet. The octet can be further broken down into two quatrains, or sets of four lines. They conform to a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. In regards to the last six lines, the pattern diverges. This is normal within a Petrarchan sonnet and Rossetti makes use of one of the more common ending patterns, CDEEDC.
The meter is also traditionally structured. It follows a pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of these are unstressed and the second stressed. Iambic pentameter is a calm, almost meditative pattern. It lacks shocking twists and turns and is therefore perfect for ‘Our Mothers’ in which Rossetti discusses the many attributes of older female figures during life and after death.
Summary of Our Mothers
The poem begins with the speaker stating that all mothers are lovely and pitiful. They live hard, brave, and troubled lives that stay with their children. This is due to their graciousness in life and death. They (at least the good ones) give everything. The speaker uses the next lines to connect the experiences of those still living with those of the long dead.
Her memories tell her that “we,” referring to the offspring of these dead mothers, did as their mothers did. They all worked hard, learned to live in their circumstances, were patient, and maintained hope in the face of fear.
The poem concludes with the speaker wondering over whether or not the mothers in Paradise can see their children below. Then, if they can, what they think about the lives they are leading. Do they cry happy tears? Can her own mother bear to look at her?
Analysis of Our Mothers
Our Mothers, lovely women pitiful;
Our Sisters, gracious in their life and death;
To us each unforgotten memory saith:
“Learn as we learned in life’s sufficient school,
In the first four lines of this piece, the speaker begins by making it clear that the poem is going to be addressed to “Our Mothers.” Although Rossetti expands her reach in the next lines to most women on the planet, it is thought that she was specifically interested in speaking on her relationship with her own mom.
She calls these women “lovely” and “pitiful.” This is an interesting contrast. One that is not uncommon when one speaks on women. It is clear that Rossetti has a positive opinion of the women around her though. They are to her, “Our Sisters.” No matter if one is related to the woman or not, they are one by means of common humanity. She refers to them as being “gracious in their life and death.” Mothers give everything to those they take care of. Their lives are dedicated to the well-being of those in their charge.
Rossetti is interested in exploring the generational relationship between mothers and their children, specifically female children. The speaker says that whenever she recalls a special memory, it has a message for her. All her thoughts of her mother reminded her of the commonalities between mother and daughter.
Work as we worked in patience of our rule,
Walk as we walked, much less by sight than faith,
Hope as we hoped, despite our slips and scathe,
Fearful in joy and confident in dule.”
In the next lines of ‘Our Mothers’, the speaker goes through a speech that lays out the ways that women and their daughters are taught to behave in the world. These societal norms and expectations are passed down through the generations and have become a mantra of sorts.
The women of the world were taught in the same “sufficient school”— life. This speaks to the still uncommon practice of educating women when Rossetti was writing this piece. These women were forced to learn through life, not within an institution. All women “Work” and have patience. They also “walk….by faith” rather than by sight. They are forced to lean on one another and make their way through the world with hope and good intuitions. Rather than with a firm knowledge of what they’re going to do next or where they’re going.
Mothers and daughters both “hope.” It is one of the most important things that is passed down from person to person. It should be, and is, maintained throughout “slips and scathe.” One is injured, but that doesn’t destroy one’s hope in the future. This relates back to the unlimited patience in the fifth line.
Lastly, the speaker mentions the contrasting emotions which often come up in good and bad situations. Women are “Fearful” when there’s “joy” and “confident” when there is “dule” or strife.
I know not if they see us or can see;
But if they see us in our painful day,
How looking back to earth from Paradise
Do tears not gather in those loving eyes?–
Ah, happy eyes! whose tears are wiped away
Whether or not you bear to look on me.
In the last six lines of the poem, there is a turn or volta. The speaker begins to refer to herself in the first person. She admits that she doesn’t know if the women who have passed on, the mothers, are able to see “us.” They might, or they might not. The speaker also doesn’t know if they’re able to see at all, or even have an understanding of the events which are occurring “back [on] earth from Paradise.”
She is speaking on all the mothers who have died, and are now in Heaven looking down on their children. The speaker wonders if when they watch their daughters live the same, strong lives they lived, if “tears not gather in those loving eyes?”
The speaker expects that the spirits of all dead mothers should be happy for their daughters. They should be crying happy tears. The speaker makes the poem more personal in the last line. She expresses concern that her mother might not be able to bear to look at her. She hopes that whether or not this is the case that there is someone to “wipe away the tears.”