To My Mother by Edgar Allan Poe

‘To My Mother’ was published in July 0f 1849 and today stands as one of the most popular poems about mother/child relationships. Within this work, Poe addresses the complexity of his emotions towards his biological mother, his wife, as well as her mother. There are many powerful images in ‘To My Mother. When used correctly, imagery allows a poet to engage a reader’s senses. In this piece, Poe does so by referring to the “burning terms of love” and stating, very cleverly and evocatively, that he can feel angels whispering.

 

Summary of To My Mother

“To My Mother” by Edgar Allan Poe is a devotional sonnet in which Poe describes his feelings for his own mother and the mother of his wife.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the importance of the term “mother.” He believes that this phrase was coined by the angels as there is no word “so devotional as that of ‘Mother’.”

The speaker continues on to state that the woman he is speaking of is not his biological mother, but the mother of his wife, Virginia. This woman is more dear to him than his own mother, mostly due to the fact that she is responsible for the creation of Virginia. It is through her that his heart was filled.

In the final lines of this piece, the speaker reiterates how important this new mother is to him and how she outweighs what he feels for his birth mother. The woman who gave birth to him is nothing more to him than just that, the person who made him. But the love feels for Virginia’s mother stems from the “infinity” of the love he felt, and feels, for his wife.

 

Structure of To My Mother

‘To My Mother’  by Edgar Allan Poe is a fourteen-line, standard, Shakespearean sonnet. This piece follows the traditional rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The poem can be separated into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one final set of six lines, or sestet, the last two lines of which are a couplet. 

In addition to the regular rhyme scheme in ‘To My Mother,’ Poe also makes use of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. Examples can be seen throughout the text. For instance, the use of the repetition of the “n” consonant sound in line three with the phrase: “Can find, among their burning terms of love”. Or, in regards to assonance, a reader can look to line six. It reads: “You who are more than mother unto me”. The “o” vowel sound is clearly present in the words “who,” “more,” and “mother”. 

 

Poetic Techniques in To My Mother

Poe makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘To My Mother’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and hyperbole. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “My mother—my own mother” in line nine as well as “with which my wife” in line thirteen. 

Poe also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, the word “mother” appears towards the beginning of multiple lines in this poem, such as nine through eleven.

Hyperbole is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader. The most obvious example is at the end of the poem in which the poet says that his wife is dearer than life to his soul.

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a few examples in this poem, for instance, the transitions between lines seven and eight as well as ten and eleven. 

 

Analysis of To My Mother

Lines 1-4 

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,”

In the first stanza of ‘To My Mother’ the speaker makes his feelings clear about the word “mother”. He finds it to be of the utmost importance. So clear and “devotional” that it could not have been coined by any force less than the “angels”. 

The speaker can “feel” and imagine a scenario in which all of the angels are gathered around “whispering.” They are discussing the words of love and are unable to come up with anything more “burning [or]… devotional” as the word “Mother.”  This image is very evocative, it also intimately ties motherhood to the divine. It’s obvious the devotion Poe feels for those who take on this role, particularly the women he references in his poem. 

At this point in ‘To My Mother’ the reader is most likely under the impression that this piece is going to be about Poe’s own feelings for his long-dead mother. But that is not the case. A turn changes one’s perceptions about the text at the end of the eighth line. 

 

Lines 5-8 

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.

At the start of this quatrain, the speaker turns to address someone else. Its a woman who he has called “mother” for as long as he has known her. This “mother” figure is not solely a mother to him, but the one who filled  his “heart of hearts.” The mother he is speaking about is not his own, but the mother of his cousin, and young wife, Virginia. 

He loves her by her own right but is even more devoted to her for the fact that she gave him his true love. It was by her hand that “Virginia’s spirit” was set free. In Poe’s mind, mothers have the ability to foster love within one’s own heart, but also outside. It is from Virginia’s mother that she was made, and therefore from her that Poe received the greatest love of his life. 

 

Lines 9-14 

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.

In the last six lines of ‘To My Mother’ the speaker describes the emotions he has for his own biological mother and how those emotions work in tandem with those he has for Virginia’s mother. 

Poe’s parents died when he was very young and grew up in foster care.  It makes sense that he would be seeking out a mother figure somewhere in his life, it was a relationship that he was lacking. 

In the second line of this section, Poe refers to his mother as nothing more than “the mother of myself.” She was the one who gave birth to him, but Virginia’s mother is much more important. She is the “mother to the one I loved so dearly.” ‘To My Mother’ is all the more poignant when the reader learns, or realizes, that Virginia is dead. Poe and Virginia were married for a number of years before she died of tuberculosis. This sadness that “Death” brought makes his love for Virginia’s mother all the more important. 

She is “dearer” to him than the mother he so briefly knew. This emotion stems from “infinity”. His love for Virginia’s mother is tied to the love he felt for his “wife” who was “dearer to [his] soul than its soul-life”. 

 

About Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of his parents died before he reached the age of three. Poe was raised as a foster child in Virginia. As a young man, Poe was sent to some of the best schools in the state. While there, he excelled in his studies. Unfortunately, his success was mired by his bad habits. He was forced out of university after his foster father refused to pay Poe’s gambling debts. 

In 1827, Poe joins the United States Army and published his first collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems. His second collection was published two years later. Neither of these volumes received praise from the public. Poe would eventually make a home for himself alongside his aunt and cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore, Maryland. 

In 1835, Poe became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. The next year he married his thirteen-year-old cousin. Throughout the next years of his life, he edited a number of magazines. He also made a name for himself as a writer and editor. It was also during this time that he wrote some of his best-known stories. These included “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. 

Poe’s wife and cousin died in 1847 from tuberculosis. This caused his depression to deepen and his alcoholism to worsen. To this day there is a mystery surrounding his death. He was found on October 3, 1849, semi-conscious in Baltimore. He died four days later of what was then called, “acute congestion of the brain”. It is now thought that he had perhaps contracted rabies. 

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