‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a confessional poem about a mother who had lost her sons in the war. Here the poetic persona laments the loss that in contrast was the source of happiness in the country. Two brave soldiers who were eventually brothers fought till their last for the country. Isn’t it a great example of patriotism? But, for a mother, it is much more than that, something deep and scorching like the sun in the arid desert. The pain from which the speaker is going through gets a lively embodiment in E.B. Browning’s ‘Mother and Poet’.
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning refers to a mother who is both grief-stricken and agitated about the death of her two sons. Both of them were shot by the sea during the war. Being a mother, she can’t think of anything else like patriotism, freedom, or glory of the nation. What is paining her deep, is that her two boys won’t ever return. However, in the poem, the speaker thinks about the old days when her two children caressed her with love. The picture of their childhood is still green in her mind. It is she who made them aware of the values a man should have. And this early education of loving one’s country, the speaker thinks, is the sole cause of their death. It might have freed Italy but confined a mother in lifelong sadness.
That’s why at the end of the poem, the speaker says that everyone in the country was happy for their nation’s achievement. But, sadly the speaker says, “I have my Dead”. In such a condition, if the country demands some celebratory verse from the speaker, she can’t give any except this elegiac piece of hers.
Structure and Form
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a specimen of confessional poetry. Here, the speaker is a poet and a mother who had lost both of her sons. And on the eve of Italy’s freedom celebration, she confesses to the country not to demand any “great song” from her. As for then, her heart can only give birth to elegies only. Apart from that, the poem is an elegy too. Thereafter, in this poem, the speaker is only the mother and the hearer appears to be the abstract country. Hence, it is also a dramatic monologue. By using the mode of soliloquy, the mother expresses what she is going through after the tragic loss of her sons.
Moreover, the rhyme scheme of the poem is a regular one. The poet employs the English quintain or the ABABB rhyme scheme throughout the poem. It means that the last two lines of each stanza form a couplet. As an example in the first stanza, “east” and “feast” rhyme together. And “sea”, “free”, and “me” rhyme altogether. However, the metrical scheme of the poem is irregular. There isn’t any set meter scheme. Irrespective of that, there is a lyrical flow in the poem and the mix of the iambic and the trochaic meter helps the poet to create this lyrical effect.
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning contains several literary devices that make the mother’s lament more emotional and touching to the readers. Likewise, there is a repetition of “Dead” and “And” in the first stanza of the poem. The italicized “this” in the second stanza is a metaphor for the poet’s grief-stricken heart. In the same stanza, the “east sea” and “west sea” are metaphors. There is hyperbole in the last two lines of this stanza. And, the hyperbolic expression is meant for emphasizing the mother’s pain. In the third stanza, the first two lines contain an anaphora and in the last line, “test” is a metaphor. In “that test” the poet uses alliteration. However, there are several other instances where the poet uses this device.
Moreover, in the fifth stanza, the “tyrant” is a personification of the war. Likewise, there is another personification in the next stanza. Here, the poet personifies the “house”. By using the word “laurel-bough” the poet hints at a metonymy. It symbolizes the sons’ achievements. There is a simile in “With a face as pale as stone, in the following stanza. In the tenth stanza, the poet uses a climax in the first line. However, in the fourteenth stanza, the poet uses an allusion to Jesus Christ and his five holy wounds. A personal metaphor is present in the phrase “disfranchise despair”. In addition to the literary devices mentioned above, there is a palilogy in the last stanza. The stanza is also used as a refrain.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Dead ! both my boys! When you sit at the feast
And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
Let none look at me!
‘Mother and Poet’ by Browning introduces the cause of the mother’s lamentation in the first stanza of the poem. Her sons were killed in the battle which was fought by the east and west sea respectively. As a result, it has left the speaker in such a mental state that the freedom of Italy appeared as a foundation built on his sons’ bones.
Here, the speaker refers to her countrymen as “you”. And tells them she couldn’t write a “great song” celebrating the freedom of Italy. The reason is simple. Without the warm presence of her sons, how she can be happy. As a result, in the last line, she suggests her countrymen not to wish anything from her. What she can do now, is lamenting the loss of her sons through writing an elegy not a eulogy for the national glory.
Yet I was a poetess only last year,
And good at my art, for a woman, men said;
But this woman, this, who is agonized here,
— The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head
For ever instead.
In the second stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’, the speaker makes it clear that he has stopped writing poetry from the last year after the death of her second son. Poetry being an expression of a living heart, can’t generate from a heart that ceased to beat metaphorically. Death doesn’t have a song. Likewise, the death of her sons has made her feel numb and her motherly heart die. For this reason, the poet can’t write a verse glorifying the nation’s freedom. Now, what rhymes in her mind is the sound of the sea that has engulfed his sons. Moreover, the imagination only captures their fading images.
Here, the repetition of the word “this” is meant for emphasizing the speaker’s sorrowful condition. And the contraction of the last line compels one to stop and think about her feelings.
What art can a woman be good at? Oh, vain!
What art is she good at, but hurting her breast
With the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?
Ah boys, how you hurt! you were strong as you pressed,
And I proud, by that test.
‘Mother and Poet’ by E.B. Browning talks about the “art” a woman is good at in the third stanza. Here, the poet uses a rhetorical question or interrogation to glorify motherhood. Thereafter, the speaker goes back to her past when she breastfed her sons. The pain of the bite of their “milk-teeth” crowned the speaker with the glory of motherhood.
In the last two lines, the speaker is pleased to imagine the first pain that made her proud of herself as a mother. For this reason, she uses a rhetorical exclamation, “Ah boys, how you hurt!” The description is so vivid in her memory that she can still feel the sensation of that old “test”.
What art’s for a woman? To hold on her knees
Both darlings! to feel all their arms round her throat,
Cling, strangle a little! to sew by degrees
And ‘broider the long-clothes and neat little coat ;
To dream and to doat.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’ by E.B. Browning, the poetic persona thinks how much she loved her children during their childhood days. Their soft arms clinging around her throat gave her a painful pleasure of first motherhood days. In those days, she embroidered their long-clothes and little coats with hope. Along with that, she dreamt about their better future. However, in this stanza, the poet presents how badly she misses her sons, and thoughts of the past somehow increase her pain more.
To teach them … It stings there! I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.
I prated of liberty, rights, and about
The tyrant cast out.
In ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Browning, there is a reference to the preliminary education that the mother gave to her sons about “country” in the fifth stanza. She told them, “That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.” She instilled in their hearts the ideals of freedom and rights of citizens. But, she intentionally left mentioning the “tyrant” called war that trampled their lives recently. However, in the last line, the metaphor of the tyrant is important. The sense of the words depicts how war creates havoc in a mother’s heart.
And when their eyes flashed … O my beautiful eyes! …
I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels
Of the guns, and denied not. But then the surprise
When one sits quite alone! Then one weeps, then one kneels!
God, how the house feels!
In the sixth stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’, the speaker ironically refers to her innocent kids’ fascination with the objects of destruction. And, that led to their death in the future. Now, the speaker has nothing to do except wailing and lamenting the loss. The house seems to have a soul in it and joins the speaker in her lamentation. The “house” is also a metaphor for the speaker herself.
Apart from that, the phrase, “O my beautiful eyes!” is a part of the chain of her thoughts. This form of juxtaposing a brief thought in between the dominating thoughts is called the “stream-of-consciousness” technique.
At first, happy news came, in gay letters moiled
With my kisses, — of camp-life and glory, and how
They both loved me; and, soon coming home to be spoiled
In return would fan off every fly from my brow
With their green laurel-bough.
In this section of ‘Mother and Poet’, the speaker introduces the tragic event that changed her life forever. In the first few lines, she talks about her sons who had become soldiers. Whenever they were away, they sent “gay letters” to her, and their return doubled her happiness. Here, the mother inside the speaker, says how her love, in reality, spoiled both of her sons.
In the last line, the “green laurel-bough” is a metonymy that symbolizes the achievements of a soldier.
Then was triumph at Turin: Ancona was free!’
And some one came out of the cheers in the street,
With a face pale as stone, to say something to me.
My Guido was dead! I fell down at his feet,
While they cheered in the street.
In contrast, the next section of ‘Mother and Poet’ presents how her first son died. He was fighting in the battle for Ancona’s freedom and died in it. While the victory at Ancona made men merrier about the feat, it made the speaker unhappy. After hearing the news of her son’s death she couldn’t even stand on her feet. While everyone cheered at the street, in contrast, a mother fell and wailed for the first great blow on her life.
Here, the poet uses a simile in “a face pale as stone” to refer to the artless face of the speaker after hearing about her son’s death. Moreover, the stone also symbolizes a face without any emotions.
I bore it; friends soothed me; my grief looked sublime
As the ransom of Italy. One boy remained
To be leant on and walked with, recalling the time
When the first grew immortal, while both of us strained
To the height he had gained.
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Browning begin with “I bore it”. It means that the speaker somehow digested the pain and moved on with what was still left to her. There was a relief that another hand was there to hold her for the rest of her life. Apart from that, there is a metaphor in “the ransom of Italy”. Here, the event of Italy’s freedom seems to the speaker as if it has been traded with the life of her first son.
In the last two lines, the poetic persona uses a paradox to express that her first might have died mortally yet his soul had become immortal. Now, it lives eternally in heaven. Besides, the speaker and her second son both wish to reach where the first son has reached after his death. It is no doubt heaven.
And letters still came, shorter, sadder, more strong,
Writ now but in one hand, I was not to faint, —
One loved me for two — would be with me ere long :
And Viva l’ Italia! — he died for, our saint,
Who forbids our complaint”
In this section of ‘Mother and Poet,’ the mother talks about the letters she gets from her second son. His letters remind her of the dead son. But, it is not that her living son ignored her. The poet says, “One loved me for two”. It means that the second son loves her more after the tragedy. However, after her son’s death in the siege men shouted “Viva l’ Italia” or “Long live Italy”, but it couldn’t infuse life into her dead son’s heart.
In the last two lines, the poet refers to her dead son as a “saint”. As his soul has received a dwelling in heaven, the mother’s wailing can’t bring her back. His soul “forbids” the complaint of the mother as well as his other son.
My Nanni would add, he was safe, and aware
Of a presence that turned off the balls, — was imprest
It was Guido himself, who knew what I could bear,
And how ’twas impossible, quite dispossessed,
To live on for the rest.”
In this section of ‘Mother and Poet’, the mother laments about her loneliness and says, it was “impossible, quite dispossessed,/ To live on for the rest.” However, her son knew that her mother could bear the pain. That’s why he fought bravely and died on the battlefield. The last few lines again refer to the mental state of the speaker.
However, in “quite dispossessed”, the poet uses a metaphor for a house that is marooned. Here, the home is the mother’s heart in which her sons lived. One’s untimely departure makes her feel like an empty room.
On which, without pause, up the telegraph line
Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta: — Shot.
Tell his mother. Ah, ah, his, ‘their’ mother, — not mine’
No voice says “My mother” again to me. What!
You think Guido forgot?
In this stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’, the poet talks about the telegram from which the news of her second son’s death. However, the speaker somehow managed to gather some courage in herself but in the meantime came the charge of reality heading directly towards the center of her faith. The news came that her son was shot dead at the siege of Gaeta.
Apart from that, the speaker gives a specific focus on a particular word. The telegraph reads, “their mother” not “My mother”. So, she can’t ever hear those two sweet words again. This thought was the final blow to her soul. At last, the poet asks a rhetorical question for heightening the tragic effect of the previous lines.
Are souls straight so happy that, dizzy with Heaven,
They drop earth’s affections, conceive not of woe?
I think not. Themselves were too lately forgiven
Through THAT Love and Sorrow which reconciled so
The Above and Below.
In the thirteenth stanza, there is a mother’s complaint to her dead sons about leaving her alone. But she, at last, forgives them as there is still love for them even if they are no more. However, the capitalization of “THAT” highlights the neighboring ideas of “Love and Sorrow” in the poet’s heart. In the last line, “Above” and “Below” are metaphors for her sons and the speaker. The sons live in heaven and the mother still lives in the earth below. The emotions of love and sorrow combined them previously.
O Christ of the five wounds, who look’dst through the dark
To the face of Thy mother! consider, I pray,
How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,
Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turned away,
And no last word to say!
In the next stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’, the mother seeks an answer from Christ for not attending to the plea of those mothers who have lost their children in the war. The agitated mother ironically says, “Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turned away,/ And no last word to say! in the end.
In this section, the poet alludes to Christ as redeemer. But, he overlooked her pain with his eyes turned away”.
Both boys dead? but that’s out of nature. We all
Have been patriots, yet each house must always keep one.
‘Twere imbecile, hewing out roads to a wall;
And, when Italy’s made, for what end is it done
If we have not a son?
In this section of ‘Mother and Poet’, the speaker goes on lamenting about the loss. Here she says if there is no son left in his family how she can be a part of the nation’s glory in the future. Thereafter, she questions the importance of the war. As she is childless now, there are no feelings in her heart about the victory or glory of Italy.
In this stanza, the poet uses an image of “hewing out roads to a will”. Here, using a metaphor, the poet reflects the lives of her two sons. Like a road that ends to a hill, the lives of her sons abruptly ended in the middle. At last, the poet uses an interrogation, broods over the future of the nation.
Ah, ah, ah! when Gaeta’s taken, what then?
When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport
Of the fire-balls of death crashing souls out of men?
When the guns of Cavalli with final retort
Have cut the game short?
This stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’ by E.B. Browning, presents the attitude of the speaker towards the victory of Gaeta. The poet expresses her deep resentment about the siege that led to her son’s death. However, the speaker refers to the incident as the “game”. The sense associated with the word brings out the theme of the futility of war in this section. Moreover, war is nothing but an interplay of soldiers at the hands of those in power. For this reason, the mother ironically remarks, “When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport”.
When Venice and Rome keep their new jubilee,
When your flag takes all heaven for its white, green, and red,
When you have your country from mountain to sea,
When King Victor has Italy’s crown on his head,
(And I have my Dead) —
In this stanza of ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Browning, the sad mother voices the most compelling points of the poem. In the first section, she refers to the cheerful nation that celebrates the recent victories. Every person has something to cherish but the mother only has the memories of her sons. Here the speaker refers to the jubilation in Italy, the flag, the geography of the country, and at last King Victor wearing the crown to heighten the effect of the line that comes at the end of the stanza. The shift in the last line portrays the magnitude of a mother’s loss.
What then? Do not mock me. Ah, ring your bells low,
And burn your lights faintly! My country is there,
Above the star pricked by the last peak of snow:
My Italy’s THERE, with my brave civic Pair,
To disfranchise despair!
In this section of ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Browning, the speaker beautifully defines what a nation actually is. For her, Italy, her motherland, exists not in this world. Her Italy is now in heaven where her “brave civic Pair” lives eternally. The poet capitalizes, “THERE” for the sake of emphasizing the value of her sons to a mother. Moreover, the poet uses a circumlocution or periphrasis in the third line in which the speaker actually refers to heaven.
Forgive me. Some women bear children in strength,
And bite back the cry of their pain in self-scorn;
But the birth-pangs of nations will wring us at length
Into wail such as this — and we sit on forlorn
When the man-child is born.
In the nineteenth stanza, the poem ‘Mother and Poet’, becomes an exceptionally woven piece of art. It presents the emotional climax of the poem. Here, the poetic self of the mother compares her pain to that of the pregnant nation. Like a mother struggles during childbirth, the nation has given birth to freedom. But, the speaker shares the nation’s pain and dedicated her sons to the nation’s glory.
Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Both! both my boys! If in keeping the feast
You want a great song for your Italy free,
Let none look at me!
At the end of ‘Mother and Poet’, the refrain appears again and reminds the people of the mother’s passivity during the celebration of Italy’s freedom. For this reason, she ends her lamentation on this note, “Let none look at me!” Her aching heart can only give birth to elegies, not eulogies that celebrate the glory of the nation.
Historical Context of Mother and Poet
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was first published in “Last Poems” in 1862. In this poem, Browning alludes to Laura Savio, of Turin who was a poetess and patriot. Her sons namely, Alfredo (1838-1860) and Emilio (1837-1861) died in the battles fought during the phase of Italy’s unification. Moreover, there is a reference to the “Siege of Ancona” of 1815 and “Siege of Gaeta” of 1860 in which her sons died. However, between the siege of Gaeta and the poet’s death on 29th June, Browning might have read about the event and wrote this poem.
Like ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here is a list of few poems that reflect similar themes and mainly revolve around the consequences of war.
- War is Kind by Stephen Crane – In this poem, Stephen Crane talks about a young lady who has lost her beloved in the war.
- Warning to Parents by Elizabeth Jennings – Here, Elizabeth Jennings warns parents to keep their children away from the metaphorical “tyrant” about which Browning’s persona talked about.
- The Next War by Wilfred Owen – In this poem, Wilfred Owen refers to the loss of life and the horrors of the war.
- After Blenheim by Robert Southey – Here, Robert Southey talks about the vanity of war from the perspective of an old man who is infatuated with the “nation’s famous victory”.