Throughout this piece, readers can find examples of metaphors and imagery. It takes some interpretation to understand what it is about a “swallow” that does not agree with what the poet’s speaker hopes for her daughter’s future. But, this statement and the others included in the poem are examples of what the speaker fears. The version of the poem used below was translated by Doris Dana.
‘Fear’ by Gabriela Mistral is a poem about a mother’s desires for her daughter’s future.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet uses an extended metaphor to describe a mother’s worry about her daughter’s future. She does not want “them” to turn her daughter into a swallow. Her assertions continue in the next two stanzas as she declares her hope that her daughter will never become a “princess” or a “queen.” Any of these outcomes would take her daughter away from her, and she would become a different person.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Fear’ by Gabriela Mistral is a three-stanza poem divided into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are various lengths and end with different words that do not rhyme. For example, “turn,” “swallow,” “sky,” and “bed” in the first stanza.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. This can be accomplished through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in a line. For example: “And when night came, no longer” in stanza two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “She would fly far away into the sky / and never fly again to my straw bed.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “fly far” in line three of the first stanza and “night” and “no” in line three of the second stanza.
I don’t want them to turn
my little girl into a swallow.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker makes an interesting assertion. She says that she doesn’t want her daughter to be turned “into a swallow.” This is the beginning of an extended metaphor that conveys the various ways that a mother feels her daughter’s life would be changed for the worse. The first thing she mentions in regard to this possible transformation is that if her daughter were a bird, she would fly far away “into the sky” and never again be close to her mother.
The poet continues the metaphor into the next lines expressing her concern about the distance she would have from her bird-like daughter. Her daughter would live a very different life from her own, ensuring that the two would not have the mother-daughter intimacy that the speaker desires. The stanza ends with the refrain. It is an exact repetition of the first two lines of the stanza.
I don’t want them to make
my little girl a princess.
In the second stanza, the poet makes another assertion about her daughter’s future. She does not want her daughter to be turned into a princess by “them.” Readers might, at this point, be wondering who “them” refers to. While the poet does not reveal exactly who she’s thinking about, it is likely she’s considering the broader influence that other people are going to have on her daughter’s life. Above all else, she is expressing a concern that her daughter will lose sight of who she really is as she draws close to other people.
She doesn’t want her daughter to lose her down-to-earth nature when she’s flattered or doted upon by other people. For example, if she is given expensive possessions or treated as though she is better than other people, she may lose her desire to “play on the meadow.”
And even less do I want them
My little girl a queen!
In the third stanza, the poet concludes by saying that she does not want her daughter transformed into a “queen.” Her daughter might have a throne and power, but the speaker would not have access to her. Her daughter would be reserved, distant, and above the everyday concerns of people like her own mother. She does not want her daughter transformed, physically or mentally, into someone who has the posture and power of a queen.
It is interesting to consider in these lines how much the speaker’s desire for her daughter matches up with what the daughter wants for herself. While it does seem that this speaker has her daughter’s best interest at heart, how many of her various assertions are entirely selfish? Her desire to remain close to her daughter throughout her life and “rock her” may also be indicative of an overprotective mother who never wants her child to grow up.
The tone is assertive and concerned. The poet spends the three stanzas of this poem declaring what she does not want for her daughter and what she does want. Above all else, she does not want anything to take her daughter away from her. She wants, throughout the rest of her daughter’s life, to be as close to her as possible.
The meaning is that if a young girl’s life changes and she is made or treated like a “princess” or a “queen,” she will draw away from her mother. The mother/speaker sees this as the worst-case scenario. She spends the lines declaring how terrible this outcome would be.
The speaker is a mother to a young daughter. It may be the poet herself but, the speaker’s identity does not change the reader’s interpretation of the poem. This piece could be applied to many other mother/daughter relationships worldwide and throughout time.
The poet wrote this poem in order to express her own, or a persona’s, desire for her daughter’s future. It is clear through these lines that the speaker, whether they are the poet or not, loves their daughter and wants to ensure their daughter remains close to them throughout the rest of her life.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poetry. For example:
- ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes – uses the metaphor of a staircase to depict the difficulties and dangers one will face in life.
- ‘For My Daughter’ by Weldon Kees – an interesting poem about a speaker’s thoughts about having a daughter and considering her death.
- ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ by William Butler Yeats – speaks about the poet’s family. It demonstrates his concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter, Anne.