‘Milkweed’ by Helen Hunt Jackson is a sonnet concerning the beauty of the milkweed plant. Here the poet upholds the importance of humbleness and simplicity.
This poem concerns the milkweed, a type of flowering plant. It exudes a milky substance called latex. For this reason, the plant is known by this name. Milkweeds are also known as Asclepius. Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. As it has some medicinal properties, it is named after that Greek god. However, in this sonnet, Helen Hunt Jackson focuses mainly on the beauty of the milkweeds. By using imagery and metaphors the poet emphasizes its importance though it is a plant growing in the “dingy lanes.” Along with that, the image of the butterflies crowding over the milkweed flowers at the end of the poem is spectacular.
In this poem, the poet evokes the spirit of the milkweed and asks it a few questions. The poetic persona of this poem wants to emphasize its simplicity and serene beauty by using such questions. According to her, there seems a mystery in its origin. The milk that runs through its veins has divine importance in her eyes. With the glorification of the plant the first section ends. Thereafter, in the next section, the poet depicts some butterflies that throng near the flowers of the milkweed plant. They seem to her like jewels sparkling in the sunlight.
The poet wrote this poem in the form of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. The first section of the poem containing eight lines is the octave part. The following section, having six lines, is the sestet. The rhyme scheme of the octave is ABBABBA. The following sestet has the CDEDEC. So, the sestet differs a bit from the Petrarchan model. Apart from that, like a conventional sonnet, this poem is also written in iambic pentameter. There is an elision in the sestet. It occurs in the word, “flowers” present in the eleventh line.
This sonnet, ‘Milkweed’ showcases several literary devices. The poem begins with an apostrophe. Here, the poet evokes the spirit of the milkweed by calling it a “patient creature.” There is also a metaphor in the first line in “a peasant face.” Moreover, the poet uses personification to invest the plant with the qualities of a human being. Thereafter, the poet uses alliteration in the phrase, “fills thy faithful veins.” Moreover, this phrase also contains a transferred epithet or hypallage. The line containing this phrase is a rhetorical question or interrogation. There is a biblical allusion present in the phrase, “royal nursling.” Thereafter the poet uses metonymy in “plebeian race.” She uses a simile in the line, “And hand, like jewels flashing in the heat.”
O patient creature with a peasant face,
Burnt by the summer sun, begrimed with stains,
And standing humbly in the dingy lanes!
There seems a mystery in thy work and place,
Jackson begins this poem metaphorically. She evokes the milkweed as a “patient creature” that has a face like a peasant. Here, in “peasant face” the poet uses a symbol of lowliness and simplicity. This plant is a simple one unlike those grown meticulously in a garden. Moreover, to depict a clear image of the milkweed on a reader’s mind, she says the plant is burnt by the summer sun and begrimed with stains. It is no different from a pauper or a peasant. In this way, this plant is representative of the working class.
Thereafter, the poet says it stands humbly in the “dingy lanes.” Dingy means dull or gloomy. This phrase sets the mood of the poem. Moreover, after visualizing the image of the milkweed, she thinks there might be a mystery in its origin or where it grows.
Which crowns thee with significance and grace;
Whose is the milk that fills thy faithful veins?
What royal nursling comes at night and drains
Unscorned the food of the plebeian race?
In this section of the octave, the poet uses enjambment to connect the first line with the last line of the previous section. In the previous section, she has said the plant has a mysterious origin. Here, she rhetorically asks why it is crowned with significance and grace even though it has a lowly origin. Here, the poet alludes to Christ’s lowliness. Therefore, the milkweed seems a symbol of Christ himself.
Thereafter, the poet asks the plant whose milk fills its “faithful veins.” Moreover, she asks it what “royal nursling” or infant comes at night and drains its milk. Here, the poet invests the milkweed with heavenly qualities. It seems that angels come at night and drink its blissful milk. However, at the end of this section, the poet metaphorically refers to the milk as the “food of the plebeian race.” “Plebeian race” is a metonym for human beings.
By day I mark no living thing which rests
On thee, save butterflies of gold and brown,
Who turn from flowers that are more fair, more sweet,
And, crowding eagerly, sink fluttering down,
And hang, like jewels flashing in the heat,
Upon thy splendid rounded purple breasts.
The sestet of this sonnet, ‘Milkweed’, depicts what the persona observes by daytime. According to her, she marks no living thing near it. As it has toxic elements, insects generally don’t prefer feeding on this plant. However, there are a few species that still feed on it.
The poet can only see butterflies of gold and brown that turn from other flowers and come to the milkweed flowers. Here, to create a contrast, the poet uses the phrase, “more fair, more sweet.” Those flowers are far better than that of the milkweed. Still, the butterflies crowd eagerly around this plant. It seems that here the poet is referring to the monarch butterflies that are commonly found near this plant.
Thereafter, the poet describes the butterflies hanging from the milkweed flowers as jewels. In the sunlight, their wings sparkle like jewels. Moreover, the poet uses synecdoche in this section and compares the splendid and rounded purplish flowers of the plant to a lady’s breast.
‘Milkweed’ is one of the best-known poems of Helen Hunt Jackson. She was an American poet and activist. Moreover, she stood on behalf of improved treatment of Native Americans by the United States Government. In her book, “A Century of Dishonor” (1881), she described the adverse effects of the government actions. However, in this poem, there are several Christian elements. Along with that, this lyric also contains her bent towards romanticism. The depiction of the milkweed and the butterflies suckling from its flowers beautifully describes her poetic sensibilities.
Here is a list of a few poems that illustrate similar kinds of themes and images present in Helen Hunt Jackson’s ‘Milkweed’.
- May-Flower by Emily Dickinson – In this one of the best Emily Dickinson poems, the speaker describes the nature of a flower blooming in April and May.
- Ah! Sun-flower by William Blake – This poem contains several meanings and here the poet depicts a weary sunflower, tired from counting the sun’s course. It’s one of the best-known Blake poems.
- The Poppy by Jane Taylor – In this poem, Taylor describes a single, vain poppy flower growing in the sunlight boldly.
- The Lily of the Valley by Paul Laurence Dunbar – This poem describes a lily flower that grows in a valley.