”A Mother to her Waking Infant” by Joanna Baillie
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A Mother to her Waking Infant was first published in 1790; the poem is narrated by a mother who is focusing her thoughts and words towards her newborn baby. The poem is directed solely at the child of the title, with the mothers words starting as the child awakes, Now in thy dazzling half-oped eye. Joanna Baillie uses a number of techniques to mirror and represent a new mothers emotions and affections for her child. The meter and form of the poem help to emphasise these emotions and the various other uses of language contribute to the effect of the piece on a reader.
The poem is formed of eight stanzas, each one is six lines long except for the fifth stanza which is an octet. The stanzas are formed of sets of three rhyming couplets in the form AABBCC DDEEFF, the metre is Iambic Tetrameter but each stanza includes a trailing last line which is in Iambic Trimeter. This form of rhyme and pattern of language adds to the effect of the poem in several ways. Normally a poem written in tetrameter, or lines of eight syllables, is lent a briskness or upbeat tempo, poems written in the more formal pentameter seem to carry a more deliberate and precise tone. However the language and the missing foot from the metre of the last line of each stanza helps to give the poem a more measured pace.
Poor helpless thing! What do I see,That I should sing of thee?The shortened line enforces a natural pause in our reading of the poem and this is what keeps the pace even and more fitting to the relaxed and peaceful subject matter. Within some of the stanzas you can feel the pace quickening, especially with the use of a string of monosyllabic words and repetition such as in stanza five Thy rosy cheek so soft and warm;Thy pinky hand and dimpled arm;But the pause at the end physically stops the build up of tempo and returns us to the soft, deliberate language at the start of the next stanza.
The effect of the rhyming couplet scheme is to give a sing-song quality to the poem, you can imagine the mother gently singing this to her infant as he awakens. The rhyme also helps to add a strict form and rigidity to the rhythm of the poem, echoing perhaps a nursery rhyme or a marching song.
The point of view of this poem is evident through-out. The title is exact in its description of the poem as the piece is easily perceived as being spoken, or sung, by A Mother to her Waking Infant. A large proportion of the poem is the mother telling her child how much she loves them and how deeply she feels affection for her newborn baby. The mother seems almost amazed at how a creature with such shapeless limbs and small understanding can mean so much to her. It is strange for a reader to experience this moment between the mother and child as no other being is acknowledged in the piece. The mother talks directly and personally and as a reader you take on the position of the repeated Thy, even though you are clearly not the intended recipient of these words. Any piece of writing specifically meant for the second person or you has a deeply personal air, in many ways it is like reading a personal letter or seeing into someones thoughts when they look at the other in question.
This emotional approach means that the poem has a deeply meaningful and touching feel to it, you also implicitly trust the speaker, as it feels as if the speaker would have no reason to mislead. However it is clear that an infant would not understand the intentions of the mother and perhaps Baillie acknowledges this with the linesPerhaps when time shall add a fewShort years to these, thoult love me too.suggesting that the child will only understand the words and sentiments in a few years. This then insinuates that perhaps this is a written legacy of a mothers feelings for her child, so that she can show and express this when the child has a better understanding.
The repetition of the word thy helps to drive home this sense of direct contact with the infant, the word is used 18 times in the poem and thou and thee are also repeated several times.
In the fifth stanza the careful pattern of the poem is altered, so that this stanza contains eight lines instead of the six used in the others. The effect of this is threefold, firstly it helps to mirror the mothers feelings towards the infant. This stanza is concerned mainly with the childs physical appearance thy rosy cheeks thy pinky hand thy silken locks, it seems as if the mother when gazing deeply upon her child is so lost in the beauty of his image that she becomes caught up in the moment and almost forgets herself and the rhythm of her song. This stanza also reads with a much faster pace than the previous ones, the lines are mainly monosyllabic and the repetition of the word thy at the beginning of the first three lines forces the reader to trip more lightly across the words, increasing the speed at which they comfortably follow each other. The next three lines are joined with enjambment, again increasing the tempo of the poem.
…..where circles deepAround thy neck in harmless graceSo soft and sleekly hold their place.The increase in speed creates an effect within the poem but also needs to be married with the longer stanza so that it fits into the rhythm of the rest of the poem.
The last effect of this unusual stanza is to create a turning point within the poem. The turning point starts in the final rhyming couplet of the fifth stanza where the pace is reduced by the use of alliteration and the trimetric line.
Might harder hearts with kindness fill,And gain our right good will.After this line the mother seems to change her voice and view point slightly, she still speaks entirely to her child, but seems to broaden her perspective. She now moves the poem away from direct description of the infant and her love and touches on how they are interacting with the world around them. Before this section there was no background to the poem, no setting and no characters other than the mother and the infant, now there are passers by implying that they are somewhere that may be passed by, there are clowns, and old wives kissing. Following this introduction of a real environment, the speaker moves on to touch the future, wondering what, after the few short years, the relationship between them will be like, Become my sure and cheering stay: The imagery in A Mother to her Waking Infant is an important part of the poems effect, The use of adjectives and metaphors helps to reinforce the image of a mothers unconditional love.
In the first stanza the chrystal spread across the babys chin is an allegory for saliva that has dried after dribbling whilst in sleep. Most would probably find the thought of this less than beautiful, but by juxtaposing this image with that of a shimmering sheen Baillie manages to express how a mother can see nothing but the loveliness of her child. This continues throughout the first section of the poem, Thy shapeless limbs nor step nor grace suggests that it is without grace in movement, not the most flattering of descriptions, neither is the term awry as if to indicate that its lips are slightly wonky. These adjectives are softened by the professions of love that intersperse them, making them seem almost caring in tone.
Later in the poem after the turning point, the line Each passing clown bestows his blessing seems particularly symbolic. Clown may be a metaphor for people who make silly noises and play with young babies, the childlike imagery reflects the subject matter and is a particularly weary sounding description, as if the mother hears their musings and delight at her child frequently enough for them to seem mundane. The term bestows his blessing is strange as it has connotations of both royalty and the church. A priest or a king may bestow their blessing on someone that has greatly pleased them and the words carry a great sense of pride and honour. The plosive sounds of bestow and blessing help to emphasise the force behind these words. It seems again to be the mother layering her own great and majestic love for her child over the ordinary and routine aspects of parenthood.
Joanna Baillie employs a great variety of techniques throughout this poem to emphasise the subject matter, a mothers unconditional love, and everyday amazement for her newborn child, for even when they seem mundane or cry and misbehave she is reminded of the deepest adoration she holds for themYet little varlet that thou art, Thou twitchest at the heart.
Romantic Writings: An Anthology, edited by W.R. Owens and Hamish Johnson (1998), The Open UniversityApproaching Poetry, Sue Asbee (2001), The Open UniversityRomantic Writings, edited by Stephen Bygrave (1996), The Open University