Study Guide

the mother Analysis

  • Sound Check

    "the mother" is written in free verse, so it doesn't have a consistent form, rhyme scheme, or meter. (To get all the deets on this topic, check out our "Form and Meter" section). The cool thing about free verse poems is that they can shift their form at whim.

    Reading "the mother" aloud is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. We begin with some sing-song-y rhyming couplets, then they fall apart, then they come back with a vengeance, and then they disappear again (again, check out "Form and Meter"). And all of these shifts in rhyme scheme, in line length, in address—basically, in how the poem sounds—have an effect on our perception of the mother. She seems to be trying to control her words through her rhymes, and we feel as if she loses control as she stops rhyming, then begins again, then stops. When we read "the mother" aloud, we experience the ups and downs right along with the speaker. The unpredictability of the poem at a sonic level places us in the precarious emotional state of the grieving speaker.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of this poem names the speaker—she's "the mother." And she's not just any ol' mother. She's the mother. The interesting thing about this, of course, is that "the mother" has had an abortion (and possibly, multiple abortions). The title of the poems is referring to her as "the mother," even though she doesn't have any children.

    Weird, right? Well, we've got some thoughts about this. We think that even if the speaker isn't a mother (in the sense that she has living children), she's still had the experience of pregnancy, and she still loves and mourns the children that she's never had. She feels like a mother who has lost children, even though she decided to terminate her pregnancy.

    But wait—Brooks's title is in lowercase letters, which is a little odd for a title. It's almost like Brooks is diminishing her mother status in these lines. Or maybe she's challenging the idea of her being a mother altogether. What say you? Is Brooks doing some super-sneaky undermining of her own title here?

    In any case, what the title do is set up the mind in which this tortured thought process takes place (check out "Setting" for more on this). We're right there with the mother as she tries to make sense of her actions. It's a difficult convo to have with yourself, and not even the title—is it sincere? mocking?—is free from that difficulty.

  • Setting

    The poem doesn't unfold in a specific location; it doesn't take place in a forest, or a hospital, or on the moon (though we do think that there should be more moon poems, if anyone's asking). Instead, "the mother" unfolds in the space of the speaker's mind. It's all about her thoughts, her emotions, her fantasies.

    But it's also important to remember when the poem was written: 1945 This was almost thirty years before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that guaranteed abortion rights for women across America. Abortion was then, as it still is today, a controversial issue.

    And, upon reading this poem, there's good reason why it's so controversial. It's an extraordinarily complex issue. The setting takes us inside the mother's mind, which is filled with doubt, guilt, love, fantasy—the works. But one thing that's utterly lacking here is any clear degree of certainty. We're in a setting of turmoil because that's what the speaker is experiencing to such an intense degree. Sheesh—no wonder the controversy persists.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of "the mother" is… a mother.

    Or is she?

    This is the poem the question asks: can you be a mother, if you have aborted your children? What makes a mother a mother? Is "the mother" actually "a mother"?

    The answer to this question depends on how you define motherhood. Our speaker is thoughtful, sorrowful, and full of love for her children—even though she doesn't have any, because she's aborted her pregnancies. How you feel about the mother might depend on how you feel about abortion rights—or it might not at all.

    The cool thing about this poem is that it asks us to imagine ourselves in the speaker's shoes, to inhabit her position. It doesn't ask us to agree with her decision, but it does ask us to hear her voice, her feelings, and to understand the depth of her love. It paints a portrait, and asks us to draw our own conclusions about the speaker.

    Tellingly, the speaker has her own trouble drawing conclusion. It's not like she feels exactly one way or the other about the abortion(s). Instead, we get to see her try to muddle through things. In the end, all she can say with certainty is that she loves her children. It seems that, through the speaker, the poem points to love as one of the few certainties in life—and death.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    "the mother" might be dealing with some seriously intense issues and emotions, but it's not too hard to actually read. Brooks doesn't have a crazy vocabulary or off-the-wall syntax; the complexity in the poem lies in the complexity of the speaker's feelings, not in the complexity of the language. But, if you need help navigating the emotional terrain of "the mother," never fear, Shmoop is here for you (as always). Check out our "Detailed Summary" section and we'll take you line-by-line through "the mother."

  • Calling Card

    Voicing the Unvoiced

    Our pal Gwendolyn Brooks is famous for a whole lot of things, chief among them her butt-kicking poems and her knack for representing silenced populations. Throughout her career, Brooks was dedicated to portraying under-represented peoples in her poetry—from the African American working poor of Chicago, to women who have had abortions. (Check out "Kitchenette Building" and "We Real Cool" for some examples.) When Brooks wrote "the mother," abortion was a hot-button issue; to admit to having had one was risky, if not downright unsafe. Brooks bravely gave voice to the hopes, dreams, feelings, of many groups of people, and she refused to whitewash them. She considered the bad along with the good, the corrupt along with the noble and painted a new, more accurate portrait of American life in her poetry. Now how about them apples?

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse, with Some Rhymed Couplets

    G. Brooks had some real poetry skills. She wrote some butt-kicking sonnets about black soldiers returning from World War II in A Street in Bronzeville, and she wrote in tons of different poetic forms in her lifetime.

    "the mother," however, is written in free verse. It has no prescribed form, and no regular meter, and its lines vary in length pretty drastically. It rhymes sometimes, but not always. The poem is not guided by form; it's more of an emotional rollercoaster.

    Sure, the poem begins with a bunch of rhyming couplets:

    The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
    The singers and workers that never handled the air.
    You will never neglect or beat
    Them, or silence or buy with a sweet
    . (3-6)

    But these end rhymes don't last throughout the poem. These lines, which consider the imaginary futures of the non-existent children, are a little sing-songy, childish even. The rhymes dissipate midway through the poem, and it feels like the speaker is too deep in her sorrow to keep up with the rhyming couplets. And then when they come back, the rhymes are harsh, even deadly:

    Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
    If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,

    The repetition of the word "all" in the final lines of the poem is a kind of rhyme too. But instead of rhyming "all" with another word, the speaker seems to be completely drained. The only thing that she has to rhyme "all" with is itself:

    Believe me, I loved you all.
    Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you

    Free verse allows Brooks to deploy rhymes—and to hold back on rhymes—whenever she wants. And the rhymes become a way for us to track the speaker's emotional state throughout the poem. Sometimes she seems hopeful or resolved, and the rhymes flow freely. Other times, she's doubtful, confused, or just plain exhausted. The (lack of) rhymes reflect that, too.

  • Direct Address

    All of "the mother" is a direct address to an audience. The mother sometimes speaks to her reading audience, sometimes she speaks to herself, sometimes she speaks to her non-existent children. These changes of address have a huge effect on the poem. When she speaks to her readers, the mother effectively implicates us in her life—particularly, in her decision to have an abortion. When she speaks to herself, we feel like we are overhearing her working through some serious issues. And when she speaks to her non-existent children, it's almost as if she calls them to life—she imagines that they are real, live, human beings. Brooks accomplishes so much with just a few shifts in address.

    • Lines 1-10: Here, the speaker addresses "you," which is to say, us (her readers). By doing this, she speaks about the effect of abortions generally, not specifically. It's like what she's saying applies to everyone who has had an abortion. 
    • Lines 11-14: In these lines, the speaker uses the word "I," and seems to be taking to herself now. She's contemplative, and she's turning things over in her mind. 
    • Lines 15-32: In the second half of the poem, the speaker addresses her non-existent children directly. She calls them into being with just her language, but this has the strange effect of drawing attention to the fact that they don't actually exist. There's a lot of power in the direct address.
  • Food and Hunger

    There are a whole bunch of food and hunger metaphors in "the mother." Think our gal Gwendolyn was just really hungry when she wrote the poem? Well, think again. Her food and hunger talk is a way for her to convey the strength, depth, and plain ol' bodily-ness of her feelings. Her feelings about her non-existent children run deep, and hunger is a great metaphor for making those feelings legible.

    • Line 6: This line introduces the word "sweet" as candy. (It's kind of an old-fashioned way to refer to candy, but we dig it.) But hold onto your horses, the speaker will use the word "sweet" differently in the poem as we read on. 
    • Lines 9-10: The mother imagines having "a snack" of her children, and "gobbling" them up with her eyes. Is she expressing a Hannibal Lecter-ish desire to eat her kids? Probably not. It's just that she imagines loving them so much that the feeling is embodied. She has almost a physical craving for these kids (who, remember, don't actually exist in real life). 
    • Line 14: The mother now refers to the non-existent children themselves as "sweets," as if they are delicious pieces of candy. Still, she won't be popping them into her mouth or anything like that. Calling her (non-existent) kids "sweets" is pretty much the same as your mom or dad calling you "sweetie."
    • Steaminess Rating


      So, "the mother" isn't exactly a sexy poem. But we're going to go ahead and give it a PG for its abortion-related content. This one might be a little controversial for the kiddos, so maybe pick another poem to read to your little brothers and sisters at bedtime. May we suggest this gem instead?