The Chronicle Review

Poetry, the First Milk

Michael Glenwood for The Chronicle

February 06, 2011

[Poetry] hath been the ... first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.—Sir Philip Sidney, "A Defence of Poetry" (1595) 


When at age 4 my daughter Anna became increasingly anxious at bedtime, I tried coaxing her to sleep with the most melodious poems I knew.

"Come live with me and be my love," I began as I sat on her bed in a triangle of hallway light, rubbing her back. "And we will all the pleasures prove, / That valleys, groves, hills and fields, / Woods, or steepy mountain yields." She breathed a little more slowly, as did I.

The "me" and "I" of Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," promises not only perfect weather and nature's music to his beloved but also numerous luxurious handmade goods—if she agrees to live with him. When I spoke the lines to Anna, however, I gave her something right then and there, and with no strings attached—language so imaginative, musical, and delicious that we could see, hear, and taste it at once:

Fair lined slippers for the cold
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs.

The power at the core of poetry—the power to conjure—had never been more evident to me.

Handily, I had been memorizing poems for years, having discovered as an undergraduate that there is no more powerful way to read a poem than to learn it by heart. Now as a young English professor, I challenged myself to begin each class speaking a poem as if spontaneously speaking my own thoughts.

I didn't know it at the time, but our bedtime poems were not only teaching Anna to let go of worries, but also preparing me to give birth again. Reciting to Anna every night through the summer of my third trimester, I modeled peace of mind and drowsy comfort. I modeled these so well, in fact, that I often fell asleep before she did. Then, on the night Julia was born, as contractions became more painful, I found myself silently reciting the same poems and experiencing the corresponding even breathing and letting go.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows ...
 (Oberon, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Now that baby Julia was part of our family, the bedtime routine with Anna served an additional purpose. It was a guaranteed bonding time for the two of us and reassurance that not everything had changed. We returned over and over again to all the "old" poems.

I also spoke poems to Julia, and one in particular: a 17th-century poem by Robert Herrick titled "The Nightpiece, To Julia." Herrick had written it for a girlfriend, but it could just as well have been composed for a child at bedtime. It begins, "Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee, / The shooting stars attend thee."

In the last lines, the poet-speaker addresses Julia by name. One night, when Julia was about 5, this moment suddenly struck her. "Is that me in the poem?" she asked excitedly. "It is you, when I say the poem," I answered. She looked as though she'd just found a hidden treasure chest. Herrick's poem became one of Julia's theme songs, along with a children's version of the Beatles' "Julia" that her dad sang to her.

Both Anna and Julia asked early on why I said "thee" and "thou" so much. I explained, as I do to my college students, that in Renaissance speech these pronouns were often the cozier, less formal ways to say "you" and "yours." The very thee's and thou's that sound unnatural and pretentious to us sounded natural and intimate to many people in the English Renaissance.

In general, however, it didn't matter to me if Anna and Julia understood our bedtime poems in any particular way. Poems are first and foremost to be experienced—sensually, imaginatively. Of course, learning more about form and structure, the words and historical contexts of a poem may make that experience richer. But explanation of a poem can never replace a poem itself, least of all at bedtime.

Children know this much better than adults do. They catch whatever music and imagery words send their way and may love a poem before "understanding" it. When their curiosity kicks in about specific words and phrases, they ask about them, and they are then ready to make good use of the answers.

Julia loved Emily Dickinson's verse, "There is no frigate like a book." The first time I spoke the poem, she asked, "What's a frigate?" But it was only one by one through dozens of times hearing the poem that she asked the meanings of a few more words. Then one night, at the end of the poem, she remarked, "Wow. That one little poem has four great words: 'frugal,' 'chariot,' 'coursers,' and 'prancing.'"

Evenings when Julia was 7 or 8, Titania often called out to her Midsummer Night's fairies, "Peaseblossom! Moth! Cobweb! Mustardseed!" Julia answered for each: "Ready! ... And I! ... And I! ... And I! ... Where shall we go?" Around this time, she began making corrections if I misspoke a line, as sometimes I did in Titania's directions to her fairies. The first few times this happened, I was startled as well as pleased, not knowing yet the precision with which she listened. One night, instructing my fairies to dote on Bottom, I said:

Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honey-bags steal from the humble bees
And for night-tapers pluck their waxen thighs ...

"Crop," Julia interjected. I looked at her, briefly confused.

"You said pluck," she explained. "It's crop."

A night soon after, I began the favorite Dickinson verse: "There is no frigate like a book / To take us worlds away."

"Lands," Julia said quietly.

Meanwhile, Anna was immersed in the golden age of slumber parties—her preteen years—and she had a new favorite poem to honor the time, Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Recuerdo": "We were very tired, we were very merry— / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry." The giddy friends in the poem end their adventure by giving a poor old woman "all [their] money but [their] subway fares." Anna loved this poem so much that when she woke from anesthesia for dental surgery, groggy and a bit forlorn, the first thing she said was, "Say the ferry poem."

The poems I spoke to Anna and Julia in their early years were not always—or even usually—the ones I'd spoken that day in class. Many poems—in the Renaissance, for sure, and in all time periods—are steeped in separation anxiety, the very phenomenon I was trying to minimize at bedtime. That is, many poems grapple with human vulnerability, mortality, and loss. I knew this so well that when I started saying lullaby poems, I was actually surprised to discover how many poems through the ages put loss aside for the moment to focus on the flip side of loss: the wonder of being, the experience of love, and the power of language, the "beauty" in Wallace Stevens's formulation, "Death is the mother of beauty."

As Anna and Julia grew up, however, I mixed in a few poems that coupled serious themes—"tougher knowledges," in Sidney's words—with reassuring images and ideas. The distressed speakers of these poems find ways to intervene in their own mounting anxiety and to accept without panic a dark insight or fear. Writing or reading a poem can be a life-affirming, self-realizing act, these poems demonstrate. They also demonstrate that poems are meeting places across continents and centuries—places to discover that one is not alone in his or her darkness.

For years when I'd asked Anna, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" I'd answered in three lines:

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

When she became a teenager, I answered with the whole poem (Shakespeare's Sonnet 18). Addressing the beloved, the poet-speaker asserts that "death" shall not

brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

One night the end of the poem suddenly struck Anna: "Oh!" she said, "the poem gives life, a sort of life."

Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 also recommended itself during Anna's teen years. The speaker describes and enacts a state of melancholy and self-pity; he "all alone beweep[s] [his] outcast state" for a good eight lines. But just before he sinks into despair,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembr'd, such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

On many occasions out there in the academic jungle, the couplet of this sonnet has come to my mind as I've thought of my daughters and husband. Maybe when traversing future jungles of their own, Anna and Julia will invoke this and other poems in similarly resourceful ways.

I added another kind of poem in Anna's high-school years. I did not want to let the passionate shepherd of "Come live with me and be my love" have the last word, and happily, in literary history, he does not. Four hundred years ago, in reply to "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," another poet, Sir Walter Raleigh, wrote "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," giving a fine role model for teenage girls, especially ones who have grown up on poetry. This nymph does not deny poetry's delights—far from it. She revels in them. But she also knows a thing or two about the world and can enjoy gorgeous language without for a minute trusting the shepherd's promises. She says to her pursuer:

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

But winter happens, she insists. "Rocks grow cold," rivers freeze, and birds stop singing. As for the material gifts, she is not tempted. Poetically, she throws them back at him, one by one:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten—
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Best of all, while she puts these material temptations in their place, she demonstrates that it is poems themselves that do not break nor wither.

I couldn't agree more. Poems are perpetually ripe to be heard, if they give us pleasure, quell our anxieties, and acknowledge our humanity. Nor are they soon forgotten—especially not if offered to children at bedtime.

Elizabeth Harris Sagaser is an associate professor of English at Colby College.