"From her maternal hand this poet offers us her potion, which has the savor of earth and which quenches the thirst of the heart." These words are from the citation that offered Gabriela Mistral the Nobel Prize for Literature for the year 1945. The same speech also noted that "Gabriela Mistral shared her maternal love with the children whom she taught." "Fear" was published in Mistral's second collection of poetry, Tenura (Tenderness). The poems in this book are referred to as children's poems, even though they have decidedly mature themes, and they have, in the years since it was first published in 1924, become standards of elementary-school education in Chile and throughout Latin America.
In a section at the end of the book called "Colophon by Way of Explaining," Mistral discussed why she chose to write a book about mothers and children. She wrote, "The woman who has never nursed, who does not feel the weight of her child against her body, who never puts anyone to sleep day or night, how can she possibly hum a berceuse (lullaby)?" Ironically, though she dedicated her life to children through her profession as an educator, Mistral herself never married and never had a child. Her ideas about the bond between mothers and children, which have come to mean so much to generations of mothers who are thrilled to at last find their feelings expressed in print, came to the author second-hand, through observation of the hundreds of children that she worked with as a teacher and her experience in growing up in a household of teachers. As is apparent by the popular and critical acclaim lavished upon her work about motherhood, Mistral was able to touch upon the very real emotions of the experience even though she did not live the experience herself.
Lines 1-8 Summary
Swallows are small, fast birds known for being gregarious—that is, for socializing with other birds and forming large colonies. They also are known for the long distances of their migrations. When the speaker of this poem infers that someone who is unidentified, referred to as "they," could turn her little girl into a bird, she is speaking metaphorically, by referring to aspects of the swallow that the girl would have if she went through such a transformation. In this case, the fear expressed is that the girl will, as she grows up, start socializing with others of her kind and fly away, traveling with them rather than staying near her home. Moreover, the speaker is not just worried that her girl will turn into a swallow, but that "they" will turn her into one. Readers naturally wonder to whom this refers. At first, it appears to point to a particular mysterious group that wants control of the daughter, but, with no other evidence offered, the best answer seems to be that "they" simply refers to the people that a young girl will come into contact with while growing up: the world of school, teachers, and classmates that directs a child's attention outside of the home.
A parent's fear of losing his or her child is so powerful that it is natural to associate it with watching the child disappear off into the vast unknown, as mentioned in the third line. Mistral was certainly well familiar with air travel, but she spent her childhood in a rural, provincial area of Chile during the end of the nineteenth century, with neither automobiles nor air travel that would later conquer great distances. She...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
Lines 9-24 Summary
The diction here is just slightly different than it was in the first two lines. Where the first statement like this expressed the fear that "they" would "turn" the child into a swallow, this second stanza starts with the fear that they will "make" her into a princess. The verb "make" shows less aggression than "turn," indicating that it would take less force on the part of the outside forces to perform this transformation. This is, in fact, quite likely, since it would seem that the daughter (and, in fact, her mother) would welcome her transformation into a princess. This slight change in verb subtly indicates the fact that the daughter might be open to change, even though the mother does not want it. Just as the first stanza surprises the reader with the idea that someone might be able to change a child into a bird, this stanza draws attention by stating the mother's opposition to the world glorifying her daughter. Often, parents refer to girl children as "princess," indicating that they are privileged by birth, that they should have no duties other than being themselves, and the wealth of the world will be handed to them. When this speaker wishes that her daughter not be given such easy privilege, readers sit up and take notice.
There is an implicit love of nature here that the poem just presents, without supporting. The speaker of the poem wishes against her daughter's social success because she does not want the girl to lose touch with nature, to become unable to play in the meadow. The way that this is presented emphasizes the idea that pampering the girl would separate her from nature. The poem assumes that she would, as a princess, wear golden slippers, and the word "tiny" in reference to her feet brings to mind ancient Oriental practices of binding girls' feet, to keep them small and dainty and impractical for romping across uncultivated ground.
Like lines 5-6, this section in the middle of the stanza contains a direct statement of the speaker's personal desire to keep her daughter to herself, away from the outside world. This time, however, there is less reason to believe that the fear of losing her daughter is about the girl's welfare, and more reason to see it as a fear of being alone. While the earlier statement emphasized the selflessness of the act by stating the speaker's wish to serve her daughter, by combing her hair, this stanza states her wish as directly for the speaker's, not the daughter's, benefit. Rather than expressing the fear that the mother could no longer sleep at her daughter's side, the fear expressed here is that "no longer / would she sleep at my side,’’ which indicates that the speaker is concerned with her own loneliness.
Once again, repeating the first lines of the stanza has the effect of a...
(The entire section is 1172 words.)