Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
Return to Nature
From the details provided, it is clear that this speaker lives in a rural setting: she sleeps on a straw bed and she knows enough about birds to imagine which type of bird her daughter would become if she were to become one. She knows that swallows travel with large flocks of other swallows and that they cover vast distances in their migrations, which means that they leave for long periods of time. Ironically, the transformation to a swallow in the first stanza is not presented as a return to nature but as a corruption of nature, forcing a little girl to separate from her mother. One of the primary fears worrying the speaker of this poem is that her little girl might no longer be able to play in the meadow if she becomes too deeply a part of society, which is symbolized here by tiny golden slippers. She would prefer her daughter to not be pampered by the excessive delicacy of culture, to instead keep in touch with her surroundings (as long as her surroundings are the rural area that the speaker knows as home). The image of playing in the meadow is an idealized way of imagining that the child can remain one with nature, presenting childhood play as part of nature and little golden slippers as the opposite of it.
Change and Transformation
This poem presents a parent fearing the changes that will happen to a little girl. Change is inevitable, and it is natural that a parent would fear that change might cause her daughter to drift away, a fear that reflects the intensity of the parent's involvement in the child's life currently. The likelihood of change is treated creatively here, described in terms of transformations that have less to do with reality than they do with the parent's emotional state. Of course a child cannot transform from a human into a bird, but the parent might feel as if the child is a bird when she leaves, like a bird flying from its nest. Children from humble backgrounds are not spontaneously turned into princesses, either, but to a parent, looking on as society gives the girl the adoration she used to get from her mother, it might feel like she is a princess. She also does not need to fear the girl being turned into a queen, but if the girl some day became a woman of power and influence it would feel the same to her mother as if she were a queen. The poem speculates that all of these changes and transformations would be brought about by some power known only as "them," who would want to make the girl into a sparrow, a princess, or a queen for unexplained reasons. The most reasonable understanding of "them" is that they are the people whom a growing child would meet throughout her life, and that her transformation would then be just the normal result of the influence of other people.
Public vs. Private Life
The speaker of this poem has, like all parents, a special bond with her daughter: it is a small, private society with just two members, shared by them when the speaker rocks her child and combs her hair. Beyond their small world is a larger one inhabited by people who want to change the daughter in ways that would take her away. If they were to succeed in turning the daughter into a swallow, a princess, or a queen, she would be a successful part of their world, but she would not be part of the mother's any more. The poem's title refers to a mother's fear of losing her daughter—not to death, not to disagreement, but to the general social world of other people. This fear is expressed most directly and most poignantly in the poem's third stanza, in which the mother hopes against her daughter's social success by visualizing a scenario in which her daughter would be made queen, with all of the command over society that a queen has, but when she is placed on the throne her mother would not be able to see her any more. This reflects the social responsibilities of a queen, who would not be allowed to associate with a commoner even if it was her parent. Social allegiances would, in such a case, become more important than private bonds.
As much as readers can sympathize with the poem's speaker for her fear of losing the intimate relationship she shares with her daughter, it is based on her fear of society in general, and that must be accepted for readers to truly accept her feelings. She fears that a public life will give her daughter freedom like a bird's, and will offer the honors due a princess or, even worse, the power due a queen. By imagining that society could or would bestow such honors, the narrator proves herself to be unfamiliar with the ways of public life, uncertain what it might do. She is a woman who sleeps on a straw bed, who rocks her child to sleep and combs her child's hair—she understands the small world, not society at large. Not understanding the public world, she fears it, and her fear makes her imagine the public world coming to take away the thing she values most.