Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny Analysis
by Lisel Mueller

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny” is a forty-six-line poem arranged in four stanzas. Jacob Grimm and his brother Wilhelm were well-known nineteenth century German collectors of fairy tales. As the title indicates, the poet is reading these fairy tales to her daughter Jenny. In later collections, the poem includes the subtitle “Dead means somebody has to kiss you,” which shows that Jenny is young enough to form her image of death from a fairy tale, specifically from the story of Snow White, who was awakened from deathlike sleep by a kiss. Although the poet seems to be addressing the child, she is not speaking but thinking the poem while reading fairy tales aloud. In fact, the poet is arguing with herself. By implication, she is also arguing with her contemporary American peers, many of whom disapprove of fairy tales for children in the belief that they present a false picture of life.

In the first stanza, the poet contrasts Jenny’s “black and white” world, in which things happen by magic, with the poet’s “real world,” which functions by negotiating (“gray foxes and gray wolves/ bargain eye to eye”) and by doing what it takes to survive (“the amazing dove/ takes shelter under the wing/ of the raven to keep dry”). In the second and third stanzas, the poet asks herself why she lies to the child by allowing oversimplified fairy-tale values to seem real when she knows that one day Jenny will have to live in the adult world and “live with power/ and honor circumstance.” In the fourth and final stanza, however, the poet recognizes that the creative power of belief can transform the world and says that she learns this “once more” from the child.

The poem is full of references to magic, including the stories of Snow White (“Death is a small mistake/ there, where the kiss revives”), Cinderella (who had the nearly impossible task of sifting lentils from cinders), Rapunzel (upon whose hair a prince climbed the tower in which she was imprisoned and whose pitying tears cured him after he was blinded), and birds that “speak the truth” (found in many fairy tales). In this magical world, life is divided into “kingdoms of black and white,” both commanded by the mind; in the adult world, however, the “foxes” and “wolves” are gray and so are the values, and the mind must cope with power and circumstance outside the self. The conflict between childhood and adult views of the world and the conflict within the poet-as-mother about what she should teach the child creates and sustains tension throughout the poem. The recognition of this conflict allows transcendence of it at the end to become a credible answer to the question.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The imagery of the poem is vivid and physical: “you shoulder the crow on your left,/ the snowbird on your right.” At the same time, imagery of equal intensity evokes scene after scene from fairy tales. Common metaphors (clichés) in this poem show how deeply fairy tales have become ingrained in everyday life. The reader is led to see the gray foxes and wolves not only in their metaphorical senses of clever (foxes) and devouring (wolves) people and not only as a mixture of good and bad (gray) but also as actual gray-haired businesspeople and politicians negotiating and making compromises.

When read aloud, the poem sounds like a ballad, yet the balladlike rhyme and rhythm are not arranged visually in traditional four-line stanzas; rather, they...

(The entire section is 884 words.)