The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many lyric poems, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Supernatural Love” contains a narrative element, a sort of dramatic situation that provides the framework for this meditation on the nature of supernatural love. At the end of this brief story of a young child and her father, the reader is invited to see the similarities between divine love and human love, similarities which the poem’s ambiguous title suggests from the beginning.

The poem opens as the narrator visualizes herself as a four-year-old child as she and her father work in his study. She is cross-stitching a sampler text while her father looks up word origins in the dictionary. The intertwining of the needlework, the etymologies, and the text of the sampler create the thematic web of the poem. The poem hints that carnations are present in the room. In any event, the narrator has apparently said that she calls carnations “Christ’s flowers,” although she can give no reason why. Curiosity has led her father to look up “carnation” in the dictionary. As he does so, the child notes how his eyes look through the magnifying glass he holds. In return, she peers at him through the eye of the needle and then returns to work on the word “beloved.” Later it becomes clear that her sampler has a religious motto and that “beloved” is one part of it.

From the dictionary, the father learns that the root of “carnation” is the Latin word carn, meaning “flesh,”...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The New Formalism

In the 1960s and 1970s, most poets in America wrote in free verse, which paid no attention to rhyme or...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Supernatural Love” is written in nineteen three-line stanzas of iambic pentameter. The three rhyming words of each stanza share a single rhyme sound. The three-line stanza (called terza rima when it rhymes aba, bcb, and so on) was most notably used by the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in his long narrative poem The Divine Comedy, in which he used it to honor the doctrine of the Trinity—the Christian doctrine of the essential unity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Schnackenberg, as a poet who frequently uses formal structures, would be well aware of the traditions of this verse form. In this poem, the triplets harmonize with the poem’s theme of supernatural love, love which in Christian doctrine was expressed by God’s appearing in human flesh on earth in the person of Jesus.

In the poem, this theme emerges from a network of images concerning the carnations, their roots (both real roots and etymologies), flesh, blood, and nails. The “iron-fresh” scent of the flowers floats up to the child narrator, a scent she calls “drifted, bitter, secret ecstasy.” In a context which has already united the flowers with the idea of Christ, this reference to iron and bitterness inevitably suggests the crucifixion, a reference which is reinforced when the father’s dictionary identifies cloves with a word for “nail.” Significantly, the father reads the definition twice, “as if he hasn’t understood,”...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Variations in Rhyme

The poem is written in tercets, which are stanzas of three lines that contain a single rhyme. In other...

(The entire section is 696 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1980s: The emergence of New Formalism in American poetry challenges the dominance of free verse.

    Today: The...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

  • Write an essay in which you compare and contrast "Supernatural Love" with Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy," from her collection Ariel,...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

  • Schnackenberg's first book, Portraits and Elegies (1982), marked her emergence as a poet who had mastered a wide variety of types...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


Cohen, Rosetta, Review of The Lamplit Answer, in the Nation, December 7, 1985, p. 621.


(The entire section is 509 words.)