Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015
In “What My Child Learns of the Sea,” Lorde’s speaker muses upon her daughter’s future development and growing awareness as a person. One discovers that the speaker is the mother and that “my child” is her daughter. The poem, comprised of four stanzas, turns around the cycles of nature, but not in the typically accepted seasonal order of spring, summer, autumn (or fall), and winter. Rather, three seasons are introduced in the first stanza in this order: summer, spring, and autumn. The poem’s title, reinforced by its repetition in the first line of the first stanza, introduces the key phrase “learns of the sea.” The speaker’s daughter will learn something about the sea and about life. She will learn about mystery, of the existence of “summer thunder” and “of riddles / that hide in the vortex of spring.” Given that a riddle is something mysterious and difficult to understand, the speaker’s daughter will move from a position of lesser understanding to one of greater comprehension, as if on a voyage of discovery and learning. Because a vortex, by definition, is a dangerous whirlpool, there is an element of danger that will be better understood. The speaker expects that her daughter will better understand these natural mysteries of sea and season “in my twilight.” Though the concept of twilight embraces the half-light periods just before sunrise and just after sunset, used here, twilight represents the speaker when she approaches old age. Thus, she projects that her daughter will come to understanding when the speaker is aged. The final two lines of the first stanza introduce the idea of revision, an important part of learning. Because of the incorporation of new sense data, ideas, and reflection, one’s initial ideas about the world are periodically revised. In this case, the speaker predicts that her daughter will “childlike / revise every autumn.” As a metaphor, autumn can represent a person at or past middle age, but in this instance, it is modified by the word “every,” indicating that actual yearly cycles are meant. What happens every autumn that would inspire revision to one’s learning? In the United States, the school year begins anew every autumn, and students learn new things while revising what they have already learned from previous years.
The second stanza repeats the first line of the first stanza except for the phrase “of the sea.” The speaker’s daughter will learn as she grows older (“as her winters grow into time”) mysterious things that the mature speaker has come to know. Specifically, the speaker refers to her daughter learning about something that “has ripened in my own body.” The term “ripened” suggests maturity, full development. One refers to fruit as being unripe or green and not ready for eating, ripeness being the optimal time for eating, and over-ripeness too late. Ripening in one’s own body refers to physical as well as mental development. Because “What My Child Learns of the Sea” deals directly with motherhood, the term suggests the development of a girl’s body from childhood through adolescence to full maturity. In other words, growing from premenstrual girlhood to the years when most women are capable of childbearing, generally from the teen years into the early or mid-forties. The speaker’s daughter will, as she grows older, understand that her mother bore her in her body and gave birth to her and that she herself might become a mother in the future. The stanza ends by saying that the speaker’s daughter will see and understand, will learn what the speaker has learned. She will learn things about her mother and herself. This learning will “enter her eyes / with first light”—though she already can see her mother from the time of first consciousness, clearer seeing will only come with physical and mental maturity.
In stanza three, the idea of menstruation and motherhood are reinforced through the words “blood” and “milk.” The stanza builds on the second, suggesting that the speaker’s daughter will grow beyond thinking of her mother as child bearer and nurturer to become, to the speaker, “a strange girl” who will “step to the back / of a mirror” and will soon be “cutting my ropes / of sea thunder sun.” A mirror requires light to reflect images, and the second stanza ended with the notion of the speaker’s daughter learning things the speaker knows by seeing “with first light.” Stepping behind a figurative mirror, the daughter steps out of and away from her mother’s image and cuts the metaphorical umbilical cord, distancing herself from some of her mother’s mysteries. The speaker thus speculates that she will seem less magical and mysterious to her daughter as they both grow older. To the speaker, her daughter will become “a strange girl,” no longer just a dependent child to be nurtured with milk.
The fourth and last stanza repeats previous seasonal references, autumn from the first stanza and winter from the second. The contrast between the daughter’s learning and awareness with the speaker’s distance is emphasized by the last line: “I stand already condemned.” The speaker projects into the future the fact that her daughter will come into her own but that she (the speaker) will have had a profound impact. Even though her daughter will have come into her own, her mother will have been “condemned” by having left a lasting and unshakable impression. Specifically, the speaker’s modeling of how to “taste her autumns” as well as “the words / she will use for winter” will remain with the daughter, despite her growing independence. The introduction of food and taste imagery beyond infant milk is suggested with the descriptive compound “toast-brittle,” but this is counterbalanced by the following “warmer than sleep,” a phrase that suggests a calm, warm sea and the protective womb before birth. If there is a moral to the poem, it is that once a mother, always a mother, and once a daughter—despite growing autonomy— always a daughter. More generally, the same can be said about any parent-child relationship.
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