Motherhood by May Swenson: Summary and Critical Analysis

The poem Motherhood by May Swenson gives an elaborate and vividly graphic picture of a mother from the first line to the last. The trick that the speaker is adopting is not to tell who this strange ‘mother’ is. We are shocked by the description because the speaker is also adopting the normal point of view of human beings, trying to describe the mother in terms of human attributes.

May Swenson (1931-1989)

But the fact is that the mother being described is a monkey in a cage. When described by the application of a typical human perspective the mother at first appears disgusting rather than beautiful like our mothers. Besides, her care for the baby, or her motherhood, also appears to be insane or something like that!

But the point is that it is also a kind of motherhood of its own, as genuine as that of human beings. The theme of the poem is that things are good, beautiful, important, meaningful and valuable in their own worlds. Symbolically, the context, culture, perspective of different community cannot be judged from any point of view outside of itself, or with a priori terms and attitudes. The anthropomorphism that we have always blindly used in the evaluation of other creatures and cultures can be so badly ‘wrongheaded’ as one suddenly realizes while reading this simple poem.

The poetess begins by narrating an incident a situation and the mother’s description. “She sat on a shelf, / her breasts (looked like) two bellies/ on her belly/ the navel looked… like a… mouth!” A mother with this appearance, in human terms, would be either funny or else would evoke some sense of weirdness. Her knees are bent apart; her long left arm is raised high, and the knuckle hand is holding a bar in the ceiling; her right hand is holding the skinny infant in an awkward manner. The rest of the first stanza describes the infant. The infant has a ‘pale’, new and soft mouth that is hunting for the nipple in the brown hair. By this time, we are able to understand that the speaker is describing an ape. But still the details are so objective, and we are not able to figure out what she is trying to suggest. Poetic word-pictures, we know are usually infused with certain meditative value indicated by some sort of thinking over the situation or object being described (like Keats pondering over a Grecian urn); but here that is not the case. The picture of the ape develops, but the poetess refrains from suggesting any kind of feeling attitude, idea or thought about it. The description of the infant ends with a strange picture of its eyes: “dull lights in sockets of leather”! The infant of a monkey is actually wrinkled like an old man rather than being chubby!

In the second stanza, the speaker narrates what the mother and infant did. There are also odd but neutral details like the mother finding a louse and eating it! The mother wrinkled her nose in an ‘appreciative’ manner – this is one of the rare words that makes some comment – and her nose, the narrator notices, was actually a pair of nostrils without a nose! In the third stanza, the narration continues. The details are so specific and vivid; the speaker notices how the mother flicks her ‘leather eyelids’. When the mother suddenly makes a movement, the baby instantly catches the mother’s hair under the armpits (and we smile to compare this with a human case!) The mother hangs herself in the corner of the shelf with the child hanging on her breast like a medal, a decoration or a trophy. Though it looks rather odd with its wild hair (what an image), and a poked out the mouth, the infant is finally described with words that suggest some feeling in the observer: ‘medal’, ‘trophy’ and decoration. From the viewpoint of the mother-monkey, the child-monkey is indeed a medal or trophy of her victory and a beautiful decoration.

By the end of the poem, we are able to gather a few clues as in the words medal, a trophy and decoration, from which we can infer the implicit feelings and attitude of the observer. We also realize that she gradually learns to look at the creatures as different and unique creatures; and, along with her, we also learn (and realize our mistake) that the mother and maternal care of a different species are not necessarily more or less appealing than those human beings. Human beings are just one of the creatures like the apes; in fact they are one particular type of apes. Human criteria of beauty, or anything, cannot be applied to other creatures; we can’t even apply the same criteria to judge different human cultures, communities and societies. What is most striking here is that the mother ape at first appears to be indifferent, uncaring, irritated and unloving. We see at last that she expresses (with her nose!) how proud and happy she is with her child. Her method of child bearing is different from that of a human mother. She would probably be surprised to see human mothers, than a human being is surprised to see her (if human beings are right in saying that they are ‘wiser’ than animals). The poem is about a specific experience of observing animals and their behavior, but in general it tells us to correct our narrow minded attitudes about other creatures as well as others’ cultures, standards, values, behavior and practices.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Motherhood by May Swenson: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 15 Nov. 2013,

Related Topic

May Swenson: Biography