Greek Birth-agonies

Boyd's poem appeared in a collection titled The Humorous Miscellany, its hopeful title not reflective of some of its subject matter, including Boyd's poem. She adopts a plaintive and sympathetic voice, that of a mother deep in mourning over the death of her baby boy. The speaker begins by declaring, "How frail is human life! How fleet our breath, / Born with the symptoms of approaching death!" intriguing in its consideration of the tremulous nature of life as merely a prelude to death. The tone is one of inconsolable grief, its word choice both sharp and disturbing:

What dire convulsions rend a mother's breast, When by a first-born son's decease distressed, Although an embryo, an abortive boy, Thy wond'rous beauties give a wond'rous joy.

The tone softens by the sixth of 22 lines, as the persona considers the beauty and joy observed, even in a life cut short. After an emotional protestation the voice lapses into longing, further considering how human hope pits itself uselessly against the sure science of death: "Still flattering Hope a glittering idea gives / And, whilst the birth can breathe, we say it lives." The sound repetitions include alliteration, assonance, and consonance, which support the voice's softer, wistful tone. The tone extends several more lines as the speaker muses about the "warmth" with which "the dear-loved babe was pressed," referring to the child as "darling man" and "the fond embrace" he received as "dear" and "innocent."

The speaker then mentions the infant's father for the first time as the tone turns more upbeat while considering that the baby possessed "The father's form all o'er, the father's face," which may account for the power of "the sparkling eye, gay with a cherub smile" to "mother-pangs beguile." If the next two lines seem cloying, one must consider the physical pain alluded to: "The pretty mouth a Cupid's tale expressed, / In amorous murmurs, to the full-swoll'n breast." The mother's breast would quite literally be swollen with fluid for which it could gain no release after the infant's death, other than through manual manipulation. Because milk does not immediately cease flowing when the sucking stimulation ends, the mother would suffer the discomfort of the insistent pressure in her breasts for some time. An almost magical sympathy exists between a suckling mother and her infant; his cry, or, in this case, murmurs, cause milk to flow spontaneously in a pure cause/effect phenomenon. Such physical empathy remains impossible between a man and a baby, preparing readers for future references to the contrast of the male attitude toward personal loss.

After two lines containing the requisite angel references, the tone again gains strength in its statement regarding striking gender differences: "oh! Could the stern-souled sex," meaning men, "but know the pain," obviously referring to both physical and emotional discomfort, "or the soft mother's agonies sustain, / With tenderest love the obdurate heart would burn, / And the shocked father tear for tear return." Boyd obviously believed that males had no inkling as to the suffering of women who carried a child to near term, endured labor and birth agonies, often damage to torn flesh, and additional complications, only to be left without a child and with breasts tender from milk that would not be used. The fact that fathers would be "shocked" out of their stern demeanor supports the theory that Boyd and other women of her age felt trivialized by male ignorance regarding their situations, which led to mar-ginalization of their needs.

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