Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mothers Out of Wedlock

I thought it was interesting that three of the Gothic Realist Ballads that we read, Southey's "The Mad Woman," and Wordsworth's "The Mad Mother" and "The Thorn" all are centered around the themes of the madness that takes hold of women who break the rules of society and either abandon their husbands or have their children out of wedlock.

The woman who abandons her husband, though potentially mad (even though she claims she is not), says she will not harm her son. Instead, she claims they will live happily in the woods "for aye." Nevertheless, she's not a reliable narrator. Earlier in the poem, she tells her baby, "And do not dread the waves below/ When o'er the sea rock's edge we go" and "The babe I carry on my arm/ He saves for me my precious soul." Perhaps she doesn't realize that jumping off a cliff will kill her, or perhaps, in the second to last stanza, when she sees the madness in her baby's eyes, that is really her own madness reflected, and one day, though she says she won't, she actually WILL do harm to him.

Even so, she is not as bad as the other two, who actually murder their own children and afterwards live with the "woe and misery" of their crimes. Both of them must eternally return to the site of their children's graves, guilt-ridden by the murders they have committed in an effort to cover up their existences and remain respectable in society.

In my opinion, it's VERY strange that Wordsworth wrote either of his poems. According to his biography, he left one girl, Anna, with child and didn't marry her (even though he "intended" to). If he knew the potential consequences of his actions (that she might go mad and kill their baby) how could he ever even think of leaving her? Then again, these poems may have been written after the incident. Thus, like the women in his poems, he's in a way revisiting his past crimes. They speak again and again of their misery and their guilt. Indirectly, so does he, through their voices. He laments the baby and the wife he left behind.


  1. Liz,
    I actually hadn't read Wordsworth's bibliography, but in light of the fact that he actually abandoned his child and the mother, these poems are much more grim...perhaps he feels guilt for leaving them? I think another reappearing theme especially in "The Thorn" and "The Mad Mother," is how the mothers are tormented by the fact that the men left them. Wordsworth writes two possibilities of what happens to the mothers: the mother either kills the child from her grief, our she lets the child "suck" the grief out of her.

  2. I completely agree. Wordsworth's guilt is definitely being channeled through this poem, however, I think he is also using his own expression of guilt as a means to make a serious social commentary about the condition to which these women are subjected. Society's harsh critiques, punishments, and standards only heighten the distress and grief that these women deal with daily. Although Wordsworth is displaying his guilt, he is also exhibiting the reality in what is thought to be the supernatural in this poem. This is especially true in "The Thorn": the woman, the marker of sin and the supernatural, in intricately connected to nature. This indicates a complexity between nature and the supernatural that is perpetuated by her living in isolation and society's fascination with the crime committed.

  3. I like this interpretation, especially as it relates to "The Thorn." As we discussed in class, it seems as though the real criticism of this poem is directed at the narrator, not the woman who murdered her child. Indeed, it is the objective opinions of the narrator and the rest of society, who judge this mother but never approach her or are willing to speak with her, that Wordsworth is taking a shot at. Of course I'm not saying that the mother killing her child is not wrong - obviously its a terrible crime. But then why does no one try to dig up the mound of moss or question the mother? Her crime is certainly perverse and irrational, but so is society's response.