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Fear by Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral’s poem “Fear” is about a mother who fears that her child will grow up to be too ambitious and lose touch with her simple life. The poem deals with the relationship and views of a mother in a society that prioritizes a lavish lifestyle and irreplaceable vanity. Mistral does an impeccable job at conveying the fear, hopelessness, and desperation of a mother when it comes to bringing up her daughter. This piece first appeared in Mistral’s collection Ternura in 1924. It was translated into English by Doris Dana, who was an American translator and the partner of Mistral.

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Fear
by Gabriela Mistral

I don’t want them to turn
my little girl into a swallow.
She would fly far away into the sky
and never fly again to my straw bed,
or she would nest in the eaves
where I could not comb her hair.
I don’t want them to turn
my little girl into a swallow.

I don’t want them to make
my little girl a princess.                                                                                    
In tiny golden slippers
how could she play on the meadow?
And when night came, no longer
would she sleep at my side.
I don’t want them to make
my little girl a princess.

And even less do I want them
one day to make her queen.
They would put her on a throne
where I could not go to see her.
And when night time came
I could never rock her …
I don’t want them to make
my little girl a queen!

- from Ternura (1924)
Analysis of Fear by Gabriela Mistral


Summary

In “Fear,” Mistral establishes a mother’s fear from the very first line. It is made extremely clear that the mother treasures the simple life her daughter has. She does not want her daughter to become a “princess” or a “queen” that the vanity may get to her, and she would not be able to see her again. The brooding speaker treats ambition and the craving to climb up the social ladder as something inherently evil. She elaborates on how she does not want people to put her dearest daughter on a throne. Mistral successfully evokes the imagery of the life the mother wants for her child by two simple lines: “In tiny golden slippers/ how could she play on the meadow?”

Structure & Form

This piece is written in the free-verse form. It does not follow any rules of traditional poetry. The text has 24 lines in total, split into 8-line verses. It has no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. However, the text does not sound monotonous at all due to the presence of internal rhymes. For instance, there is a repetition of the “t” sound in “to turn” and the repetition of the “f” sound in “fly far.” The overall poem resembles the structure of songs where a line containing the main idea recurs at the beginning and end of each section. For example, the first two lines are repeated at the ending of each verse to create a sing-song-like effect. Besides, the poem is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker that gives a lyrical quality to the text.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Mistral makes use of the following literary devices in her poem “Fear.”

  • Refrain: Mistral repeats the lines “I don’t want them to turn/ my little girl into” to emphasize the fear of the speaker. The tone shows the desperation the mother has. The speaker uses these lines as a refrain as if these things are inevitable.
  • Metaphor: The lines, “She would fly far away into the sky/ and never fly again to my straw bed” – contain a metaphor. Here, “the sky” is used as a metaphor for the ultimate limit of success or ambition, and “straw bed” stands for the simple life of the mother. She fears her daughter won’t be a part of her simple life.
  • Anaphora: The poet uses this poetic device in the lines, “I could never rock her …/ I don’t want them to make.” These lines emphasize the desperation of the mother.
  • Symbolism: Words like “princess,” “queen,” and “throne” are used to symbolize success, ambition, vanity, and a self-indulgent lifestyle. On the other hand, words like “meadow” and “straw bed” are used to symbolize a simple lifestyle.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. For example, Mistral uses this device in the following lines: “And when night came, no longer/ would she sleep at my side,” “I don’t want them to make/ my little girl a princess,” etc.


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis & Critical Appreciation

Stanza One

I don’t want them to turn

my little girl into a swallow.

She would fly far away into the sky

and never fly again to my straw bed,

or she would nest in the eaves

where I could not comb her hair.

I don’t want them to turn

my little girl into a swallow.

Mistral begins the poem “Fear” by expressing a mother’s concern about her growing daughter. The speaker refers to society as “them” and thinks that they are too ambitious. Most of them are driven, so much so that they do not lay emphasis on human relationships. Mistral describes success as flying far away in the sky, something that the mother’s cajoling arms could never reach. The mother describes how she does not want to lose the simple things like combing her daughter’s hair once she grows up. Mistral repeats the starting lines at the end of this verse to emphasize the fear and desperation the mother has to protect her child.

Stanza Two

I don’t want them to make

my little girl a princess.                                                                                    

In tiny golden slippers

how could she play on the meadow?

And when night came, no longer

would she sleep at my side.

I don’t want them to make

my little girl a princess.

In the second stanza, Mistral uses the terms like “princess” and “tiny golden slippers” to symbolize a luxurious life. The speaker uses the word “tiny” while describing the child because she cannot fathom her daughter is growing up so fast. She describes her simplistic lifestyle by comparing it to playing on the meadow. Her daughter will not be able to run free with “golden slippers.” In the end, the speaker mentions little things like sleeping by her daughter’s side as something that is irreplaceably precious to her. This stanza ends in a similar fashion with the repetition of the first two lines.

Stanza Three

And even less do I want them

one day to make her queen.

They would put her on a throne

where I could not go to see her.

And when night time came

I could never rock her …

I don’t want them to make

my little girl a queen!

In the last verse, Mistral continues to symbolize ambition and luxury by using words like “queen” or “throne.” The mother fears that her daughter will forget her or spend little to no time with her after having a taste of success. Then her only child, who slept listening to her lullabies, would not return to her cradle. None would be there to rock her to sleep if she feels lonely or afraid. Mistral ends the poem with the same lines, which are repeated throughout the poem.

Themes

Mother’s Fear & Desperation

Mistral’s poem “Fear” is primarily about a mother’s fear of losing touch with her only child. Throughout the poem, the speaker repeats the line “I don’t want them to” – to emphasize her unwillingness and unease regarding society’s influence on her child. This line is written as if it is inevitable for a mother to lose her child to success and ambition. The mother seems to be aware of societal norms that surround her child. She knows that ambition, passion, and success do not necessarily prioritize a simple life and the value of human relationships. This poses a classic conflict of rural lifestyle and modern, lavish city life.

The speaker uses the term “meadow” as a symbol of a simple life where she could live happily with her daughter, free from the “madding crowds ignoble strife.” Most of the poem is more of a plea rather than a complaint. The poet makes readers sympathize with the mother’s concerns for her budding daughter.

Simplicity vs. Luxury

This piece draws upon the differences between a simple life and an ambitious one. The mother’s wish is not to let her daughter leave the life she has – the one in the “meadow” – comes off as sweet yet cynical. Ambition and success are painted as antagonists in this poem as if these things are stealing away a child from a mother. This poem is written from the perspective of an insecure and anxious mother because of the uncertainties that lie in the future. This poses the same contrast between rural and urban life.

Tone

The tone of the poem is pleading, fearful and desperate. Time and time again, the speaker reaffirms her fear of “them” (society) who could change her daughter by making her overly ambitious. Her voice reflects a sense of desperation to protect her child from the shining objects that are worth nothing in comparison to a mother’s love. She could no longer understand the incalculable price of her mother’s affection as she would be surrounded by “golden slippers” and “throne.” Hence, the mother is heavily concerned about the future of her daughter. All she wants is to keep things as they were. It is reflected in her tone as well.

Imagery

Mistral draws upon contrasting imagery to explain the mental state of the mother. On the one hand, lines like, “In tiny golden slippers/ how could she play on the meadow?/ And when night came, no longer/ would she sleep at my side,” “And when nighttime came/ I could never rock her …” etc. to illustrate the internal fears (use of organic imagery) of the mother. She cynically looks at the society around her. All she is desperate about is keeping her daughter away from “them.”

On the other hand, lines like, “In tiny golden slippers/ how could she play on the meadow?”, “They would put her on a throne/ where I could not go to see her,” etc., are used to describe how the speaker views success, ambition, and riches. Besides, Mistral also uses visual imagery in the lines, “She would fly far away into the sky/ and never fly again to my straw bed,” and tactile imagery in the lines, “where I could not comb her hair.”

Historical Context

Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, popularly known by her pseudonym Gabriela Mistral, was a Chilean poet, educator, and humanist. She was the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. Mistral’s poem “Fear” was first published in her fourth book of poetry, Ternura (Tenderness), in 1924. It is a collection of lullabies and rounds written primarily for children and parents. This collection showcases Mistral’s love for children. When it was printed in Madrid, thousands of Mexican children honored Mistral by singing the songs from the collection. In her poem “Fear,” she explores the fear of a mother of losing touch with her daughter.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Fear” by Gabriela Mistral about?

Gabriela Mistral’s “Fear” is about a mother’s fear regarding her child’s future. The speaker broods over the power of society on her child’s future. She is going to be allured by riches, ambition, and success. As a result, she has to leave her mother one day. This thought troubles the speaker the most.

What is the theme of the poem “Fear” by Gabriela Mistral?

The main themes of this poem are a mother’s fears about her child and the differences between rural and urban life. It also showcases the themes of the mother-daughter relationship, love, care, insecurity, and fear. This poem centers on a mother’s apprehension of losing touch with her dearest daughter.

What does the poem “Fear” mean?

The title of the poem hints at a mother’s apprehension of losing her child. In this poem, Mistral describes how a mother wishes to live in close proximity with her daughter. When the child grows up, her mother starts to think about her future and her own. It makes her feel so lonely that she turns down all the glossy pictures with her daughter in them. She hopes for a simple life with her daughter, filled with love and care.

When did Gabriela Mistral write “Fear”?

This poem was written around 1924 and published in Gabriel Mistral’s fourth collection of poetry, Ternura: Canciones de niños (Tenderness: Children’s Songs).

What is the fear of the speaker explained in the last stanza of the poem?

In the last stanza, the speaker thinks if her daughter is made a queen, she would be put on a throne, guarded inside an impenetrable castle of power and politics. In that case, she could not go to see her or rock her to sleep.

What is the central idea of the poem “Fear” by Gabriela Mistral?

The central idea of the poem concerns a mother’s fear of letting her daughter go. This piece contains a number of circumstances in which the speaker (mother) could not be with her daughter.

What type of poem is “Fear”?

This poem is written in free-verse, without any regular rhyme scheme or meter. The text consists of three stanzas having eight lines each. Besides, Mistral wrote the poem in first-person, from the perspective of a mother brooding over her daughter’s future.

What is the tone of “Fear”?

The tone of the poem is pleading, desperate, and fearful. It reflects a mother’s mental state while thinking about letting her daughter go far from her bosoms.

What is the speaker in the poem “Fear” afraid of?

The speaker is afraid of the thought of losing touch with her child. She thinks the thirst for worldly pleasures would make her forget her own mother and their simple life.

What are Gabriela Mistral’s most famous poems?

Gabriel Mistral’s best-known poems are Piececitos de Niño (“Little Boy’s Feet”), Balada (“Ballad”), Todas Íbamos a ser Reinas (“We were all going to be Queens”), La Oración de la Maestra (“ Master’s Prayer”), etc.


Similar Poems about Mother/Father-Daughter Relationship

  • My Mother at Sixty-Six” by Kamala Das — This poem is about the mental state of a daughter who leaves her sixty-six-year-old mother behind.
  • The Writer” by Richard Wilbur — This poem is about a father’s apprehension of his daughter’s future as a writer.
  • The First Snowfall” by James Russell Lowell — In this poem, a father misses her infant daughter, who is no more.
  • The Centaur” by May Swenson — In this piece, Swenson shares one of her childhood memories of playing with a twig-horse and her sweet lies to her mother.


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