‘One morn I left him in his bed’

One morn I left him in his bed;
A moment after some one said,
‘Your child is dying – he is dead.’

We made him ready for his rest,
Flowers in his hair, and on his breast
His little hands together prest.

We sailed by night across the sea;
So, floating from the world were we,
Apart from sympathy, we Three.

The wild sea moaned, the black clouds spread
Moving shadows on its bed,
But one of us lay midship dead.

I saw his coffin sliding down
The yellow sand in yonder town,
Where I put on my sorrow’s crown.

And we returned; in this drear place
Never to see him face to face,
I thrust aside the living race.

Mothers, who mourn with me today,
Oh, understand me, when I say,
I cannot weep, I cannot pray;

I gaze upon a hidden store,
His books, his toys, the clothes he wore,
And cry, ‘Once more, to me, once more!’

Then take, from me, this simple verse,
That you may know what I rehearse—
A grief – your and my Universe!

Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997)

Writing Ideas

  1. “One morn I left him in his bed” is an elegy for a child, a popular form in 19th century American poetry. Elegies, as their name suggests, eulogize someone who has died. Write your own elegy for someone you know—or a famous figure. As in Stoddard’s, you might narrate the conditions and emotional toll of their death; or you might find some other way to mark their passing. See, for example, Ted Berrigan’s “People Who Died.” Other examples of elegies include John Milton’s “Lycidas”; W.S. Graham’s “Dear Bryan Wynter.”
  2. With its rhyming tercets and tetrameter lines, Stoddard’s poem sounds like a nursery rhyme, even as it narrates a harrowing story of a child’s death. Try using similarly bouncy rhyme schemes and metrical patterns to tell a sad story.

Discussion Questions

  1. Stoddard’s poem features tightly rhymed tercets. Try replacing the end rhymes with unrhymed synonyms. How does altering or doing away with the rhyme scheme affect this poem’s tone or meaning?
  2. How do time and distance work in this poem? Can you create an itinerary of events? Another way to think about this might be to ask what “really” happens and what does the speaker imagine happens? Where the two coincide and depart?
  3. The final stanzas make an apostrophe to all mothers. What is the effect of this final gesture? The poem has been a private, almost hallucinatory “rehearsal” of events; what changes as the speaker addresses a larger audience?

Teaching Tips

  1. Perhaps to prepare for the writing idea above, put Stoddard’s poem in conversation with other elegies. Ask the class to generate kinds of speech acts or writing that celebrate and mourn the dead. What are the characteristic or conventional subject matters, tones, images, and rhetorical gestures in such writing? Gather, or have your class research, elegies through the ages. Since Stoddard’s poem is distinctly a 19th century elegy, you might make a timeline of poems: beginning with Ovid and ending with Berrigan or Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s “elegy for kari edwards.” Think about how changes in language and conventions of grieving persist or change across the poems your class has collected. Do these elegies look or sound very different from one another? In what ways? If they also seem similar, discuss how and why.
  2. How do Stoddard’s stanzas work? Assign single stanzas to small groups—stress that groups should keep which stanza they’ve been assigned secret from other groups. Then, have the groups do word for word English “translations” of their assigned stanza. Ask that they try to recreate the mood of their stanza. Then have the students read their translations aloud and ask the class to put the new stanzas in order.
More Poems by Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard