2

Here's the poem "Elizabeth Childers" by Edgar Lee Masters, published in Spoon River Anthology (1915):

Dust of my dust,
And dust with my dust,
O, child who died as you entered the world,
Dead with my death!
Not knowing Breath, though you tried so hard,
With a heart that beat when you lived with me,
And stopped when you left me for Life.
It is well, my child. For you never traveled
The long, long way that begins with school days,
When little fingers blur under the tears
That fall on the crooked letters.
And the earliest wound, when a little mate
Leaves you alone for another;
And sickness, and the face of Fear by the bed;
The death of a father or mother;
Or shame for them, or poverty;
The maiden sorrow of school days ended;
And eyeless Nature that makes you drink
From the cup of Love, though you know it’s poisoned;
To whom would your flower-face have been lifted?
Botanist, weakling? Cry of what blood to yours?—
Pure or foul, for it makes no matter,
It’s blood that calls to our blood.

And then your children—oh, what might they be?
And what your sorrow? Child! Child!
Death is better than Life!

Could you help me understand the lines in bold? English not being my first language doesn't help, but I really can't figure the meaning of these verses in the context of this poem. Botanist? Cry of blood? I'm lost.

1

The poem is narrated by a woman who died in childbirth, addressing the daughter who died with her (“dust with my dust”). The narrator says that it is better to be dead, because life is miserable, and she lists the kinds of suffering that her daughter might have gone through, had she lived. Near the end of this list appears “the cup of Love” (the metaphor of “cup” meaning “allotted portion” coming from the Bible), and then we have the difficult passage.

The narrator wonders with whom her daughter would have fallen in love (“to whom would your face have been lifted”). “Flower-face” means “face like a flower”, that is, pretty, smooth, innocent, upturned, etc. This is a common image, for example, from the same year as Spoon River Anthology:

she looked up at him, her face like a flower in the sun, so bright and attractive

D. H. Lawrence (1915). The Rainbow, chapter 11. New York: Modern Library

“Botanist” and “weakling” are two possibilities she imagines for the daughter’s lover. “Botanist” is suggested by the “flower” metaphor and perhaps means someone who would have treated her like a botanical specimen rather than a woman. Possibly the speaker has particular candidates in mind.

The next lines build on the stock phrase “blood calls to blood”, which means that people who are closely related to each other share an affinity or bond. For example:

“Were you his daughter, my heart would not rebel—blood calls to blood, and a child’s duty is paramount. But you are no child of his […]”

Mary Shelley (1837). Falkner, p. 252. New York: Harper.

“You are our kin, and, in trouble, blood calls to blood.”

Henry Longan Stuart (1911). Fenella, p. 144. New York: Doubleday.

So the implication of this phrase in ‘Elizabeth Childers’ seems to be that the daughter’s lover would have been a close relation (for example, a cousin) and that whether his “blood” (meaning “disposition; temperament”) is good or bad would not have mattered, because of the affinity of kinship. The use of “our blood” suggests that the narrator had the same experience she is imagining for her daughter. This interpretation perhaps explains the question that follows, “And then your children—oh, what might they be?”, since the children of cousins have a higher risk of birth defects.

1
  • Thanks for the detailed explanation!
    – jerorx
    Nov 12 '20 at 10:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.