An unsettling picture of a young woman and her infant charge reveals a writer far less 'ladylike' than we might expect
The author of this week's poem, "Cradle Song at Twilight", might have been the first woman poet laureate: she was nominated twice for the position, in 1895 and 1913. Journalist, essayist, suffragist, and mother of seven surviving children, Alice Meynell has no small claim to being considered the immediate intellectual precursor of Virginia Woolf. Woolf herself possibly might not have agreed; she considered Meynell, idealised and promoted as the archetypal Victorian "Angel in the House", as an antagonist rather than a foremother.
Today, Meynell is best known for a handful of anthology poems that perpetuate her decorous, "ladylike" image. Formally, "Cradle Song at Twilight" has the usual fluent and restrained elegance, but it's not at all a safe or comforting poem. The picture it presents is too genuinely alive and complex, qualities engrained in some of the unexpected word-choices.
Christopher Ricks (to his credit) includes the poem in The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, giving 1895 as its date of first publication. This means it's not one of Meynell's earliest poems; these were published in the collection, Preludes, in 1875. Meynell wrote the bulk of her poetry towards the end of her long life, and, on the basis of its psychological prescience, I'd guess "Cradle Song at Twilight" to be a work of her later maturity.
Its portrayal of a nurse, or nursing mother, quietly but decisively challenges the Victorian maternal stereotype. The girl isn't intent on her charge: she's "too young" and, implicitly, too "slender". The watchful speaker tells us she holds the child "laxly" – an observation made succinct by that illuminating and unexpected adverb. So convincing is the vignette of a young, careless, impatient girl that it's difficult to remember the poet possibly has metaphorical intentions.
"Twilight" is a word that alludes to the light cast when the sun is below the horizon. Although it usually refers to dusk, it can also mean the early light of morning. It's a strange word, when you think about it, implying "doubled light" when in fact the light would be diminished. Because the child is supposed to be asleep, the poem's "Twilight" seems more likely to be that of the evening.
To pursue the metaphor: if Night is the mother, who is the child? The sun, the moon, the speaker herself? As a Catholic and sometime metaphysical poet, Meynell might be expected to portray the Virgin and Child, but the notion of a Virgin Mary who longs to run off and play seems a too-radical revision. Perhaps, rather, this is a mythological portrait, depicting Cupid and Venus.
The second stanza certainly suggests a mischievous Cupid-like infant. Meynell, for all her Victorian decorousness, can't have been oblivious to the erotic undertones. The child's playing with the nurse leads directly to the nurse's own thoughts of "other playfellows" – which may, again, have sexual connotations, or simply imply that the playfellows she longs for are other children like herself.
I like the tenuousness of the relationship portrayed, the dramatic irony inherent in the fact that the child and nurse are, perhaps like Twilight itself, facing different ways Psychologically, there's an incipient conflict between the nurse's need for freedom and the child's need for secure sleep. At the same time, and so far, no harm has been done.
Something even more mysterious occurs in the last two lines. The poem seems to mutate into a prayer: "An unmaternal fondness keep/ Her alien eyes." What is the nature of this "unmaternal fondness"? Is it God the Father's love that is being invoked, or the affection of a sexual partner, patron or employer?
The word "alien" is the final surprise. It's so beautifully devoid of sentimentality. Yet the Night (or nurse) has never seemed closer to being a real person than in this description. Motherless as well as un-motherly, this young woman now seems displaced on every level. Ruth, who "stood in tears amid the alien corn" in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale", might be a relevant figure.
Could "Cradle Song at Twilight" be a poem that disguises its subject - a dark-skinned young nurse the Meynells once employed? Or is the poet remembering herself as a reluctant young mother? These are tempting interpretations. Yet it seems a pity to try and press a haunting and un-homely poem into some purely naturalistic mould. Bathed in their own twilight, the two stanzas are like a hinged icon, where, instead of a rapt, mutual exchange, the eye-contact between the Child and the Virgin flows only one-way. The child is happy in the loose hold of his young nurse, the nurse is restlessly dreaming of another life. How convincing and unsettling they are – whoever they may be.
Cradle Song at Twilight
The child not yet is lulled to rest.
Too young a nurse, the slender Night
So laxly holds him to her breast
That throbs with flight.
He plays with her, and will not sleep.
For other playfellows she sighs;
An unmaternal fondness keep
Her alien eyes.