"A girl whose hair is yellower than torchlight should wear no headdress but fresh flowers," wrote the Greek poet Sappho in an ode to her daughter, Cleis. Daughters have inspired many poets over the centuries, invoking not only feelings of love, protection, pride, and awe, but also anxiety, disappointment, anger, and loss. Thus poems about daughters range from adorations of the angelic child to laments about the indifferent, if not indignant, grown woman.
The eighth-century Japanese poet Otomo no Sakanoue Iratsume wrote of the all-encompassing nature of a mother’s love for her daughter:
More than gems in my comb box shaped by the God of the Sea,
I prize you, my daughter
She also expressed the extreme pain caused by separation from her daughter:
I gaze out
over the fields of Tadaka
and see the cranes that cry there
such is my longing for you.
The relationship between daughters and parents--particularly fathers--was a mainstay in Shakespeare’s work. In "King Lear," for example, a powerful but vain father mistakes his eldest daughter's flattery for love, and his youngest daughter’s honesty for betrayal; thus he rewards Goneril and Regan with land and banishes the young Cordelia from his kingdom. It is only later that he realizes his mistake and recognizes his love for Cordelia:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em starve
More recently, poets have written of their awe of conception, birth, and parenthood. "…recalling your waking, dear wife, to find a nipple rosier, we not yet thinking a child," writes James Applewhite in "Interstate Highway." Nan Cohen’s poem, "A Newborn Girl at Passover" speaks of the mother’s extreme joy at the birth of her daughter, and of the countless pleasures they will share together:
The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.
The taste of apricots is in store for her.
Sylvia Plath, canonized as the ever-suffocating daughter thanks to such poems as "Daddy," also wrote of her experiences as a mother in such poems as "Morning Song" and "Balloons"--a gentle poem that captures the daughter’s lightness and cheer in the description of balloons floating around the house:
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk
The desire to protect the daughter and anxiety over her future have also found their way into poems. William Butler Yeats’s "A Prayer for My Daughter" is a moving portrait of a father at sea thinking of his young daughter and imagining her future, while Richard Wilbur’s "The Writer" depicts a father deeply aware of his daughter’s pains, yet lovingly stepping back to allow her to express herself through the "commotion of typewriter keys":
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But just as they inspire love and tenderness, so too do daughters cause pain and disappointment. "We carried you in our arms on Independence Day, and now you’d throw us all aside and put us on our way," wrote Bob Dylan in "Tears of Rage." Likewise, Thomas Lux paints a wry, disappointing portrait of parenting in his poem, "A Little Tooth":
your wife, get old, flyblown, and
rue nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
The impossibility of communication between parents and daughters, another common theme in poems about daughters, is beautifully conveyed in Rita Dove’s "The Bistro Styx," where a mother must restrain her disapproval of her daughter’s wayward lifestyle in Paris in exchange for a desired intimacy, which never comes. "I’ve lost her, I thought, and called for the bill," the poem concludes.
More devastating than the loss of intimacy with a daughter is the grief caused by her death. This deep sorrow is brilliantly rendered in Victor Hugo’s "Demain, dès l’aube…" ("Tomorrow, at Daybreak"). Hugo wrote the poem in 1843 after his beloved daughter Léopoldine drowned with her husband. It took a decade for the French poet and writer, acclaimed for such novels as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to publish again.
For poems about daughters consider the following:
"Interstate Highway" by James Applewhite
"My Daughter’s First Week" by Gennady Aygi
"The Pomegranate" by Eavan Boland
"Night Feed" by Eavan Boland
"A Newborn Girl at Passover" by Nan Cohen
"The Bistro Styx" by Rita Dove
"Tomorrow, at Daybreak" by Victor Hugo
"Home After Three Months Away" by Robert Lowell
"A Little Tooth" by Thomas Lux
"Achill" by Derek Mahon
"For a Daughter Who Leaves" by Janice Mirikitani
"Daughters, 1900" by Marilyn Nelson
"Morning Song" by Sylvia Plath
"Balloons" by Sylvia Plath
"For Jessica, My Daughter" by Mark Strand
"The Writer" by Richard Wilbur
"A Prayer for My Daughter" by W.B. Yeats