The Courage That My Mother Had Summary

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Would you rather have a tangible or intangible gift from someone? In this lesson, we'll explore the author's feelings about that very subject in her poem ~'The Courage That My Mother Had.~'


Families hand down a lot of different things through the generations. For some, it's a cookbook stuffed with recipes from grandmother's kitchen. It might be a piece of jewelry, such as a wedding ring, given from a grandmother to a granddaughter.

A family heirloom could be a brooch, handed down through generations
brooch, the courage my mother had, millay

We call these objects of value given to one generation from the preceding generation heirlooms. There is often financial, emotional, or sentimental value attached to the gift. However, heirlooms are not limited to physical objects like furniture, jewelry, or clothing -- they can be anything of significance in your own family tree, such as stories or traditions.

In the poem at the center of our lesson, the writer has been gifted an heirloom from her mother, but wishes for more. Read on to explore the difference between a tangible gift, like a brooch and an intangible one, like courage.

Summarizing 'The Courage That My Mother Had'

In this somber poem from Edna St. Vincent Millay, we're introduced to the courage of the narrator's mother, strong as ''rock from New England quarried.'' Her mother had this courage her whole life, and she carried this gift with her to her death (though we don't find out she has died until later in the poem when the narrator says, ''The thing she took into the grave!'')

When the narrator's mother died, she left her daughter a gold brooch, or an ornate pin typically worn on the clothes, which is a nice memento but not what the woman really wishes she has. She wears the brooch and treasures it more than anything else she owns, but she claims she would give it all up to have just an ounce of her mother's courage, which her mother has taken to the grave with her.

The narrator concludes by saying that courage ''like a rock'' is no longer needed by her mother, but by the narrator herself.

Analyzing 'The Courage That My Mother Had'

Clearly, the narrator of this poem is struggling with something for which she needs the rock-solid courage that her mother possessed. Unfortunately, her mother has taken her intangible quality of courage to the grave with her. What she left behind is her memory in the form of a golden pin. It's something the daughter loves, but would give up for just a dose of the courage she so desperately needs.

There's a clash in this poem between material possessions and values or attributes that cannot be bought and sold. There are many gifts you can give to someone, yet you cannot give away things like happiness, courage, determination and compassion. Those are human traits that each person must learn for him or herself.

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