A Cradle Song - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The mother's hopes for her child seem almost like an incantation or charm as she calls on the power of dreams, sleep, an angel and smiles to protect her baby. The use of imperative verb forms – ‘form', weave', ‘hover' and ‘chase not' - and the regular stresses in each line, increases this effect.

The simplicity of the thought – a wish for peace and sweet dreams for the child - is underlined by the simplicity and repetitiveness of the diction. The same words are used in various combinations:

  • ‘Sweet dreams', ‘sweet sleep', ‘sweet(er) smiles', ‘sweet babe'
  • Combinations of various forms of ‘sleep' and ‘smile' and ‘weep'
  • The verb ‘beguiles' is used twice, of soothing the child and of charming heaven and earth into peace. It is as though, too, the mother is trying to beguile herself into a focus on softness and sweetness, away from the intruding awareness of woe.

The soothing effect is highlighted by the sounds of the words employed:

  • There is a concentration of soft words beginning and ending in ‘s'
  • There is also a preponderance of liquid L sounds e.g.
    ‘All the livelong night beguiles'
    ‘All the dovelike moans beguiles'.

Investigating language and tone

  • Replace some of the repeated words with words of a similar meaning
    • How would this affect the tone and mood?

Structure and versification

The closed rhyming couplets create an impression of simplicity, suitable for a lullaby. The metre is basically trochaic in the second and closing lines of each stanza. In the second and fourth the line starts with a spondee – e.g. ‘sweet dreams', followed by usually trochaic metre with a masculine line end e.g. ‘pleasant dreams'. This produces a rocking effect.

The lullaby effect is increased by the internal rhyme which occurs in most alternate stanzas and assonance of the wide EE (‘sleep', ‘dream' etc.), long I (‘child', ‘beguile'), O (‘moan', ‘holy') and A sounds (‘trace', ‘maker').

Investigating structure and versification

  • The last two stanzas do not use the pattern of spondees which has been established
    • What effect does this have on the rhythm?
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