Textually, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s ‘‘The Lotus Flowers’’ is a rich poem. Its diction (use of language) reveals its underlying themes, and its structure shapes its meaning. Although the poem is written in free verse, it is divided into two long stanzas of almost identical length (the first stanza is twenty-nine lines; the second is thirty). Both stanzas however, feature a broken line just past their first half, between their eighteenth and nineteenth lines. In the first stanza, the break occurs between the statement that the girls are gathering firewood and the statement that they are in the backwoods (a statement that later found to be erroneous). In the second stanza, the line break occurs between the observation that the snake is like a girl resting her head on her arms and the statement indicating that the speaker is carrying the bucket back to the campsite. In each case, the line break is disorienting. Furthermore, the breaks indicate a falsehood or at least an omission. In the case of the first stanza’s line break, the statement that the girls are in the wilderness is soon revealed to be untrue. They can see the magnolia trees in the town cemetery from the pond. The latter line break is somewhat more complex in what it attempts to obscure. When the threat of the snake is introduced, it is immediately downplayed by the simile comparing it to a mere girl. Then follows the immediate scene change, brought on by the speaker’s statement that she is taking the bucket back to the other girls. This change is made all the more disorienting by the line break. Furthermore, the speaker’s ensuing statement that she has found nothing changed indicates that something has changed, just not the other girls or their camp. The sense of disorientation brought on by the line break extends to this seemingly innocent remark—especially because it is not innocent at all.
The structure of the poem is also misleading in that it is fairly regular. The line lengths (barring the aforementioned exceptions) are much the same, as are the enjambments (the line breaks occurring amid the same complete thought/sentence). Indeed, the poem is set at a natural rhythm. When read aloud, the line breaks occur at the end of a phrase or where one would naturally take a breath before continuing. For this reason, the speaker appears trustworthy; the seemingly simple and idyllic tale of girls camping is taken at face value. Where enjambment can often alter the poet’s intended meaning, or allow for numerous meanings to coexist, line breaks in ‘‘The Lotus Flowers’’ tend to avoid such confusion. In fact, the enjambment in the poem only alters meaning in the aforementioned line breaks and again when the speaker goes off by herself to get water. Thus, the breaks in the poem’s regular and measured structure serve to offset the most important and revealing instances of the poem’s meaning.
Certainly, the central event in the poem is the speaker’s excursion for water. Again, there are textual clues to alert readers to this fact. For instance, the speaker uses the first-person plural pronoun ‘‘we’’ throughout the poem, signifying that she is a part of the group. Yet, when the speaker leaves to get water, she reverts entirely to the first person singular ‘‘I,’’ reasserting her individualism apart from the group. The enjambment in this section, as previously mentioned, plays the most with meaning. For instance, when the speaker plunges her hand into the cold water, she states that the shock of it is invigorating. Yet, in the following line, the speaker says that the shock that enlivens quickly becomes deadening, as her hand is increasingly numbed by the frigid water. In addition, the line breaks become quick and choppy when the speaker spies the snake, and they remain that way as she attempts to mitigate its threatening power by comparing it to an innocent girl. Also, because the poem’s main theme pertains to innocence and its loss, the snake’s presence in this blameless camping idyll is all the more fraught with symbolic meaning.
The snake in literature can never be fully divorced from the story of Adam and Eve. In that parable the snake is the corruptor, the influential factor in Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence and their expulsion from the garden of Eden. It’s presence here is full of symbolic meaning. That the snake’s presence has influenced the speaker is undoubtedly hinted at when the speaker asserts that nothing at the camp site has changed, seeming to imply that she herself has changed. A similar instance of indirect statement and understatement occurs at the very end of the first stanza as well. There, the speaker declares that the girls are floating, held up by their innocence and ignorance just as the lilies are held up by the water. Two interesting inferences occur here. The water upon which the lilies float is described as murky and frightening. So too, then, is the girls’ ignorance. Everything that they do not understand about the world is equally frightening and murky. However, where the lilies are rooted deeply at the pond’s bottom, no mention is made of anything that the girls may be rooted to. The omission is a glaring one in that it presents a deep contrast between the rooted but buoyant lilies and the buoyant but unmoored girls.
At the poem’s end, the girls lie arranged in their own constellation (in the spokes of a wheel) as they gaze at the stars and name them. Here too they are unmoored. The stars, floating in the ether, are defined by the patterns they make. The dimmer stars in this scenario are deemed as important as the brighter. From this statement, the speaker returns to the lilies, as she notes that they are grouped in the pond in much the same way as the stars (in fact, she even calls the lilies stars). They are all interconnected by their extensive root system, and they form constellations of their own. The poem is brought full circle here as well, as it opens with the girls’ attempts to pluck the biggest and brightest of the lilies. In addition, if the girls float in their innocence as the lilies float in the pond, and if the lilies are (or are like) stars, then it follows that the girls also are (or are like) stars.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Ellen Bryant Voight, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Lotus Flowers,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010