‘‘The Lotus Flowers’’ consists of two long stanzas and is written in free verse. Each long stanza, however, is divided, roughly in the middle, by an offset or broken line. In fact, in both stanzas, the broken lines occur between the eighteenth and nineteenth lines. The first stanza consists of twenty-nine lines, and the second of thirty. One of the poem’s central images, that of the water lilies, refers to the poem’s title (lotus flowers are a type of water lily).
The speaker describes a pond’s surface as being of a greenish hue. Algae of a vibrant green color stretch away from the shore and the expansive, rounded leaves of the water lilies touch across the pond. The flowers themselves are white and sit atop the leaves like cups on saucers. LINES 6–10 In line 6, the speaker indicates that she is not alone, that there is a group of people who are bickering and teasing one another. Finally, they decide upon the biggest and most fragrant water lily. A few members of the group go out in a rowboat to retrieve it, rustling their way through the dense pond. However, they find that the lilies are rooted deeply to the bottom of the pond and the stems are incredibly strong.
The speaker then says that only the most resolved of the girls (here the gender of the group is revealed for the first time) dare to put their hands in the murky water in an attempt to wrench the flower from its stem. Without mentioning whether or not the girls were successful in their endeavor, the speaker then observes that they all row to and fro across the pond. They do so in small groups of two or three, taking turns. The girls are courageous and adventurous as they stand upon the muddy shore.
The other girls call for their turn on the rowboat. Some of the girls are picking up wood for the fire over by the spot where they set up their tents. (It now becomes clear that the girls have gone on more than just an afternoon’s outing.) This is also where the line break occurs, between the mention of picking up firewood and the statement that they are in the backwoods. The implication here is that the girls are as wild as the woods that surround them. And yet, the pond is small. Here, the speaker seems to indicate that as wild as things may seem, the pond itself is somewhat tame; it is not as big or impressive as it seems.
From their vantage point at the pond, the girls can still see the large magnolia trees that grow in the town cemetery. The large, cone-shaped flowers on the trees are white and easy to spot among the greenery. Thus, the speaker’s assertion that they are wild, or in the wild, is immediately contradicted by the mention of visible signs of civilization. The speaker notes that there are twelve girls and that the oldest girl in the group is twelve years old. The speaker’s quiet neighbor is also there, as are a pair of sisters who wear their hair in braids.
One of the girls keeps shrieking without stopping. The girls are held up and floated by their own innocence, by their ignorance of the world and how it works, just as the frightening water in the pond holds up the lilies. And yet, those lilies are tied to the bottom of the pond; a bottom that the girls cannot catch sight of. Given the half-completed comparison between the girls and the lilies, there is an implicit question: The flowers are held up by the water but deeply rooted in its bottom, and the girls are held up by their innocence, but to what are they rooted?
It is now late in the afternoon, just before the lilies close up for the day. For the first time the speaker refers to herself in the first person. She says that she went to the spring to fill up the bucket. The spring is nestled below the pine trees and bubbles below their exposed roots. The roots form a sort of cave that is filled with black mud.
The speaker states that she skimmed the pine needles and leaves from the top of the spring. Once the muck has been removed, she finds a crystal clear, shallow pool. It is so clear that she can see every rock at the bottom, could even count them if she wished. She then describes the shock of the cold water on her hand as it splashes onto her from the bucket.
The cold makes her want to stick her hand into the pool, and she does so. She holds her hand there; at first the cold comes as a shock, and then it numbs her. She gazes at her fingers and then at the pool’s edge. (Here, the speaker seems to indicate that her numb fingers have become something apart from her, something she looks at with indifference, just as she does the pool’s edge.) Yet, there on that ledge lies a snake. It is just beneath the water and is not moving.
The speaker says that the snake is coiled up, resting its head on its body just as a girl would rest her head on her arms. Here, the second line break occurs, and the speaker states that she is carrying the bucket back to the raucous campsite. No mention is made of the snake or of whether or not it attempted to strike. Nevertheless, it is clear that the speaker has returned to her group unharmed. At the campsite, she finds that all is the same. This statement seems to imply, however, that the speaker has experienced an internal change, one she (mistakenly) expects to find reflected in the world around her.
When the speaker returns to her group, she finds that the boat is still moving over the pond. When the speaker rejoins the other girls, she no longer refers to herself in the first person, but only as a part of the group. The campfire roars and spits as the girls throw trash and wood into it and into the darkness. They are lying back on their sleeping bags, arranged like so many parts of a wheel.
The girls are looking up at the night sky and learning what each constellation is called. They are also learning the myths behind each name. The speaker notes that the constellations are not derived from their brightest star, but from the lesser stars and the form they take as a group. These dimmers stars, the speaker finds, are much like the lilies through which they rowed their boat.
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