The narrator is a mother, explaining the death of her baby to her youngest surviving child using a more gentle euphemism: sleep. The child asks if the angels will take the deceased baby to Heaven. The mother tells her child that the baby is asleep and far away from harm. She tells the child to place a flower in the dead baby’s hand, kiss the body, and come away.
This poem consists of eight lines that do not rhyme, although Rossetti uses "asleep" as a final word twice and "her" at the end of four lines. The lack of a rhyme scheme creates a solemn atmosphere that is appropriate for the subject matter: a baby's untimely death.
Rossetti uses constant end-stopping that gives the poem a halting quality, as if the mother is too bereaved to speak of her baby's death, even while she is trying to comfort her child about the same reality. The child's question about Heaven introduces the concept of life after death, and it seems from the mother's response that she truly believes that her baby is now in Heaven. However, she still hesitates to relinquish her baby's body to the kindly angels dressed in white, so it is possible that she even does not fully embrace what she is telling her child about the afterlife. She would rather tell her child, and perhaps even herself, that the baby is only sleeping, because it feels less permanent than death.
Rossetti frequently compares sleep to death in her work, and in this case, it is important to consider that in the Victorian era, infant death was as normal as nightly repose. Unfortunately, women had to face infant mortality as a frequent and harsh reality, like the mother in this poem,. There was also a high rate of infanticide, due to the lack of pregnancy prevention methods. To that end, women who killed their children would describe them as "asleep" or "resting" so as to protect themselves from the brutality of their crimes. Although this is a dark topic for a nursery rhyme, the theme of child mortality was a reality during Rossetti's time and frequently occurs in children's poetry collections from the period.
The poem does not end on a completely melancholy note. The mother tells her younger child to put a snowdrop in the baby's hand. Snowdrops are among the first flowers to appear at the onset of spring, and are often poetic symbols of eternal hope. According to a Christian legend, an angel gave Adam and Eve a snowdrop after their expulsion from Eden, just when they were despairing that winter would never end.
This melancholy poem provides insight into the world of Victorian child-rearing practices and the commonplace occurrence of infant death. In this way, Rossetti shows that children had to learn about fragility of life from a very young age.