Sylvia Plath’s poem Morning Song is one of the more interesting poems to analyse. Not only is there an overwhelming sense of theme and disordered emotion, but it also provides a window into the life of Plath herself.
In order to fully grasp this poem, we first have to take a glance into the life of the poet, Sylvia Plath.
The life of Sylvia Plath – Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath was a woman of great conviction with aspirations to study and travel abroad. Contrary to the common pressures and practices of the women of her time, Plath had no plans to settle down and have children, believing children to be a barrier that would hold her back from her true destiny. However, she later received an impressive scholarship for a college in Cambridge, England where she met and married a man named Ted Hughes. In a change of heart, Plath decided to have a baby, but this turned out to be harder than expected as she suffered miscarriage. It was in 1961 when she finally birthed a daughter whom she named ‘Frieda’, and it was also at this point that she wrote the poem Morning Song, which was based on her own experiences of motherhood.
Mental Health: Sylvia Plath, like many great artists, was affected by mental illness throughout her life. Her psychologist has since stated that she had been experiencing clinical depression, which is what lead to her untimely death by suicide in 1963. At that time, her daughter Frieda was only two-years of age.
Morning Song gives us somewhat of a glimpse into Plath’s mindset while raising Frieda, as the narrator expresses feelings of alienation from her newborn child and appears to be distant, melancholy and emotionally confused within the first three stanzas.
Postpartum Depression- It is also important to note that these feelings of cold detachment and desolation could also describe a woman experiencing a condition now known as postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a disorder which usually develops within a few weeks of birthing a child, can last several months or longer, and is characterised by symptoms such as ‘depressed mood or severe mood swings’, ‘feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy’ and ‘difficulty bonding with your baby’ (cited from MayoClinic, link in references). These symptoms are certainly shown throughout the first three stanzas of Morning Song. Although we have a fair amount of knowledge on this condition today, as well as a range of treatments, there was little to no understanding of postpartum depression in the 1960’s. At a time where women were expected to centre their lives around the care of their children, a woman who appeared distant and hostile towards their child would have been held in heavy contempt, likely viewed as either cruel or insane. It would have been unlikely that women such as Plath, who were likely experiencing this condition, would feel comfortable speaking out about their experiences due to the condemnation they would have received, and the likelihood they would either have had their children removed from their care, or be sent themselves to a psychiatric facility.
To find out more about postpartum depression and common misconceptions, click the following link: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1063&context=sociology_diss
Women’s Rights and the 1960’s – The 1960’s was a time for change as many women began to stand up and reject the current world’s perceptions of women, their positions in society and their treatment. This movement is also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement. This movement focused on the need for equal rights for women in terms of work, politics and family. Although women still did not have the same level of rights as they do in this current day and age, their position in society began to slowly elevate as they were being viewed not just as housewives and mothers, but as men’s equals.
Plath’s poetry also reflected this movement. Rather than following the stereotypical and expected route of writing about the joys of motherhood, Plath chose to express the true feelings of a struggling mother in Morning Song, giving a voice to many women who likely felt the same, but were too frightened or ashamed of how their friends, their families and society in general would’ve deemed them.
To find out more about the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960’s, click on the following link: https://www.britannica.com/event/womens-movement
‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.‘
The narrator describes the conception of her child by stating that the love of her and her husband had ‘set you going‘, meaning had begun the development of a baby the way setting a ‘fat gold watch‘ begins its ticking.
After the narrator had birthed her child, the midwife fondly slaps the soles of the newborn baby’s feet. The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word bald in this context as ‘bare; plain; unadorned’ or ‘open; undisguised’. By using this definition, we understand the ‘bald cry’ as being something raw, loud and tuneless. This is further stated in the third line when it is said to take ‘its place among the elements’, referring to it as something inhuman; as just an ‘element‘ rather than the cry of a living a person.
‘Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.‘
The narrator and those others in the room (probably including her husband) where she likely birthed her daughter speak. The ‘echo’ which magnifies the baby’s arrival gives us the impression that the room is large and empty. Here, the narrator is further detaching herself from the child.
The baby is then compared to a ‘new statue’ in a ‘drafty museum‘. This imagery of the museum again gives the impression of a large, empty room, this time with a draft flowing through, highlighting a sense of coldness within this distance the narrator expresses. It’s unfeeling and rather hostile; not the kind of love and admiration mothers usually show at the birth of their child.
The narrator describes those within the room as ‘stand[ing] round blankly as walls‘ of the museum, while the baby is the ‘new statue‘. We now imagine this large, empty room with only a baby in the centre, a statue the world admires but does not touch or interact with. The baby is not human to the narrator, just a piece of artwork for others to admire.
The baby’s raw self – its ‘nakedness‘ – makes the new parents nervous and as if it’s a ‘shadow‘ over their ‘safety‘. They have a baby to care for now, and all past feelings of comfort and safety in their daily routines has now been disrupted by this child they must constantly care for and protect for years to come.
‘I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand‘
The word ‘distils’ refers to the extraction of only the important things and ridding of the non-important things that may appear in the background. Instead of the mirror reflecting everything in front of it, the cloud has ‘distilled’ the mirror to only reflect itself being moved by the wind, erasing everything else in the mirror’s way, which the mirror would normally reflect. The word efface, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, means ‘to wipe out; destroy; do away with’ or ‘to rub out; erase; or obliterate’, meaning the wind is blowing the cloud out of the way of the mirror’s reflection, or erasing it from sight.
This stanza can be interpreted as the narrator feeling they are merely a means to an end rather than a mother; raising the baby until it is an adult, able to care for itself, and no longer needs its mother at all and the mother is ‘erased’ from the child’s life as a caretaker.
‘All Night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.‘
The narrator describes the baby’s ‘moth-breath‘ that ‘flickers‘. This is a gentle, pleasing sound, like that of a tiny moth flickering its wings at night. The ‘flat pink roses’ may refer to a set of floral sheets or a floral blanket, the pattern flattened due to it being an image covering an object rather than an actual 3D object, such as a rose itself. We imagine the baby lying in a cot, sleeping gently. The narrator wakes to hear ‘a far sea mov[ing]’. This ‘far sea’ refers to the gentle inhales and exhales of the baby’s breathing, like the ebbing and flowing of ocean waters. The ‘far sea’ imagery separates us from the baby. We are closer to it than the first three stanzas – less hostile – but the baby is still distant from the mother both physically and emotionally.
‘One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square‘
The baby cries and the mother wakes to soothe it. She is wearing a ‘floral‘ ‘Victorian nightgown‘ and likely still tired, indicated by her ‘cow-heavy‘ stumbling. The baby’s mouth is wide open like a ‘square‘ ‘window‘. We imagine a cat howling for its meal, its mouth open wide.
‘Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.’
The baby’s mouth ‘swallows‘ the ‘dull stars‘ in white which blots out the darkness and the stars. It is not something beautiful in the narrator’s eyes and instead of a romantic description, we are given a realistic one. The baby’s cry, however, is now described as a ‘handful of notes‘. It is a much kinder comparison than in the first stanza, where the narrator describes the baby’s cry as a ‘bald cry‘. It appears she is beginning to soften to the baby, finding its cries musical rather than a loud, raw noise. The ‘clear vowels‘ rising ‘like balloons‘ give us the impression of a playful, happy tone that softly rises into the air for the narrator to hear.
What is Morning Song about?
Morning Song, in short, is an unconventional tale of motherhood. It begins Morning Song, in short, is an unconventional tale of motherhood. It begins by highlighting the narrator’s emotional confusion at becoming a new mother, alienating herself from the child and referring to it almost as if it were an object rather than a living person, seen by the use of the term ‘fat gold watch’ and referring to it as a ‘sculpture‘. This apparent alienation continues until the fourth stanza, where it becomes apparent the narrator’s ‘mothering-instincts’ set in and she begins to show sympathy and admiration for the young child, ‘stumbl[ing] from bed‘ to ease its cries and which, rather than a ‘bald cry‘ (as described in the first stanza) is now referred to as a ‘handful of notes‘.
Setting: The narrator begins by recalling her child’s birth. As the poem continues, we move from memory to present-tense, imagining a mother who is lying in bed, likely in her own home, pondering motherhood with a newborn baby. As she rests, she describes the baby’s breathing as a ‘moth-breath‘, the tiny inhales and exhales as a ‘far sea mov[ing] in [her] ear‘. When the baby cries, the narrator ‘stumble[s] from her bed‘ in her ‘Victorian nightgown‘ to ease the baby, describing its wailing as a ‘handful of notes; The clear vowels ris[ing] like balloons‘.
Characters: There are only three characters mentioned in Morning Song; the narrator herself, a briefly mentioned midwife, and a newly born baby. Sylvia Plath, throughout the poem, makes it evident the narrator is the baby’s mother, describing the baby’s conception through the first line of the poem: ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch‘, the baby’s birth following this in the second line, adding: ‘the midwife slapped your footsoles‘, and through the narrator calling herself ‘mother‘ outright in the third stanza.
Narration: The narrator of this poem is a mother who speaks directly to her newly born child in a second-person point of view. At first, she appears melancholic, distancing herself from the child and describing it almost as an inanimate object, or something ‘among the elements‘ rather than something human. As the poem goes on, the narrator begins to connect herself to the child, becoming ever-more loving and caring as she describes the baby’s breathing as a gentle ‘moth breath‘ that ‘flickers among the flat pink roses’.
Themes – The main theme of this poem is motherhood and the feeling of distance and detachment a mother feels towards her child before her love for it begins to grow. It is an unconventional theme for the time it was written and may be a depiction of postpartum depression – which was a relatively unexplored condition at the time.
Tone and Mood- The tone of the poem appears to be melancholic and confused. There is no consistent use of rhyme or rhythm, making readers feel unsettled, rather than at ease with the lyrical and often satisfying nature of common poems that utilise rhyme and rhythm. Plath uses this to her advantage, helping us to further understand the mental state of the narrator and the confusion and emotional instability the narrator is experiencing. Although Morning Song does become softer and more affectionate throughout the last three stanzas, it does keep its melancholic and disorienting structure, keeping the realism and stopping the readers from feeling completely whip-lashed by a drastic change in tone.
Rhyme and Rhythm- Morning Song does not appear to have any attempt at rhyming and the rhythm it uses seems to variate constantly. This makes the poem free verse, as it does not follow any set poetic rules.
Like the narrator, the poem appears jumbled and confused, detaching itself from known poetic rules just as the narrator detaches herself from her child.
Alliteration- Alliteration is used sparingly by Plath in this poem; in the second stanza with the term ‘shadows our safety‘ and in the fifth stanza with the term ‘clean as a cat’s’. Both these terms are non-literal and meant only to form an image in our mind of the baby and its effect on its parents.
Similes- There are a few similes used in Plath’s poem, such as the first line: ‘Love set you free like a fat gold watch’, and the final line in the poem: ‘the clear vowels rise like balloons’.
These two examples are particularly significant in the context of Morning Song, as they are both an interesting contrast between the narrator’s state of mind and her feelings towards her child at the beginning of the poem and the way she thinks and feels by the time we reach the end of the poem. The first simile is harsh and cold as she compares her child to an inanimate object, whereas the last simile used is fonder and softer, admiring the baby’s musical cries. This highlights her change in mood and tone, from distant and aloof towards her child to loving and admiring the baby.
Metaphors- There are quite a lot of metaphors used by Plath in Morning Song, such as the comparison of the baby to a ‘new statue’ in a ‘drafty museum’, the comparison of the narrator as a mother to a cloud being reflected by a mirror to show its slow effacement at the wind’s hand’, and the comparison of the baby’s mouth as it cries to a ‘window square’. These metaphors are all used to convey distance and alienation between the narrator and the baby in a relatively subtle manner. Plath sneaks this in to give us the impression they are distant without telling us outright, making us feel uneasy and confused, just as the narrator herself feels.
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