Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Sylvia Plath’s 1963 lyric poem “Child” addresses a child, presumably the speaker’s own. The speaker notes that her child's eye is "the one absolutely beautiful thing," suggesting that the world beyond—perhaps the adult world—is marred by imperfection and compromise. The child’s eye, by contrast, represents childhood’s innocence and purity of spirit.
The speaker desires to give her young child joyful experiences, to share sensations that will enchant and educate the child: “color and ducks” and the “zoo of the new.” The phrase “color and ducks” appears to stand in for all that delights and intrigues a young child. Through metonymy, these exemplary details represent the broader category of enriching sensations the speaker wishes to share. Through metaphor, the phrase “zoo of the new” compares these new sensations to a zoo’s vibrant array of animals. Moreover, the word “zoo” is telling for its connotations of childhood wonder.
The second stanza activates a series of floral images at two levels. At one level, the child is said to “meditate” the flower’s names, an evocation of children’s curiosity about language. At another level, the flowers function as metaphors for the child himself.
The first flower is the “April snowdrop,” one of spring’s first blooms and thus a symbol of life and vernal renewal. The implicit comparison of the child to this prodigious flower produces a connotation of hopefulness. A similar metaphor is drawn from the “Indian pipe,” a hearty flower that can thrive in sunless conditions. The comparison of the child to such a flower capable of growing without sunlight evokes connotations of resilience and, again, hopefulness. Later on, the fourth stanza’s image of a “dark / Ceiling without a star” gives greater meaning to the image of the Indian pipe, for it reveals that the child inhabits a figuratively sunless terrain. The next image is the “Little / Stalk without wrinkle,” another botanical metaphor that suggest the child’s innocence, unwrinkled as he is by experience. The sudden enjambment after “Little” evokes both smallness (for the line is by far the shortest of the poem) and innocence (for the word gives way to a field of blank space, of untapped possibility).
The speaker compares the child’s eye to a “Pool in which images / Should be grand and classical.” She wants her child to confront images of orderly beauty, aptly referring to classical art as a touchstone of these very qualities. The converse of this desire is a concern that her child will instead confront images of anxiety and perhaps hopelessness. The speaker evokes such anxiety with the image of “this troublous / Wringing of hands.” At a literal level, this hand-wringing may refer to the speaker’s own actual hand-wringing. More importantly, the image serves as a figure for the anxiety of the the speaker’s adult world, a reality she wishes to conceal from her child.
The speaker expands this picture of the adult world by evoking “this dark / Ceiling without a star.” Here, the ceiling is compared to a starless night sky, a timeless trope for hopelessness. This starless state inverts the vernal hopefulness evoked by the second stanza’s “April snowdrop.” The image of the ceiling also serves as a counterpoint to the “grand and classical” images the speaker wishes to show her child. The ceiling, with its connotations of enclosure and limitation, keenly contrasts the grandeur the speaker longs for. Thus, it is poignant that the speaker only discusses the latter “images… grand and classical” in abstract terms, for to pin the principle of grandeur and classical form to concrete examples would impose limitations thereon—would impose a ceiling.