Written in 1957, when most of Plath’s work was still in formal verse, “The Disquieting Muses” is an unnerving explanation of alienation and otherness. The title, as Plath explained, refers to a painting by the artist Georgio de Chirico—a painting of three faceless dressmaker’s dummies with elongated heads who cast eerie shadows in a strange half-light. “The dummies suggest a twentieth century version of other sinister trios of women—the Three Fates, the witches in Macbeth, [Thomas] De Quincey’s sisters of madness,” she commented. The equation suggests that the poet associates women, distortions, inspiration, magic, and poetry.
The poem is written in eight-line stanzas containing roughly four stresses per line and some rhyme, notably rhyme of the fifth and seventh line in each stanza. The poem is addressed to “Mother,” who tried to teach her daughter a limited and accepted art, telling her stories of witches who “always/ Got baked into gingerbread” and praising her piano and ballet exercises. The mother, too, tried to teach her children how to keep irrational forces at bay, chanting at the hurricane winds that threatened to blow in the windows. The power of unreason is too strong, however; the art it engenders too compelling.
Like Plath’s other parent poems, this one blames the parent, at least in part, for the situation of the poet. Mother failed to invite some “illbred aunt” or “unsightly cousin” to her christening, thus provoking the anger of the uninvited. The daughter is thus set apart, unable to continue the mother-daughter tradition of benign, trivial art. She could not dance with the other schoolgirls in the “twinkle-dress” but “heavy-footed, stood aside/ In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed/ Godmothers, and you cried and cried.”
The conclusion of the poem indicates that the girl is still surrounded by her otherworldly company, the distorted muses, who are witches, fates, visitors from the world of madness. She indicates that she has learned not to betray her difference:
“No frown of mine/ Will betray the company I keep.” The surrealist painting is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s deathscapes, although not so explicit as they in its message. The poem suggests that to be an artist is to look at eternities and infinities, and that this gift—in the speaker’s case, caused in part by her mother’s oversight—is a curse rather than a blessing.