Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

"Morning Song" is a poem by American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath. The poem, from a the point-of-view of clinical psychology, appears to be about the effects of postpartum depression. Plath wrote the poem after she had given birth to her daughter, Frieda.

One of the first things readers might...

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"Morning Song" is a poem by American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath. The poem, from a the point-of-view of clinical psychology, appears to be about the effects of postpartum depression. Plath wrote the poem after she had given birth to her daughter, Frieda.

One of the first things readers might notice is the absence of emotion in the beginning of the poem. Typical maternal-based poems, or poems about a newborn child in general, are filled with cliche descriptions of love, warmth, and the feeling of being complete as a person and as a family. In this case, Plath describes the childbirth from detached point-of-view. In fact, Plath states that she feels alone, mirroring her own child's loneliness, and they are lonely together but separately. This is a contrast image to the picture of a fetus in her mother's womb: intimate and the child is dependent on the mother for survival. Plath also confesses that she feels alienated.

However, the poem suddenly changes its tone. After she spends time with Frieda, Plath begins to feel the love and warmth that was absent in the beginning. The build-up to this crescendo of emotions is written like a sweeping epic poem in which a person has to learn to love instead of falling in love at first sight. The feeling of loneliness wears off because Plath now recognizes her newborn baby's company. In this phase of her motherhood, Plath begins to experience the natural instincts of being a mother. Her protective and caring instincts overpower her postpartum depression and perceptions about the baby being an "object."

The poem is a hint at the major depressive episodes—possible a form of bipolar disorder—Plath faced later on in life and which eventually led her to take her life. Her husband, who was notoriously detached emotionally and possibly emotionally abusive towards her, seems to be absent from the poem, making her feelings of alienation amplified.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Sylvia Plath had recently given birth to her daughter Frieda when she wrote “Morning Song” in February, 1961. This eighteen-line lyric is structured in three-line stanzas or tercets. Although the title promises a song, the only song the reader gets is a baby’s cry. Plath may be experimenting with a traditional form of love poem called an aubade in French or alba in Provençal. Both refer to a lyric about dawn or a morning serenade. In such poems, the lover, usually in bed with a beloved, laments the dawn because it signals their inevitable parting. Plath’s poem mentions love only in the first line: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”; that is, the love of the parents gave birth to the baby. The mother love that the speaker is expected to feel is strangely absent in this poem. Instead, the mother-speaker moves from a strange alienation from this new being to a kind of instinctive awakening to the child’s presence, her connection to it, and her appreciation for its “handful of notes.”

Once the reader grasps the situation of the poem—the birth of a child—the remainder of the poem is reasonably clear. Although the emotional interest of the poem focuses on the new mother, both parents are mentioned: “Our voices echo” and “your nakedness/ Shadows our safety. We stand round.” Plath startles the reader with line 7: “I’m no more your mother.” Maternal feelings do not automatically occur. Plath is extremely honest to admit such strong feelings of alienation and separation in her poem. In the last three stanzas, the emotional estrangement of the speaker changes. She is compelled to listen to the sound of her child as it sleeps. She seems attuned to that “moth-breath” and says, “I wake to listen.” When she hears her baby cry, she gets up to feed it: “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown.” As she breast-feeds her child she observes the coming dawn as the light changes outside the window.

Plath closes with a reference to the sounds the child makes, probably not a cry of need since it has just been fed. The “Morning Song” of the title turns out to be the baby’s “handful of notes;/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.” Plath makes a definite contrast between the “dull stars” of the morning and the “clear vowels” of the baby. The speaker praises her baby and appears much less alienated than at the poem’s beginning.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

Plath is known for her striking images and her metaphors and similes. In this poem, there is a surreal quality about some of her imagery. In its attempts to express the workings of the subconscious, surreal art employs fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter. To compare a child to a “fat gold watch” is surreal. The child is animate while a watch is inanimate. Love is engaging while winding up a watch is a mechanical act. What the simile suggests is the great distance between the act of love and the fact of the baby. What does this baby—this thing with its own existence—have to do with the emotions that engendered it? By raising this question about what most people consider a most “natural” phenomenon—the birth of a child—Plath helps the reader see something very old (childbirth) as something quite strange, new, and unsettling. The disorienting effect of Plath’s style is typical of Surrealism.

Plath emphasizes the child’s strangeness—its thingness—by referring to its cry as “bald.” Her choice of adjective is odd. The baby’s head may be “bald,” but by describing its cry this way, Plath seems to emphasize the nonhuman quality of this new being/thing that does not take its place among other humans but “among the elements.” Stanza 2 reinforces the nonhuman quality of the baby as perceived by its parents. The child is a “new statue.” The parents are pictured as gazing at it “in a drafty museum.” In other words, they cannot help staring at the child, but they feel vulnerable and inadequate: “We stand round blankly as walls.” With the child as a statue and the parents as walls, not much communication occurs. Plath’s surreal images underline the parents’ feelings of alienation and strangeness in this new (to them) situation.

Stanza 3 contains not only the most striking line (“I’m no more your mother”) but also the most puzzling image: “Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement at the wind’s hand.” First, clouds do not distill mirrors. The shadow cast by a cloud reflects it; when the wind moves the cloud along, both cloud and shadow disperse. The bond this mother feels to her baby is just as insubstantial and fleeting. Plath’s image is convoluted and perhaps deliberately inexact. She suggests the tenuous relationship between mother and child, cloud and mirror. It is as if the birth of the child were external to the mother rather than part of her. Fortunately, the speaker discovers she is wrong. Maternal instincts arise in her.

She is attentive to the breathing sounds her child makes. The imagery animates those sounds: They are like “moth-breath,” suggesting how quiet and subtle they are. It is as if she can see the moth as it “flickers among the flat pink roses,” suggesting the patterns on wallpaper or fabric. Otherwise, the roses would not be “flat.” The contrast signifies the aliveness and motion of the moth-breath versus the less vibrant roses. The new mother, listening to her child’s breath-in-sleep, uses the image “A far sea moves in my ear” as if she were holding a shell to her ear and capturing the sounds of the ocean. The child’s delicate moth-breath suggests something more ponderous—new life and new possibilities.

The child’s mouth is “clean as a cat’s,” with the emphasis on “clean”: This new being is untarnished. Plath uses this word again in “Nick and the Candlestick” to describe her son: “The blood blooms clean/ In you, ruby.” It is a word of praise. No longer a statue, the child’s presence takes on more spirited animation through the animal imagery. The speaker’s lack of feeling for her child gradually transforms into appreciation and wonder, particularly at its sounds—not a “bald cry” any longer but something shaped, “a handful of notes.” The child enters the human world when the speaker perceives its attempts at language: “The clear vowels rise like balloons.” The poem closes on this image of ascension, a typical Plath strategy. “Morning Song” records how the speaker’s perception of her baby changes; her intimacy with her child grants her the vision of its animated being.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193

Anderson, Robert. Little Fugue. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bundtzen, Lynda. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

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