‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

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

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

If you want to read some of my other analyses of Plath’s poems, please take a look at my posts about ‘Ariel‘, ‘Daddy‘, ‘The Applicant‘ and ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree‘.

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dandilyonz4u
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 00:44:33

    After reading your analysis then rereading the poem I got the meaning. It meant nothing in my first read. Thanks for sharing

    Reply

  2. Lady Fancifull
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 10:30:57

    This is great, thanks Emily. Such a potent poem. I appreciate your analysis hugely.

    I love that line

    ‘Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s’ – the images it suggests are both sweet, demanding and predatory, to this ailurophile! There is the demanding nature managing winsome appeal as the velvet glove around the iron paw of predatory nature – and also, it must be said that the cat is of course a hunter, and ferocious. I’m always struck with babies, by the tenderness inducing fragility – but also the fierceness and strength of the life force, and the way the baby’s cry pierces particularly into the mother’s heart, guts, soul. ‘Not my will – but thine, baby, thine!

    Somehow it is that cat line and the following, that released all that.

    This is such a great blog – making the reader revisit familiar poems, or take new ones slowly and patiently.

    The genre i mainly read, novels, tends, through narrative drive, to propel the reader forward, constantly, whereas a poem absolutely exists in a tension between brake and accelerator, so a line , if the reader surrenders, tugs you back into itself as much as propelling forward to the next

    Reply

  3. richinaword
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:08:23

    This is one of SP’s most positive … here is a link to my thoughts on this poem … http://richard-outoftheblue.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/sylvia-plath-birth-statues-and-museums.html

    … and I must say it is not a stop-watch … these word ever living

    I will have to think about your comparison with her poems … and her poem ‘Words’ comes to mind

    Many thanks for your take.

    Reply

  4. Erich Rupprecht
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 14:54:08

    Emily — as I’ve commented before, you have a real knack for choosing excellent poems to discuss. Sometimes, as in this case, you picked not one of Plath’s super well-known poems, which is a real service to those of us (like me) who kind of forgot about this one. Thanks for reminding us of the poem and your (as always) sensitive and insightful reading.

    btw, not sure if you are a fan of The Bell Jar, but thought you might be interested in a post I wrote about it a little while back. I’d only read her poetry prior to this and was astounded by how different and powerful her novel is: http://erupprecht.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/on-first-looking-into-the-bell-jar/

    Reply

    • emilyardagh
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 17:45:17

      Hi Erich. Thanks so much for your kind words; it’s really nice to hear that my posts are appreciated. I did love The Bell Jar, and I will have a read of your post on it – thank you!

      Reply

  5. rhchatlien
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 02:33:21

    Stanza five is the one that really jumped out at me before I read your analysis. The juxtaposition of “cow-heavy” and “your mouth opens clean as a cat’s” gives such a clear image of a weary woman rising to breast feed her child in the middle of the night. Brilliant.

    Reply

  6. Trackback: Plath nearly survives voice recognition software | Brightredmarker's Blog
  7. Trackback: someone’s mother: thoughts on mother’s day | saga: the feminist muse

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