Morning Song by Sylvia Plath: Critical AnalysisWhen Sylvia Plath wrote this unconventional poem of hers on February 1961, she had given birth to her daughter Frieda. The mother love is strangely absent in the beginning of the poem. But the mother does move from a strange alienation to a kind of instinctive sweeping emotion, when she lives with the child for some time and when the child happens to breathe and cry; this probably happens after the intense labor pain is over, so that the mother could feel the love.
In fact, “maternal feelings” do not automatically occur. Plath is honest to divulge (confess) her feelings of alienation and separation. In the last three stanzas, the emotional estrangement changes and she impulsively listen to the sound of her child as it sleeps. The surreal images and comparisons are functional to emphasize the sense of oddity and alienation in the feelings of the mother. One striking surreal image that somehow supports the ‘thingness’ of the baby is that of its cry as “bald.
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 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 as a statue and the parents as walls, not much communication occur. Plath’s surreal images underline the parents’ feelings of alienation and strangeness in this new (to them) situation.
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 with the clear vowels rise like balloons. The poem closes with this idea of the child making poetry of the natural and innate human sounds filled with emotion. 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.
The theme in “Morning Song” is alienation and the process by which it is overcome. It deals with material instincts and its awakening. Plath avoids sentimentality in taking up the subject – of becoming a mother in a fatherly way. A woman does not come to motherhood merely by giving birth. New behavior is learned. The being of the mother is as new as the being of the child. Even the speaker listening to the child’s sounds and getting fascinated is not self-willed or under her control. She follows her instinct: “only cry and I stumble from bed.” Her child sings to her with a “morning song” and a bond is established with the help of language, the essential human act. One secondary, but important issue that the poem deals with is; can a woman be both mother and famous poet? In this, she is dealing with one of the major issues that faced women poets in the twentieth century. This poem answers her implied question. The joyous ending proclaims the arrival of both a new signer on the scene and a mother pound of her child’s vocal signals and message.
The first line of Plath’s poem, ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, shows the emotional forces conflicting within the mother’s mind. The fact that she chooses the word ‘love’ rather than a more carnal image like ‘sex’ shows that the infant was conceived from an intimate bond and creates a positive connection between mother and child. Using the simile, ‘a fat gold watch’, changes the impact of this line. While the word ‘fat’ alludes to the cumbersome nature of the infant, the word ‘gold’ represents the child as precious and valued, and the word ‘watch’ conjures to mind the seemingly endless task of raising a child. In her book ‘The Second Sex’, the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir asserts that ‘a whole complex of economical and sentimental considerations makes the baby seem either a hindrance or a jewel’, but Plath’s ‘fat gold watch’ suggests a newborn can be both.
Detachment caused by the mother’s sense of apprehension is evident as she says to her child, ‘New statue. / In a drafty museum, your nakedness shadows our safety.’ The mother’s reference to the baby as a ‘new statue’ seems odd in that the infant not long before created in her own womb should seem foreign to her. De Beauvoir states that though ‘the woman would like to feel that the new baby is surely hers as her own […] she does not recognise him because […] she has experienced her pregnancy without him: she has no past in common with this little stranger.’ By telling the infant ‘your nakedness shadows our safety’ the young mother indicates that the ‘nakedness’, or newness, of the infant is frightening to the new parents and as they contemplate this ‘shadow’ of responsibility; they are awestruck and confused and ‘stand round blankly as walls.’
‘I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand’
make it quite clear that the mother’s sense of apprehension interferes with her ability to recognise her bond with her child. The paradoxical statement makes obvious the connection between mother and child. The ‘cloud’, or mother, ‘distills a mirror’, gives birth to her image, ‘to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand’, to reveal her own inevitable end. Her denial of such an undeniable bond is ironic and shows that resistance is futile, predicting her own eventual acknowledgement of her connection to her child.
Plath again connects the mother and infant by speaking of the baby’s breath ‘flickering’ among the ‘flat pink roses’ that relates to the mother’s ‘floral’ nightgown. By referring to the nightgown as Victorian and herself as ‘cow-heavy’, however, she alludes to her resentment of this connection. The Victorian gown is reminiscent of the past, the role of women’s place as being in the home to care for the children. The term ‘cow-heavy’ illustrates her aversion toward her duty of nursing that ‘inflicts a harsh slavery upon her and [the infant] is no longer a part of her: it seems a tyrant; she feels hostile to this little stranger, this individual who menaces her flesh, her freedom, her whole ego.’ (De Beauvoir)
The final lines of Plath’s poem, ‘And now you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons’, end the mother’s contemplation of her child on a positive note. De Beauvoir states that ‘there are women […] whose first surprised indifference continues until they find definite bonds with the new infant.’ She explains that many women ‘feel that the separation is what gives them the child; it is no longer an indistinguishable part of themselves but a portion of the outer world; it no longer vaguely haunts their bodies, but can be seen and touched.’ This appears to be the case with the mother in Plath’s poem. By ending her poem with beautiful imagery, comparing the infantile wails to rising balloons, Plath shows the mother acknowledges her connection to her child. The awe with which she receives the baby’s cries suggests that she is touched by the baby’s humanity, its unique individuality.
In ‘Morning Song’, the mother’s bond to her infant strengthens as she tries to deny it. While attempting to prove that she has no connection to this new life, the bonds become undeniable as the infant opposes her with his or her ‘clear vowels.’ This ‘handful of notes’ is all that is needed to dispel all pretences of indifference toward the child. As the cries ‘rise like balloons’, so too, it seems, do the mother’s spirits and attitude toward the new life she has brought into the world.