Analysis of Poem Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

Updated on November 5, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath And Son Nicholas
Sylvia Plath And Son Nicholas | Source

Sylvia Plath And A Summary of Morning Song

Morning Song is one of several poems Sylvia Plath wrote concerning pregnancy, birth and maternal feelings.

It is a short poem that highlights the confused reactions of the mother, the speaker (Plath) as she tends to the needs of her new baby.

The well known first line typifies the poem:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The poem's first word, Love, is what we would often associate with the bond between mother and baby. A new life created through the parent's love for one another, through conception and on into the actual birth and beyond. A mother's love is traditionally especially powerful and strong.

Yet complications arise, so typical of Sylvia Plath, as the poem progresses. There is love yes, but there is also doubt, darkness and distance. The speaker sees the baby as a thing (a watch, a statue) and herself as a cloud as she attempts to put her experience as a mother into perspective.

With its unusual metrical rhythms, use of simile and juxtaposed elements this opening line begins with the idea of love being undermined by the comparison of the baby to a watch, a timepiece, a thing, albeit precious.

  • This duality exists throughout the poem, each of the six stanzas focusing on different aspects of the mother's internal responses to the demands of the newborn.
  • The main themes are: motherhood, separation, quality of time, personal responsibility.

As with many of Plath's poems metaphor and powerful language play major roles, expanding and deepening the experience for the reader.

It's especially rewarding to read all of Sylvia Plath's motherhood poems, as a whole, because they give an unprecedented insight into her psychic reaction to being a mother.

Morning Song was written in February 1961, inspired by her first born Frieda, arriving in April 1960. The previous year and a half had been tricky - she went through miscarriage and subsequent emotional uncertainty.

The poem was first published in May 1961 in The Observer and was the first poem in her book Ariel, out in 1965, arranged by Ted Hughes, two years after her death.

Morning Song

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.

Morning Song - Analysis Stanza By Stanza

First Stanza

The first line encapsulates so much of this poem. The speaker is referring directly to the baby...Love set you going...and is a tender, emotional start. Here is the child that will alter the speaker's approach to time, initiated through an act of love.

Yet whilst the baby may be thought of as a precious timekeeper the simile acts in two different directions, creating a tension that carries on throughout the poem. The baby is being likened to an object, a watch, which suggests that something mechanical is the product of love making.

The reader is a witness to the birth of an entity that has been wound up and will now become the focus of the mother's life, ticking away the time.

There is the midwife bringing the baby into the real world with a slap. The bald cry is personalised and becomes a primitive, basic addition to life...elements...this could mean the four elements of earth, air, water and fire or more generally, the weather. It is more likely the former, as Plath was a keen enthusiast for the occult, astrology in particular.

Second Stanza

So the baby is born with a cry which has an effect on the parents who reciprocate, enlarging the effect instinctively. Again, note the personal juxtaposed with the impersonal:

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

This stanza is the most heavily punctuated; there are several pauses for the reader which reflects the speaker's near shock at what has arrived. Not only is the baby a watch but is now also a statue, something around which people stand and study. It is a mere body.

And to complete the image, this statue is in a drafty museum which conjures up quite dark and cold feelings. Is the room so old and cold? Is the speaker referring to the house, or is it simply a question of reinforcing the metaphor?

This emphasis on the baby being a thing distances the mother, undermines the instinctive bond but objectifies the whole experience.

This stanza reflects the mother's misgivings, domestic metaphor replacing homely tenderness and love. So the baby's nakedness isn't something to be welcomed, it shadows and unsettles. The mother and others (the parents? family?) don't really know how to react - they're like walls.

The idea of the personal versus the impersonal is repeated; the private space is almost violated by the baby, whose presence now allows for public scrutiny.

Third Stanza

The speaker becomes directly first person - I'm no more your mother - in a stanza that has two enjambed lines, making this one complete sentence, the only one in the poem.

This is both denial and metaphorical distancing. By becoming a cloud the mother speaker is saying that she is a vessel, a vehicle only, a natural carrier, who disappears or is thinned out. (note the term cervical effacement during the actual birth process).

This is quite an image - the cloud distills a mirror (takes out the essentials) to reflect its own demise as the wind gets up.

The winds of change. This could be fate itself, the child a mirror image of the mother who essentially fades into the background.

Analysis of Morning Song - Stanzas 4 - 6

Fourth Stanza

The breath of the baby is a moth-breath - light, of the night, soft. And it is outdoors perhaps, in the garden? This could be the speaker listening to the baby as it breathes but thinking of the flowers in the night's garden where the moths fly.

This is a very feminine stanza which also takes the reader out of the museum room/house and into the natural environment. Again this is separation through distance - the mother hears the sea as she listens to her baby - and reinforces the idea that, for all the closeness and intimacy, there is expansion of the relationship.

Fifth Stanza

The speaker is brought back into the 'real' world by a cry, an instinctive reaction to the baby. She is cow-heavy - feeling slow and grounded, an image that is almost comical especially when the full floral Victorian nightgown is added to the mix. (see Plath's poem Heavy Women)

She stumbles, is clumsy. Together with moth-breath the baby's mouth opens like a cat's.

Sixth Stanza

With use of enjambment between stanzas the meaning flows on - again the speaker takes the reader out and into the starry night sky before returning to the baby and its attempts at vowel speech, which are likened to balloons rising.

This last image is less dark than some previous. Here is the mother overlooking the baby as it attempts to speak (or sing, or the baby's speech is experienced as singing, which links back to the title), the comparison with balloons suggesting lightness, playfulness, things that leave the earth.

Analysis of Morning Song - Literary Devices

Morning Song is a six stanza free verse poem, each stanza an unrhymed tercet, making 18 lines in total.

There are a number of literary devices employed, namely:

Alliteration

When two or more words are close together in a line and begin with the same consonant they are said to be alliterative. This adds texture and odd phonetics can occur. For example:

our safety. We stand....no more your mother....Flickers among the flat....clean as a cat's.

Assonance

When two or more words close together in a line have the same sounding vowels. For example:

going like a fat gold....We stand round blankly....vowels rise like....

Caesurae

A caesura is a break in a line caused by punctuation. This slows the reader down and reinforces certain meanings.

In stanza 2 for example the first line has two caesurae, a comma and end (full) stop,slowing it right down as the reader pauses.

Enjambment

When a line continues on into the next with no pause, increasing momentum and keeping the sense. Every stanza has enjambment but only stanzas three and five have two lines enjambed, the latter moving on into the final stanza.

Metaphor

The second stanza...New statue....the baby is metaphorically a statue.

In the third stanza the speaker becomes a cloud.

Personification

When an object is given human traits or behaviour:

The window square/ Whitens and swallows its dull stars.

Simile

When two things are compared:

Stanza 1 ....like a fat gold watch

Stanza 2....blankly as walls

Stanza 5....mouth opens clean as a cat's

Stanza 6....rise like balloons.

Morning Song Read By Meryl Streep

Sources

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.jstor.org

The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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