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Analysis of a Sylvia Plath Poem: "The Night Dances"

Sylvia Plath with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas

Sylvia Plath with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas

Sylvia Plath and a Summary of "The Night Dances"

"The Night Dances" is a wonderful poem but needs careful analysis to gain a full understanding of its power. In this article, we'll look at each line and examine just what it is that makes this piece so endurable.

The poem was inspired by one of Sylvia Plath's children. According to her former husband Ted Hughes, it was based upon:

‘a revolving dance which her baby son performed at night in his crib.'

The form, couplets of varying line length, reflects the dance of both child and universe, while the first-person speaker is a tentative and sensitive voice caught between the dances and their inevitable influences.

The tone is philosophical, even fatalistic in places, as the speaker observes the child dancing and ponders on the nature of synchronicity and a mother's place within the whole. It is a powerful poem with some profound imagery.

Plath's outpouring of poetry in the final few months before her tragic death in February 1963 was gathered into the book Ariel, one of modern literature's most evocative works.

With the breakup of her celebrated marriage to English poet Ted Hughes, Sylvia was alone with her children for the first time. Powerful poems came thick and fast. She wrote two, even three a day.

'These poems are playing Russian roulette', wrote poet Robert Lowell in his introduction to Ariel in 1965.

Picture the mother of two quietly waking up in the silent haze of dawn without disturbing her two children and sitting down at the table to write her poems, fueled by volatile emotional energy.

In some respects, when Ted Hughes left, the inner release she experienced allowed her the freedom to write these last poems. Ironically, the more she wrote the further away from herself she traveled.

It's not our place to speculate or judge. All we can do is read her work and marvel at the language and bravery on show in her poems. As one reviewer of the time suggested:

'She could not return from them.' George Steiner, 1963.

Arguably, some great artists sometimes have to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their art, or go through pain barriers we normal mortals can only dream about. Take John Keats, Vincent van Gogh, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and others, feverishly going about their work, producing beautiful and frightening art from the heat of inner turmoil.

I hope this analysis of one of Sylvia Plath's poems takes nothing away from the emotional energy she poured into it.

The Night Dances

A smile fell in the grass.

And how will your night dances
Lose themselves. In mathematics?

Such pure leaps and spirals ——
Surely they travel

The world forever, I shall not entirely
Sit emptied of beauties, the gift

Of your small breath, the drenched grass
Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies.

Their flesh bears no relation.
Cold folds of ego, the calla,

And the tiger, embellishing itself ——
Spots, and a spread of hot petals.

The comets
Have such a space to cross,

Such coldness, forgetfulness.
So your gestures flake off ——

Warm and human, then their pink light
Bleeding and peeling

Through the black amnesias of heaven.
Why am I given

These lamps, these planets
Falling like blessings, like flakes

Six sided, white
On my eyes, my lips, my hair

Touching and melting.

"The Night Dances": Meaning

Reading through this 28-line poem of couplets is to go on a journey of discovery, intrigue and unfathomable darkness. To start with, the title is ambiguous. Is it the night that dances or is the poem about someone or something else that dances?

It turns out the title refers to the dances of her toddler son Nicholas, who would wake up in the night and perform these little movements, as if he was dancing.

As a mother and a poet it would be impossible for her not to use subjective experience as a source material for her poetry. The intrigue comes in the way she forms the poem - pairs of lines, like questions and answers, or voice and echo, taking us into the world of the child then out into an uncertain adult universe.

Can you see Sylvia Plath in the darkened winter room, her child performing these short rhythmic dances, a fragile bond developing then fading away as the mother looks out into a deep dark star-filled night sky, wondering what the future would hold.

Line by Line Analysis of "The Night Dances"

Lines 1- 2

The opening line has to be one of the most simple ever to grace a major poem. Simple yet not that straightforward to grasp, which in a way perfectly suits a Sylvia Plath creation. Already, an aspect of the poem is out of the reader's reach.

This smile, from a child, from any child anywhere in the world, is staying where it fell. The grass suggests that the speaker is outside, in a field, on the lawn? That's a first impression but as the poem progresses this grass somehow becomes unreal - perhaps it's embroidered on a blanket or painted on a page in a book? Or is it a metaphor, an echo of Walt Whitman's classic groundbreaker, Leaves of Grass?

You could say the speaker is in an imaginary world from the very start and that word irretrievable creates a sense of distance. It's as if the smile is a precious jewel lost at the bottom of a deep dark well.

Analysis of "The Night Dances"

Lines 3 - 4

The next two lines pose a question and suggest the speaker is observing someone dancing - your night dances - which will, like the smile, become lost but not in anything as tangible as grass. The poem shifts us into another more abstract realm when the word mathematics appears. This unusual move into pure figurative language is a calculated risk by the poet. Mathematics is a cold, logical, reasoning world, beautiful for a minority but lacking emotion and colour.

Is the speaker looking years ahead to the child's adulthood or simply saying that the dances will become understandable in time, just another series of memories in the databank?

Lines 5 -14

Is this the dancing - leaps and spirals - or DNA - or both combined in the child whose cosmic journey never ends. A sobering thought. As the enjambment moves the reader on, the poet becomes the speaker, or vice versa, in the poignant imagery of line 7. The poet will experience intimate 'beauties', the sensuality of the mother-child bond as the two sleep. Note the reference to grass again in line 9, related to sleep.

The lilies are fascinating. Lily flowers are Nature's way of showing off. They're exuberant, fashionable models but Sylvia Plath uses them in quite a specific way. The calla lily is creamy white, smoothly folded in - Cold folds of the ego - and the tiger is rich, passionate orange flame spattered with dark spots. The former is a symbol of purity, the latter of predatory instincts.

It's not entirely clear if the speaker is referring to the child in line 11 - Their flesh bears no relation - presumably to that of the mother and the child? Or it could be a direct statement about the qualities of the lily 'flesh' only as an enticer.

The language is pared down but wholesome with tidbits of assonance which totally satisfies when spoken.

The seven couplets are complete, roughly marking a pause in this first half of the poem.

More Analysis of "The Night Dances"

Lines 15 - 21

The speaker takes the reader out, up and into the vastness of physical or metaphorical space. This is the turning point of the poem. Comets zoom through the darkness, returning to our vision every so often. Traditionally they were portents of great change or disaster so should we read something prophetic into this?

Sylvia Plath uses this image of the ice-cold, forgetful comet to illustrate an extreme contrast with that of human warmth, the pink light emanating from flakes of gesture, bleeding and peeling as they encounter the utter darkness of heaven. This is really quite an alarming scenario. Flakes suggest skin, alive with blood, perhaps from an emotional wound, compounded by plural amnesias, great voids in some imagined perfect place.

Lines 22 - 28

The poem's elusiveness and use of unusual imagery are quite breathtaking; it's full of strong visuals that somehow manage to slip away after promising so much. Yet it holds a key to a more personal viewpoint. Line 22 is a short sentence that with couplet enjambment leads into what at first seems a long unanswered question.

Why am I given - how come it's me that has to shoulder the responsibility for these blessings - lamps and planets. Light and the great bodies of the cosmos. These two are falling but not into grass nor through the black of space. They fall as flakes again, hexagonal snowflakes, onto the poet/speaker/Sylvia Plath, where they collect and finally melt, ending up simply gone. Evaporated into the night.


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2013 Andrew Spacey