Now, what do you know about Sylvia Plath? If the answer, as I suspect, is not a lot, then you need to do some research. Find out which poet she was married to, what her emotional life was like, how she wrote things that inspired her and how she ended this life, for all that is important when considering the elements in this poem.
I say that as a father, but you see, I adopted. I have never experienced the utter joy of being a father when the baby is minutes old and as much as I see things on television about that joy, I cannot relate to it. I can only think how I felt the first time I saw my son, who is now 24. He was 4 at the time. If the effect of seeing him is anything like the joy of knowing I am going to be a father, then it is joyous indeed. But I also know the pain of losing a child as well so I feel I can relate to how a person might feel, man or woman, who has given birth to a child and who is experiencing problems with that child. Just as much as we experienced issues when at the age of five and six, so to does a new mother when the baby is feeding and needing its mother.
So when I read this poem and I get to the reference to feeling “cow-heavy” I remember back to when I was younger and how my two wore me down to the bottom of my soul at times, to moments where you just want your life to end, or at best, change for the better. Plath’s poem reminds me of these feelings of woe and as we go through each line, I will show you why. Hang on to your emotions; this could be a bumpy ride.
Plath’s poem is called “Morning Song” which in itself, suggests either a song of joy, or a song of pain. Just by using the title [you will have seen me do this on other posts] what you expect to follow is something quite positive, about the joys of hearing the little one in the morning, or the woes of hearing and then having to deal with the issue, day in, day out. It could be about either. At what point in the poem, when you read it, do you see the despair in her voice as a mother?
Here is the poem….
Starting with a simile, she says that “love started you going like a fat gold watch.” What a way to start a poem! The very first word is a word of love for her baby child, just as it should be. It was love that begot the child and love that carried the child and love that bore the child, kicking and screaming its usual way into the big wide world. We even see a secondary figure of the midwife, slapping the soles of the feet to get a breathing response. Anyone who has seen a birth, or watched one on television [or even in dramatised form like Call The Midwife] will see and know that there are techniques used to get the baby squealing its lungs out to signal its entry into the world. This is how this starts and it continues in the same vein in the next few lines.
We hear how the child’s “bald cry took its place among the elements.” As an image in the mind, this is so evocative of new birth and the way the baby looks. Not many appear with a shock of hair. It can happen but is not often the case. So the baby has very little hair, hence the relevance to being “bald” but we also see that line four heralds the arrival of the new-born with the words “our voices echo, magnifying your arrival” into the world.
She sees the room as a “draughty museum,” somewhere sterile more than likely and reminiscent of a museum, where loud noises are frowned upon during the day, where one has to behave oneself, where the baby’s naked form shows their sense of safety. The visitors to the hospital or place where the birth has taken place stand around like statues, admiring, looking on, sharing in the joy of the occasion. But they stand round, “blankly as walls.” In these places, the walls are usually blank because of risk of infection. There is the sense and feeling of everything needing to be sterile, germ free and safe and it is more than likely this that makes us behave when in hospital, or feel as if we have to, to get better [and have a free life while there].
“Blankly as walls” is such a powerful image in the mind of the reader when you think about it. When you go to visit someone who has just given birth, you go to give your regards, maybe see the baby, but you do not expect to pick the baby up, unless you are the father, so you end up standing there feeling useless, waiting for the time to head for the lifts again, or the stairs, to relative safety. This is the feeling being mentally engraved into the mind of the reader.
Then the speaker, presumably Plath, says that she is “no longer” the mother to the baby than the next person, or the cloud on a mirror as it brings back a sense of clarity. She does not feel like a mother should. Again, perfectly normal. She may even be suffering from a form of post natal issue here, causing her to feel down, or perhaps, she is just so tired from the constant lack of sleep that is so famously linked with having a baby of your own. But there is still the sense of love there in their relationship, even if the mother feels inadequate at being the mother to the child.
And as the sea moves in her ear at night, she listens for the sound of the child as s/he sleeps. This is what new mothers do in some cases, for they want to be the best they can as a Mum for their new baby. The last thing we want is to fail at being a mother [or father] when something so small depends solely on us for its life to progress. And the mother shows her true love for the baby at the first shout or scream from its lungs. We see the words “one cry and I stumble from bed,” signifying how tired she is. When we stumble, we do so because we are exhausted, so perhaps this is a poem that shares the autobiographical sense because it relates to of one of Plath’s two children. Is she expressing how she struggled with one of them? It can happen and as I have said elsewhere, for a poet, the act of writing is cathartic in that it helps us get rid of our bad feelings, or angst about life and how bad it can be. Some folk shout out the swear words. Poets tend to write them, but usually, with style and venom.
This sense of despair is heightened as we continue in the poem, seeing that she is “cow-heavy” and in a “pink Victorian night gown.” It is yet again, a picture being formed in the mind of the reader, of someone who is finding this new thing of being a mother hard going. That is life I am afraid and sometimes, new Mums do struggle and suffer. It is a sad fact of life. And as the child’s “mouth opens clean as a cat’s” we see the continuance of her struggle in that the child “tries its handful of notes,” meaning that it senses it needs something, so the “morning song” starts once again, as baby needs to be fed, or worse still, has to have something changed.
I remember changing nappies for friends who had babies. They taught me how to do it and said I was a natural. I think they were “being nice,” but I will never know. It is incredible how much such a small thing as a baby relies on us who are older and maturer to have things done for it, but because there is a language barrier, when we as parents get it wrong, a baby will let us know about it in no uncertain terms. “The clear vowels [a, e, i, o, u] rise like balloons” is perhaps, a strange way to put it, but then again, balloons brought to the baby’s side tend to be filled with helium don’t they, and they rise upwards in celebration. Perhaps what Plath is saying here is that the baby’s joy and celebration of being alive and in this world is opposed by the mother’s depression when things are going wrong, or of tiredness when the baby is simply being too demanding.
One thing is for certain and that it the fact that the speaker, or Plath herself, assuming this is autobiographical, is suffering in this poem from the tiredness and despair that being a Mum can be. What she needs is rest, reassurance that she is a good mother and the chance to recharge her batteries, but she is obviously not getting any of that going on the words used in this poem. What the poem leaves you with, after you have read it, is a sense that something bad is about to follow, at some point, that fear and despair will take over and make the mother go inwards, into depression, fear and mistrust of others. Or maybe that is me thinking this because I know how Plath died?
Now when that happens and a parent becomes so suicidal, it is a great pity, for we should, as families and friends, give as much support as we can, to new mothers who are struggling like this. This is why this poem is so good at showing the need for love, the joy of love to bring something into the world and how that love can get chipped away at by something that can wreck a person’s life; a baby.