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Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song"

Updated on January 2, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Plath's Self-Portrait

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Morning Song"

The drama is played out in six unrimed tercets, as the mother directs her remarks directly to the infant. (Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The poem is one of Plath's finest efforts. Her speaker has captured precisely the feelings a woman who has just given birth and is now facing the awesome challenge of nurturing and caring for this new life. As fear and dread give way to love, however, this drama of life sets the stage for a deep awareness of human nature.

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.

Reading of "Morning Song"

Commentary

First Tercet: The Baby's Conception

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

The opening tercet finds the mother reporting the child's conception while metaphorically likening the infant and that act of conception to setting an old fashioned time piece, "a fat gold watch." The likening to a "fat gold watch" is rather apropos owing to the baby's plumpness and its priceless value to the parents.

The speaker then reports that the "midwife" tapped on the baby's feet to encourage it to take its first breath of cries, and those cries took their place "among the elements." The cry is a "bald cry"—both naked and open, clear, and insistent.

The somewhat scientific sound of "among the elements" heralds the first indication that this song to her baby is not going to be the blankets-and-roses sentimentality of most effusions of new mother to newborn.

Second Tercet: The Obligatory Welcoming Party

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

As a collection of relatives stands around welcoming the new creature to the world—likely a group including family friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents—the speaker points out the somewhat awkward atmosphere of comments from that cohort.

They likely point out the cuteness, how like father and mother the child looks, those little fingers and toes, the sweet baby smell, and a myriad other remarks that seem to act as little prickly pin-points to this new mother.

So flummoxed is this new mother that she likens this sweet, soft, innocent little creature to “New statue / In a drafty museum.” A second indication that the speaker is not of the soft-hearted, sweetness and light variety.

This mother's doubt, fear, and uncertainty wax so strong that she likens her new baby to a harsh objet d'art, and no less in a "drafty museum." She is likely having cold sweats thinking about taking care of this "new statue."

Third Tercet: “I'm no more your mother”

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

Even the tiniest brain in elementary school has learned how bodies of water are formed: rain clouds spill their water upon the earth and ponds, lakes, pools form. These bodies of water then reflect the very clouds that formed them—at least in theory.

The wind then moves the clouds away from the reflecting pools. This mother sees herself as one of those vanishing clouds that spawned the pool and then moves on, effaced by "the wind's hand." Of course, she is correct, but to think of it at such time may seem callous and unhinged.

Fourth Tercet: Listening for the Inevitable

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

Lest readers turn against this poor mother who now has a two-decade-plus daunting task ahead of her, the speaker now softens her tone a bit, showing that she is, indeed, willing to give the infant the care it needs. She sleeps very lightly, listening for any sound that indicates the baby needs her.

Fifth and Sixth Tercets: As Fear and Love Meld

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.

Then the mother does hear the baby. It cries and like a shot she is by its side. Despite her still "cow-heavy" body, she dashes off to attend to her newborn. She sets about to nurse the child, and she notices that the baby's mouth is "clean as a cat's."

Because the time of day is pre-dawn, the mother notes that outside the daylight is coming upon the land. She colorfully expresses this dawn as, “The window square / / Whitens and swallows its dull stars.”

The linking of these last two tercets signifies the lapse of the moments as night turns into day, while the speaker reveals the reason for titling her piece, "Morning Song." The song belongs to baby who how tries its "handful of notes."

The mother describes the baby sounds as "clear vowels" rising "like balloons." She now describes a perfectly lovely scene of mother and child at dawn. The child is, indeed, being loved and nourished by the mother who has, at least for now, shed her ambivalence and is all love.

The Plathian Statue Metaphor

Plath's "Morning Song" features a mother who is not reluctant to express her anxiety and fear about having to care for and raise a child. Such fears are perfectly natural because the task of nurturing another human being is always a daunting one.

However, Plath used the "statue" metaphor in her harrowing poem, "Daddy," stating, "Ghastly statue with one gray toe." The mother/speaker in "Morning Song" demonstrates ambivalence while the daughter/speaker shows nothing less than animosity.

Such is, perhaps, the built-in nature of things as the generations progress through the evolutionary stages of body, mind, hand, heart, head and on to spirit, soul, eternity, and unconditional love.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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