Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's Poem "Morning Song"


Edward Butscher gives us the surrounding conditions of this poem in a creative dependent way. He says, “—Spurred by the double tragedy of miscarriage and appendectomy, and the possibility of a permanent home, which was another ambiguous situation for her; and anchored in the success of The Colossus and a new pregnancy, Sylvia was writing with determination, energy, and happiness. Several of the poems touch upon Frieda. One of them, “Morning Song,” was sent to Alvarez at The Observer and he gladly printed it in the May issue. This was followed in five months by “Mojave Desert”—it was in 1961 that Sylvia wrote “The Fifty-Ninth Bear.”

“Morning Song” opens with a delightful image—”Love set you going like a fat gold watch”; but this apparently pleasant comparison casts a few minor shadows when read with an awareness of Sylvia’s dislike of “fat” and her fearful younger consciousness of a mechanical, clock-like universe. These uneasy elements are reinforced by the second line’s allusion to the baby’s “bald cry,” which finds a disquieting elaboration in the second stanza: the baby is seen as a new statue in “a drafty museum”—a threatening statue whose nakedness “Shadows our safety” while the two parents stand around “blankly as walls.” This is no crooning hymn to life, no sentimental celebration of a daughter’s birth, but a chillingly precise attempt to describe metaphorically Sylvia’s actual reaction to Frieda’s birth and invasion of her life.”


The Background

Written in 1961, Morning Song, as does “Heavy Women”, a poem written a week after, celebrates plump, unfashionable motherhood, maternity, in the early sixties, those years of acute consciousness when svelte, lissome, twiggy women often made it to the cover and centre-spread of fashion magazines and to cat-walks in London, the hub of the swinging sixties. In some ways, Morning Song is a five-finger exercise, a brilliant young poet examining and exploring the biological aspect of Sabat Mater, simultaneously representing the materiality of the body, a mother’s body, in its post-natal period, its joyous reproductiibility, and the representability, especially in Western art and iconography, of that body, as representation. Both Morning Song and “Heavy Women”, for instance, celebrate heavy, over-eating, lickerish, “foodie” women whose “pregnancies bring such satisfaction that they smile to themselves...these women live happy and contented lives among their “pink-buttocked infants”, (“Heavy Women”), even as, at a “distance” far off, “the axle of winter/grinds round”.1 A similar thematic is presented in Sylvia Plath’s BBC radio play, Three Women (August 19,1962), where each of the three voices represents, indeed enacts, a different aspect of womanhood and places the entire matter within a dialogical and dialectic context. It is there also in “Small House” (1961) and “Magi” (1961).

The plump mother, Light in April (Sylvia Plath’s first living child, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, was born in London on April 1, 1960), somewhat recalls the Flemish Renaissance painter Rubens’s (1577-1640) plump, rounded women and his cherubic, chubby, cupidons. The “pink-buttocked infants” celebrated, for instance, in “Heavy Women” are perhaps modern counterparts of Rubens’s figures from ‘The Feast of Venus’ or Titian’s (1477-1576) classical “Venus with a Mirror”. The proximity of the nurturing mother’s body to the cry, need, besoin, of the baby and her sensual as well as sensitive responsiveness to the “flesh” of “her own” flesh presents, especially in Morning Song, an enclosed, hopefully rounded, “framed, little world of total immersion in the natural”, physical processes of life, Eve’s labour and the fruits thereof. Does it, therefore, strike a different, if not new, happy note in Sylvia Plath’s work? This is in itself a moot point. It is quite likely, indeed, that Sylvia Plath herself was what psychiatrists would call a manic-depressive and a “joyful” poem like Morning Song, may just be an exception rather than the rule in her ouevre. Significantly, the poem “Barren Woman”, representing a diametrically opposed reality, was written by Plath in the same week as Morning Song.

Morning Song is placed at the beginning of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection, Ariel (1965), where the note of happiness that is struck in the book’s beginning modulates (via. the middle poems) and by the end of this collection, into the grim tenor of “Edge”, the penultimate poem in the collection, “Edge” is “the last poem attributed to Plath before her suicide” and it “is also about a mother and her children”.2 And the last words in Ariel belong, predictably to a fatalistic perspective in the poem that ends the collection, ‘Words’:

From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars Govern a life

Morning Song could easily modulate into “A Mourning Song” in Plath’s work.

The Poem

“Love” is the initial word in the poem, Morning Song, and simultaneously the mother/speaker in this poem apostrophizes, even directly addresses, her recently-born baby. The creativity of “love”, motherhood and midwifery is foregrounded in the opening lines. Using her often favoured figurative mode of the simile Sylvia Plath emphasises the golden-pink, “Titian”, shades of the infant’s flesh:

Love set you...

...among the elements.

The golden-pink baby-fat of the infant is placed in the context of the ongoing “miracle” of a continuing life, at this stage expressing itself in terms of a “bald” (as yet lacking feature, distinction, or individuating quality) cry. The midwife has slapped the new-born’s foot-soles and by doing so provided it a gateway into life, a “place among the elements”, registered through its bald (unadorned, demanding, heeding) cry. The “loving” activity of bringing a baby to life also involves a minimal (necessary) violence, here the slapping of the baby’s “footsoles”, by the midwife. The baby is next placed in the world of “the elements”: atmospheric agencies and forces such as wind, rain and cold, not to mention earth water, air, fire, the constitutive “elements” of life itself. Yet the opening line itself is not all about “natural processes, or “love” alone; it is also about the “cultural”, mechanical, world in which, once the baby’s “ticker” (heart) is set into motion it sets the baby “going like a fat gold watch”, a kind of cultural and/or moral “deism” where the child, once biologically “freed” through birth from its biological connection to the mother, once the placenta is severed, has acquired its autonomy, difference and separateness from the mother. (Morning Song, perhaps consciously, occasionally echoes W.H. Auden’s comic poem, ‘Mundus et enfans.’) Thus the “unnamed” child is compared to a fat, golden (also applicable to the baby) watch; it is somebody set into motion by the collaboration between the mother and the midwife. The child, at this juncture still dependent on its mother for love, nourishment and attention, is already, “set in motion”, like a deistic “fat gold watch” to go on into life when it grows up. This poem is then about “autonomy” and “heteronomy”, amongst other things.

No wonder, then, that the mother’s and the others’s “voices echo, magnifying” the baby’s “arrival” in stronger or deeper voices at this early juncture. The child has become, for the present, the centre of the family’s world, “a new statue” in a “drafty” (exposed to the elements) “museum” where the child’s (metaphorical nakedness or (vulnerability) “shadows” (“puts into shade”, “to cast gloom over or cloud”) the grown ups’s (false ?) sense of security. “Standing round” the child, the adults are no modern-day Magi; they cannot or would not comprehend the child’s “bald cry”; they merely provide, while “standing round blankly as walls”, perhaps an “illusion” of (false) security to the recently-born. The mother-child biological bond is now subject to the elements and the mother herself, like other unnamed adults in the poem, is unable to understand the child who is, already, a discrete, different person with its own needs. Continuity is succeeded by discontinuity, similarity by dissimilarity.

The mother/speaker seems to sense this inherent separateness between her and the child and she returns, in Stanza 3, to the world of “the elements”, natural processes, to register their separateness.

I’m no more your mother

...the wind’s hand.

In one sense, a mother is “no more” a child’s mother in so far as the “natural” process of parturition, giving birth, is impersonal and universal across almost all forms of life. She is just the conduit that the life-force chooses to “annoint”, as in Virgin Mary’s Annunciation. As such she is a transient like a cloud, quickly formed and unformed, a phenomenon that “distils” (subjects itself to a process of vaporisation and subsequent condensation) itself to a “mirror” in which is reflected “its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Just as the mother had “echoed” (aurally “mirrored”) the child’s “bald cry” in the previous stanza, she now finds herself to be, through a process of “distillation,” no more than a “mirror” (a visual echo) that can only “reflect”, the process of “its own slow. Effacement at the wind’s hand.” The biological link between the mother and child, which is itself a natural process, makes way for yet another “natural process”, self-ordained. Where the “mirror” (it could be the poem Morning Song here), once “created”, can only reflect the mother’s separation from the child and also her own slow effacement”, hastened by her own “distillation” (the process of change of form, shape is common to distillation and to a woman’s body pains), the child is on its way to autonomy and the mother, her “natural” self realized in reproduction, is universally discrete, different from the child. A process of dissemination has taken place.

The child’s “natural aspect” is re-emphasized at the beginning of Stanza Four. Its soft (and vulnerable) breath is now compared to “mother breath” that “flickers” (vibrates or quivers) among the “flat” (lifeless ? dull ? savourless ?) pink roses (“soft roses”, echoes, “reflecting”, both the “soft” moth of the previous line and the golden-pink body-flesh of the child). The mother wakes up in her bedroom to listen to the trilling “vibrating”, “quivering” notes (musical sound or tone) of the child, and a “far sea”, that is, the babble and murmur of the baby, in the nursery, “moves in my ear”. The “far” aspect of the “sea” (something large, a vast collection of water in “nature” and a something whose waves make a pulsing, rhythmic sound that we register only “blankly”) once again reinforces, the present “distance” between the mother and the child in “natural” as well as “spatial” terms. In response to the child’s late-night cry, the mother gets up to visit the baby in the nursery:

One cry, and I...

...Victorian nightgown

The comic picture of the mother painted here at once presents her eager-beaver earnestness (“one cry and I stumble from”), her physical and perhaps also emotional ineptitude (“I stumble from bed” in getting up in the dark), her shapelessness (“cow-heavy”), and also her mild vanity. (She wears an anachronistic Victorian nightgown with “floral” motifs that “echo” and “mirror” the natural “motifs”, “floral”, from the poem’s preceding lines). Self-deprecating and self-effacing, she performs appropriate rites of motherhood, her “natural” as well as “cultural” duty. An overfed “cow-heavy” mother now proceeds to feed her baby in the wee hours. In response to the mother’s feeding, the baby’s mouth

...opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars.

The child, behaving as “naturally” as a cat, swallows its milk in a manner as “clean as a cat’s”. (The cat can frequently be found licking parts of its body, especially its paws and legs, to keep them clean. Again, a cat’s litter, its surviving kittens, remain with the mother-cat only for as long as they have to depend on her to feed them; subsequently, they go their own ways). As the mother feeds the child, dawn breaks, the square window in the nursery “whitens” and like the feeding child or a cat the window—a metonym for the dawn—”swallows its dull stars”. That is to say, the last remaining stars (“dull” in being unable to react quickly to the arrival of the morning—the sun/ son—the stars, like the adults in stanza 2, “stand round blankly as walls”, being “flat” in responsiveness, somewhat like the “cow-heavy” mother) fade.

The Morning Song is, then, a song about the arrival of morning, composed by a mother getting up early to feed her child. Nothing daunted, the child is at it again:

And now you try

...rise like balloons

Its babble is the child’s “handful of notes” ((s)he will learn more as it grows up) its Morning Raga, each clear “vowel” (a hyperbole, exaggeration, for comic effect) in its turn rising like a “baloon”, this last a light “soft” object (like the moth or the “pink roses” mentioned previously in the poem but, unlike them, in also being an “artificial”, man-made object). A later poem in Ariel, “Ballons”, echoes some of the motifs of Morning Song when the child takes over the “voice” at the end of that poem. Singing its own Morning Song with its restricted means, limited gamut (“a handful of notes”) issuing in “clear” (because “clean” or licked clean) “vowels”, the child’s voice comically fills the early morning with its own ascending “balloons”. This last image, introduced by a simile (“like”), is clearly a visualization of the aural, i.e., the child’s “bald cry” as it rises upward (in “scale”) towards a crescendo. The “rising vowels” (a hyperbolic, exaggeratedly comic view since the child’s voice is not yet defined or individualized; in fact, it is only a “bald cry” in the beginning) of the child’s babble is not only likened to but figuratively is, “balloons” in the speaker’s creation of synaesthesia, that is, an expression through and in words of one physical sense (here, sound) in terms of another (here, sight), toward the end of no longer merely, “standing round blankly” in response to the child’s cry, but “interpreting”, and then “translating”, it into a language that is understood and appreciated in its playful handling by the poet. The “Meistersinger” child does not “sing” in flat but in acute, sharp “notes”.

Images from both “nature” (i.e., cloud, wind, flowers, moth, cat, pink roses, even the process of adjustment following child-birth) and “culture” (“gold watch”, “statue”, “museum”, “mirror”, “Victorian nightgown”, “singing” that is “not-singing”, balloons) recur in the poem. Figuratively, the simile (a form of comparison that is perhaps more amenable to differences between things than the metaphor), hyberbole (exaggeration), ludic playfulness and, as with painters like Rebrandt, Velasquez or for that matter any other major European painter from the 14th to 19th century, the poet provides her own “portrait” in the poem, where she is seen as a comic, fat, bumbling mother, “cow-heavy and floral” in her “Victorian gown”. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was of course the ultimate Earth Mother (in politico-social teems) in a patriarchal culture; she ruled far and wide, and of course she was fat and matronly, as she is seen even now both in daguerrotype and camera pictures. Hence the aptness of the figure of the Victorian nightgown in the poem in which an antiquated female, feminine, wakes up and carries out, besides worrying about, her maternal role/duties.

“Among the Narcissi” had presented a serene picture of an eighty-year old Percy, “nurturing” his own “little flock”, the narcissi. On the other hand, “Morning Song” presents a young, devoted mother, not only metaphorically but also biologically related to her own child. Both these poems are, then, about “nature” as well as “nurture”.

Psychological Background

In her addictive novel The Bell Jar and her more memorable late poems, Sylvia Plath does what she does best-she sets us scoffing at the mythologies of her time, especially the claustrophobically close nuclear family and its impossible ideals. Showing a brainy disdain for the confining roles of wife, “career girl,” mother, and daughter, she models very well the hurt and vindictiveness of a clever girl betrayed by a vacuous world. And-as a recent novel, biography, film, and play attest-the fury of her work and devastating culmination of her life continue to hold us in their grip.

For, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s literary lollipop The Virgin Suicides, Plath’s work and recorded life would seem to represent a set of highly controlled mystifications of female darkness and light rather than the unmediated account of the dangerous realities and spiritual strivings recorded by her fellow confessionalists. What intrigues us most about Plath is everything she refused to say, explain, or analyze-it is the current of our own imaginations that electrifies our readings of her. We should know by now that we are likely to make exotic what we prefer not to look at too closely; yet we continue to endorse, invite, and reward versions of the familiar story that Plath has made so morbidly fashionable.

Morning Song As An Autobiographical Poem

The poem “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath deals with motherhood. The poem is about the birth and of the speakers’ baby and some of the events following it. Plath uses metaphors to describe the connection between the people, particularly between mother and child. She uses each of the five stanzas to convey a different message about parenthood to the reader

The speaker shows right in first line of the poem the love she has for her newborn baby “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”. This shows that the speaker loves her baby as soon as she is born, and that she was brought into this world being deeply loved by her mother. The metaphor of the fat gold watch shows that the baby is precious to the mother and is valuable. It also shows how it was love that started the baby’s life, as you wind up a watch to get it going.

Plath describes the baby as a new statue in a drafty museum. By this it makes the reader visualise friends and family standing around in the hospital room looking at the new object, statue, in the room that is the baby. The use of the word statue to describe the baby also makes the reader see the baby as an emotionless figure, not actually considered to be a human being yet, as it is different from everybody else. Plath says, “your nakedness Shadows our safety” which also alienates the baby from the rest of the group as it is naked and everybody else is presumably fully clothed.

In the third stanza Plath tries to project to the reader how mother and child move apart from each other after childbirth. The first line of the stanza simply states, “I’m no more your mother”. This shows that the speaker feels that the baby is less ‘hers’ than when the child was still in her womb. The rest of the stanza is a metaphor showing that she feels like a cloud looking down on her shadow or reflection, that is her baby and now the wind is slowly pushing the cloud away, the wind of time pulling the speaker away from her baby. The connection that mother and baby once shared is weakening.

The speaker tells the reader how she stays awake at night listening to her baby breathe, maybe as a kind of reassurance that her baby is still alive and nothing bad has happened to it. This really shows the love that the mother has for her child. She cannot bear the thought of anything bad happening to her baby, the only way she is at ease is when she can hear the baby’s breath and knows that while it is breathing it is still all right. The mother cares for her baby so much that she cannot sleep she needs to be there with her child at all times, as it is her duty.

Plath continues to convey to the reader in the fifth stanza how devoted she is to her baby. “One cry, and I stumble from my bed,” For most mothers if their baby starts crying in the night and they know nothings is wrong, they probably would just try and ignore it for a while and see if it stops and goes back to sleep. Plath shows in this stanza that she is not most mothers. If the baby just cries once, if it be for food or just wants attention, she will be there. She does not want to leave her baby alone or in need for one second she does not want it feeling neglected or unloved. One cry and she is there.

The final sentence of the poem is one of the most powerful in the poem “And now you try” it is like she is challenging you. Commanding any doubters of her efforts to do the same. She shows how it is not easy being a new and loving mother, completely devoting yourself to your child twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

To conclude, I feel that this poem shows the different experiences a new mother and baby must go through after childbirth. It explores the different bonds between mother and child and also looks into how the rest of the inner circle of family and friends seem to be there but not really matter, as the most important thing to a new mother is her baby and the poem shows perfectly how at that time is her life, nothing was more important.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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