Plath is known for her striking images and her metaphors and similes. In this poem, Morning Song there is a surreal quality about some of her imagery. In its attempts to express the workings of the subconscious, surreal art employs fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter. To compare a child to a “fat gold watch” is surreal.
The child is animate while a watch is inanimate. Love is engaging while winding up a mechanical act. What the simile suggests, is the great distance between the act of love and the fact of the baby. What does this baby—this thing with its own existence—have to do with the emotions that engendered it? By raising this question about what most people consider a most ‘natural’ phenomenon—the birth of a child—Plath helps the reader see something very old (childbirth) as something quite strange, new and unsettling. The disorienting effect of Plath’s style is typical of surrealism.
Plath emphasizes the child’s strangeness—its thingness—by referring to its cry as “bald.” Her choice of adjective is odd. The baby’s head may be “bald,” but by describing its cry this way, Plath seems to emphasize nonhuman quality of this new being/thing that does not take its place among other humans but “among the elements.” Stanza 2 reinforces the nonhuman quality of the baby as perceived by its parents. This child is a “new statue.” The parents are pictured as gazing at it “in a drafty museum.” In other words, they cannot help staring at the child, but they feel vulnerable and inadequate: “We stand round blankly as walls.” With the child as a statue and the parents as walls, not much communication occurs. Plath’s surreal images underline the parents’ feelings of alienation and strangeness in this new (to them) situation.
Stanza 3 contains not only the most striking line (‘I’m no more your mother”) but also the most puzzling image: “Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement at the wind’s hand.” First, clouds do not distill mirrors. The shadow cast by a cloud reflects it; when the wind moves the cloud along, both cloud and shadow disperse. The bond this mother feels to her baby is just as insubstantial and fleeting. Plath’s image is convoluted and perhaps deliberately inexact. She suggests the tenuous relationship between mother and child, cloud and mirror. It is as if the birth of the child were external to the mother rather than part of her. Fortunately, the speaker discovers she is wrong. Maternal instincts arise in her.
She is attentive to the breathing sounds her child makes. The imagery animates those sounds: They are like “moth- breath,” suggesting how quiet and subtle they are. It is as if she can see the moth as it “flickers among the flat pink roses,” suggesting the patterns on wallpaper or fabric. Otherwise, the roses would not be “flat.” The contrast signifies the aliveness and motion of the moth-breath versus the less vibrant roses. The new mother, listening to her child’s breath-in-sleep, uses the image “A far sea moves in my ear” as if she were holding a shell to her ear and capturing the sounds of the ocean. The child’s delicate moth-breath suggests something more ponderous—new life and new possibilities.
The child’s mouth is “clean as a cat’s,” with the emphasis on “clean”: This new being is untarnished. Plath uses this word again in “Nick and the Candlestick” to describe her son: “The blood blooms clean/ In you ruby.” It is a word of praise. No longer a statue, the child’s presence takes on more spirited animation through the animal imagery. The speaker’s lack of feeling for her child gradually transforms into appreciation and wonder, particularly at its sounds – not a, “bald cry” any longer but something shaped, “a handful of notes.” The child enters the human world when the speaker perceives its attempts at language: “The clear vowels rise like balloons.” The poem closes on this image of ascension, a typical Plath strategy. “Morning Song” records how the speaker’s perception of her baby changes; her intimacy with her child grants her the vision of its animated being.
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)