The dominant theme in “Morning Song” is alienation and the process by which it is overcome. A woman’s poem, it deals with maternal instinct and its awakening. Plath avoids sentimentality in taking up a subject-becoming a mother-that is too often treated in our culture in a fluffy way. A woman-certainly an ambitious poet such as Plath-does not come to motherhood merely by giving birth. New behavior is learned. The being of the mother is as new as the being of the child. Readers can appreciate Plath’s honesty in dealing with her subject.
It also takes a certain amount of courage to admit to a colossal lack: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud.” The alienation in the poem is overcome by such acute delineation of the feelings. Instinct has a role to play as well: The speaker finds herself listening to the child’s sounds. This is not self-willed or under her control. She follows her instinct: “One cry, and I stumble from bed.” In the end, she is rewarded. Alienation is overcome in her connection to her baby. Her own child serenades her with a “morning song” and a bond is formed through language, the quintessential human act.
The third tercet, with its convoluted imagery, introduces a secondary theme: the speaker’s awareness of her child as potentially marking her insignificance, her erasure as a poet: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Can a woman be both mother and famous poet? Plath, writing in 1961, had few predecessors who managed to achieve both. In engaging this theme, she is dealing with one of the major issues that faced women poets in the twentieth century. If mothering absorbed her attention, would she still be the poet-artist she longed to be? This superb poem answers her implied question. Further, the joyous ending proclaims the arrival of both a new singer on the scene and a mother proud of her child’s vocal bravura.
Critics are in general agreement that “Morning Song” expresses Plath’s conflicted feelings at the birth of her first child, her daughter Frieda, in particular her sense of the diminishment and servitude that motherhood can involve. What has not been observed is the way in which the poem’s last line must have determined much of Plath’s choice of words throughout the entire poem. Of the baby’s early morning cry Plath writes, “The clear vowels rise like balloons.” Not yet able to formulate words, the baby’s cries resemble some conflation of the vowels a, e, i, o, and u. But the simile “like balloons” implies a particular circular resemblance with the o vowel. With that identification in mind, it is immediately apparent that a vowels rise, balloon-like, from the poem’s last line up to its title. Simply put, the poem is remarkable for the number of words – some no doubt accidental but many deliberately chosen – that contain the letter o, including “Took” and “balloons,” each with two os, and “footsoles” with three. Indeed, it is as a result of her slapped “footsoles” that the baby emits a first and particularly loud and lusty cry – “ooo!” perhaps.
As for any symbolic import, although the circle form is traditionally associated with notions of perfection and infinity, in the context of “Morning Song,” it is the equation between o and zero (with its connotations of nihility, ephemerality, futility, and the void) that seems most apposite. The baby’s open mouth, “clean as a cat’s,” is a void waiting to be filled, a black hole mimicked by the whitening, swallowing window. Admirers of the baby can only “stand round blankly” (my emphasis). Perhaps the title should be understood punningly and somberly as “Mourning Song.” Nevertheless, the poem’s developmental sound sequence – “cry,” “voices echo,” “wind,” “breath,” and the culminating song – suggests something like the music of life – the music of the spheres, perhaps.
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)