Sylvia Plath had recently given birth to her daughter Frieda when she wrote “Morning Song” in February, 1961. This eighteen-line lyric is structured in three-line stanzas or tercets. Although the title promises a song, the only song the reader gets is a baby’s cry. Plath may be experimenting with a traditional form of love poem called an aubade in French or alba in Provencal. Both refer to a lyric about dawn or for a morning serenade. In such poems, the lover, usually in bed with a beloved, laments the dawn because it signals their inevitable parting.
Plath’s poem mentions love only in the first line: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”; that is, the love of the parents gave birth to the baby. The mother love that the speaker is expected to feel is strangely absent in this poem. Instead, the mother-speaker moves from a strange alienation from this new being to a kind of instinctive awakening to the child’s presence, her connection to it, and her appreciation for its “handful of notes.”
Once the reader grasps the situation of the poem-the birth of a child-the remainder of the poem is reasonably clear. Although the emotional interest of the poem focuses on the new mother, both parents are mentioned: “Our voices echo” and “your nakedness/ Shadows our safety. We stand round.” Plath startles the reader with line 7: “I’m no more your mother.” Maternal feelings do not automatically occur. Plath is extremely honest to admit such strong feelings of alienation and separation in her poem. In the last three stanzas, the emotional estrangement of the speaker changes. She is compelled to listen to the sound of her child as it sleeps. She seems attuned to that “moth-breath” and says, “I wake to listen.” When she hears her baby cry, she gets up to feed it: “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown.” As she breast-feeds her child she observes the coming dawn as the light changes outside the window.
Plath closes with a reference to the sounds the child makes, probably not a cry of need since it has just been fed. The “Morning Song” of the title turns out to be the baby’s “handful of notes;/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.” Plath makes a definite contrast between the “dull stars” of the morning and the “clear vowels” of the baby. The speaker praises her baby and appears much less alienated than at the poem’s beginning.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
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.