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.
Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.
The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.
Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”. What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.
I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…
The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.
Stasis in darkness. Then the substanceless blue Pour of tor and distances.
God’s lioness, How one we grow, Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to The brown arc Of the neck I cannot catch,
Nigger-eye Berries cast dark Hooks—Black sweet blood mouthfuls,Shadows. Something else
Hauls me through air—Thighs, hair; Flakes from my heels.
WhiteGodiva, I unpeel— Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now IFoam to wheat, a glitter of seas. The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.And I Am the arrow,
The dew that fliesSuicidal, at one with the drive Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Ariel is the poem that gives its name to Sylvia Plath’s most celebrated collection, which was published in 1965. It was published posthumously, two years after Plath committed suicide. The fact that Plath chose ‘Ariel’ as the title for the collection is to me very important; I think that in a sense it can be read to define the episode of incredible creative outpouring that was the few years before she died (this was when she wrote Daddy, Lady Lazarus, Fever 103 and other seminal works).I feel that this poem is about the creative process, and specifically the process of writing poetry. It is very enigmatic, spiritual, and almost erotic in places — we find very physical descriptions. ‘Ariel’ is a name that we probably most associate with the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is servant to the magician Prospero. This definitely adds to the mystical and magical quality that surrounds the notion of the Muse, or creative process, in the poem. However, Ariel was also the name of the horse Plath used to ride when she was living in Devon. The poem describes a woman riding a horse.Set at dawn, the poem begins with “Stasis in darkness”. I love this opening line; it is soft-footed, like the quiet before a storm. There is anticipation; the rider is still in the dark of the stable. But then she is suddenly out, and riding. She becomes “God’s lioness”. I love the lioness; it is such a strong, but determinedly feminine image. The rider is on an almost divine mission here; she is strong, and provocative (this part reminds me of that final, devastating line in Lady Lazarus: “And I eat men like air”.)As you rush through these swift stanzas (that create a breathless effect, when read aloud) you can almost feel the wind rushing past you, with the “Pivot of heels and knees”. “How one we grow”, writes Plath; she is one with her horse, one with Ariel, and one with her creative process or Muse. There is an interesting duality here; although Plath describes herself as “one” with the horse, Ariel also has a “neck I cannot catch”. This is fascinating to me because it perfectly captures the nature of the creative process, which is so very hard to pin down or define. When she is riding (or writing) she feels in complete harmony with this force, and yet it remains somehow elusive and mysterious. This mystery persists as Plath writes, “Something else/ Hauls me through air”. What is this force?This poem (and much of Plath’s other work) contains many physical images. In this wonderful, exhilarating metaphor for the act of writing a poem, the whole body is involved: “heels and knees”, “sweet blood mouthfulls”, “thighs, hair” etc. I think that it is perhaps because she wrote such personal or ‘confessional’ poetry – using her own emotional experiences as subject matter – that Plath makes this poem so physical; she puts her whole being into the writing of a poem. She puts her real experiences in there. Perhaps that is why she describes herself as being physically hauled through the air, here; “I unpeel”, she writes. (I also personally think that there is always an element of wanting to shock, with Plath. Being a woman, it is somehow more shocking for her to use personal, physical images, and she uses this to provoke and get our attention. In a similar way, she included many Holocaust images in her other poems.)A part of this poem that particularly moves me is where Plath writes, “A child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” In the final year of her life, when Plath was writing many of the poems for Ariel, her children were still very small. She used to get up before dawn every day to write. I am sure this is why the poem is set at dawn, though dawn is also a beautifully symbolic moment of the day; it is a non-time, a time when everybody else is asleep. It is like how time seems to stop while a poem is written, and can then resume once it is done. I love to picture Plath writing in the early morning, the thunder of Ariel’s hooves in her head — such a powerful time of creativity. Real life — the “child’s cry” — attempts briefly to enter the poem, but cannot distract the poet from her craft. She thunders on, “Suicidal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.”
First, are you our sort of a person? Do you wear A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, A brace or a hook, Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then How can we give you a thing? Stop crying. Open your hand. Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing To bring teacups and roll away headaches And do whatever you tell it. Will you marry it? It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end And dissolve of sorrow. We make new stock from the salt. I notice you are stark naked. How about this suit—-
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit. Will you marry it? It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof Against fire and bombs through the roof. Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty. I have the ticket for that. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Well, what do you think of that ? Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver, In fifty, gold. A living doll, everywhere you look. It can sew, it can cook, It can talk, talk , talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it. You have a hole, it’s a poultice. You have an eye, it’s an image. My boy, it’s your last resort. Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
This is a poem that I felt a great connection to when I was still at school, and I thought about it today as I was preparing some job applications and decided to blog about it on here.
I love how this poem puts the reader in the position of the applicant in an interview; we are being forcefully interrogated by the speaker and the tone is extremely arresting. There seems to me to be a strong commentary on the role of women in society here. Plath’s context was England (and the US) in the late 50s and early 60s, but I think that this commentary is just as relevant for our Western society today.
First, the speaker asks whether we have various disabilities, such as “a glass eye”, “false teeth”, “rubber breasts” or a “rubber crotch”. The speaker wants to know if our physical body functions properly. This, to me, evokes the idea that women need to be aesthetically pleasing if they are to be ‘marketable’ or ‘desirable’. Women also need their reproductive faculties (hence the questions about the rubber breasts and crotch) to be considered valuable in the modern society/ a good wife etc.
When the speaker discovers that our (the applicant’s) hand is “Empty”, they offer us a hand to fill it, “to bring teacups and roll away headaches” — to “do whatever you tell it.” We are asked if we will marry it. This is a very bleak view of marriage, to say the least. But I think that Plath is satirising a commercially-orientated society here, and particularly adverts; for example, the speaker is really ‘selling’ this idea of marriage as they say “it is guaranteed/ To thumb your eyes shut at the end and dissolve of sorrow” . And of course, when it says “we make new stock from the salt” it becomes certain that this is a commercial transaction.
It is not just women who are trapped in this bleak, materialistic society with its approach to marriage, though I think the main commentary here is about women. The speaker notices that we, the applicant, are “stark naked” and tries to sell us a suit. We are asked if we will “marry it.” Here it is clear that marriage means nothing but an investment in the society being satirised here. I love the use of advertising language here, saying ” It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof”.
Continuing with the idea of marriage, we are guaranteed that the “living doll” being sold here will be “silver” in twenty five years, and “gold” in fifty. “It can sew, it can cook/ it can talk, talk, talk.” Of course, this is incredibly demeaning to women, but this is how Plath chooses to portray her society, and how she perceived the reality to be. I think that it is a really effective poem, and I love the way it is addressed to the reader.
Here is a link to a recording of Sylvia Plath reading the poem herself. I really love her voice and the way she reads this. Also, I think her accent is amazing!
You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time—- Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off the beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town Scraped flat by the roller Of wars, wars, wars. But the name of the town is common. My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two. So I never could tell where you Put your foot, your root, I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak. I thought every German was you. And the language obscene
An engine, an engine, Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are not very pure or true. With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two. I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—- The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
This is such a well-known poem. It is crashing and cathartic and hypnotically powerful… and I’m excited to write a blog about it.
I read ‘Daddy’ over and over as a teen, when I found it in an anthology that I had. That was before I read The Bell Jar or any other poems by Sylvia Plath. As my fascination for Plath’s life and work grew, ‘Daddy’ made deeper sense to me and I now understand how it is a defining poem for this poet. It still fascinates me every time I read it.
So, Plath presents us with an image of a father in this poem, and it is this father figure that I want to write about mostly. She affectionately and childishly addresses him as ‘Daddy’ in the poem, and yet he is a complex, dark, almost mythical figure that she has had to “kill”. You never get to know the father — we see him only from a distance variously as a “black shoe” in which the speaker has lived imprisoned, “Barely daring to breathe”, a Godlike, “Ghastly statue”, a Nazi, and a “vampire”. I think ‘Daddy’ in this poem certainly represents Plath’s own father; Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just eight-years-old, and his image haunts much of her poetry.
Plath writes in the poem, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time”. This is a very important line and I think it is key to understanding the crux of the speaker’s issues with her father. Plath’s father did in fact die before she “had time” to kill him in the psychological sense that we all “kill” our parents. By this I mean that Plath’s father died at an age when he was still Godlike in the eyes of his daughter. To the eight-year-old Plath, her father was everything and she idolized him greatly. She never had time to get to know him on a personal level as an adult (“I never could talk to you”). As a consequence, as Plath grew up, it seems that her father remained a mythical, elusive and powerful shadow in her mind that she could never quite understand. This poem is about her getting what nowadays we call ‘closure’.
In my opinion the ‘Daddy’ figure in this poem also represents Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes left Plath for another woman not long before she wrote this poem (and she wrote this poem not long before committing suicide in 1963). We become aware of her husband’s relevance in the poem as it nears its end, when Plath writes (addressing her Father): “I made a model of you, /A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw. /And I said I do, I do.” This is clearly telling us that Plath found a replica of her father in her husband. She suggests that Hughes has tortured her in the same way her father did, and stifled her voice in the same way; “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two”, she says, communicating that by the end of this poem she will be through with her Father, and with her husband (a model of the Father figure and just as creatively smothering). The similarities between Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes is even clearer as she describes her husband as “The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year,/ Seven years, if you want to know”.
I also think that the ‘Daddy’ figure represents another force that was very present in Plath’s writing life — something that I heard her call “the weight of English Literature” in an interview that I saw on Youtube. There is no escaping the reality that English Literature is dominated by men (dead, white men), and this can be very intimidating for a female writer even today. Virginia Woolf called it “Milton’s bogey” in A room of one’s own. Woolf acknowledged the incredible weight of male dominance in literature as she wrote the following:
“For my belief is that if we live another century or so […] and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”
‘Daddy’ in this poem, represents Milton’s bogey. It weighs upon Plath’s mind and prevents her from using her voice (“Ich, ich, ich, ich, /I could hardly speak.”) The fear of writing can become very real when one is aware of all that has gone before. How does one follow Milton (this ‘Daddy’ figure — the dead, white male poet par excellence)?
T.S. Eliot also acknowledges the weight of English Literature on modern writers in The Waste Land:
“O o o o that Shakespeherian Rag — It’s so elegant So intelligent
What shall I do now? What shall I do? I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow? What shall we ever do?”
But Plath frees herself from this heavy inheritance by the end of the poem. The ending is so cathartic, so triumphant:
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
I love the sense of victory that is brought by that dancing and stamping. The parallels made with the Nazis in this poem makes it all the more powerful (and it compels our attention) — I think it allows us to understand the gravity of what this father figure has done to Plath and the effect it has had on her life. He has almost killed her. When faced with him she automatically assumes the role of the victim, turning him into a Nazi and her into a “Jew” being chuffed off to “Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen”. There is so much confusion in this poem; Plath has had to kill an oppressor — two oppressors — that she loved in order to be free.
But there is something so cathartic about those final lines — we feel that Plath has got her ‘closure’. The villagers “always knew”, so there is triumph there too — he never really ‘won’. And I love the irreverence of the “you bastard, I’m through”; Plath is certainly seeing past “Milton’s bogey”. She does not need to imitate him or anybody else: this is Plath’s own voice, real and profound and transcendent. And with that voice she has written something that stands alone as its own pillar of greatness. She is free of the ‘Daddy’: free of the past, the mythical ‘Greats’ of literature and male oppression. She is free to write with her own voice.
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue. The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place. Separated from my house by a row of headstones. I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, White as a knuckle and terribly upset. It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here. Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky — Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape. The eyes lift after it and find the moon. The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls. How I would like to believe in tenderness – The face of the effigy, gentled by candles, Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering Blue and mystical over the face of the stars Inside the church, the saints will all be blue, Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews, Their hands and faces stiff with holiness. The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild. And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.
I find most of Sylvia Plath’s poems difficult. I’m not ashamed to say that; it’s actually part of why I love her work so much. I read The Bell Jar (her only novel) when I was 18. It is a ‘coming of age’ novel, sort of like The Catcher in the Rye, but from a female perspective. It spoke to me so much at that time and I read it and read it again, astounded to hear such an honest, accessible voice. So I then started on her poetry — firstly whichever ones I managed to find online — but now I have read both The Colossus and Ariel. This poem is from the Ariel collection.
I adore the feeling when I look at a new Plath poem and read it to myself, relishing the sound of it, the feel of it, the unexpectedness of the words, and then try to figure it out. Her poems can often seem cryptic but are always engaging, and I don’t see why this kind of poetry should be scary. Surely there’s no right way to read a poem. Whatever comes out of it for you is valuable. All I’m trying to do on this blog is tell you what it says to me.
This poem gives me a few different ideas. I get a strong sense of conflict between the masculine and the feminine, symbolised by the moon (a traditional feminine symbol) and the yew tree. This could be to do with Sylvia’s mother and father (her father died when she was 10 and a lot of her poetry is about him), or perhaps it is about herself and her husband Ted Hughes. For me, this poem also communicates despair, suicidal thoughts, as well as a detachment from and disillusionment with religion.
So, the poem starts out by talking about the “light of the mind” and the “trees of the mind”. The light, which you would expect to be warm and illuminating, is described as “cold and planetary”. The trees are “black”. The trees — I read the trees here as a masculine symbol — seem very portentous, ominous; instead of bearing fruit they are black, haunting Plath’s mind. The light — which, as you may have guessed, I read as a feminine symbol — is blue. There is an absence of warmth coming from this feminine light; it is not motherly or loving. The legacy Plath’s father has left her is despair, a dreadful blackness; her mother’s legacy is sadness and cold.
This opening stanza is so sad. I think my favourite line of the poem is, “The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God”. As she walks in her garden, you can feel the unbearable weight pressing down on the poet. There is this sense of inadequacy that I think runs through the whole poem; she is not God, she does not live up to the world’s (and her own?) expectations. This line might have something to do with her feeling inadequate as a mother; perhaps she feels her own light is “cold and planetary” when it is expected to be warm and maternal. Plath lives next to a church (she wrote this at the house she and Ted Hughes lived in for a time in Devon). The “spiritous mists” are “Separated from my house by a row of headstones”, she tells us. Plath cannot see the beauty or find any spirituality or romance in the place where she is living, because of the graveyard. The row of headstones is a blockage in her mind. Death is preoccupying her, perhaps thoughts of suicide. Thoughts of death are preventing her from knowing God, from seeing beauty, and seem to be sabotaging her whole existence. “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”, she says. This is so bleak and heartbreaking. Plath has come to a dead end, she no longer sees her own future, her purpose.
The second verse describes the moon. It is “no door”, Plath tells us. The moon is not a guide or a help or an inspiration. You can sense a detachment in Plath from it — and from her mother? From her own feminine identity? I love her description of the moon as “white as a knuckle”. There is an anger there, a clenched fist. The moon is upset; it drags “the sea after is like a dark crime”. There is a feeling of guilt here, of shame; I wonder if Sylvia Plath felt shame at not being what she perceived a ‘perfect mother’ or a ‘perfect wife’. But this is not any guilt — it has the weight of all the oceans. The moon is also “quiet/ with the O-gape of complete despair”. This is a very telling image. It is a perfect feminine picture but it is making this silent scream of despair. The silent “O-gape” reminds me of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. “I live here”, says Plath. There is no doubt, the poet is telling us, ‘this is my reality’. This is how she lives — in unvoiced despair. This is so sad because Plath ended up committing suicide, and these words make me feel that she suffered in complete silence.
In the third verse we get a description of the yew tree. It is not as lengthy a description as that of the moon. All we are told is that it “points up”, and has a “Gothic shape”. It is an obvious phallic shape symbolising the male, and the word Gothic evokes the idea of tradition, of religion and, for me, it also has an ominous feeling, a sort of foreboding. It is interesting to me that there is such a short description of the yew tree in this poem. All we get is a “blackness”, a mere silhouette; perhaps it is because Plath’s father died when she was so young that the yew tree — the male, the father — remains unfathomable. If you follow the yew tree with your eyes you find the moon; the moon is the target, the victim. Plath then continues to describe the moon. “The moon is my mother” she says, not sweet “like Mary”; there is so much disappointment in this poem. The mother, the feminine, never lives up to what we expect.”How I would like to believe in tenderness”, the beautiful image of the Virgin Mary bending her gaze on “me in particular”, says Plath. This to me reveals a total disillusionment with God. For the poet there is no benevolent God watching over her — there is no tenderness — her world is cold and sad and without purpose.
The final stanza begins “I have fallen a long way.” That word ‘fallen’ makes me think of a ‘fallen woman’. It is funny how we often judge ourselves by standards and traditions we do not believe in; our deepest hearts are often still ruled by them. This verse makes me feel that the poet judged herself through the stern eyes of a religion in which she no longer believed; those feminine ideals of the mother in the image of Mary are very ingrained in us. She talks about what is inside the church, the saints, “floating” over the pews, their hands and feet “stiff with holiness”. But the moon “sees nothing of this” — she is “bald and wild”. This is such a fascinating image to me because the feminine symbol is given traits of insanity. The baldness is unnatural for a woman; it is not pretty, it is not coy or flirtatious. The moon is ripped bare, vulnerable, and its madness is exposed for all to see. And the poem leaves us with “the message of the yew tree” (of course, the male will have the final word) which is “blackness — blackness and silence”. Death is the message of the yew tree, and it overrides everything else, just as Plath’s depression eventually won the battle for her soul.