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.
19 February 1961
When my son was born, I was shocked to realize that among all the poems I knew, hardly any were about a baby or about becoming a mother. For a long time I had been accustomed to find, on almost any occasion of substance, a line of verse rising unbidden to consciousness, unerringly telling me what I was feeling. But the joyous line that had risen spontaneously and immediately at childbirth —”For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” — was followed by no others, and an unaccustomed silence lay heavy on my mind with the absence of any resonance between my life and a poem commenting on it.
One of the poems that I did know (remembered from childhood because my mother had quoted it) opened with a putative dialogue between a mother and her newborn baby:
Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into the here.
I eventually read the poem (by George MacDonald, the Victorian novelist), and while I recognized the wit in the graphic decline of the enormous invisible “everywhere” into the diminished visible “here,” as a whole the fantasy was too sentimental for me:
Feet, whence did you come, you darling things?
From the same box as the cherubs’ wings.
I flinched at that as I did at Mother’s Day cards.
When, as an adult, I read Blake’s Songs of Experience, I at last found (in “Infant Sorrow”) a newborn baby speaking credibly of its own birth-agony. Outraged by its forced eruption from warm amniotic comfort into an unfamiliar and chilling world, and rebelling against both its restrictive swaddling clothes and its father’s constraining arms, the helpless baby screams cries unintelligible to the horrified parents, who wonder what demonic force is obscured behind the cloud of their struggling infant’s flesh. The exhausted baby, in its first intellectual moment, thinks it best to retreat into a silent sulk:
My mother groaned! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father’s hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.
A poet — imagining the words a terrified newborn might shriek if it had language — exposes the pieties of the usual “baby poem.” A fierce empathy with the baby’s sufferings at birth prompted Blake’s glimpse here into the disillusioned state he called “Experience,” while his earlier “Infant Joy” (from the Songs of Innocence) screened out the real baby, entering instead into the new mother’s projection (onto her actually silent baby) of her own self-absorbed joy. The mother’s fantasy that her infant (the Latin infans means “unable to speak”) begins life by complaining of its lack of a name prompts, with exquisite reciprocity, her own mirroring response: “What shall I call thee?” The baby declares that its name is “Joy,” and the mother, completing the circuit of dialogue, utters a blessing: “Sweet joy befall thee!” As the dialogue opens, the baby speaks first :
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
The whole second stanza belongs to the mother, as she ecstatically reinforces (with “pretty” and “sweet”) the exclusive symbiotic delight of shared harmonic naming-and-echoing. The baby smiles while the joyful mother sings, and her repetition of the sixth line is no longer a wish but a concurrent fact, confirmed by the song, the smile, and the closing period:
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
The ecstatic narcissism of this (imagined) dialogue is surreally critiqued by Blake in “Infant Sorrow.” The “experienced” mother — disabused of her naive girlish image of a loving dialogue with her child — is groaning in her birth-pains, the father is weeping in alarm, and the baby is furious.
These were to me real poems, confronting both the “innocent” virginal fantasy of purely joyful motherhood and the dark trauma of experience — both equally human, both requiring acknowledgment, both known to any sheltered girl who has become a mother.
And so, when I first saw Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” her narrative of how a clueless young wife gradually becomes able to love her infant, I felt astonished relief. A modern poet had at last told the story of her gradual initiation into motherhood. As “Morning Song” opens, a couple stand awkwardly around their newborn baby, conceived in love but now an unfamiliar stranger to its parents. Petrified by anxiety into immobile “statues,” the couple fear what they may have done in admitting a “new statue” into their uneasy “museum.” The house is now merely the curator of its own past, a museum of former selves, unable to conceive of a future with this unfathomable inhabitant. The naked creature intrudes into the scene by making an unfamiliar animal sound, while the parents, in joint unease, echo and magnify, with their adult voices, the infant’s inarticulate cry.
Plath’s wonderfully unexpected third stanza expresses, in its peculiarly slow and evolving syntax, the mother’s gradual perception-by-negatives of her new state: “I’m no more your mother than. …” The husband and the collective “we” vanish permanently from the scene, leaving the wife, a single “I,” to clarify her relation to the child she addresses. Unable as yet to conceive of that relation in human terms, she resorts instead, in the pivot of the poem, to the vague climatic terms of cloud and wind. She progresses haltingly to acknowledge that in giving birth she has signed the warrant for her own eventual death, her literal “effacement.” The sentence (which at first almost defeats understanding) offers each halting realization slowly, each segment suppressing the realms of animal and vegetable to become purely mineral, each segment answering an unpredictable question that itself stems from the words just uttered and issues in an unpredictable answer generating yet another question:
“I’m no more your mother than”—
“than the cloud that”—
that does what?
“a mirror to”—
to do what?
“its own slow”—
“at the wind’s”—
the wind’s what?
As the new mother stumbles along the corridors of this intellectual labyrinth, every expected “natural” foresight in pregnancy of what motherhood has to offer (love, curiosity, nursing, “baby-talk”) is subtracted; the self-effacement becomes increasingly inorganic, un-mammalian. The syntax of this tercet, so peculiar and arresting, displays Plath’s talent for saying something — “I don’t know where this experience is leading me” — without making the statement explicit. It mimics, in its pacing, the experience itself. A comparable thought-process precedes each of Plath’s powerful words in this late phase: “What is it in this phenomenon that makes me call it ‘drafty’? What makes it a ‘museum’?”
The second half of “Morning Song” takes place some weeks later. The baby has been put to bed, and the maternal ritual of the first sleep-deprived months has begun. The new mother, awakened in the middle of the night by the child’s demanding cry (so aggressively different from its soft breathing in sleep), hastens to transfer the baby and its noise into another room. There, while she nurses the child in solitude, the day slowly dawns at the windowpane. Plath, by her title inserting the time of day into the poem, is transforming a known genre. The traditional “morning song” — an aubade, from the French aube, dawn — shows two lovers in bed, regretting the arrival of the sun (as in Donne’s “The Sun Rising”). The baby’s open-mouthed hunger-cry modulates over time, as it nurses, into musical cooings of satisfaction, repeated like the notes of a melody. In her startled recognition that the small foreign animal in her arms is now emitting not merely sounds but syllables (vowels and consonants linked into the first phonemes, “ma-ma”), the elated young mother comes to feel that in its possession of even rudimentary language, her baby is another human being like herself. Her spirits rise with the baby’s rising notes, and the atmosphere becomes one of festivity, with imaginary birthday balloons.
And that is the plot, a relatively bare one (sketched almost a year after Plath’s baby was born), of the speaker’s gradual transformation from wife into mother. As the poem opens, the wife (with her husband in attendance) is in her bed at home as the baby is born; she feels for the first time the clash between her former idealizing simile of conception and pregnancy (that love had set in motion a “fat gold watch” inaugurating a golden time) — and the jarrings of childbirth, the midwife’s slap and a naked cry. The cry is shockingly perceived as repellently “bald,” unadorned, featureless, intimidating. The speaker and her husband fuse to a single “we” at the birth-moment against the baby “you.” But in the second half of the poem, the wife leaves the marital bed for the nursing of the child; she becomes (and remains) a single “I,” and the husband does not reappear. The marital duo has ceded (at least temporarily) to the maternal one.
Plath was a terribly hard-working poet from her teen years on (as evidenced by her technically fully articulated, if still mostly formulaic, juvenilia). Very early, she had formulated a fully conventional idea of a happy life: she would be a gifted and sexual wife to an exceptional and universally admired husband, and would give birth to many babies (always imagined as babies rather than as children). After her marriage, as soon as she was attempting pregnancy, she raced to find independent imaginative forms for that envisaged life, many of them invented to express in both themes and styles a new, rich, and relatively untreated poetic enterprise: motherhood.
A full year before she had her first child, Plath wrote a single-stanza nine-line (for nine-month) poem entitled “Metaphors,” comparing (too archly) the pregnant body to a playful set of equivalents. Each of the nine lines of “Metaphors” has nine syllables, presenting ill-assorted and jesting definitions of the swelling body and its ultimate direction. The pregnant first-person speaker is “an elephant, a ponderous house,” and, ridiculously, “A melon strolling on two tendrils.” The last metaphors initiate pregnancy’s dangerous momentum: “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples, / Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” Too self-conscious and effortful in its casting around for whimsical metaphors, the poem nonetheless is anticipating more work ahead to illuminate motherhood. Less than two months before her child was born, Plath rewrote “Metaphors” into “You’re,” doubling its size into two stanzas of nine nine-syllabled lines addressed to her fetus (but with the same disorienting overplus of description). One moment the fetus is “gilled like a fish,” at another it becomes “my little loaf,” at yet another, it reverts to “our traveled prawn,” before ultimately becoming “A clean slate.” “Metaphors” and “You’re,” with their incoherence of imagery and artificiality of tone, cannot become interesting poems. A better poem, “Mushrooms,” written halfway through pregnancy, did not attempt an individuated embryo, gilled or baked or traveled: instead, it imagines an undifferentiated chorus of half-formed fetuses masquerading metaphorically as speaking mushrooms. They push up irresistibly through loam to air, uttering in tercets (often an “incomplete” form by comparison to couplets or quatrains), their compact two-beat threats of eventual victory:
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Like fetuses, they require no external feeding: “We // Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow.” Although they are initially “meek,” they become “nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves,” propelled by genetic force:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
“Mushrooms” convinces on its own terms, not presuming on the “human” personality or individuality of the fetus, but aware that it is unstoppable in its arrival.
It will not be surprising to any reader of Plath that her youthful imagination, long before it was alerted to pregnancy, had specialized in disastrous outcomes (see her doomsday poems in the Juvenilia). Now, with a focus not global but personal, the dooms become biological. The anxiety felt during pregnancy by any mother is displaced, in “Stillborn,” onto the writing of poems, as Plath, a few months into motherhood, finds yet another seam opening in possible biological sources of poetry. But the elegy for the stillborn embodies none of the grief a mother would feel when her expected child does not survive. When unsuccessful poems become fetuses in formaldehyde, Plath’s brittleness offers a derisive grotesquerie:
These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.
. . .
O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
Plath never ceased to explore motherhood, in many poems evoking maternal joy even in tragic contexts. Before I return to that joy, it must be conceded that tragedy had the ultimate victory, and so I glance ahead here to her final visual tableau of maternity, “Edge.” It opens with a posthumous tomb-sculpture of a mother and two children, but its second tableau softens to recount the slow hemorrhaging of still-living garden flowers. It is austere in its conviction of the conceptual finality of death, but surprisingly lavish in its gradual farewell to the young bodies of the children. As always in her best poems, Plath’s investigation of a topic has both intellectual weight and emotional resonance. In “Edge,” the objective, intellectually accurate, immobility of marble “motherhood” co-exists with the lamenting heart’s mimicry of the gradual dissolution of the body. The chill of the sepulchral group (conveyed in the third person: “The woman is dead”) coexists with the weeping sounds of mourning: “odours bleed / From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.” In a bold move, Plath diminishes her multiple dying flowers to a single one, but the single flower, remembering its past companions, bleeds from multiple throats. Motherhood both is (in sculpture) and is not (in life) eternal.
As “Edge” closes, the spectator looks upward and says, of the indifferent moon, that in the long view of history, “She is used to this sort of thing.” Of course she is; history is one long bloodbath. But Plath being Plath, fact and intellect, compelling as they are, are not allotted the last word of the grave-garden. As the spectator looks up from earth, the moon, humanized, becomes visible as a skeletal hood of bone. But Plath insists on making the moon audible as well, and creates a cold flat music for her witch-cloak: “Her blacks crackle and drag.” Plath could not envisage her own death except by making the tomb-sculpture include her children; unless she had her two children with her, she would not be the person she is, but some past self long relinquished. Motherhood is preserved, even after death. “Edge” is an irreproachable poem, but because it memorializes her deathbed self, it belongs thematically with Plath’s meditations on death rather than with her poems on living motherhood.
So I turn back here to my central topic — how motherhood allowed Plath to invent a poetics of motherhood — situations, elements, analogies, feelings — and to write sane and joyous poems about and to her children. Although she was never a religious believer, her interest in imaginative emblems of motherhood inevitably led her into the territory of the Christian Nativity myth. The birth of Christ to Mary offered Plath temptations to sharp modern contrasts, of which the most amusing is Plath’s playful lyric in which the Magi come to the wrong address. Yeats’ magisterial poem “The Magi” might have daunted any successor from appropriating that title, but Plath was bold enough to call her poem, too, “The Magi.” Yeats’ solemn portrayal of “unsatisfied” Magi compelled to return from Calvary to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” is comically repudiated in Plath’s re-imagining of the encounter of a baby girl with such would-be male sponsors.
The scholarly Magi, guided by a moving star, journeyed to greet the Second Person — the Son — of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Plath’s irony and humorous skepticism mock the idea of wise old men as the best company for a newborn baby. Instead of the biblical gold, frankincense, and myrrh, modern male sponsors in our rational era would bring as gifts to the cradle the Platonic Triad of abstractions: “The Good,” “The True,” and “The Beautiful.” Such philosophical sponsors are a two-dimensional sort of “papery godfolk” who have followed the wrong star to the wrong crib. Because they are looking for a rationalist God, a “lamp-headed Plato,” Plath waves them away airily: “What girl ever flourished in such company?” She does not suggest what “company” her baby girl might thrive in. She certainly would need better patrons than the “disquieting Muses” of Plath’s own christening, or the star-followers of the Christian story, or the rationalist world’s bearers of the Platonic triad. No invented modern benefactors can fill the gaping absence, and Plath’s closing flippancy, though memorable, cannot conceal the lack of suitable protective elders for the modern female baby.
It took a miscarriage and almost a full year of living with her first child to enable Plath to write “Morning Song” for her second. It has many virtues: it does not fall into the sterile unlived jokes of “Metaphors” nor into the uneasy repetitions in “You’re”; it doesn’t impose the Gothic gloom of bottled babies in “Stillborn”; it restrains itself from repeating either reverent biblical mythology or the frustration of Yeats’ Magi. Its discipline continues the purity of “Mushrooms,” in which, by pluralizing her fetus and reducing it in category from mammal to vegetable, Plath could create an apprehension of threatening organic growth without imposing on her invisible fetus a humanity not yet perceivable. “Morning Song” has the inevitability of birth-momentum — what will happen next once a child is born but lets the child remain ungendered and unnamed, only a step — one could say — from its fetus-existence.
“Morning Song” hints immediately at biological momentum: the “new statue” utters a “bald cry” — unlovely, unsettling, and insistent, and the first sign of the mother’s response to her child is unnervingly intellectual, non-human, as abstract as wind and cloud. That relation, not yet humanized, has its own ongoing momentum, as distillation effects effacement. Surely this is the most detached portrait of motherhood in literature. Without the strangeness of its first three stanzas, “Morning Song” could not have gained the measured steps into love by which it progresses, never putting a foot wrong in its steady pace.
Just as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in “You’re” (in which the fetus has gills as it goes about becoming human), so motherhood in “Morning Song” begins its metaphors for the baby in the strange realm of a remote insect-species as the child produces its “moth-breath.” (Alliteration at the end of a word rather than the beginning —moth/breath” — although almost invisible, is one sound-connection that often gives Plath’s poetry an unusual texture.) At the next level of being, the new statue has now advanced in species from insect to animal, uttering an urgent cry from a mouth like a cat’s; the cry produces a companion animal, a “cow-heavy” lactating mother. The mother’s swift removal of the child and herself into another room takes a further step — the grounding of the “I” of the mother in a physiological function, nursing that is impossible to the male. The collective “we” of the couple never returns after the double establishment of the female “I” — first in the abstract terms of “I’m no more your mother” and secondly in the down-to-earth self-description by the young woman: “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy.” The inalterable momentum of the cosmos (the cloud, the effacing wind) creates the rising dawn that “swallows” the night stars, past selves, as they dull after the irrevocable change of motherhood. The penultimate moment of the poem — in which the child, choosing its “notes,” becomes a human creature of intentional melody — arrives prefaced by the traditional “Et iam” remembered from the Latin poets, the “And now” that lifts an ongoing temporal curve into the present. Plath may be remembering Keats’ closing of his autumn ode:
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The completeness implied in the conventional end-point — “And now” — wraps mother and baby and reader in the ecstatic moment in which the baby becomes human, the mother perceives the first sign of communication, and the reader feels the lift of the mother’s imagined balloons.
It was the impeccable constancy of pace that moved me when I first read “Morning Song”: everything now on its way, the sequence of phases confident, the ending happy — not triumphant like the victory of those mushroom-invaders, but mutual, intelligible, reassuring. Later, as I saw further into the poem, its shadows troubled me: the permanent vanishing of the husband; the disappearance of the marital “we” in favor of the maternal “I”; the severe apprehension of personal effacement by the very decision to give birth; the permanence of universal natural “elements” of inorganic and organic existence (cloud, wind, birth, cry, nourishment, mind, death) within the swift transience of a single life from birth to the sepulcher; the conceptual incompatibility of abstractions (cloud, mirror, wind) and individuals (mother and infant).
My first emotional and structural responses to “Morning Song” did not yet admit me into Plath’s subtlety of sound, her claim on our subliminal response to the phonetic transfusion of the poem even as we gather the plot, the architecture, the pacing, and climax (or climaxes) as we traverse it. I hadn’t at first seen that the “moth-breath” was so styled because it reproduced part of the word “mother,” or that “mirror” echoed “mother” in rhythm and length as well as in sound. “Midwife,” “mother,” and “mirror,” all trochees (with stressed / unstressed rhythms), fit together as a birth-trinity; the cosmic wind’s invisible “hand” condenses itself into the audible “handful” of notes. Even the changes of agent in the closing lines make a container for the reader’s sense of closing events. We look in different directions — north, south, east, west — as the human gives way to the non-human: the organic dyad of mother and baby disappears into the inorganic dyad of window and dawn; the organic living body of the child produces the inorganic “notes” and “vowels.” Only a very flexible mind can hold in a single instant a whitening window swallowing stars, a baby’s proffering of melodic notes, and a mother’s vision of phonemic sound-balloons defined by their vowels. The “thickness” of such coalescences gives weight and solidity to Plath’s conclusion, bestows on the “new statue” an earned animation, and prompts in the new mother an awakening of love.
Plath’s meditations on motherhood continue to deepen, enabling the reach and success of “Parliament Hill Fields,” a poem written when Plath suffered a miscarriage less than a year after her daughter Frieda’s birth. For the poem, Plath invents a yes-no structure replicating the existence/nonexistence of the fetus as it bleeds out, and replicating the movement of thought as well, as it returns repeatedly to a trauma. She interrupts her verse-narrative in this way with sad but stoic addresses to the never-to-be-known fetus:
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.
. . .
I suppose it’s pointless to think of you at all.
Already your doll grip lets go.
. . . .
Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
I lose sight of you on your blind journey.
The day empties its images
Like a cup or a room.
The day discards its hopes as the womb discards its burden. For consolation, Plath reminds herself that she has a living daughter at home, and summons up, as she walks, the glow-in-the-dark picture on the nursery wall. One by one, in her imagination, the objects in the picture begin to reveal their colors, but as Plath tries to install haloed angel-presences, each image collapses into transparent falsity; each “Blue shrub behind the glass / / Exhales an indigo nimbus, / A sort of cellophane balloon.” She returns home apprehensively: “The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.”
It was only a week after that depressed requiem for a miscarriage that Plath turned to the past and wrote “Morning Song” for comfort, but its closing joy took on weight, I believe, through her continuing sorrow over the lost pregnancy. The instability of her mood is such that two days after writing “Morning Song” (February 19), Plath’s mind, meditating on motherhood, raises two unnerving specters: she composes “Barren Woman” (February 21) reflecting her fear of infertility, and its parallel “Heavy Women” (February 26) about disillusion after childbirth. The pregnant women “Smiling to themselves” and “beautifully smug” await birth in an ominous landscape where “the axle of winter / Grinds round, bearing down with the straw, / The star, the wise gray men.” “Bearing down,” the women will experience grinding tragedy as an inevitable consequence of giving birth.
Plath had thought that her life would offer, as sources of joy, the rich aesthetic stimuli of conception, pregnancy, and motherhood, and after her miscarriage her imagination clung to those stimuli even as suicide (presided over by a funereal yew-tree and a moon “with the O-gape of complete despair”) rises into competition with them.
Although it is true that Plath’s suicidal depression and the violent poems that it produced won her fame, the tragic evidence of her mental illness has so dominated anthologies that her efforts to record and express joy tend to recede out of sight. Except for “Morning Song,” the selections from Plath’s poetry in The Norton Anthology of Poetry introduce readers solely to the grim Plath, each poem bearing its portrait of ruin:
“I crawl like an ant in mourning” (“The Colossus”);
“The tulips should be behind bars, like dangerous animals” (“Tulips”);
“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets” (“Elm”);
“If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–” (“Daddy”);
“The dew that flies / Suicidal,” (“Ariel”);
“I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” (“Lady Lazarus”).
But as Plath, with her acute ear, completed and disciplined experience into form, the work of analysis permitted her an impersonal joy in creation that inspires even in her tragic poems an inescapable vitality. Even when Plath cannot maintain her joy in motherhood, even when a menacing darkness encroaches upon the child, the initial hope and joy appear and reappear in Plath’s lines.
“Nick and the Candlestick” begins in a sunless underground cave, lit by a single candle. We see Plath transform the hellish cave into a place beautiful enough to house her beloved new child, Nicholas. The vowel-sound of the word “love,” touch by touch, (“Love, love,” “hung,” “rugs,” “of”) decorates the space of the poem, while alliterations (“roses,” “rugs,” “[Victo-]riana”) link the images:
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs–
The last of Victoriana.
Excoriating “the mercuric / Atoms that cripple,” Plath confirms to her son the cosmic new era produced by his birth:
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
Still, the secularized parallel with the birth of Christ weakens, rather than strengthens, the poem. To demonstrate the inspiration that Plath found when she turned her gaze to motherhood (as well as her anticipatory guilt as she planned her death), there is no better illustration than “Child,” where even her hyperboles turn tranquil:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose names you meditate–
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
Plath could include the joy of “Child” at the same time as she was foretelling her death in “Edge.” The longer she lived, the more inextricable the alternate truths became.
There were, and are, many difficulties in inventing poems transmitting the labile emotions surrounding the birth of children. As Plath’s efforts suggest, it is hardest of all to attach poems to pregnancy when it is uneventful: while the cells are merely multiplying, no intellectual cause wakes the imagination. When Plath treats only the physiological events, the poems (“Metaphors,” for example) are unfruitful; as soon as there is an emotional event (a miscarriage, say) the poems reach fullness and credibility. Since so much of the biology of fertility is routine, biology alone cannot provide subjects for poems. Lived responses to motherhood — because there is so little access to them in the poetry of the past, and because biology itself seemed fatally governed by that indifferent moon of the impersonal universe — have not been easy to galvanize into poetry. But Plath had courage: even when life seemed meaningless, she actively sought out new genres of childbirth and motherhood (a miscarriage poem, a Thalidomide poem, a posthumous poem).
What medicine had to offer Plath — electroshock, inefficient medications, “talk-therapy” — was too little. (A few years after Plath’s death, Robert Lowell began treatment with lithium, which, for all its drawbacks, enabled him to live.) Plath, who studied with Lowell, admitted her debt to his autobiographical Life Studies, but their styles distinguished them — his, ever more forcefully adjectival and “plotted,” hers, more surreal and fanciful and excited (she had a weakness for exclamation marks, which she vigorously deleted in revision). “To add to the stock of available reality” — R.P. Blackmur’s definition of the purpose of art — requires the day-by-day courage to devise an individual style, which issues from a strongly individual sensibility inseparable from a desire to play with language. (Pound defined poetry as “the dance of the intellect among words”). In Plath’s Unabridged Journals, published in 2000, thirty-seven years after her death, we follow, with pity and confusion, the incessant nightmares and tormenting emotions of an incurable patient hurled hither and yon by episodes of insanity. But from those chaotic journal pages, Plath somehow, by a perfectionism of instinct and intellect, drew her painstaking and commanding map of madness — madness disciplined, made strikingly euphonious, rhythmic, plotted, and controlled.
In the Journals during periods of illness, she is baffled, hysterical, malicious, vengeful, paranoid, frightened, self-loathing, and lonely beyond belief; and on the other hand, at her less anguished moments she is boastful, idealistic, hard-working, vain, self-congratulatory, self-sacrificing, resolute, and — in her best and sanest moods — tender, kind, and loving. She had an eye that noticed the smallest details of life, and her poems of motherhood are full of them: who else would say of motherhood (as she does in “Thalidomide”): “All night I carpenter //A space for the thing I am given, /A love // Of two wet eyes and a screech.” In her poems of motherhood, her highly-colored lines strive constantly for truth, irony, comedy, and wit before they are bleached out by death.
The paucity of convincing poems about motherhood remains evident. Few people are educated to the level needed to write original verse. (Most of the great English lyrics came from writers who knew several languages, usually including Latin, were beset by imagination, had a keen sense of poetic genres, were delighted by etymology, had read hundreds of fine poems and knew many of those by heart, and possessed an instinctive ear for cadence. The autodidacts — Clare and Blake in England, Whitman and Dickinson in America — taught themselves by reading intensely, not least the Bible and Shakespeare, and often by loving another art, see Whitman on “the trained soprano” and Dickinson on “The fascinating chill that music leaves.”) Few women writers become mothers; and too few mothers have the time, energy, money, and talent to write works of genius. Successful women writers have been, for the most part, single, protected, and rich. Too late for the eras of patronage and too early for reliable birth control, many talented women gave up creative hopes.
Plath did have a patron — a wealthy woman novelist named Olive Higgins Prouty — and she grew up in a house full of books, the child of two teachers. But the familial heritage of depression proved a lethal one. Plath’s father Otto refused for four years to be examined or treated for an illness that he insisted was lung cancer but that was actually treatable diabetes; Sylvia, by her own account, felt that she died when her father did, and first attempted suicide (almost successfully) at nineteen, then gassed herself at thirty-one; and her son Nicholas — “the baby in the barn” — after years of depression, hanged himself at forty-seven. The darkness finally defeated, too early, the gifts even of this first adequate and observant poet of motherhood.