As a twenty-year-old student at Smith College, Sylvia Plath insisted that "Graduate school and travel abroad are not going to be stymied by any squealing, breastfed brats" (source). Far too many women, she thought, were forced to give up any thoughts of their own life and work to take care of babies and maintain homes. Plath, determined to write and travel, found it difficult to imagine a future that adhered to the traditional roles women tended to occupy in the early 20th century.
Shortly after graduating from Smith, however, Plath received a Fulbright fellowship and travelled to Cambridge, England – where she met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Plath soon realized that she actually wanted to have children, and began a long (and agonizing) attempt to have a baby.
"Morning Song," written shortly after the birth of Plath's first child, explores both Plath's long-seated ambivalence towards motherhood and her growing love for her child. Exploring the strangeness and unnaturalness latent in the mother/infant relationship, Plath steps outside sentimental conventions. Her baby daughter isn't a lamb or a dove or any of the other cutesy little images that tend to cluster on "It's a Girl!" announcement cards. In fact, this poem doesn't just discuss the baby's birth – it addresses her child as an intellectual equal.
Although "Morning Song" was originally published in The Observer in May of 1961 (shortly after the birth of Plath's first child, Frieda), it wasn't included in a book-length collection until after her death. Ariel, the last of Plath's poetry collections, came out in 1966.
It's all too tempting to read all of Sylvia Plath's work in light of her ongoing struggle with depression and mental illness, and "Morning Song" is no exception. Such a reading, however, tends to gloss over the complicated emotions that almost any mother could feel at the thought of being suddenly responsible for a completely helpless little human being – or her recognition of the bond growing between the two.
Hey, relationships are complicated. Isn't that what your mother/brother/best friend told you the last time that you had problems with your boyfriend/girlfriend… or your teacher… or your dog? Chances are that pretty much every person you deal with on a regular basis has inspired feelings that aren't always happy and warm and fuzzy. Emotions, it seems, aren't black and white. In fact, they're usually all sorts of shades of grey.
It's exactly this sort of complicated emotional response that speaker is dealing with as she interacts with her baby for the first time. So why should this mixed response seem so shocking? Well, maybe that's because everybody is supposed to looooooove babies. After all, they're genetically designed to sucker-punch us into cooing and ooohing and aaahing over their witty-bitty fingers and toes.
But what if you're the person who has to tote this little, crying, defenseless thing around for the next eighteen years or so? After all, for centuries women's primary "job" was to be a mother. Maybe those witty-bitty toes start to seem less charming when you realize that your job description just went from "poet" or "public intellectual" to "changer of diapers." We're not saying that it's a demotion. It's just one heck of a change.
It's this complicated response that Plath works out in her poem – and it's one that helps us think through all the ways that we might have mixed feelings about the ways that our relationships shape our identities, as well. Even if they're not relationships with babies.
Short Plath Biography
Learn more about Plath from the Academy of American Poets.
Think Everyone is Happy to Have a Baby? Think Again.
Here's what the Mayo Clinic has to say about postpartum depression.
Confessional Poetry: It's the New Lyric.
Confessional poets took themselves oh-so-seriously. In fact, they made talking about the "I" into a new art form. Check out what the American Poetry Society has to say about the movement here.
The New York Times Collection of Plath and Hughes' Work
The Times has its hands in just about everything, so it's not all that surprising that they'd have a collection of articles reviewing Plath's works over the years. What's really cool, though, is that they've archived their initial reviews of her works. Check it out here.
Recent Interviews with Plath's Husband, Ted Hughes
Okay, 1995 isn't that recent. But it's a long time after Plath committed suicide – and it's one of the most contemporary interviews about Plath's work out there. Here Hughes discusses his relationship with Plath and her work.
Critical Takes on Plath's Mental Illness (Version 5, 437)
There are probably as many theories about Plath's illness as there are about the death of Jimmy Hoffa. Here's Salon's review of her journals, complete with an analysis of her mental health.
Plath's reading of "Daddy" will send chills up just about any spine – ours included.
YouTube's got dozens of Plath's readings online. Here's one of them.
Plath on Her Poetry
This is a fascinating audio clip, if only because Plath has a crazy combination of British and American accents. Oh, and she talks about the state of poetry in her time. Good stuff.
NPR Remembers Plath
You'll probably find this image on pretty much any book about Sylvia Plath. It's one of her most famous pictures.
The Poet II
Who would've guessed that an all-American girl could produce such challenging work? Seriously. She's wearing eyelet lace.
Plath and Her Kids
Ever wonder which children inspired this poem? Look no further.
Get Inside Plath's Head
With this collection of Plath's journals, you can take a trip into the private world of one of America's most famous poets.
Want More Poetry?
If our Shmoop guides don't have all the Plath poetry that you can handle, pick up some of her poetry collections here.
With Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as her husband, Ted Hughes, this movie has enough pretty faces to make anybody happy. Check out the trailer here.
...and the non-fiction version
If Gwyneth and Daniel are just too much movie star for you, this 1987 episode of "Biography" might be your style.
Stay tuned… another Plath movie in the works.
Apparently Ten Things I Hate About You wasn't enough literary interpretation for Julia Stiles. She's slated to play the lead role in an adaptation of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar. Word on the street is that it's coming out in 2012.