It’s really hard to read anything by Sylvia Plath without thinking of how things turned out for her. Her work is often read very much in the shadow of her life: her marriage, her divorce, her death. Personally, of all the things she wrote, I love The Bell Jar best. But there are many of her poems that have struck me recently, particularly in Ariel, the collection she was working on when she died. This one in particular.
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.
I first read this poem a long time before I had children. I thought it was a fairly bleak assessment of what it is like to be a mother. I saw the images she uses as dark – a watch (cold, inanimate) the stars being swallowed – perhaps, I thought, the title was a play on the idea of a Mourning Song.
Reading it now, when I can relate to it a bit more, I think it is a brilliant recounting of those early days with a first baby. (Not necessarily first baby, actually, I think I felt this all three times.) The way that the enormity of it all suddenly hits you. The monotony. Those days when you are so tired that all you can do is stumble around in the dark, feeding the baby and watching the sun rise – not as romantic as it sounds. And that, I think, is what I take from the poem. If it is mourning anything, it is mourning the loss of that fantasy idea of motherhood being all rosy and perfect. But it is affectionate too, I think – that last line ‘Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons,’ is a positive image, and beautiful. It’s worth noting that Ariel is dedicated to Frieda and Nicholas, Sylvia and her husband Ted Hughes’ children. Frieda comments, in the notes of the Restored Edition of Ariel, that her mother talked about this collection as one that begins with the word Love, and ends with the word Spring.
The poem is not sentimental, but it is very real. I remember the way that the realisation suddenly hit me, on taking a tiny Polly home from hospital for the first time, that looking after this baby was a HUGE responsibility. And it was ours, but also it was mine. It’s not that I hadn’t thought of that before, but there was a point where it really struck me; and it was terrifying. Maybe that’s what she means in the line ‘your nakedness/Shadows our safety.’ That’s certainly what it made me think of.
It’s hard not to read poems like this in the light of Plath’s depression and subsequent suicide, her loneliness and her desperation. But sometimes it’s too easy to read a poem just in the context of the author’s experience, and what we know about them, rather than just appreciate it for its own sake, and what it can mean to people reading it.