Plath's "Morning Song"

from: The Explicator - Summer 1995

by David Ketterer

Originally published in the British newspaper The Observer for 21 May 1961 (on page 25 of the "Weekend Review" section), "Morning Song" is the opening poem in Ariel, the third and final collection of poems that Sylvia Plath prepared in her lifetime. Ariel was published in 1966, three years after her death. Critics are in general agreement that "Morning Song" expresses Plath's conflicted feelings at the birth of her first child, her daughter Frieda, in particular her sense of the diminishment and servitude that motherhood can involve. What has not been observed is the way in which the poem's last line must have determined much of Plath's choice of words throughout the entire poem.

Of the baby's early morning cry Plath writes, "The clear vowels rise like balloons." Not yet able to formulate words, the baby's cries resemble some conflation of the vowels a, e, i, o, and u. But the simile "like balloons" implies a particular circular resemblance with the o vowel. With that identification in mind, it is immediately apparent that o vowels rise, balloon-like, from the poem's last line up to its title. Simply put, the poem is remarkable for the number of words--some no doubt accidental but many deliberately chosen--that contain the letter o, including "Took" and "balloons," each with two os, and "footsoles" with three. Indeed, it is as a result of her slapped "footsoles" that the baby emits a first and particularly loud and lusty cry--"ooo!" perhaps.

A numerical breakdown reveals the following distribution of os: 2 in the title, 12 in the first stanza, 7 in the second, 9 in the third, 6 in the fourth, 10 in the fifth, and 9 in the concluding stanza (the only stanza in which there are an equal number of os in every line--the three lines each contain three os). There are thus 55 os altogether.

Conclusive evidence that Plath selected words containing os must await the publication of any extant manuscript versions of "Morning Song." I would speculate that if any evidence exists of Plath's revising her choice of words, one or more of those changes would involve the replacement of a word without any os with a word containing one or more. Likely candidates are the words "moth-breath," "roses," "cow-heavy," and "floral." (The 1961 version of "Morning Song" in The Observer is identical to the 1966 Ariel version.)

As for any symbolic import, although the circle form is traditionally associated with notions of perfection and infinity, in the context of "Morning Song," it is the equation between o and zero (with its connotations of nihility, ephemerality, futility, and the void) that seems most apposite. The baby's open mouth, "clean as a cat's," is a void waiting to be filled, a black hole mimicked by the whitening, swallowing window. Admirers of the baby can only "stand round blankly" (my emphasis). Perhaps the title should be understood punningly and somberly as "Mourning Song." Nevertheless, the poem's developmental sound sequence--"cry," "voices echo," "wind," "breath," and the culminating song--suggests something like the music of life--the music of the spheres, perhaps.

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