Many years following Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s focus within nineteenth century literature, their theory of the “Anxiety of Authorship” is still extremely relevant in the twentieth century in consideration of Sylvia Plath’s body of work, especially her poems about motherhood. Gilbert and Gubar’s critical article responds to Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” or theory that when male writers pick up the pen, they experience an anxiety that drives them to write distinctly differently from their forefathers. Gilbert and Gubar present the “Anxiety of Authorship,” explaining the anxiety female writers experience when writing because of the lack of foremothers to respond to in the literary canon. Gilbert and Gubar assert that women writers’ “matrilineal heritage of literary strength” or their “female power” has been suppressed, hidden, or “kept from them by patriarchal poetics” (59). The struggle then, for women writers, is in finding a voice that does not shake amongst the long line of male authorship. With a missing or forgotten female literary history, how can female authors write outside of the patriarchal pen without a mother to guide them? How can female writers situate themselves in a literary tradition in which their mother is imaginary or lost to obscurity?
Sylvia Plath combats the anxiety of authorship with a voice that is distinctly female, writing about distinctly female experiences in her poems about motherhood. Overwhelmed by the anxiety of authorship and the anxiety of motherhood, she fears losing her sense of self, her autonomy, and her voice. Despite these anxieties of creation, Plath picks up the pen and outlines an often contradictory motherhood. With limited literary role models, Plath is not only crafting what it means to be a mother for herself, but for literary posterity. She attempts the pen with an internal anxiety or crisis, confronting her own emotions concerning her role as a mother, and also displays an external anxiety or crisis by constructing motherhood from a woman’s perspective—a vantage point that has been largely left out of our patriarchal literary memory. Plath is building a new societal construction of motherhood through her poetry that is informed by her own subjective experiences with maternity and her body. In writing these maternity poems in a confessional voice, Plath thus becomes a literary mother for other female writers in the future to look up to as a guiding mentor.
In two poems about motherhood, “Morning Song” and “Barren Woman,” we see an underlying tension between the external, or societal duty of a woman to have children, and the internal, or subjective experience of Plath’s own conflicted feelings towards motherhood. By crafting an External Crisis of Motherhood through figurative language, Plath is able to challenge conventional gender roles for women in a more removed manner by stepping away from her own singular experience and acknowledging a shared experience of societal pressure and pain of women at large. Plath’s frequently confessional poetry belongs to a subjective, personal ‘I’ interiority that creates the Internal Crisis of Motherhood. While this internal crisis deals with the private, Plath births it into her poems, bringing it into the public sphere to be read by the masses. This purging of emotional concerns upon the page such as her desire for children, disdain for children, worries of barrenness, frustration at her reproductive body, and fear of reduction to mother or housewife is what keeps her poems honest, interesting, human, and undoubtedly in the voice of Plath. The Internal Crisis is an emotional construction and confrontation of maternity formed through Plath’s own experiences in which the personal or private body becomes political or public.
Plath’s ambivalence towards motherhood is frequently expressed in her journals: “For a woman to be deprived of the Great Experience her body is formed to partake of, to nourish, is a great and wasting death” (Davey 20). Clearly, Plath has a great desire to be a vessel for children and expresses anger and disappointment in her own body when she experiences a miscarriage: “I have come, with great pain and effort, to the point where my desires and emotions and thoughts center around what the normal woman’s center around, and what do I find? Barrenness” (Davey 21). Plath is deeply affected by what is considered normative for women within the sociological and psychological context. Culturally, it is considered normal for a woman to be a mother and therefore, desire motherhood. Her life is then defined by that experience–by what Plath describes as that ‘Great Experience,’ of being a mother. Plath’s use of the phrase ‘wasting death’ is troubling in terms of contemporary feminism because it insinuates overtly that a woman’s body is merely a vessel meant to bring life into the world, and without this experience, her life and body are wastes of existence and space. In “Morning Song,” Plath constructs a motherhood that is not exactly a “Great Experience,” but a disjointed reconciliation of what motherhood is—a destabilization of the m/other identity. In her poem, “Barren Woman,” Plath uses extended metaphor to discuss her aggravation at her own body and confront larger societal expectations of women as mothers.
In her poem, “Morning Song,” Plath expresses an Internal Crisis of Motherhood with a confessional voice—conflating the speaker with Plath. This voice expresses conflicted feelings towards motherhood and an identity crisis for the mother as the lyrical tranquility contrasts against uncomfortable metaphors and similes. This ‘song’ is called such because of the sounds the newborn makes. However, this baby is never referred to as a baby, but always as something else—”a fat gold watch,” “new statue,” “moth-breath,” and a “cat” (Plath 5). The song morphs with the baby, starting as a “bald cry” to eventually become a “handful of notes” (5). The baby is first a cold inanimate object—a watch—perhaps a play on the biological clock. Then, in the second stanza, the baby becomes a “New statue / in a drafty museum” (5). The baby is still represented as an inanimate object, but this object presumably takes on the human form of a statue in a museum. Eventually, the baby becomes a moth—an uncomfortable way to describe your newborn, but at least it is alive. Next, the baby is a cat, a live mammal. Finally, even though the speaker never says it, as the newborn voices their “clear vowels” that “rise like balloons,” the speaker acknowledges her baby’s humanity as only humans use vowels. The inability of the speaker to call the baby a baby is also the inability of the speaker to accept her identity as a mother. As clear as day, Plath writes, “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand” (13). She compares motherhood to a natural process but one that is cold, calculating, and detached. Here, Plath writes motherhood as if it is outside of the body–an external scientific observation rather than her long desired identity.
Just as the infant in “Morning Song” is dehumanized through language and metaphor, so too is the speaker when she refers to herself as ‘cow-heavy.’ Plath writes, “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown” (5). Responding to the cries of her newborn, the speaker rises to nurse and comfort them. However, the description of her movement as stumbling and the humorous contrast between ‘cow-heavy’ and ‘floral’ communicates something of discomfort in the body for the speaker. The pairing of the descriptions ‘cow-heavy’ and ‘floral’ commodifies and dehumanizes the speaker’s body by comparing her to a cow, used to provide milk as a resource to her newborn, and pokes fun at her new feminine identity in which sexuality is removed and redefined by the ability to bear children. Donning a ‘Victorian nightgown,’ the speaker’s body and sexuality become socially regulated and controlled—her sex is repurposed for (re)production. The speaker’s diction troubles her identity as a new mother who is navigating a cumbersome, uncomfortable body that feels strange, heavy, and asexual. No longer the person she was before, carrying herself day to day in a familiar form, she (and undoubtedly her body) is transformed and commodified to become milk for her baby. In her journal, Plath writes, “A woman has 9 months of becoming something other than herself, of separating from this otherness, of feeding it and being a source of milk and honey to it” (Davey 20). Her mention of becoming a resource or ‘source of milk’ for her baby engages with Plath’s own subjective thoughts of how the mother’s identity changes as her body becomes a site of commodification, but is also applicable to issues belonging to the External Crisis of Motherhood. The distribution of the mother’s supply of breastmilk leads to the mother’s body being a commodity, where her private body enters a consumer-driven public space. Intermingling in her poems, the internal and external are not mutually exclusive but find meeting points as Plath’s concerns are sometimes the collective concerns of women finding their footing as mothers.
Acting less as an emotionally charged expression of Plath’s own issues with maternity, the External Crisis of Motherhood can function as an agent of change in the way we construct and necessarily deconstruct the relationship between women and maternity. When the personal becomes political, and discussions of the private female reproductive body are brought into a symbolic, distanced, or public sphere, Plath’s work challenges the stereotypical roles and reduction of women to mothers. Plath’s External Crisis appears in her poem, “Barren Woman,” through her use of extended metaphor and the role of the public versus the private. The title “Barren Woman” already questions singularity and embraces universality as it recognizes a particular identity of the childless woman, yet carries anonymity and can be applied to people other than Plath. Distanced from Plath’s familiar confessional voice, the “Barren Woman” is a stand-in for any woman who struggles with conception, and the relationship between womanhood and motherhood.
In “Barren Woman,” the speaker identities herself as a “museum without statues,” relating her body to another kind of space—a space that is generally filled with art and valued for holding this creative work (Plath 13). However, the speaker is unlike these normal museums as Plath begins the poem, “Empty, I echo to the least footfall,/ Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas” (13). The echo and the ‘pillars, porticoes, rotundas’ emphasize the absence of the statues in the museum. With a defining lack, the poem is asking: what is a museum without statues?; reading into the extended metaphor Plath creates, the poem is also asking: what is a woman without children? The lines “Marble lilies/ Exhale their pallor like scent” combine the stillness of marble associated with barrenness, with flowers, a sure sign of growth and frequent representation of femininity/fertility (13). These lines create a sense of discomfort for the reader because the stillness of the marble inhibits the growth and life of the lilies—they cannot coexist in the same space as the speaker cannot reconcile her barren body that is meant to be a place of growth. In “Barren Woman,” Plath also makes direct reference to the public sphere. The speaker desires a “great public” but “Instead, the dead injure me with attentions, and nothing can happen” (13). The mention of the public refers to both the desire for many children and the presence of the public as a spectator in the speaker’s reproductive life. The presence of the public among the tension between the speaker’s desire and reality creates the notion that a public is keeping an eye on her. The External Crisis rejects singularity and embraces universality by establishing a distance between author and the poem’s content in order to discuss larger themes of what it means to be a woman, a mother, or a woman who cannot have or doesn’t want children in a society that defaults women as mothers. This distance is often created with extended metaphor or symbolism within Plath’s poetry.
A common symbol or motif in Plath’s work is the image of the moon. Her moon motif is quite interesting as it seems alive, changing and growing in her work. The symbol of the moon is therefore unstable as Plath’s poetry grows over time, accruing signification with its different appearances. Her moon is a shapeshifter—it sometimes represents divinity, isolation, femininity, fertility, motherhood, and more. In “Barren Woman,” the moon is deployed to represent both a mother figure and the public. The attentive moon seems to be concerned about the speaker as a mother might be, but also exudes something judgemental. Plath writes, “The moon lays a hand on my forehead,/ Blank-faced and mum as a nurse” (Plath 13). Here, Plath personifies the moon to take on the anthropomorphic action of checking to see if the speaker has a fever. The speaker’s fever, and the moon’s action of checking for one indirectly communicates that something is wrong with the speaker—she is sick. Within this metaphor is the notion that women who do not or cannot have children are deviations from the healthy norm. While the act of checking someone’s temperature is a gesture of care, the moon’s action in this poem and its already established connotations with motherhood, femininity, and fertility illustrate the moon to be an antagonistic character. As the moon conventionally remains in the night sky and keeps a watchful eye on Plath throughout her work as a recurring symbol, it is also associated with the public eye. Displeased with the speaker, the moon stoops down to lay a hand on her forehead, simultaneously communicating a mother’s and society’s disappointment in the speaker. The symbol of the moon in Plath’s poetry therefore has strong representative power of both the distance of the External Crisis of Motherhood and the affective characteristics of the Internal Crisis of Motherhood.
As Plath confronts her anxiety of authorship as a woman writing about motherhood, she establishes an internal and an external way of constructing motherhood for the literary canon where accurate representations of maternity are more or less absent. While Plath’s overall oeuvre is extensive and impressive—dealing with a range of themes such as her childhood, mental illness, suicide, marriage, etc., I find her maternity poems most compelling, progressive, and revolutionary as she brings critical attention to the maternal body, writing from the perspective of a maternal body. Plath’s poems about motherhood are not only valuable as individual pieces of literature, but they will serve as inspiration and support for other female writers to come. In shaping literary maternity internally and externally, Plath reaches into her own maternal identity and simultaneously reaches out to the m/other readership; the subject of the private individual becomes the concern of the public universal.
Davey, Moyra. “Sylvia Plath.” Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood. Seven Stories Press, 2001, pp. 19-26.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and The Anxiety of Authorship.” Madwoman in The Attic. Yale UP, 1979, pp. 45-92.
Plath, Sylvia. “Barren Woman.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. Harper Perennial, 2004, pp. 13.
—. “Morning Song.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. Harper Perennial, 2004, pp. 5.