Saturday, 9 January 2016

Analysis: 'Mad Girl's Love Song' by Sylvia Plath

My love affair with Sylvia Plath started quite late in life, namely not until two years ago when I read The Bell Jar. I was wowed by Plath's ability to evoke feelings and from that moment her poetry also clicked with me. When it comes to Plath you often have to take a step back and just let the poem work on you, before you can really grasp all of its diverse meanings. For today I've picked Mad Girl's Love Song, a poem that I wish Lana del Rey would turn into a song.

The poem is written in the villanelle poetic form, which stands for a fixed verse, nineteen-line form. Fixed verse means, quite logically, that the form which the poem takes is fixed, pre-scribed, in contrast to free verse form which has no guidelines on rhyme or length. The villanelle, then, got its fixed form during the 19th century in England. It now consists out of two refrains and two repeating rhymes. Both the first and the third line of the first tercet (a three line stanza) are repeated alternately until the last stanza, a quatrain (a four line stanza) which has both lines. This form became popular again in the 20th centry and one of my favourite poems, Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night is also a villanelle. The villanelle is often used to discuss obsessions, which explains why it was the form chosen by Plath for Mad Girl's Love Song.

Plath wrote this poem in 1951 while at school at Smith College and it was first published in the August 1953 edition of Mademoiselle, the magazine where Plath worked as a Guest Editor. For those who've read The Bell Jar this should be familiar. Now, let's get onto the poem! I'll discuss a stanza at a time.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;   
I lift my lids and all is born again.  
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
In this first stanza we're introduced to the lines that will be repeated throughout the poem. The first line is ''I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead' and perhaps feels incongruous with the title of the poem. Initially we might be expecting a love song by a girl madly in love. Or love song by a mad girl even. Automatically, however, we're assuming that what she loves must be a boy but this is never made explicit. As such, the first line also doesn't introduce a 'him'. Instead we get Plath's seeming desire for darkness and isolation. For everyone who was once young this is a recognizable feeling, the need to have the world drop away, to be alone inside your own head. Plath's use of 'dead', however, links to her own issues with her mental health and the world around her. The second line 'I lift my lids and all is born again', then, betrays something of weariness. This rebirth, this retuning of life doesn't seem like something Plath wants. The use of brackets on the third line, '(I think I made you up inside my head.) is very clever because, like the mysterious 'you' is enclosed in her head, so this thought is enclosed inside the brackets. This first stanza, then, is all about Plath and her mind, it's all internal and enclosed. This is important because the repetitions of the first and third line will constantly reinforce how much the narrator and Plath are stuck within their own obsession.


The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
In this stanza we get something that Plath often did, namely personification. She here personified the 'stars' that 'go waltzing' and the 'arbitrary blackness' that 'gallops'. With both the stars and the blackness of, probably, the sky, Plath sets up the motif of the night which looms over the whole poem. Bringing back the ideas of dropping dead and reawakening, the linking between night and death is logical. Kodrlová and Čermák noted how red and blue were amongst the two most frequently used colours in Plath's poetry and argued they represented power and earth (red), and death and coldness (blue) respectively. As Plath's sky empties of both passionate life and cold death, all that is left is 'arbitrary blackness', an emptiness which is erratic and unpredictable, much like her own mind. Thus the repeat of 'I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead' is another reminder of how the narrator is shut inside her own mind.
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
 Plath here draws on the idea that love is magical, only she utilises purely the negative aspects. She is 'bewitched', has been 'sung ... moon-struck' and finally has become 'quite insane'. Although this, more than anything else in the poem, this stanza brings up the idea of romance it is not at all romantic. Not once, seemingly, has this love made her feel happy or fulfilled and, again, all of occurred in her head. She 'dreamed', rather than experienced. Hence we're returning to the enclosed sentence, '(I think I made you up inside my head.)'. Plath's trauma concerning her father's early death and the shadow this cast over her own life and relationships with men is well-documented and also makes an early appearance here. This potentially masculine influence in her life is not a positive one and only adds to her being stuck in her own mindspace.
God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
Now, on the one hand it may seem as if this stanza is finally bringing some life and drama to the poem, some excitement that might recall some youthful fire, but rather this whole stanza is about the end of things again.  God, this institution of religion, is toppling; hell, which has put the fear in generations of people, is fading; the angels and devils are leaving earth. Note that each of these lines ends on a colon, setting up the repeated line 'I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.' as an explanation for all that's occurirng. Plath's narrator is shutting her eyes, letting the world drop dead and as a consequence it is losing its religion.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
Plath here is clearly working with broken promises and disappointed hopes. In her madness, this girl has written a love song to something that was lost from the beginning. Again, this could be a reference to her father, who died when she was 8. Her memories of him may all have been constructed 'inside [her] head'. Another interpretation of this poem is that it's not at all about a person but rather about her own writing. Plath, like many women during the early 20th century, experienced a lot of difficulty in trying to pursue writing while society tried to make her into a housewife and a mother. She struggled with her writing, with her need of approval and recognition and this poem, written incredibly early in her career, already saw her dealing with that. She is worrying she imagined her abilities and that this lover, her writing and inspiration, will never return to her.
I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
Here we have the quatrain which finishes the poem off. A thunderbird is a legendary creature for certain Native American peoples. Based on the Bald Eagle, the thunderbird was said to be capable of creating storms and thunder. To say she'd prefer to have loved such a fearsome creature over what she is feeling now is another sign of how desperate she is. However, and this is an interpretation I haven't seen around much, there could also be something hopeful about this final stanza. Maybe she does want to shut her eyes and keep the world out, but she is reaching back to mythology where she has dropped religion. Something about the idea of the thunderbird caught her eye and has at least inspired her to use it to express herself.

Overall this poem is still very much the expression of a poet experimenting with different forms and styles. However, there are also clear signs of the themes that would plague Plath throughout her life and career: her insecurity over her own skills, her issues with her father's memory and, finally, her struggle against her own mental illness. Overall, I think it's an absolutely stunning poem.

So, what did you think of my analysis? If you have anything you'd like to add, please do so in comments. I'd love to know your thoughts!

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago and loved it. I’ve only read a few of Sylvia Plath’s poems (including this one), and I’d like to read more.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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