Wednesday, October 3, 2012


MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG  by Sylvia Plath

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.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

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.)

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.

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.)

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.)

This Spring a friend of mine asked if I’d write comments on her blog about this early poem of Plath’s, as my friend Oriana knows I admire the musicality in most of Plath’s poems.

Instead of printing the poem from the blog, I went to The Collected Poems (compiled and edited by the late Plath’s husband, poet Ted Hughes, 1981) but could find it neither in the fifty pre-1956 poems Hughes titled “Juvenilia” (I prefer to use “early poems”) nor in the “complete list of poems composed before 1956.”  Odd.

After a little research, I learned that after The Collected Poems came out in England and America (Both editions were the same.), critics praised Plath’s work but many had questions about Hughes’ construction of the book.  In particular, The New York Times Book Review called attention to significant errors in the editing, most notably missing poems, including “Mad Girl’s Love Song” which had been published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1953.

The mystery slightly solved (no word why it was absent), I found a copy online and looked at the poem.

“Mad Girl’s Love Song” is a villanelle.  A perfect villanelle.  The structure is flawless but the musicality is not as strong (though some alliteration and a modest amount of assonance are present) as in other Plath poems.

But “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is an intriguing poem which can be read on many levels.  The themes of love, betrayal and loss (themes which recur and plagued her in her later life and writing) are present here.  What remains a question for interpretation is who, or what, the you is in Plath’s poem.

Knowing the poem was written in Plath’s college years, a reader might assume, after a first reading, that the poem is about a young woman’s desire for a lover, one who ignites her passion.  By the end of the poem, he abandons her.  But the words of the poem carry too much import to be simply that.

Or perhaps the you is a demon-lover: “I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed…”  The mention of God, hell, “seraphim and Satan’s men” and the connection of these to when she shuts her eyes and reality disappears could tie this to a demon-lover, except that God, etc., also disappear.  [I interpret the line “God topples from the sky, hell fires fade” as the concepts of the righteous/the good being rewarded and the bad punished also have disappeared.]  I’m not convinced about the demon-lover.

Another interpretation is the you  is Plath’s dead father (the subject of many of her later poems).  Robert Sully in his excellent online essay, “Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and the Work of Mourning” writes

The death of her father when she was eight years old seems to have left her with a deep psychic wound, a wound that manifested itself in both a profound sorrow and a deep resentment, as if her father had abandoned and betrayed her.

Sully makes a skillful argument for his theory about this poem.

In much of Plath’s early and pre-Ariel poetry, she employs a double voice, at once being straightforwardly subjective (in which her situations may be what they seem) but at the same time inferring, while hiding, a deeper self.  For me, there are two pieces of this deeper self which I believe can be the you of the poem.

While at college, Plath began in earnest to define herself as a writer and to want this literary life to be a career.  During her junior year at Smith College, she applied for a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle for the coming summer, a laborious, several-step contest which required the writing of a criticism and overview of an issue of the magazine before the first culling of applicants and several writing assignments before the final cut for twenty guest-editorship slots.  At the same time, several of Plath’s poems were published in Seventeen and Harper’s purchased three poems (two of them villanelles).  At the end of April, 1953, Sylvia Plath received word that she’d won a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle to live in New York City and work at the magazine for the month of June.

But the social conventions of the 1950s preached repressive constraints.  Young women could have either marriage and a family or a career but not both.  In a telling passage from Plath’s The Bell Jar (the novel, about this time in her life, which she finished writing in 1961), her college-aged heroine explains:

I also remember Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more.  So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

Plath, like many young women in the ‘50s, saw marriage and family as irreconcilable with a career.

I believe this conflict between her desire for a literary career and the rigid gender roles of the times is a central issue of her poetry.  Also one might argue, given Plath’s self-identification as a writer and her highly professional attitude toward magazine publication during this period, that in “Mad Girl’s Love Song” what she dreams about, and for what she has an intense passion, is for her literary vocation (part of her deep self) but often during her junior year, she describes herself as “stupid” or a failure (especially when magazines reject her work) as if her literary skills have abandoned her or were imaginary in the first place.  This desertion is so shattering that it topples God and deadens the world around her.

That Plath saw herself as a failure, as inadequate, leads into the second piece of her deeper, often hidden, self: Plath as the mad girl herself.  As her junior year progressed, with its difficult course load, her application for a guest-editorship and the submissions of her stories and poems for possible publication, Plath descended into one of her worst depressions yet.  She wrote that she wanted to kill herself, felt she was drowning and sensed in her head a “numb, paralyzing cavern…a mimicking nothingness.”  This is the mad girl who says/writes that when [she] shuts [her] eyes…all the world drops dead…” and with it her perception of herself: “I think I made you up inside my head” where there is, according to her letters, solely a “paralyzing cavern [and]…nothingness.”

Sylvia Plath wrote “Mad Girl’s Love Song” sometime before her guest-editorship at Mademoiselle.  It was published in the magazine’s August issue, the same August as her breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953.
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