Mothers, Daughters, and the Self:

Examining Dualism in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Lorine Niedecker

by Lauren Scotto



“If for thy father askt, say, thou hadst none;

And for thy mother, she alas is poor,

Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.”


- Anne Bradstreet, “The Author to Her Book”


As roles alter in a post-second-World-War America, from suffrage to civil rights to breaking the glass ceiling, how women see themselves continues to undergo drastic change.  One of the results of the female redefinition of ego is multiple permutations and variations on the theme and role of the mother in poetry.  The poet as a mother is an incredibly important Ego-defining process, whether the poet is a new mother, like Sylvia Plath at the time of writing Ariel, or a childless mother, like Lorine Niedecker.  To “mother” a poem is to create a poem, and to physically be a daughter is to have an innate, inextricable bond as a result of the archetypal roles that emerge from relationship tensions. The duality of identity in a mother and daughter dynamic oftentimes presents duality in the poetry, whether the contrast is found in theme, form, rhythm, or expression. 


The thrust of this paper will concentrate on poetry revolving around the relationships between mothers and daughters by examining the dynamics of the mother/daughter and mother/poem relationship; the duality of these relationships presents dualism the poetry, specifically in Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”, and several poems by Lorine Niedecker.


The formation of the ego via objectification is more familiarly recognized as Lacan’s Mirror Stage.  Alienation is the term Lacan used to identify the feeling of dissention that occurs when an infant is able to recognize itself in a mirror but is unable to coordinate its own motor control.  In order to resolve the tension, the infant learns to identify with the mirror image and then seeks validation from the nearest person, oftentimes the mother.  Lacan’s mirror stage is not just an exercise of formative function, though.  An individual’s sense of identification is challenged periodically throughout one’s life as roles change so certainly the relationship of a daughter and mother is one that undergoes continuous self-identification, revealed especially as conflicting dualism in poetry.



Sylvia Plath


For Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, the tension of identification is complex, from becoming a poet herself while being a daughter to an absent mother, and a very well known poet.  When asked in an interview how her mother’s passionate integration of life and art influenced Hughes’s painting and poetry, Hughes stated that it hadn’t:  “My painting and poetry are influenced by my own emotions and my own interpretation of what I see, think, and feel.” Historically, Hughes has emphatically claimed that her mother’s work has no bearing on her own; not reading Ariel until she was thirty-five was an understandable claim for Hughes who wanted to form her own poetic identity without her mother’s influence.  However, Lacan might argue that Hughes’s identity is still consistently formed via mirror staging despite or in spite of the absent mother.  For Hughes, the subconscious tension of having to form identity without her mother’s presence creates duality as Hughes becomes familiarized with her mother’s poetry.  The duality in Plath’s poetry, however, presents itself in close readings of “Morning Song”, the first poem in the Ariel manuscript.


Morning Song


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.


Although only three years old when Plath died, the bond between Hughes and her mother existed, and not just as an exercise of formative function in the mirror stage as evidenced in the poem “Morning Song”.  While Hughes intentionally created poetry without the direct influence of her mother, Plath writes of Frieda’s birth openly and allows the reader to see the relationship between mother and daughter.  Though “Morning Song” was written on the birth of Frieda, the poem presents a duality of intention and meaning when Lacan’s mirror stage theory is applied.  The poem opens with the introduction of the newborn:


Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry

Took its place among the elements.


Dualism presents in the very first line in the differences between “love” the mechanical-ness of the simile “gold watch”.  A watch can be reminiscent of a biological clock or the “fat gold watch” can seem a bit like a full sun, another way of tracking time.  However, the economic value of a “gold watch” is disturbing, as if the child’s time on earth can be commoditized.  Yet it is love that has set the ticking of time in motion, despite the fact that the child’s first experience is not love, it is violence:  “The midwife slapped your footsoles”.  Plath presents the poem as one of address to the child.  The first line is end-stopped, as if to place all the importance on the moment of birth.  The mother is telling the child that it exists because of love, yet the next line introduces the violence of the slapping action.  The child reacts with a “bald cry” that takes “its place among the elements.”  It is as if the child has undergone a ritual of birth and can now join the world of living things.  The child is given identity immediately.  According to Lacan’s mirror stage, Plath undergoes re-identification of the self by identifying the child as a living, reacting, created thing.  However, the speaker’s voice, while addressing the child directly, seems somewhat removed.  There is no joyousness in syntax; Plath does not rely on exclamation marks or even language that denotes the mother’s joy other than “love”.  The word “love” becomes the most important word in the poem as it progresses.  The dualism that is presented in the first stanza is found in the voice and in the conflicting ideas of love and violence; dualism that is the product of Lacanian theory.


The second verse introduces equally conflicting voice and image.  The poem also begins to form reflections of the speaker as it seems the poem is not just about the birth of Frieda, but also the birth of a poem and the birth of a manuscript.  Plath also makes reference to her husband, Ted Hughes, present during Frieda’s birth:


Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival.  New statue

In a drafty museum, your nakedness

Shadows our safety.  We stand round blankly as walls.


The first line is not end-stopped like the first line in the first verse so the poem begins to move in a more formulaic way, as none of the following verses have end-stopped lines.  The parents in the poem make noise alongside the child but it is unclear why or how the voices echo.  The child’s “bald cry” in the first verse is the impetus for the echoes of the parents, but is it an echo in sound?  Do the parents murmur to each other and echo each other’s sentiments?  The reflective quality of an echo is dualistic in nature; a part of the self is cast outside of the body.  There is a clear separation of the body evidenced by the fact that the parents speak.  What parent doesn’t grab for their newborn right away, to experience the bonding of touch?  The remoteness of the parents “echoes” the duality in the first stanza between love and violence.  There is contradiction in emotion in the second stanza.  The child as a “new statue” is ambivalent; here is a new thing in the collection.  Yet the word “love” is never far behind in the reader’s memory.  The “drafty museum” that is the parents seems to be indicative of a poor marriage.  “New statue” ends the first line and because of the pause, feels as if the child is actually being addressed as “New statue”; furthered by “your nakedness” ending the second line.  Plath moves from simile in the first stanza to metaphor in the second.  Plath attempts to assign identity to both the relationship and the child through metaphor.  The nakedness of the babe introduces vulnerability that “shadows our safety.”  Like an echo, is a shadow not equally dualistic?  Here is the thing itself who “shadows” the mother and father genetically and becomes the signifier of Plath’s adult identity; clothed, socialized, removed.  “We stand round blankly as walls” finally introduces consonance of sound with “stand round”, which lends to the impact of the last line.  In addition to the consonance, the line is end-stopped and the impact is even greater.  “Blankly as walls” introduces imagery that seems disembodied and removed.  It is as if the birth of the child has been so stunning to the couple that they are unable to fully take in this screaming child.  By giving the child identity through metaphor, the mother denies the creation of the mother identity for herself.  The mother is alienated from the child and the couple is alienated from the child.  The impact of the last line in the stanza creates a transition of voice into the next verse.


The third verse in “Morning Song” immediately offers a blatant separation of identities from the mother to the child.  The voice becomes more removed and the couple persona in stanza two disappears completely.  The poem moves into the mother’s voice as she struggles with her newfound role and identity of a mother.  The speaker now addresses the child much more directly and intimately:


I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.


The use of contraction in the first line speaks to an intimacy between the mother and child that is almost colloquial in sound: “I’m no more”.  Dualism exists in the language and imagery Plath presents, particularly the fleeting nature of clouds, mirror images, and “effacement”.    The mother as the cloud that moves over the child (the sun; “fat gold watch”) is one whose own identity has the ability to overshadow the child’s.  Yet at the same time, Plath seems to be saying that the child is of the world and will formulate into her own being regardless of her role as “mother.”  Again, there is an avoidance of acceptance of the new identity that is being formed and the word “mirror” is reminiscent of further colloquialism: the child as a mirror-image of the mother.  The mother seems to identify the separation of selves that will eventually occur with “slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand.”  There is nothing Plath can do to stave off the separation of identity that occurs between mother and daughter, but she seems to want to avoid it occurring at all by displacing the importance of being a mother.  “I’m no more your mother” introduces the stanza and the reader is forced to pause at the end of the line, adding significance to the fact that the speaker does not identify fully as a mother.  Additionally, the reader is lulled into the tone that seems colloquial and mildly humorous in the first line because of the inner rhyme of “more” and “your” and the alliteration of “more” and “mother”.  The line has a sing-song but almost sarcastically self-aware quality which again presents a dualism in voice and language.  For Plath, the tension caused by the inability to resolve the mirror stage lends to the dualism of contradictions; here is the mother speaking to her child, claiming to be “no more” her mother than the elements.


Plath’s resistance to re-identification seems to shift as soon as baby Frieda is home in verse four.  The speaker takes on a more actively alert role, one that is more mothering in nature, though still distanced.  The abstractness of imagery is quietly intimate again, a poem between mother and daughter:


All night your moth-breath

Flickers among the flat pink roses.  I wake to listen:

A far sea moves in my ear.


Finally the reader is allowed to see Plath in the role of the mother, one who wakes up at night to listen to her new baby breathe.  However, Plath cannot seem to stop herself from metaphorizing the child again: “All night your moth-breath”.  The anthropomorphism as a device reveals Plath to be continuously clinging to keeping her identity separate from her daughter’s and denying herself the full identity of a mother.  Also contributing to the idea of denial is the physical distance between Plath and the child; she is not standing over the babe’s crib watching her breathe.  The imagery becomes more abstract in the second line and the reader is stretched to apply meaning to “flat pink roses”; most likely the baby girl’s bedding.  By using “pink roses”, Plath designs femininity as a contributing factor to the child’s identification.  The third line introduces more abstract imagery through a sensory experience that introduces more dualism.  “I wake to listen” reveals a mother who actively worries about the child’s “flickering” breath but   “A far sea moves in my ear” removes the reader from the moment again.  What is the far sea?  Is it the white noise on a baby monitor?  Is it the deafening roar of silence?  The distancing that Plath has concentrated on throughout the fourth verse presents the resistance to claiming re-identification as a mother, as a person responsible for creating this thing with small breaths.  The sea Plath uses as a metaphor for sound is “far”, again pointing to the distance between mother and daughter.  Distancing points to alienation and dualism occurs as a result of the dissention of the mirror stage.  Plath relies on metaphor and anthropomorphism as tools of objectification in order to form Ego; in this case, her new identity as a mother.       The fifth verse introduces movement, unseen since the first verse when the midwife slaps the bottom of the newborn’s feet.  Lacan’s mirror stage is just as present in verse five as it is throughout the entirety of the poem.  Plath relies on familiar devices of anthropomorphism and metaphor and both contribute to the tension created due to the conflict of identity for the mother:


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


The mother has been listening from a distance, waiting for the “one cry” yet it is interesting that she does not leap out of bed to feed her daughter, but “stumbles”.  The movement runs counter to the tenseness of listening inferred in verse four.  “Cow-heavy and floral” are markers of Lacan’s mirror stage identity, especially since there is reference to the body.  “Cow-heavy” seems evocative of a cow that is ready to be milked, as if the mother’s breasts are heavy with milk.  “Cow-heavy” also creates an image of a slow-moving, large animal.  How does the mother see herself in these few lines?  There is a distortion of body, whether it is her weight or her milk-laden breasts that is important enough for her to note that she is “In my Victorian nightgown.” The mother is self-aware and there is recognition of the body that is no longer separate from the ego.  Why a “Victorian nightgown”?  The femininity inferred seems obvious.  The undertone of “Victorian nightgown” is romantic, but cloistered; as if the mother is revealing something that should not be seen, most likely the body. Yet the dualism still presents in Plath’s constant emotional distancing of the daughter’s identity, for Plath anthropomorphizes the actions of the child through simile:  “Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.”  The imagery is almost off-putting if one imagines a cat with sharp teeth, or the mythology of the cat who suffocates the newborn by sitting on its chest and stealing the child’s breath.  “Clean as a cat’s” is seemingly carnivorous; the image is of a cat and not a kitten.  Is there a subconscious fear that the daughter will hurt the mother?  The alliteration contributes to the concise toothy-ness of the image of the mewling, hungry cat.  The dualism in Plath’s lines constantly point away from the speaker only to reflect back; much like a mirror, much like the way the daughter represents the mother. 


The sixth verse is the last stanza in the poem and begins with the continuation of the enjambed line in verse five; the only time that such a thing occurs in the poem.  The poem ends with sound which reflects how the poem opened with sound.  There is purposeful resolution in form and image which lends to resolution:


Whitens and swallows its dull stars.  And now you try

Your handful of notes;

The clear vowels rise like balloons.


The enjambed line from verse five to six reads: “The window square/Whitens and swallows its dull stars.”  Plath seems to want to create a slowing of time by enjambing the lines in two verses.  A reader is forced to do a double pause as they move from verse five to six.  The mechanics seems to be a metaphor for the passing of time in the poem itself; the mother is feeding the child as the dark of the night seems to move to dawn.  The “dull stars” disappear.  In the dead of night, one would not imagine stars to be dull, so is the mother projecting?  Are the stars dull compared to the child in the mother’s arms?  Are the stars dull because of the mother’s inability to resolve her new role?  Plath consistently relies on objects for comparison, as if the natural world does a better job of clarifying her emotions.  An infant learns to identify with its mirror image in order to form Ego and resolve; Plath has to learn to identify with her mirror image currently being held in her arms.  “And now you try/Your handful of notes;” offers a shift in the passage of time and awareness.  The address is back with “you try” and the alertness of the mother seems to be the brightest it has been.  The poem ends on the child, which suggests a resolution. Plath has finally used metaphor that is not animalistic or elemental.  “Clear vowels” speak to a writerly sense and “balloons” are the perfect child-like acquiescence.  Plath has resolved the tension of dualism between the mother and daughter and the mother and poem.  Even the consonance in the last verse seems to signify some sort of intentional resolution with words like “whitens”, “swallows” and “vowels”.  Plath exposes binary emotional states by relying on naturalistic metaphor and she crafts the resolution with softer sounds and images.


            While Lacanian elements certainly inform the relationship between Plath and Hughes, it is Plath’s crafting of language that gives evidence to the tensions in the mother-daughter and mother-poem relationship.  The poem seems to exist as its own being, yet Plath constructs consciously in a way that seems almost effortless.  Attention to detail found in alliteration, consonance, object-relations and metaphor point to her continuous editing eye.  The mother-poem relationship encapsulates the ability to create and revise, which is analogous to the relationship between the mother and daughter, who undergo many stages of identification and formation.  Poetry operates as the vehicle of self awareness and resolution for Plath as shown in her careful construction of “Morning Song”.  Confessional poetry is defined by its intimate if not at times unappealing information about the poet herself.  As a new school of practice in the nineteen fifties and sixties, Plath is considered groundbreaking not only in technique but as the very female undergoing re-identification in a post-World War II America.  The poem stands the test of time for Hughes because it was written for her, and stands the test of time as a prescient piece on motherhood in a Confessional frame.  From a craft perspective though, the poem is timeless because of its commitment to startling imagery, the uncomfortable theme of motherhood, and the subtle syntax that relies on consonance and line breaks.  The dualism that exists in “Morning Song” is compelling and reveals itself through form and language in a way that is both understandable and disturbing.



Lorine Niedecker


Unlike Plath, who wrote so biographically, there are few poems by Niedecker that infer what a challenging time the nineteen forties must have been for her and her family.  After being impregnated by Luis Zukofsky, Niedecker was encouraged to terminate the pregnancy.  Following the abortion, Niedecker learned she had been pregnant with twins.  Though Niedecker suffered much, a reader would be hard-pressed to find a poem that speaks as plainly as Plath might have.  The knowledge of twins is interesting because Niedecker presents similar types of dualism in her work that seems unfounded by biography, but really is not.  If the roots of Plath’s dualistic poetry is founded in motherhood, then maybe Niedecker’s is, too. 


Old Mother Turns Blue and From Us


Old mother turns blue and from us,

“Don’t let my head drop to the earth.

I’m blind and deaf.”  Death from the heart,

            a thimble in her purse.


“It’s a long day since last night.

            Give me space.  I need

floors.  Wash the floors, Lorine! –

wash clothes! Weed!


The “Old Mother” poem is grouped in two stanzas with the introduction of the poet, by name, in the second verse.  The poem also includes dialogue, presumably from the mother.  Like Plath, the poem is rife with metaphor.  Yet unlike Plath, the metaphors are much more abstract and less object-oriented.  Lorine’s mother is “old” and seemingly depressed, “blue”, which a reader can infer by the movement of “turning away from us”.  It is possible the “us” is a reference to the father if one reads the poem biographically.  The dialogue in lines two and three seem to give voice to the mother, especially since Niedecker’s father was dating a woman outside of the marriage and Niedecker’s mother was losing her hearing rapidly.  The blindness of the speaker could be interpreted metaphorically; perhaps she turned a “blind” eye from the affair, or the blindness could even reference Niedecker’s own failing eyesight.  The connection between mother and daughter exists in the poem right away as the daughter is clearly being addressed.  The “death from the heart” seems to confirm the mother’s depression.  She is not physically dying, but is emotionally dying.  The “thimble in her purse” plays upon the following line of physical and metaphorical lightness to darkness; for a blind woman (mother), it would have been possible to sew (produce) no matter the time of day.  Sewing does not just operate on a creative level; it also functions as a metaphor for the mending that the mother is responsible for, as if everything falls apart if she is not doing the necessary mending (the thimble is in her purse after all, and not on her finger). Additionally, the tonal change is abrupt in the second verse with the second line breaking on “I need” and the third beginning with “floor.”  It seems as if the speaker’s frustration is building, evidenced by the exclamation points and direct address to Lorine.  The hesitation at the end of the second line feels as if the speaker is manically trying to find her emotional footing; metaphorical footing for “I need… floors.”  The supplication of the daughter and the unraveling mother are the crux of the mother-daughter dynamic.  The daughter is not only put in the position of doing emotional caretaking, but physical chores as well in order to compensate for her mother’s illness.  Dualism is inferred in the role of the daughter as the mother is not presented as a likeable character.  The daughter only has voice in the first line as an introduction to the moment, and then a little editorializing in lines three and four.  The rest of the poem is overtaken by the mother’s frantic energy and the action of what the daughter must do to settle the mother.  “Death from the heart,/a thimble in her purse” seems to speak to some sort of compassion on the daughter’s part, as if she understands her mother is dying from the depression and thriving on the smallness of things she can still accomplish.  Both mother and daughter suffer separately and together.  Even more dualism exists in the roles Niedecker has to take on as a caretaker, housekeeper, and daughter while continuously experiencing her mother’s grief in the form of compassion.  Niedecker becomes the mother of the poem, despite its voice, and the mother to her own mother.


            The next two poems that follow in the series are also arranged around the mother.  The second untitled poem is brief, but seems to continue the dialogue with the mother, though seemingly in the daughter’s voice:


I hear the weather

            through the house

or is it breathing



Noticeably absent from this short poem compared to the first is the lack of punctuation.  It is unclear if this is dialogue is spoken aloud by the daughter as a response to the first poem, or if this is even a response at all.  The “mother” sits on the last line, pushed far out from the line arrangement.  A comma and question mark seemed to be inferred:  “is it breathing, mother?” Yet at the same time, the amount of white space between “breathing” and “mother” can also indicate a wholly internal monologue that is not a question at all.  Dualism manifests in the last two lines of the poem quite exquisitely. The fact that the speaker/daughter hears “the weather/through the house” is fundamentally important to the dualism presented in the first poem; the mother does not hear at all.  The daughter is capable in ways that the mother is not.  The mother is dying and the daughter is not.  Taking the emotional weight of the prior poem into account, the following poem reads more like an internal monologue than it does a direct address to the mother.  The alienation of both the mother and daughter must have been immense.  Niedecker hears “the weather” which is a delightful turn of a phrase, but also ambiguous.  “The weather” operates as an object-noun but the verb of “breathing” seems to function as an adjective.  There is no sense that the weather Niedecker hears is a roaring wind or violent rain; it “breathes”.  The emotional sense of the poem that Niedecker crafts quite brilliantly through ambiguity is a sense of quietude that softly mimics the mother’s hearing loss.  Yet once again, dualism exists in the very ambiguity of tone; a reader does not know if the daughter is embittered or thankful or sorrowful.


            A penetrating sense of alienation continues into the third and last poem about the mother and the daughter.  The poem seems to operate as a kind of memoir; part of Niedecker’s grief over the eventual death of her mother.  Much more abstraction and metaphor are presented as well as Niedecker’s penchant for the natural world, though she manages to maintain mild avoidance while honoring her mother at the same time:



she now lay deaf to death


She could have grown a good rutabaga

in the burial ground

            and how she’d have loved these woods


One of her pallbearers said I

            like a dumfool followed a deer

wanted to see her jump a fence –

            never’d seen a deer jump a fence


pretty thing

            the way she runs


The first line of the poem introduces the mother’s death in a way that is not overly sentimental or painful.  The mother is presented as “Dead/she now lay deaf to death” as if death, too, is just one more final thing her mother could remain ignorant of.  The tone is almost sarcastic, certainly a little dark.  The second verse seems to pay homage at a first glance, but the undertone of aloofness is still present:  “she could have grown a good rutabaga/in the burial ground”.  The sentiment of “how she’d have loved these woods” seems a bit more mournful; the voice is paradoxical in its grief as the poet is undoubtedly in the midst of re-identification with the loss of the mother.  The colloquialism of the contraction “she’d have loved” is intensely familiar and intimate, as if the mother is still physically near.  Yet the introduction of colloquial language from the pallbearer is in contrast.  Niedecker was fond of the folksiness of townspeople and she uses dialogue in a way that exposes the dualistic tone.  The pallbearer’s voice seems uneducated but is arranged in a way that is grammatically interesting: “One of her pallbearers said I/like a dumfool followed a deer”.  The lack of punctuation and the enjambed lines are much more abrupt here than they are in the first two verses.  The non-colloquial quality of “I/like a dumfool” is conversationally strange when one expects the pallbearer to say “like a dumfool, I”.  The effect of the language is that it takes the reader out of the shock of being at the mother’s funeral.  There is distancing from the death and a strong attempt to make it palatable.  Dualism in verse is never far behind, though.  The striking image of the deer is gendered and as a result, the reader has to imagine the dead mother as the deer: “pretty thing/the way she runs”.  The historical inference is the notion of freedom that the daughter feels for her mother.  If the mother is the deer, she is now free from her life of deafness and heartache and depression.  The suffering has ended for both the daughter and the mother with the death of the mother.


Crafting Dualism


            The relationship between the mother and the daughter and the self is subject to continuous evaluation because it is a continuously evolving thing, as clearly seen in Plath’s and Niedecker’s work.  A woman’s relationship with her Self indubitably undergoes metamorphosis as society continues to evolve and the relationship of poet to poem is similarly dualistic in its own nature as evidenced by careful elements of crafting.  Niedecker’s frustration and grief do not run as counter to each other as one might imagine, and certainly the poems represented in this paper offer a rare biographical reading.  Niedecker creates polarity consciously with the use of white space, enjambment, dialogical language, and abstract metaphor.  Plath’s binaries exist in her crafting of surprising object-related metaphor, alliteration and consonance, construction of the line and image.  Though both poets were not biological mothers, both experience the duality in identification by creating poetry, and certainly biographical roles play a part alongside the craft.  Relationships will change as the roles of women in society will undergo continuous sociological evolution.  The shift in relationships between women informs the poetry being written with specific attention to the dualism that the evolving relationships create; specifically mother to poem.