Mad Girl’s Love Song
This poem summary focuses on the poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by the confessional poet Sylvia Plath. Before looking at the content of the poem, one must look at its title though. ‘Mad’ is here used to mean both mentally unstable, and angry. The fact that Plath characterizes herself as a ‘mad girl’ shows that she is both self-reflexive, and self-mocking. It seems, at first glance, to be a poem about lost love and its caustic effects.
‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is made up of six stanzas. The first five stanzas are tercets consisting of three lines, while the sixth and final stanza is a quatrain consisting of four lines. The first stanza introduces Plath speaking to us readers in her own person, in the mode of all confessional poetry. Plath plays on the saying “seeing is believing.” She shuts her eyes and the world that is making her suffer seems to disappear. However, when she reopens her eyes, it is evident that she has not been able to escape that world. When she doesn’t see the world, she believes that it is dead. But when she confronts the world in front of her eyes, she cannot deny its existence. Plath ends this stanza by saying that the lover whose absence is making her miserable is probably just an illusion that she herself has created within her troubled mind.
In the second stanza, Plath says that the stars that could have lit up her life have gone “waltzing out”. This particular expression has two connotations – one, that only the stars had given her joy when they had still been there, in which case she is hinting at the fact that the relationship she is lamenting wasn’t very fulfilling, to begin with, and two, that even the stars are happy to desert her in her misery. Next, Plath says that in place of the stars, “arbitrary blackness” has come “gallop(ing) in.” The fact that this blackness is arbitrary shows that it can affect anybody at any time. Plath is, in fact, hinting at depression here. “Galloping” connotes a fast-paced movement, like an onslaught. It is as if depression has charged at her suddenly, and attacked her with full force. The third line of this stanza is a repetition of the first line of the poem, with Plath pretending that all her sorrows will disappear if only she stops acknowledging the existence of this world.
In the third stanza, Plath says that she dreamed of her lover casting a spell on her to make sure that she ends up in her bed. But this spell smacks of black magic, rather than the romantic sense of a man ‘charming’ a woman with his ways. She goes on to say that in her dream, her lover sang to her and kissed her “quite insane.” The fact that she uses the more formal ‘insane’ rather than the colloquial ‘crazy’ shows that she is not talking of romance, but of the adverse effects of love. Moreover, the only place where her lover is seen is in a dream, which leads her to the logical conclusion that she must have conjured him up inside her head.
The fourth stanza has Plath talking of both heaven and hell and saying that neither matters to her. God is no longer up in the sky where He belongs, hell’s fires have been quenched, and both the good angels and Satan’s men have disappeared from her life. Plath is hinting at the fact that her madness is oblivious to consequences since the rational man fears God’s judgment, but she does not. This stanza ends with the repetition that the earth seems to disappear when she closes her eyes. Reading this line immediately reminds us that in fact, the earth will reappear when she opens her eyes once again. Thus Plath is aware (though she may not want to admit it) that heaven and hell are also real, and that her actions have consequences. The suffering that she is undergoing is after all a consequence of her love for a man who never deserved her.
In the fifth stanza, Plath says that she had once believed that her lover, who had deserted her, would one day return to her. However, that does not seem to be happening. Instead, she is growing old. Plath is intensely aware that “love is for the young.” Plath goes on to say that with the passing of years, she has started to forget his name. Here a tone of bitterness is detected as if by forgetting his name she is revenging herself on him for forgetting her. The fact that the name is slipping from her again makes her think that perhaps the lover was just an illusion.
In the sixth stanza, Plath says that instead of a man she should have loved a thunderbird. The Thunderbird is a mythical bird that supposedly leaves for the winter but always returns in springtime. This has two connotations. Firstly, Plath is hinting that she would have compromised and been happy if her lover had only been present sometimes rather than be with her forever. This is an indication of the fact that she suffers from low self-esteem. Secondly, Plath is saying that she would prefer an imaginary and inconsistent love, rather than a real and absent one. The tone of anguish here is unmistakable. The poem ends with the repetition of the first and third lines from the first stanza, in which Plath seems, in fact, to retreat to a world of imagination with her eyes closed and becomes enveloped entirely by her troubled mind.
This poem analysis of ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is divided into three parts – context, rhyme scheme and rhetorical devices, and deeper meaning. In the absence of any one of these, this poem explanation would be incomplete.
Context: ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ was written by Plath while she was still at Smith College, and before her first suicide attempt on 24th August 1953. An early poem, this is nevertheless exemplary of Plath’s work and her style of poetry writing as a whole. Dealing with the themes of depression and schizophrenia, this confessional poem shows Plath being as unabashed as she has always been in her best poetry. The combination of anger and anguish point to her attempt to give self-expression to her suicidal thoughts, to represent the tumultuous emotions one can go through before taking this supposedly irrational step. Hence it is that Plath clearly characterises herself as mentally unstable. The schizophrenia that was the spirit of the age in the postmodern era is also evident in Plath’s movement between seeing the world clearly and being unable to escape it at one moment, and then doubting its very existence at the next moment.
Rhyme Scheme and Rhetorical Devices: This part of the poem analysis is based on how Plath follows the verse form of a ‘villanelle’ in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’. A villanelle is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. Here the first line of the first stanza (“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead”) is repeated in the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the penultimate line of the sixth stanza. The third line of the first stanza (“I think I made you up inside my head”) is again repeated in the last line of the third, fifth and sixth stanzas. Moreover, the first and third lines of all the six stanzas rhyme with one another. Hence it can safely be said that ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is a perfect villanelle. The kind of repetition that goes into the making of a villanelle like this one also points to obsession, which is consistent with the obsession that Plath seems to be having with the lover that she has lost in this poem.
A rhetorical device that Plath is using in this poem is personification, in which a non-living thing is endowed the qualities of a human being. By giving the stars the ability to waltz, and the “arbitrary blackness” the ability to gallop, Plath is personifying them without however capitalizing their names. This shows that she is in fact hinting at something greater than light and darkness. She is acknowledging the power of both hope and depression to make and mar a (wo)man’s life.
Deeper Meanings: This part of the poem explanation focuses on two possible interpretations of ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ that might not be apparent in the very words of the poem, but seem obvious enough to a reader acquainted with Plath’s life and work. Both of these interpretations depend on the various references that Plath may be making through the use of the word “you” in this poem.
It is well known that Plath’s father passed away when she was just eight years old. The theme of betrayal that is apparent when Plath says that the “you” in her poem has never returned is also apparent in poems such as ‘Daddy’, in which Plath speaks of the absent presence of her father in her life. In both these poems again, there is a tone of yearning, with an underlying anger that threatens to break out at any instant.
The other thing that “you” could refer to is Plath’s own writing skills. Plath could be saying that she had only imagined she could write, that in fact it was just a dream or an illusion. This is consistent with the low self-esteem that we associate with one who suffers from depression, and with generations of women writers who had been led to believe that they are not fit for the writing profession. Plath, like all American women of the 50s and 60s, thought that marriage and child-bearing were not compatible with writing as a career. In response to rising pressure from her mother to get married while she was still in college, perhaps Plath had been unable to concentrate on her poetry, believing she would no longer be able to pursue it, and making herself believe that she wasn’t even very good at it to begin with.
No matter what “you” refers to, the heart of the matter is that Plath is absolutely honest about how much that “you” matters to her, and this is why the poem appears to readers to be so passionately written.