‘Balloons’ is a beautiful poem written by the American poet Sylvia Plath published in her poetry collection “Ariel.” It is considered her masterpiece that captures pain and suffering. Even though the poem speaks about ordinary balloons, on a deeper level, it is an extended metaphor for her children – Frieda and Nicholas. On the whole, the poem stands as one of the realistic expressions of trauma and depression of adulthood and parenting. It is also worth noting that Sylvia took her life just a few days after writing this poem.
‘Balloons’ is a beautiful rendering of an everyday object as she elevates the balloons’ nature by giving them life. It is also one of the best confessional poems as it expresses the vulnerable side of depression.
Sylvia sees beauty in ordinary things, but it only lasts for a short while, and she is back to the harsh reality that breaks her heart and removes her happiness. In the end, she explains how one’s childhood dreams and innocence is lost as the person grows up and is left with the harsh reality.
You can read the full poem ‘Balloons’ here.
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk
Sylvia Plath begins the poem ‘Balloons‘ by describing how they have lived with them since Christmas without telling who “they” are. Being written a few days before Sylvia Plath’s death in February 1963, it is evident that while other decorations have been taken away, the balloons are left to float around. Like pets at home, these “Oval soul-animals” have been with them, occupying half the space, moving around, casually rubbing on the silks. Further, Sylvia sees the qualities of innocence and pureness in them, as in small children.
Invisible air drifts,
Such queer moons we live with
In the second stanza also, Plath continues to describe their experience of having the balloons around. When the air drifts around the balloons or anyone touches them, they shriek and pop or scoot to a corner without giving any hint of fear. Further, the speaker also tells us about the experience of having lived with these strange moons of different colours, which resembles “Yellow cathead, blue fish.”
Instead of dead furniture!
In this stanza, Sylvia continues narrating her experiences of living with balloons. While the furniture, mats, and walls offer only sadness, the balloons delight her. She sees them as floating globes of thin air in the colours of red and green. She makes a beautiful contrast between the balloons, which gives her a sense of having more lively companions than the other inanimate things in the room.
The heart like wishes or free
In the fourth stanza, Sylvia makes a beautiful comparison between the ballons and peacocks. The poet says that the balloons delight and please her heart like a wish granted or a free peacock feather found on the ground. Sylvia also brings about a beautiful and unique metaphor when comparing the happiness of looking at the balloons to the pleasure of looking at the peacock’s fallen feathers. The peacock feathers have a beautiful pattern that looks like stars bathed in metals.
Brother is making
Stanza five of ‘Balloons’ speak about the little boy’s reaction to the balloon in his hand. He is pressing hard on the ballon that it squeaks like a cat. Further, the poet observes the boy’s reaction, which seems like he sees the balloon as if it is some pink world edible world on the other side. Mentioning “your small brother”, the narration turns into a narrow conversation compared to the previous stanzas where it looks like the poet is talking to random readers. It is possible that the small boy could be her young son Nicholas, and she may be addressing this to her daughter Frieda.
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
Shred in his little fist.
With a continuation of stanza 5, stanza 6 speaks about the exploded balloon, which draws the little boy back to reality from his pink world. The balloon explodes, leaving him with “a red shred in his little fist” as he bites it. Now, instead of looking at the world through the balloon, he sees it as clear as water. The beautiful world he expected to see is no more, and everything he sees is colourless and monotonous. Through this image of the boy sitting in confusion with a shred of the balloon, Plath symbolizes the shattering of one’s childhood dreams and the loss of childhood innocence.
The poem’s central themes include the loss of innocence and the shattering of childhood dreams. At a young age, everyone looks at things with so much interest, and even the tiny things will appear beautiful. However, as one grows, one tends to move away from appreciating the beauty of small things as one becomes busy running behind materialistic things. Similarly, people also start to give up on their childhood dreams attempting to be practical and realistic. The poem also speaks about her nostalgia for happy times, her depression, and the trauma of living in pain.
‘Balloons’ is a poem of thirty lines divided into six stanzas of 5 lines each. The poet uses long and short lines deliberately to make it seem like her thoughts are incomplete. In most of her poems, she has not followed any rhyme pattern. Also, the enjambed lines help carry the themes throughout the poem.
The tone of the poem ‘Balloons‘ is observational and cynical. The dark images portrayed are a reflection of the speaker’s mental state. Sylvia observes the ordinary things around her and expresses her views with much care and concern. The poet’s cynical tone is evident in the lines when she says everything looks dead to her except the balloons.
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
These enjambed lines running from the end line of a stanza to another stanza speak about the continuation of the happiness spread through the balloons.
Sylvia begins the poem, speaking about the balloons as living creatures, staying with the family from Christmas. The ballons were given the same emotions and characteristics as pets at home.
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Also, they shy away to a corner when touched or pushed away.
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling…
Sylvia uses simile in the fourth stanza when she describes the balloons squeaking like a cat when pressed harder. The sound that the balloon makes is very similar to the sound of a cat.
Brother is making . . . His balloon squeak like a cat
With balloons being the centre of the poem, it is also used as a metaphor and compared in different ways for their colours and shapes.
She calls them “Oval soul-animals”, “queer moons,” “Globes of thin air, red, green” for their shape and colours. Further, comparing the balloons to peacock feathers, she enunciates how both are colourful and offer happiness to the person who holds them in hand.
Above all, the balloons stand as an extended metaphor for the children of Sylvia Plath.
The poem speaks at length about life in detail through the simple thing as balloons. To support her views, Plath has created vivid images throughout the poem. From the colourful balloons floating around till it becomes a shred in the little boy’s fist when it pops, she helps create visuals in the readers’ minds with her choice of vocabulary. For instance, instead of telling the colours, she makes the readers picture it by saying, “Yellow cathead, blue fish.”
About Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is one of the most influential writers of her period, best known for her confessional writing style. She has written many poems and a novel – The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical work. Her pain and trauma, including her attempts to kill herself, are expressed through her works. She reached great fame through her poetry collection “Ariel”, published posthumously in 1965.
Sylvia Plath uses symbolism, personification, and metaphors to reflect the themes in her poetry. Her choice of literary devices help enhance the subject matter and support her confessional writing style.
Sylvia Plath was a gifted poet yet affected by bipolar, which caused extreme depression. ‘Balloons’ is one of her poems that speak about the highs and lows through simple objects, the balloons. In this poem, she focuses on the wonder and beauty of unexpected change.
Sylvia Plath’s poems are noted for her use of autobiographical elements. Like in ‘Balloons,’ she has expressed her genuine emotions despite the complexity and controversy. Some of her other poems that express her life are:
- ‘Lady Lazarus’ is about Sylvia Plath’s failure in her suicidal attempts. Referring to the biblical character, it speaks about the regeneration of identity through the cycle of life and death.
- ‘Daddy‘ is told from the perspective of a woman addressing her father. She has only memories of his oppressive power over her that speak about the speaker’s struggle to break free of his influence.
- ‘The Mirror’ is an autobiographical account of a personified mirror. The poem explores Plath’s own fears regarding ageing and death through what the mirror reflects.
- ‘Morning Song,’ explores Plath’s long-seated ambivalence towards motherhood and her growing love for her child. Written shortly after the birth of her first child, it deals with the emotions that accompany motherhood: fear, shock, tenderness, tiredness, confusion.